Take it to the River The Smart Way to Hone Your Skills on the Water

The Yukon is the land of river canoeing—with our great stretches of remote waterways, you can paddle miles and days without seeing a soul While last week we discussed the many great lakes to paddle on in the territory, this week we will talk about some local rivers that are great for learning and practicing moving water skills.

Rivers are great to paddle on—you basically get a free ride down the hill. However, you need somefundamental skills and equipment to safely use the rivers, otherwise your intended fun outing of hoops and hollers may turn into a bad day or even a really, really bad day. Paddling on a river requires you to react faster than on a lake, so you must be able to think farther ahead and to understand that the current is always pushing. There is no stop button.

Our namesake river, the Yukon, has some very nice day trips. Marsh Lake to Macrae is a great float with a gentle current. You should know how to paddle in a straight line, pivot your canoe, and do a front ferry—which allows you to get on and off the river in places you choose. Being able to recognize an eddy and eddy line will help keep you out of trouble. If you decide to go through Miles Canyon, you need to keep you canoe pointed downstream and avoid the strong eddy lines on the sides. You also need to be aware of motorboats coming up river. Motorboats are usually good about slowing down when they see canoers but doing so may increase the size of the wake from their boat. Ride their waves head on.

Whitehorse to Takhini River Bridge is a good 4-hour trip, and if you’re feeling strong, you can extend it to Burma Road, Policeman’s Point or even Deep Creek. If you need help with a shuttle or would like to have a no worry pickup at the end, Kanoe People and Up North Adventures both offer pick up service.

With regards to equipment, you will need what is required by law in a water craft including a personal flotation device for each person, a spare paddle, a bailer, a noise making device such as a whistle, 15 m of heaving line (a.k.a. throw bag) and a light if you are out after dark. Other items that are a good idea are a fire-starting kit, some food and water, rain gear and a painter (10 ft. of floating rope) fixed on the ends of your canoe. Pack all your items in a drybag or barrel and tether it to your canoe.

The Takhini River from Kusawa Lake to Mendenhall Landing is a longtime Yukon favorite. Stunning mountain views and crystal clear water await for your day trip. Again, matching your skills and gear is important. This strech of the Takhini is a safe 20 km trip. For the most part, the river has clear channels and routes down the center. There are occasional sweepers on the outside of corners and on back channels. As the water comes up, there are a few strong eddy lines that are fun to play with and practice your eddy turns.

“The Jaws of Death” are a Grade 2 rapid near the end of the Takhini run. A big clay bank on river right with a diagonal walking trail signal the beginning of the Jaws. At high water, there are several large standing waves big enough to swamp a canoe, and a very strong eddy line on river left. A swim at high water can be long, as you often go around the corner to the next gravel bar on the left. If you go for a swim, keep your feet up to avoid foot entrapment and keep your mouth closed in the standing waves.

In terms of skill level, you should have the skills mentioned above, and be able to do an eddy turn, and to paddle in reverse to slow yourself down in the Jaws. Extra floatation in your canoe is a great idea if you plan on paddling this run..

The next step up locally is the Wheaton—a very fast, shallow and narrow mountain river, offering spectacular scenery. The Wheaton is a whitewater run, and for your first time you’ll want to be sure to go with an experienced whitewater paddler so you have a positive experience. Check with local shops as to water levels and new hazards. Yukan Canoe’s Facebook group posts river reports. Use extreme caution at high and flood water levels.

The Wheaton poses new challenges and hazards to deal with. The two main ones are sweepers and rocks. Sweepers can quickly capsize a canoe. At high water, new sweepers are always coming down and old logs are moving down the river. The river can change in minutes. What was a clear channel on your drive up can have a river-wide sweeper on your descent.

Your skill set for the Wheaton should include front ferries, eddy turns, and a back ferry, which will save your bacon. A good self-rescue is another great skill for your toolbox. The Wheaton is a place to practice skills—not a place to learn new ones. Learning new skills on slower water, and places with little consequence is ideal.

Just as a backcountry skier will take a shovel, probe and avalanche beacon on their day trip, there is some highly recommended equipment for whitewater paddling. Along with legally required equipment, your canoe should have kneepads to encourage kneeling, or lowered seats for stability. Extra floatation such as an airbag or inner tubes securely attached is critical. Extra floatation is like a seat belt for your canoe—it will make your canoe much more manageable if do go for a swim, easier for you to do a self-rescue or for others to rescue it. It also makes the canoe much more stable if you should ship on a bunch of water. I have seen many damaged and wrecked canoes on the Wheaton over the years—almost always because the canoe did not have additional floatation.

Your personal gear is also very important. You need to dress for whitewater—not a Sunday paddle on Chadburn Lake. Even though the sun is hot- dress for the water temperature. A wetsuit or drysuit is a very good idea, a helmet is a necessity, as are sneakers or water shoes—leave your rubber boots at home. You’ll want to avoid cold-water immersion shock so you can do a self rescue or assist in a rescue. A proper fitting PFD that you can swim in is also critical. If you do not have the right gear, see if you can beg, borrow or steal it before you get to the put in. Showing up at the put in on the Wheaton without proper gear can create some awkward situations for those that have the right stuff. Do some more research and properly prepare for the Wheaton with both your skill set and your equipment.

We have been very lucky in the Yukon paddle scene over the years, and we as paddlers must not get complacent with our practices. A tragedy would affect us all in some form. Don’t be afraid to speak up, to ask questions and advise others of recommended practices.

Catch every eddy, surf every wave. And red canoes are faster.

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