Gray-Beards Conquer the Yukon!*
with occasional paddling or rowing to avoid obstacles or go ashore.
Young bucks would have carried their ton of gear up Chilkoot Pass and put on the Yukon River headwaters at Bennett Lake. Hence, they could have replicated the authentic travails of the Klondike Gold-Rush Sourdoughs! Gray-beards noted that this route means driving an extra 120 miles and paddling across three lakes. While the Gray-beards had rigged the rubber raft with a motor mount, using a motor entails carrying a heavier load. The required gasoline could be used as a sure-fire campfire starter, but a propane camp stove solves most cooking problems without the hassles of finding dry wood or increased camp cleaning. Hence, the Gray-beards stayed consistent to the definition and launched on a tributary, the Teslin, at Johnson Crossing. This option meant floating the same distance, but allowed driving to the launch point, using electric pumps to inflate water craft, and putting in after drinking a brew, dining on sausage rolls purchased at the Johnson Crossing Store, and christening the raft with beer (some filtered through kidneys).
Each Gray-beard had specific
requirements for camp sites:
We quickly learned that the best campsites were at the heads of islands, because they had sparse brush, so few bugs. While most islands were gravel-rock bars, there were usually a few sandy spots for pitching a tent. Young-bucks typically camped in sites the river guides [1, 2] described as fair to good, each on a sandy bank with a table, nearby stream, local trails, and enough bugs to supplement every meal and encourage rapid excretions to avoid too many bites on tender flesh. Excellent sites (Hootelinqua, Coal Camp, Minto, Ft. Selkirk, 40 Mile, …) had cabins, shared cooking/eating areas, and real outhouses or riverside cafes! They also featured scores of campers, so the Gray-beards, who enjoyed solitude and quiet, generally avoided these sites. Exceptions to this rule occurred when Grey-beards met with Anita where the Yukon flowed through villages or towns (Carmacks, Minto, Dawson City). We would pull off for a few days, have cold beers, hot meals prepared in the camper or fine restaurants, enjoy hot showers, laundry services, and soft beds in the Armold’s camper or in a B&B where one could just sprawl (rather than being confined to a sleeping bag).
All our camps featured happy hour: you landed and unpacked, relaxed with salami, crackers, gorp, cheeses, heart medicine, …then explored a bit before setting up the tents and starting dinner. Mel prepared great dinners and breakfasts! Steaks, chicken, ham, pasta, cheese biscuits, … often cooked in the Dutch oven.
Young-bucks preferred canoes. They paddled incessantly, beating the river surface to a froth in an effort to move downstream as quickly as possible while following some aesthetic dealing with keeping the bow downstream. Since canoes have lower load-limits, Young-bucks took concentrated spirits (distilled) and food (dried); they also went ashore for pit stops. Many Young-bucks were on guided tours with motor boats that carried gear and boogied down stream to snag premier campsites. Gray-beards preferred an inflatable raft that could haul a cooler filled with fine food, boxes of heart medicine, and drag-bags of beer. They actually rowed from time to time to rotate to a better view, or to avoid large eddies or obstacles. Since they had more idle time, Gray-beards could quaff from a thermos of coffee or cans of beer at their whim/leisure. Instead of landing for pit stops, Gray-beards made an alternative use of the bail bucket. After a fine lunch on warm, sunny afternoons, a Gray-beard could stretch out on the soft raft tubes to nap while the other rowed and kept an eye out for wildlife or other scenic wonders. In mild weather, Gray-beards used both kayak and raft. The kayak was handy for exploring side channels or narrower/shallower paths around islands or creeks that drained into the main channel. The (theoretically) most dangerous rapid on the Yukon was Five Fingers. Our guide book  said to stay river right. This might be good advice for a canoe, but the raft could have run it anywhere (class 2 max).
A Gray-beard alarm on spying wildlife was to whisper “Critter on river left/right”. No point in upsetting the natives with boorish, intrusive braying or oarlocks squeaks. Wildlife observation was quickly followed by binoculars or cameras being extracted from water-proof storage to get a candid shot. A slow response could mean a missed photo, such as one of the wolverine in a marshy area on river left at mile 335. Young-bucks, intent on speed, banged the sides of their canoes with paddles, warning wildlife away from the river. If dogs traveling with the Young-bucks began to fuss, then Young-bucks set off fire crackers (“Bangers” in Aussie, at 3:31 AM!). Gray-beards carried a shotgun, assembled only when on shore, then loaded with three slugs: the first to fire into the air to frighten off any predator, the second to shoot the predator, the third in case the second missed. Not a shot was fired in 590 miles. We saw many moose of all ages and sexes, bald eagles, bank swallows, Dall Sheep, black and grizzly bears, peregrine falcons, LLBs (little brown birds), water ouzels, Arctic Grayling, …all in profusion.
In preparation for the trip, Ron purchased three River Guides [1,2,3]. Guide maps are printed in reverse order (the last map page is the beginning of the trip) for convenience: map pages run consecutively from bottom to top, oriented to what you see as you float downstream. The start (last map page, Johnson’s Crossing) was at mile 122, and the end (first map page, Carmacks) showed mile 0 . The Gray-beards glanced at the map, and agreed that we could leisurely float 122 miles in about five days. If we had not arrived at Carmacks by day 7, Anita was to contact the RCMP—we had probably met insurmountable difficulties and our beer supply would be exhausted! Unfortunately, the text of the guide did not note that map mileage was reset at Hootalinqua, where the Teslin meets the Yukon. Hence, the actual distance we had to go in 5-7 days was 229 miles. We discovered the problem on the second day of floating the Teslin. With no way to contact Anita, we decided to make the most of 20 hours of daylight, launch early, eat lunch while floating, minimize shore breaks, and stop at dusk (10:00 to midnight). Fortunately, the current went from about 2 MPH to 5 MPH by noon of the second day, so we knew our schedule would get us to Carmacks before the deadline. Maps in  also had problems with page sequencing, easily sorted out by non-linear reading.
Our modus operandi for choosing a campsite was to read the map ahead when dusk was nigh, then we could select reasonable islands to scout (river left, right, or center—ferrying took a while since the river was at least a half-mile wide where there were islands). Near dusk, we began to check potential sites for camp #9. Two pages of the river guide  were missing! We floated to the lower end of a long island ¼ of the way into the first missing page and camped near dark during a rain and wind squall that necessitated our anchoring the base of the tent with stones. At least four moose came through our camp that night, but none snagged the tent.
- After a cold, wet night in camp #9 and a drizzly dawn we got on the river at about 8:40 AM. We were cold and wet when we spotted a sign “Kirkman Creek Campground-Bakery Approx. 5 Miles KEEP RIGHT”. We pulled in to hot coffee and cherry pie ($10, and well worth it!).
food, friends, breath-taking scenery, and geological variety.
We left camp 10, after
420 miles of river on a cold, rainy morning with an up-river wind
(the worst!) By 3:30 PM, the weather was sunny and over 80° F.
with a slight down-river breeze. We had taken off rain suits and poly-pile
to enjoy a delectable lunch with cold brews.
*Hyperbole. We actually had a fairly leisurely float down nearly 600 miles of rivers flowing from 2 mph to 7 mph. The water was mostly flat, but with high volume (25,000 - 100,000 CFS).
1 .Rourke, Mike. Teslin River, Johnson Crossing to Carmacks Houston, B.C: Rivers North, 1983 (revised 2006).
2. Rourke, Mike. Yukon River, Carmacks to Dawson City Houston, B.C: Rivers North, 1983 (revised 2006).