I couldn’t sleep the night before. Was it the roughly 10 night-shifts in a row I had pulled just prior to leaving, or was it the excitement to get on that river? I’m not a river paddler.
I grew up in Ontario (which I realize has rivers) and am at home on lakes and nasty portages. Rivers are to lakes what an animal is to a rock: they move. Rivers have currents, whitewater, things called eddies — minds of their own — and were a complete mystery to me before embarking on this trip.
After dropping our car off at Dawson and taking a shuttle to Carmacks, we started on the river proper around 5 p.m. The river distance we were to cover over the next six days was 404 km.
We hoped to get past the only real hazard of the trip that night: the Five Finger Rapids. These rapids are only class II (possibly I), but gave me serious anxiety leading up to them.
One reason I was so afraid was my ignorance and lack of experience on rivers. This dread was only strengthened when, upon entering the water for the fi rst time, we found ourselves paddling in circles due to some serious confusion in how to steer in swift water.
Catching our bearings and doing some serious on-the-job learning, we came upon the Five Fingers. Turns out my anxiety was mostly overblown. We ran those waves like it was no one’s business. We got a good soaking, but didn’t roll or flip or otherwise drown. Complete success.
The next, and only other, rapids we encountered came shortly afterwards, and were successfully avoided in their entirety by steering right. Having just tested our skills and proven competent, I wasn’t about to fi nd out it was all luck.
As we had set out late, night approached fast. We ended up camping on a sandbar, after realizing that the little camp signs on our map weren’t your typical Algonquin lush, cleared sites with port-a-potties. More like suggested areas that aren’t covered completely with brush and trees. Dinner made and the tent set up, we settled in for the night, happy to be through the worst of it.
The next day was a breeze. We easily covered 80 km with pretty minimal paddling. This river moves fast: you barely notice the difference between just sitting there, and actually making the effort of dipping your oar in the water.
Shortly after the Pelly River joins with the Yukon River, we hit Fort Selkirk. This place is really interesting, giving some early Yukon European-First Nation contact history that pre-dates the Gold Rush.
Who doesn’t love wandering through mega-old creepy log cabin churches? This area is also surrounded by lava cliffs, which are a nice change of scenery.
After the second day, my notes from the trip report the same thing over and over: lazy paddling through beautiful, yet unchanging, scenery. We saw a couple of moose, some swans, lots of fowl and at one point — I kid you not — a squirrel swimming straight across the river.
I know no one will believe me, but I don’t care. This stands as the most motivational moment in my life. I will think of this squirrel when I’m at my lowest, needing to scrounge up Herculean strength to battle life’s worst challenges.
I now know that, no matter what comes my way, if a squirrel can face the Yukon River and swim directly across, I can do anything.
Other highlights from the trip were watching entire weather systems move in or around us; skinny dipping on the best beach on the river; reaching Dawson and eating fish and chips; and of course getting home to a shower and warm bed.
That night I dreamt I was swimming across a river of life’s trials and tribulations, and river squirrel was swimming right there beside me, whispering to me that I had the strength to go on.
Thank you, river squirrel.