September, 2009 Archive

Zunoquad 3“Canoeing the Teslin and Yukon Rivers (5)

Sunday, September 27th, 2009

Day 4

Lord Robert, the day’s captain, saw to it that we were back in the boats at 9 AM on a bright promising morning. The only use of the word “spectacular” in our otherwise low-key guide occurred to describe the section of the river we approached soon after departure, dramatically illuminated in the morning sunshine.  Two high cutbanks converged to create what seemed like an endless maze, probably the outcome of past shifts of the river’s course.  We all stopped paddling and let the current slowly wind us along, dazzled by the luminous cliff faces and hushed by those in shadow, dwarfed by their scale, thrilled by the brilliance of sky and foliage on the opposite bank.

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Lunch was scheduled for Mason’s Landing, a historical landmark 136 kilometers from our starting point.   Among the ruins of crude log cabins, we ate, rested and Murray chronicled and composed.  According Mike Rourke’s guide, the Teslin river itself didn’t yield much gold, but it was the route from the South to Dawson City and the Klondike a hundred miles north, and to nearby big strikes on Livingstone Creek in 1894.  First a pack trail and then a wagon road was constructed to lead there from this trading post, along with a telegraph line from the Hootalinqua junction downstream, our destination for the night’s camp.

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Andy’s GPS told him that the current was increasing so we could slow down whenever we wanted to enjoy the scenery, the fishing and the feel of the river flowing fast over the bottom visible in the shallows along the shore and slow through the eddies and whirlpools on its surface in the middle.

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At Hootalinqua, the Teslin terminated, absorbed by the Yukon river flowing into it from Lake Labarge. The Google map suggested this would be a sensational location, but the convergence was hidden by treed islands. Nevertheless one could suddenly feel a surge of new current and see that the color of the water had changed from a transparent brown to an opaque green.  We paddled hard to get across the channel  and arrived in a calm bay, at the end of which floated a pair of swans in placid dignity beside an artfully shaped boulder protruding from the water.  As we approached them quietly, they took off in formation and circled the large bay trumpeting as they flew over us and then returning to alight where they started.

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Another reception was provided by a man standing on shore staring at us intently, dressed not like a canoeist or kayaker, but in torn jeans, jean jacket, gumboots and wide hat, long-haired, bearded, bespectacled and dark in complexion.  There was no sign of a boat along the shore and we knew there was no road to this place. As we pulled up on the sand beach, eager to explore this interesting location and make use of the well built outhouses, he asked if we had any tobacco, he hadn’t had a cigarette in days, since he’d had a fight with his uncle, got out of the boat here, and waited around hoping for a way to get home.

As we unloaded our canoes a tiny figure came shooting across the widened river from behind the island paddling a tiny collapsible kayak.   Cameron, a young man from Victoria had borrowed it from someone he knew who had got it from someone else for a hundred dollars. He’d started at Whitehorse on the Yukon river, and gotten delayed by a two day storm that kept him from crossing Lake LaBarge.  He had neither sleeping bag nor waterproof clothing nor job nor kayaking experience, but a spirit of adventure that was taking him through the five finger rapids all the way down river to Dawson City.

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The marooned man, named Russell, also asked Cameron for a smoke.  His strange story and mix of reticence and talkativeness made everyone uneasy.  In reply to whether or not he had food, he said “up in a tree,” explained later by his saying he’d almost hit a grouse with a rock and that he could kill the two swans with one shot.  Steve urged that we offer him a ride out, but Andy suggested that we bring up all the paddles from the shore and keep them in our tents.

Russell disappeared while we ate a somber dinner.  Andy called Steve Mother Teresa and said that Russell refused his offer to call for help with the Satellite phone. Steve said that only “Westerners” would be hesitant to help a person like this in distress.  The rest of our group seemed reluctant to desert Russell but wary of taking on a passenger we distrusted for the rest of the trip, especially since his family and friends knew of his being here. After the meal to which he was not invited, Russell returned and asked for coffee”but not alcohol.  Steve gave him hot chocolate and John and he engaged Russell in conversation.  He had come up river, he said, with his uncle and two friends, one of who had “gone crazy” and run off into the bush up near Teslin Crossing, a spot between Mason Landing and the Spectacular Cut Bank.  The uncle insisted on returning to Carmacs down the river for a doctor’s appointment, but Russell wanted to stay and search. That was the reason for the fight. Wariness diminished somewhat as we all sat around the fire in the chill evening drizzle, despite Russell’s repeated mention of the “thirty aught six” that he had stashed in his camp. He also indicated that he had a son in England, that he was a volunteer firefighter, that he was planning to go to a First Nations shindig upriver, that he was a Boston Bruins fan and that he was familiar with Leonard Cohen.

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Day 5

To view a complete set of photos for this trip go here. To view a slideshow of these photos go here.

Zunoquad 3“Canoeing the Teslin and Yukon Rivers (4)

Sunday, September 27th, 2009

Day 3

Jobwaddhi made two sensible proclamations at breakfast: we would switch paddling partners and we would begin the day with stretches, a morning ritual that had been observed for at least the last two years’ trips and that would have helped get us through yesterday had it not been abandoned.

As we packed the gear, a large raven with a fat double chin perching on a snag in the middle of the campsite clicked and croaked with impatience to pick at our leavings   Daylight revealed fresh tracks of bear, wolf and moose in the mud, but we were disappointed that no large non-human mammals were sighted any time on the trip. Bald eagles, both mature and juveniles were in plentiful supply, along with the occasional dead salmon lying on the shore or floating in the water, after migrating up from the Bering Sea into which the river emptied 1900 miles downstream near Nome Alaska.

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Three days from our departure point and cut off from other human contact, toughened by yesterday’s ordeal, familiarized with the recurrent features of the landscape, spared from rain though still deprived of sunlight, we had gained our riverlegs.  The current varied from 3 to 6 km/hr with the exception of some faster water on hairpin turns and in reaches where the contour perceptibly dropped.  At times steersmen faced a tricky selection of which channel around an island was least likely to run their canoe aground and threaten to swamp it in the strong flow.  As they approached a junction trying to decide, they would often discover that the current had already chosen for them. On one occasion Steven and Ian found themselves making a 360 degree revolution while negotiating a swift section. On another Murray and John became marooned on a gravel bar off of which they had to walk their canoe, but this was as close to mishap that anyone came. Despite his worsening illness, John remained spirited and productive as ever.

Several hours were spent passing through a burn where this summer’s forest fires rendered the tightly spaced black trunks into a dizzying moire pattern.  The destination selected for the day had the alluring name of O’Brien’s Bar, but rather than an Irish pub it referred to an old settlement on a flat section of bank surrounded by a 270 degree turn of the river.  With a surge of effort to fight a way out of the current, the canoes pulled up with a couple of hours left of daylight. People followed trails through the mossy forest which led to the ruins of a log cabin and heavy chunks of gold mining machinery manufactured in San Francisco, evidence of prospectors’ hopes and a long defunct paddle-wheeler trade. The catch of the day filled two large frying pans allowing each of us a generous portion.

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After dinner Ian and Steven did a tandem reading of Robert Service‘s poem, “The Cremation of Sam McGee,” which takes place “on the marge of Lake Labarge” nearby.  Each brought a copy, which wasn’t necessary, since this chestnut seemed to be printed in every tourist information pamphlet and engraved on many plaques on the streets of Whitehorse.

Day 4

To view a complete set of photos for this trip go here.
To view a slideshow of these photos go here.

Zunoquad 3“Canoeing the Teslin and Yukon Rivers (3)

Sunday, September 27th, 2009

Day 2

Andy got the fire going before yelling “Rise and shine” at the crack of dawn.  Murray’s clarion call of “Where’s the f…ing coffee,” preceded pouring the brew which he lovingly percolated to supplement Alan’s multigrain porridge.  Grunts and groans issued from several quarters, a result of stiff joints unaccustomed to sleeping on the ground or paddling and lifting. John was coming down with the flu, but insisted he’d tough it out. Murray recited the poem he had crafted about yesterday’s events, recalling forgotten incidents and giving the whole a memorable shape. Banter and storytelling delayed departure till 9:00 AM. The red sky at morning served as warning.

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On the river, the landscape grew more varied, at times opening to vistas of distant mountains pocketed with snow and carpeted with scarlet shrubs, at others unfolding high “cutbanks” of sediment carved by its meandering course into alluvial residues of sand and gravel left by receding glaciers. Distinguishing one from another and discovering the appropriate lunchstop and overnight campsite were officially delegated to the day’s navigator who carried the relevant pages of the guidebook in a ziplock bag.  But this thankless office lacked authority and its holder was subject to complaint and disobedience throughout the trip.

Within a couple of hours the temperature dropped close to freezing and it started to rain. Drybags were emptied of layers of waterproofing and insulation.  There was no choice but to paddle hard without pause–both to meet our distance quota and to keep warm–fueled by handfuls from the huge bags of gorp distributed by our food providers. Finally at 1:45, John allowed us to pull over at a small campsite for a lunchbreak. Gobbling rations of salami, cheese and cracker, men shivered around our small fire, and when it sputtered out in the increasing rain retreated under a tree.

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Back on the river, the rain lightened but we resigned ourselves to spending the rest of the day in wet clothes.  It was dark by the time we found the night’s campsite, but trolling from his canoe John had caught three arctic grayling trout to contribute to Allan’s piquant dish of riso pasta and curried canned chicken.  Inspired by the cuisine, Ian our leader-elect took on the title of “Jobwaddhi” and offered deep spiritual counsel to his devotees in the accents of a maharishi, occasionally slipping into Scottish brogue.  The dialogue was enriched in dialect mastered by several members of the group who had spent time in India or were in fact students of gurus.  Substantial inroads into the rum ration and a sense of challenge overcome ended the tough day with satisfaction.

Day 3

To view a complete set of photos for this trip go here.
To view a slideshow of these photos go here.

Zunoquad 3–Canoeing the Teslin and Yukon Rivers (2)

Sunday, September 27th, 2009

Day 1

After arriving in town separately on a late-night flight, Andy joined us for breakfast.  Our outfitters, “Up-North Adventures,” ferried us around downtown Whitehorse in a van to shop for gas, groceries and liquor. On the way to the supermarket, the boyish driver told stories of kayaking down class-five rapids in the Andes but assured us that the Teslin-Yukon was quite tame. Back at the shop we posed for a group shot.

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Midway on the two hour van ride to our starting point at Johnson’s Crossing, the Alaska Highway bridge near the head of the Teslin river, “His Oiliness” Lionel, the day’s elected leader, realized we’d forgotten to pack the two propane stoves we’d rented and asked the driver if there was any way they could be delivered to us enroute. The rest of the crew displayed their manliness by pooh-poohing that notion and insisting we’d cook on open fires.

In a darkening drizzle we loaded the boats and headed off under the bridge and around a bend away from the highway into what seemed like uncharted territory.  I remembered that Andy had promised to bring a Satellite phone just in case. Even in the dead light, a margin of brilliant green grass lined the banks in front of a moving mosaic of dark spruce and luminous yellow aspen.  The river was wide and the current swept us luxuriously downstream.

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After two hours paddle, his oiliness bowed to pressure and called a halt at a fine campsite by the junction with Squanga Creek, only twelve kilometers from the start.  In a flurry of spontaneous activity, men scurried from the boats, hauled drybags and packs up the steep bank, pitched tents, constructed a makeshift table and benches, prepared food, gathered wood, built a cooking fire, and rigged a large tarp over it under the direction of Steve, our proficient tarpmeister. The first dinner consisted of steak, the last fresh meat for a week and quinoa enriched with garlic, onions and carrots. Rum toddies and chocolate around the fire were accompanied by a reading of Robert Service’s “The Spell of the Yukon”:

It’s the great, big, broad land ‘way up yonder,
It’s the forests where silence has lease;
It’s the beauty that thrills me with wonder,
It’s the stillness that fills me with peace.

As we packed all the food and anything attractive like toothpaste into the bear barrels, Andy offered a reality check after consulting the guidebook.  In order to meet the outfitter 300 kilometers down river as planned, we’d have to cover 75 clicks a day, eight hours of paddling at the rate we were going.  Taking into account an hour and a half each of set-up and take-down, there wasn’t much time for activities or exploration or fooling around.  John the next day’s leader who named himself “Gone Fishin” called for 6AM wakeup.

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Day 2

To view a complete set of photos for this trip go here.
To view a slideshow of these photos go here.