Canoeing the Yukon River, Canada

The Yukon Territory in Northern Canada is wild and rugged and indescribably beautiful. I can’t recommend this area enough and it has been an absolute highlight during our travels in Canada.  There are many different ways to explore the area and we decided to get a group of friends together and embark on a week long (304km) canoeing river journey from Whitehorse to Carmacks down the Yukon River. And it was incredible. Yes it requires a lot of organisation, yes you may get some bad weather, and yes you do have to navigate the river yourself, however, like anything in life, the more you put into it the bigger the reward. And by golly we were rewarded. This blog post will hopefully give you all the information you need to get planning!

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We landed on a beautiful Saturday July day in the sleepy airport of Whitehorse. From here we hopped into some taxis for the 5 minute drive to our accommodation. We were staying at Canada’s Best Value Inn and it left a lot to be desired. Too be fair there is not that many accommodation options in Whitehorse and all the motels seem to be much of a muchness. However, with a few incidences that involved 2am flooding and sweltering room temperatures – I would recommend staying elsewhere. Once we had dropped off our bags we were straight into admin mode organising supplies for the trip the next day. Whitehorse has a large Canadian Superstore which had everything we needed (plus a trip to the liquor store obviously). We rented a car to help with shuttling people back and forth to various spots around town to get organised – if you have a large group I would recommend doing this too.

We had 7 days on the river (day 1 and 7 being half days) and there were 10 of us all together. We decided to allocate each of the full days to a canoe pair. This meant that each canoe pair was responsible for a full day of food – breakfast, lunch, dinner, dessert and snacks. For day 1 we took a subway sandwich each and an easy hot dog meal for dinner to cook as a group.  And for day 7 we just made do with leftovers. This system worked really well and meant you had one day of working and the rest was a fully catered holiday. Be warned though – cooking for 10 people for every meal of the day is a lot of work. To throw a bit of fun and banter into the cooking days we decided to make it into a competition which meant we ate like kings! To give you some ideas on what to cook here is what we had:
– For breakfasts we ate pancakes, french toast, bacon and egg rolls, breakfast burritos and potato hash with chorizo.
– For lunch we had sandwiches and pitas, mac and cheese and various pasta dishes.
– For dinner it was burgers with corn and salad, curry with naan, gnocchi with pesto and sundried tomatoes, beef chilli with corn chips, and a mash up of every canned bean with a tomato based sauce (surprisingly delicious!!).
– For dessert we ate cheese, brownies, s’mores and chocolate.
– Snack wise it really varied – from various fruits to nuts and chocolate to crisps, pre-packaged snacks and cheese boards – we always had more than enough.
– We also managed to catch a few fish that we cooked on the fire for a pre-dinner snack!
We are all big foodies as you can probably tell from our menu choices above and we ate far too much the entire trip (but hey you’re on holiday).

For alcohol we took 4 x 1.5L bottles of Gin, 2 x bottles of whisky, 5 x 3L boxes of red wine, 2 x 3L boxes of white wine and 10 x 24 can packs of beer.  We also took along some lime cordial, lemons and a Soda Stream to make soda water for our G&Ts – I know, we are so extra, but it was soooo worth it! This was definitely enough alcohol for 10 people.

Food, Camping, Yukon River Canoeing Trip, Canada
Delicious camp curry!

In order to navigate the river effectively I read an incredibly useful blog online – here is the link. This blog had a lot of good information for planning your Yukon River trip and I highly recommend reading it.  On their suggestion we bought a copy of Mike Rourke’s Yukon River Maps online and scanned the map pages in that we needed. We then highlighted the camping spots in green, the caution areas in orange and interesting sights to see in pink. We laid them out 4 to a page and printed them double-sided and then laminated each sheet. This worked incredibly well and you should do it too. Make sure each canoe has a laminated copy of the maps as inevitably someone will lose theirs in the river (ahem Jo…Calum…). We found the river pretty easy to navigate using these maps and managed to find various camping spots pretty easily. A good tip is not to leave on your trip on a Saturday as it increases your chances of bumping into other groups on the river. We left on a Sunday and it wasn’t until the last day that we saw any other groups on the river.

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Beautiful view from our first camping spot

The are a couple of different outfitters to go with in Whitehorse – namely Upnorth Adventures and The Kanoe People.  We went with The Kanoe People – no particular reason, they just got back to me first when I sent out some enquiries.  From them we rented the double canoes (with life jackets and paddles), a large barrel for each canoe, and a large dry bag for each person. We also rented an extra small barrel for a bit of the communal food and an extra dry bag to keep all our cooking equipment in.  Rental is cheap – see my costs section below.  They also arranged for our transport back to Whitehorse from Carmacks. A few notes on bear safety – this is something we were a bit worried about.  If you are in a large group you generally make a lot of noise and have nothing to worry about as animals are probably more scared of you than you are of them. We took a few cans of bear spray and some flares, if I did it again I think I would just take some flares. Bear spray is expensive and you will almost definitely not use it, even if you dont open it you can’t return it and we ended up donating ours to The Kanoe People to give to other groups. So it would definitely be worth asking them if they have any bear spray lying around before you go and buy some.

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Our awesome tour shirts courtesy of Sean Grace – complete with spirit animals on the back

Now for the river journey itself! The first part of the river is nice and fast flowing and we found a good place to camp just before we reached the mouth of Lake Lebarge.  We also got our first glimpse of wildlife – two juvenile bald eagles checking us out as we paddled past. We truly fell in love with the area on this first day on the Yukon River.

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Juvenile Bald Eagles

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The next couple of days it was time to tackle Lake Lebarge. Or as we soon came to call it – Lake La Bitch. This lake is long (50kms) and if you don’t have a tail wind it is gruelling work. It is also notorious for some bad weather (we got lucky!) so is something to keep in mind. Our first day we had a slight head wind which made it a real slog to our first camp spot. We only managed to cover about 20kms before collapsing on the beach in exhaustion. The beach we camped on was beautiful and we even had a cheeky porcupine nosing around our gear in the morning.  When we woke up that next morning we noticed that it was a bit windy. Our dismay turned quickly to delight as we realised we had a TAIL WIND!! So we snappily packed up the canoes and got on the lake to take advantage of this development. I was a bit concerned about flipping the canoes as there were quite a few waves, however, with everything tied together it didn’t prove to be a problem. Man oh man what a difference the wind made! A few in the group made sails out of hammocks and tarps and flew across the water.  And by lunch time we had knocked the bastard off and rewarded ourselves with much needed beers and lunch near an abandoned wood camp back on the river.

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The best fishing on the trip is as you leave the mouth of Lake Lebarge and get back onto the Yukon River. We fished here and caught many Arctic Grayling and Trout to have as a pre-dinner snack that night.

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The rest of our journey on the river was lazy. We decided that we had worked so hard on the lake that we could spend the rest of the trip rafted up and chilling. The river flows pretty fast so you can easily cover around 60km a day by just floating down it. Some days we barely paddled for an hour before caving and rafting up with another boat. We often pulled over for a swim, the water was fresh but not too cold and we had fantastic weather. We truly lived the dream. It meant we could relax and enjoy the scenery and wildlife we were surrounded by.

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We were very lucky with the wildlife that we saw and often it was at the times we least expected it. In the middle of the day we saw a young male moose drinking from the river before he ran off spooked as we floated by. We saw a large black bear also down by the river for a drink who just stared at us as we stared back at him. There were many bald eagles in trees, flying above us, and diving down to the river catching fish. We saw porcupines, marmots, ducks, geese and countless kingfishers. An absolute highlight was seeing a few beavers in the river. They were never happy when we got too close to their lodges and bared their large teeth at us and whacked down on the water with their tails. At one of our campsites we found fresh cougar tracks so made sure we went everywhere in pairs!

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Bald Eagle
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Moose!
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Black Bear

The Yukon River was used a lot during the gold rush and you can see evidence of this all the way down the river. We stopped at a spot for lunch that had an old gold dredge and we attempted (unsuccessfully) to pan for gold.  Another lunch spot was also home to an abandoned ship yard with an entire abandoned ship still there – the steamer Evelyn. These spots were wonderful to explore.

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Attempt at gold panning
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The abandoned steamer Evelyn

The campsites we stayed at were each unique and beautiful, we camped in forests, on beaches and up high on some banks. Chilling at the campground around a fire, chatting, reading our books and have some drinks was truly magical. It was so good to be in the middle of the wilderness with no technology or reception, just enjoying the moment. A few of the evenings we could hear wolves howling and were never sure how close they were to us.

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Going to the loo while on these trips is something that people worry about so I thought I would write a quick summary of our experience on this. We took a couple of shovels and some toilet paper and buried any waste, however the boys really took to what we called aqua pooing (self explanatory really). We weren’t sure how legit this was but hey it was very effective (don’t worry it was always down stream from camp!).

A couple of other admin notes. We tried to burn as much rubbish as we could and just packed out the rest as the food barrels emptied. We also took 3 x 20L water containers and some water purifying tablets and a filter. The water is okay to drink once you get about half way into Lake Lebarge, however we just treated the water as an extra precaution and found it useful to have the water containers on the canoes.

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We only spent two nights in Whitehorse (one either side of the canoe trip) and we had a pretty good time in the town. There is not a lot going on and the bars and restaurants are limited.  We had some good meals at the Minor’s Daughter/Dirty Northern and great breakfast food from a place called Baked Café. Right next door to Canada’s Best Value Inn was a dirty dive bar playing live country music that we found pretty fun to go to. A fantastic place to go is to the Yukon Brewing Company, there is always happy hour in the evenings and we had a fun last night drinking there.

Overall our time canoeing down the Yukon River was spectacular and a real life highlight. We were lucky that we had sunny weather the entire time – so going in the height of summer is definitely key.

Here is a breakdown of the costs per person for our 8 night/9 day trip:

Accommodation in Whitehorse (2 nights) – CA$115pp
Food and Alcohol – CA$200
Canoe rental and gear – CA$200pp
Taxis and car rental – CA$20pp
Fishing licence – CA$20
Misc. costs – CA$145
Total = CA$700 (US$535)

(I haven’t included flight costs in this breakdown as it depends where you are flying from.)

For those interested in what we packed for the trip, see below for the lists.

Cooking Gear:
– Gas cookers x 2 (you have to buy the gas up in Whitehorse as you can’t take it on the plane)
– Grill for the fire
– Soda Stream (luxurious!!)
– Large Pan and pot
– Kettle/Coffee pot
– Utensils (sharp knives, tongs, wooden spoon, ladle)
– Plastic chopping boards
– Dishwashing bucket, scrubber and soap
– Rubbish bags and zip lock bags
– Fire starting materials
– Tinfoil and kitchen roll
– Plastic bowl/plate/cup/mug for each person
– Knife/fork/spoon for each person

Group Gear:
– Toilet paper
– 2 x shovels
– 2 x small axes
– Citronella candles
– 3 x 20L water containers
– Water purifying tablets and filter
– Laminated river maps
– Compass
– Duct tape
– First aid kit
– Fishing gear
– Playing cards

Individual Gear:
– Tent
– Tarp
– Sleeping bag
– Pillow (not necessary but I like having one)
– Camping chair (very useful)
– Spare rope (for tying things together on canoe)
– Water bottle
– Headlamp or flashlight
– Sun hat and sunglasses
– Sunscreen (ALOT)
– Bug spray (ALOT)
– Eye mask (its sunny for around 20hrs in the summer)
– Personal toiletries
– Towel
– Swimming gear
– Quick dry clothes
– Warm gear for the evenings
– Rain gear (waterproof pants and jacket)
– Camera/binoculars etc.
– Extra batteries for electronics

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