Canoeing the Teslin and Yukon Rivers 2009

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 (6)

Sunday, September 27th, 2009

Day 5

I woke up clear in my mind that leaving Russell behind was not an option.  His alien presence might spoil our holiday mood, but it was possible he could enter and extend the scope of the group.  More important, guilt for abandoning him in the woods would dampen our high spirits even more than his presence, and if he met harm, the story would eventually come out to our shame.  Before I had a chance to express this view, Steve approached me with the question, should we leave or take him, and I answered without hesitation.  He said that he and Andy had agreed he should poll people individually rather than enter a lengthy group deliberation, and that my sentiment was shared by everyone. Russell seemed happy with our decision and brought his backpack with rifle down to the shore to be loaded into the reconfigured canoes, and asked if we could spare a cup of rum.

Minutes before our scheduled 9:00 AM departure the unaccustomed sound of engines was heard from upstream, and as it increased to a roar, two stainless steel jet boats with several red-suited occupants sped toward us across the bay. It was the Royal Canadian Mounted Police!  They came onshore announcing that a couple of hunters had been reported missing and then saying quietly to John that this kind of thing happens often; the “crazy” guy was probably in detox.  Russell didn’t appear eager to go with them, but had little choice and gave us a friendly goodbye. After reporting what little we knew of the situation, we repacked the boats again and shoved off downstream without him.

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Now we were riding the Yukon river, larger and faster than the Teslin.  Windows of sunshine opened in the overcast occasionally flooding canoes and shore with oblique morning light. Reflection upon our being spared the consequences of our morally preferable choice about Russell eased the mood, and Lionel and I spun alternative Hollywood plotlines for a sequel: a hijacking involving the guy who went crazy a la “The River Wild” or “Deliverance,” or our rescue from drowning in rapids by Russell and his family living along the shore.

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At a late afternoon lunch break we were joined at a pullout by Imo, a shy greybearded German mountaineer, who had just gotten into kayaking after making a film about rock climbing along the coast of Majorca. Rob joined the exclusive club of successful fishermen but got so carried away by the sport that he busted Lionel’s fancy rod.

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As we coasted downstream the lightshow continued all afternoon, highlighting the canoes between water and sky, casting a rainbow between the river banks and making the autumn foliage glisten at our day’s destination, the old trading post at the confluence of the Big Salmon with the Yukon.  Cameron had reached this spot before us and found shelter far enough away to avoid being disturbed by our unrestrained language and laughter.  This expansive site included several log cabins, one of which contained a bookcase full of liquor bottles left by recent campers as well as an old gold pan.  Originally a First Nations fishing camp, it had served as steamboat landing, telegraph station and mission.  Before the Klondike Gold Rush in 1903, it was headquarters for many prospectors who took out moderate amounts of gold from the immediate area.  According to the guide, “By the mid 1930’s the community was still a riverboat landing with a trading post.” On a rock outcrop above the site, we found a cemetery, with manufactured fencing and small structures protecting shallow or surface graves.

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Erecting the tarp without trees to rope to was an ambitious task but not beyond the abilities of the tarpmeister and assistants.  Cocktail hour consumed all the remaining rum under the auspices of the day’s leader, Andy, aka “Captain Blowhard.” Entertainment was provided by the whole crew playing roles of ragged, rambunctuous, raunchy pirates.  Another dinner with a generous fish course followed by Nutella for dessert was enjoyed under a lyrical pastel sunset.

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Day 6

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 (7)

Sunday, September 27th, 2009

Day 6

A quarter moon and Venus lit the dawn, which arrived 45 minutes later this morning than the day we started. Allan, a.k.a. “Soaring Eagle,” was the day’s leader. We crawled out of the tents greeted by a heavy frost, another sign that the northern winter was on its way. A ribbon of fog spread from the cold river over the warming land and then burned off revealing a cloudless sky. The powers above were smiling on our soon-to-be-terminated voyage. The current had reached a steady 10 km/hr making paddling optional, except where multiple channels around gravel bars and islands required selection and vigorous effort.  Reflecting on the ability of the river to move us as it wanted while we struggled to find the right direction and on yesterday’s experience of choice and circumstance, Steve and I debated determinism and free will. In other canoes Andy theorized about neurological analogies between gambling and angling addictions while John and Murray caught more fish.

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On the lookout for a suitable spot to stop for lunch, we rounded a turn and spotted a curious sight on a distant low island: what looked like an old-fashioned wall tent standing off kilter on the shore and people at a campfire.  Steve said, “Looks like hunters, lets not go there,” but then we saw Allan and John’s canoes pulled up on the beach.  As soon as we landed, our old friend Cameron came over and introduced a young fellow with long curly hair and a leather hat as “a film maker.”  We walked with them toward the fire and discovered that the tent was pitched on fresh cut spruce poles and mounted on a large raft also completely constructed of poles. Alan and Rob were conversing with a striking young woman wearing dreadlocks gathered in a loose bun who offered us tea and muffins with a radiant smile.  I could only smile back and stare goggle-eyed as she explained that she was with a group who had built the raft several days before out of 130 poles they cut at the northern end of Lake LaBarge where they too were delayed by the storm. Afterward they’d floated it down the river, having spent a whole night on the water trying to find a place to land where they could maneuver out of the current.

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Two other men stood at the fire drinking tea, neither looking much like a voyageur, and when they spoke, out came the broadest Cockney accents I’ve heard since watching a Mike Leigh movie.  They had seen a story about going down this river in a book about 20 Great Things To Do Before You Die and had taken a couple of weeks off from their business in London ferrying drunk teenagers from pub to pub in a minibus.  They’d never canoed or kayaked before and were having the time of their lives.

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It was hard for me to take my eyes off the woman with the tea, but my attention was drawn by the sound of Ian flopping in the water off the gangplank leading to the raft.  I wandered over and went aboard to overhear a man who looked like a model exquisitely garbed in wool and corduroy explaining to John with a thick French accent that he and his partner, professional guides, were making a promotional film about a new sport of recreating the old prospector’s experience of building rafts and floating them down the river, the project financed by a Swiss bank. They had rented two canoes from “Up North Adventures,” carried their baggage and towed two large logs and six plastic barrels up the lake, and then used hand tools to build the raft.

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Against the pile of baggage on the large deck leaned expensive cases for a rifle and a guitar. Too shy to address questions in the presence of all this competence, youth and beauty, I asked John how the girl got here and he said the guides had put an invitation in the Whitehorse newspaper classifieds and that she responded. Her name was Victoria.  She’d left New Zealand on her post-highschool travel sabbatical twelve years ago and was still on the road.

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Back at the fire, Victoria was joined by another lovely woman from the south of France.  She was talking to Lionel and Allan about having encountered Russell a couple of days before and not knowing what to make of him. We shared our story and I flashed on my adventure in the south of France 47 years ago, centered in a tiny village called Grimaud.  She said she knew the place.

Our group reassembled at our landing spot for lunch as the last canoe arrived with Murray and Andy, triumphant about having caught four grayling and also puzzled by the spectacle on the beach.  I urged Murray to give the ladies an offering of fish, but hearing our giggles at his approach, he returned too embarrassed to proceed and instead targeted me with a Monte Python fish slap.

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After lunch Murray, Andy and I went skinny dipping in the cold Yukon river a discrete enough distance from the young folk to limit our exposure and still show off. Once we were dressed again and about to get  back into our canoes, the two women wished us farewell as they walked down the beach carrying machetes, presumably to cut more poles in the bush.

Our intended campsite for the night was already occupied by a couple with a dog so we decided to spare them our company and take the next one downstream indicated in the guide, but it couldnt be found. While Murray and Andy stayed behind to catch more fish, the rest decided to carve out a new campsite on a small muddy spit at the end of an island since night was approaching. When the fishermen arrived and saw it, they convinced us to keep going another hour to the Little Salmon River where we found an established spot that all agreed was a better choice. Three speedboats passed close to the canoes just before dusk–other than the RCMP’s the first motors we heard in a week. “Don’t F—With Me” Steve was appointed next day’s leader.

Day 7

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 (8)

Sunday, September 27th, 2009

Day 7

The fog was thick during breakfast at the Little Salmon campsite. The roar of trucks on the Campbell Highway that converged here with opposite bank of the river gave notice of our excursion’s approaching end. Our original plan to spend one more night in the wild was abandoned in favor of staying over at the Coal Mine Campground in Carmacks, our planned pickup point the next day. We couldn’t travel the river in fog and it was lifting later today than yesterday. It could strand us tomorrow.

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A second shot of Murray’s coffee and his pome cleared the air for the last lazy cruise.  The aspens were turning from yellow to gold.  Fish were biting.  On a gravel bar at lunch, the men aimed rocks at a figurine erected by Steve. Early arrivals at the Coal Mine campground got to clean up and ride into town for beer to bring back, and heard the news that Russell’s associate had been found dead in the bush after an extensive search involving boats, land parties and helicopters.  Andy and Murray brought more fish caught in eddies and at beaverdams.  Cameron and the two Brits showed up and joined our campfire for more Robert Service readings.  Ian presented them with the collection he’d bought second hand.

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Day 8

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