Saturday, June 18, 2011

Yukon: Dawson City

From Fort Selkirk to Dawson City our landing skills vastly improved. Both Adrian and I had to admit that up to Fort Selkirk neither of us had felt really comfortable in the boat. We felt that any minute some disaster could strike that we would not be able to handle. The combination of a very strong current, weather that can change within minutes from sunshine to hail storm, our only basic paddling skills and the cold water temperature that can kill you within minutes from hypothermia made us feel uneasy. When hiking I usually feel very confident. Depending on what trail I am hiking iffy sections like river or snowfield crossings make up only between 0 - 5% of the time. Paddling on the Yukon River I felt uneasy about half of time! But things improved after Fort Selkirk: We started to feel more and more confident. We are still very attentive and careful, but at least we start feeling more or less at ease most of the time. Bu disaster can still strike any minute like when we ended up in a sudden hail storm and did not land quickly enough... We ended up soaking wet with a boat full of water but otherwise unscathed...

Hostel "bathroo
Dawson City is definitely a highlight of this trip.We are staying at the Dawson City River Hostel which is an attraction in itself. It is situated on the Western Bank of the River that is not connected to electricity or running water. As the sun shines day and night now I do not really miss electricity. And the "showers" are the very best of the hostel resembling an old-fashioned Japanese onsen. You can either use cold creek water or heat water (and the bathroom) with a wood stove. West Dawson is connected with Dawson City via a car ferry that is running 24 hours every day at 10 minute intervals. There is no bridge over the Yukon in Dawson City and therefore the ferry acts as a substitute for a road brigde.

Dawson had a population of 30,000 during the gold rush in 1897, but nowadays only about 1,500 people are left. The town lives on tourism and gold mining and I must admit that they do the tourism well. Everyone in the visitor centre and all the tour guides are dressed up in authentic period costumes. Being an efficient German tourist I immediately bought a visitor pass and set out to see as many sights as possible. And for a little place like Dawson there is a lot to see: A city tour takes you to the first bank with only chicken wire as safety precaution. Well, if you rob a bank where would you go with the money? You could leave on the Yukon and would be found immediately. Actually the very first bank in Dawson was situated in a tent (!), before it was moved to an old storage shed.... Almost all dealings were done in gold dust and so the most important banker's instrument used to be a scales.

Saloon
You can also visit the old Grand Theatre, where "40 shapely ladies" were singing and dancing to entertain the miners - and relieve them of their money. The "percentage girls" were dancing with the miners for 1$ per 1 minute waltz that ended at the bar - where the girls would receive a percentage of the price of every drink their suitors would be them. But eventually the Women's Temperance Movement would put an end to all that drinking and gambling when the gold mining slowly subsided after gold was found in other places in Alaska. But even during the gold rush Dawson was a relatively civilised place - the Royal Mounted Police would see to that. Everything was shut down on Sundays and nobody was allowed to carry guns in town. Nowadays tourists can join a police officer to solve the only brutal murder incident that happened in Dawson in 1902 - and even then the murderers where caught and brought to justice.

Board walk
Still, Dawson has a "Frontier" feeling to it: Only Front Street is paved, all other roads are plain dirt with old fashioned wooden board walks. You can still see plenty of interesting characters on the streets. 100 years ago Dawson was home to 2 famous authors: Jack London lived here and in a cabin of a Yukon side creek. And there is Robert Service, of whom I have never heard before in my entire life, but who is incredibly popular in North America. He immigrated from the UK and became one of the most famous poets of the last century after short jobs as a cowboy, vagrant and bank clerk. He mostly became famous with his ballads about the gold rush and his old log cabin in Dawson can still be visited and hosts daily poetry readings. Robert Service died as a millionaire - which proves that you can even make money with poems...

Friday, June 17, 2011

Yukon: Fort Selkirk

 The first stretch along the Yukon boasts a lot of historical monuments. Although most of them are just some rotting log cabins that nobody would look on twice in Germany, they are historical sites here in this relatively new country. We have already seen a fair share of rotting steam wheeler ships and collapsed cabins, but next on our route was Fort Selkirk, an abandoned trading post. Once a flourishing city on the banks of the Yukon it is now bypassed by roads and only accessible via the Yukon River - and therefore an abandoned, but nicely restored ghost town. Even the former keeper has passed away... But our guidebook mentioned camp sites, privies, shelter and even drinking water and therefore we were quite excited to get there.

But before Fort Selkirk we had to survive more adventures in an area suitably called Hell's Gate. There the Yukon widens into a myriad of little islands and channels - and lots of submerged tree trunks and sandbars that pose a serious danger to canoes coming down the river at a swift current of 15 km/h. The name Hell's Gate was given by the steam wheeler captains that feared that stretch as well. We found the right channel without problems but as soon as we were inside Hell's Gate the wind came up. Hiking this sort of wind does not pose any problem but in a canoe and shallow and fast flowing water this is a serious problem. Steering the canoe became almost impossible and we were nearly spinning around. We decided to make an emergency landing on one of the islands, but even getting out of the main channel into one of the side channels turned out to be a painful effort. I only started to relax once we had the boat out of the water and stable ground underneath our feet. Luckily bad weather has not lasted very long so far and within 2 hours of napping and reading under our tarp the wind had calmed down enough to continue.

Old school
Fort Selkirk was coming up soon at the confluence of the Yukon with the Pelly River and a very strong current was to be expected according to our guidebook. We were still 5 km away from it when the wind came up again - and after our scary experience that very day Adrian and I made a quick dash to the shore where a faint path up the banks miraculously showed up - and we even managed to land there without any problem! We were so happy that we decided to stay there instead of continuing on the Fort Selkirk and running the risk of missing it or not being able to land.

General store
Our fear turned out to be unfounded. The next morning we made an easy landing at Fort Selkirk despite the strong current and the high river banks that were needed for the steam wheelers to land. We spent some interesting hours visiting the beautifully restored houses and churches of Fort Selkirk that can easily function is film set for a Wild West movie. I even found a huge thick trash bag in the kitchen shelter that will make a wonderful rain skirt for the rest of the trip. We filled up with drinking water as the Yukon River is so dirty that you cannot drink it without long treatment. We learnt at one of the explanatory boards that during snow melt 1 litre of Yukon water can contain up to 845 gr of sediment! We realise that, too as the rasping sound of our boat in the water gets louder and louder every day.

Yukon: Five Finger Rapids

Yukon Bridge at Carmacks
The Five Finger Rapids are the only really "dangerous" or whitewater section of the Yukon. I have been afraid of them ever since I started deliberating this trip and have read everything about them. And now the day was coming closer and closer. The Rapids are 38 km downstream from Carmacks and our outlook did not improve when we woke up on the decisive day and realized that it was raining. Usually rain stops very quickly but it rained on and on and on. We had already packed all our stuff into the boat and were just hanging out at Carmack campground waiting for the weather to improve. We agreed on 2 pm as cut-off time as we did not want to go through the rapids too late in the day. And for sure, right at 2 pm the clouds broke up and the rain stopped.

We made a quick dash to our boat and embarked on this critical stretch. My stomach felt weirder and weirder the closer we got and Adrian had to take a "fear pee". There is a back eddy right before the rapids were you can watch the whole thing but we decided not to procrastinate it much longer and go straight through. All the guidebooks say the same thing: Just use the right most channel and you will be fine. People only die taking the wrong channel.... The actual passage is very short: The current is strong and you are sucked in and spit out seconds later. With that in mind we raced down the Yukon very nervously into the roar of the rapids - kneeling in the boat to lower our centre of gravity and everything firmly tied up.

Cut bank
To cut it short: The passage was both easier and more difficult than expected. We had feared to capsize or crash against the rock walls. Neither of those happened. Our boat is so heavy that it was absolutely stable in the water and the channel so wide that even we rookies would not even come close to the rock walls. The problem came from a different angle: Inside the channel some violent wave were raging. I was kneeling in the front and even had difficulties getting the paddle into the water when we were thrown up by a wave. And those waves would slosh water into our boat - lots of water!!! Within seconds I was soaking wet and realised in a wave of panic that the whole bottom of the boat was already covered with water. For seconds I was afraid of sinking... But we just paddled on - and within two minutes we were through the channel. Once through I immediately started bailing water, although it became very quickly apparent that we were not even close to the danger of sinking. Still we had taken in about at least 30 - 40 liters of water.

Cut bank
Shortly after the rapids there is a public campground and to our great relief we saw two groups of fellow paddler already beached there - and bailing water. They had suffered exactly the same fate. I felt much better now seeing that we had not done anything wrong - you just get wet going through those rapids. I quickly changed into dry clothes and then we decided to paddle on and tackle Rink Rapids, which are 9 km downstream and less dangerous. Again you take the right channel. Approaching the Rink Rapids it looked even worse than Five Finger Rapids but as predicted in the guide book in the very last minute a calm channel on the right opens and ensures a safe passage.

Cooking in bug proof clothes
We felt elated! We had made it through the technically most difficult stretch of our whole trip without suffering any casualties. Now we just wanted to camp as it was already relatively late for our standards. Mind you that right now it never really gets dark at night here. But this is when the real problem started: The current was so strong now that we had great difficulties to land. As soon as we saw a suitable spot we were already past it. Even trying to get out of the current seemed like a life threatening undertaking. And when we finally were able to land somewhere we could not find a spot to set up camp. After 1 hour of futile searching I almost became desperate. Our map showed an "official" camp site 5 km further down and we decided to try our luck there. Good move! After sneaking along the shoreline for 10 minutes and trying to figure out where the place was we finally found a faint path up the shore - and were even able to land there! The place is called Yukon Crossing and serves as a winter crossing of the Yukon. Plenty of space were to camp, some old relics from 100 years ago and even a new privy. Totally exhausted I cooked dinner with about 100  mosquitoes and then we went to bed thankful that this exciting day had gone so well.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Yukon: Carmacks

As you can see from this post we have survived our first days of paddling. And actually it has not been too bad.. Let's start with the good things:

The weather  has been ok. It has been a mix of short showers, overcast and cold spells as well as a lot of sunshine. It can actually be quite hot in the sun here and my face is almost sunburnt. The mosquitoes have been behaving so far, too. In the first days we saw almost none - but I had to get out my bugshirt last night eventually. We also make a lot of progress and paddlde up to 80 km per day due to the strong current. And of course the food is great, too - which was to be expected as I am cooking on a petrol stove and a new pot set.

Beach on Lake Laberge
Now the problems: The current is incredibly strong - up to 15 km/h and an average of 12 km/h. This lets us move very fast. We could just sit in the boat without paddling and still do 60 km per day. How will I ever enjoy hiking again where you only average 4 km/h with a lot of effort? The problem starts when you want to steer the boat and beach. The current is so strong that you can only beach doing a U-turn. You first have to turn the boat around and then paddle upstream against the current. Next the person in front of the boat has to jump out and secure the boat. So far we have succeded in the U-turn, but the person jumping out of the boat (which has been me so far)  does not exactly win a prize for grace and elegance. As the campsite are not very obvious from far away all those manouvers have to be very fast, too. So far we have not missed any spot but each beaching causes us a bit of a panic attack. Hopefully things will improve with more practice and slower current.

Cold forest fire
Another unexpected bad surprise has been a huge forest fire. Luckily, the Yukon River stayed open for paddling and by the time we reached the site most of the fires had already gone cold. Still it was depressing to see what huge amount of forest had burnt. We first noticed the fire on Shipyard Island, an island that served as a shipyard for steam wheelers - just as the name suggest. One old steam wheeler is left there and the fire crew was working hard to protect this heritage site by reducing the "fuel". We were told that the fire starts 8 km further downstream and would accompany us for quite a bit. This quite a bit turned out to be more than 30 km - a really depressing sight with smoldering trees everywhere.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Yukon: Whitehorse

So far everything went according to plan. Adrian and I met at Frankfurt airport and had an uneventful and smooth flight to Whitehorse. Whitehorse has only about 20,000 inhabitants - but a weekly direct flight from Frankfurt and one from Switzerland. I guess there are a lot of German-speaking people dreaming of the Yukon! Here in Whitehorse we are staying at a very nice hostel: Nice room, kitchen, free internet - and a huge supply of free food (leftovers from other guests) that saved us already a lot of money as we could pilfer their spice supplies.

Our new boat fully loaded
We have spent two rather stressful days shopping: First we had to find a boat. There are only 3 options: Canadian Tire, a huge home depot sort of store that also sells rather mediocre boats and two canoe shops that sell used boats. We eventually bought an Old Town canoe from one of the canoe shops for 900 CAN$ and are quite happy with it. Next we had to buy supplies for at least 2 weeks. As Whitehorse is the biggest town on the whole Yukon we tried to buy as much as possible. Our hostel room looks like a huge mess and I have my doubts whether we will be able to fit everything into our new canoe, but Adrian is quite optimistic. We will see tomorrow....

I don't know when we will have the next chance for internet access and therefore the next blog update take a while...