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Wide Yukon Skies

Canoeing In The Yukon
Chris Lucas

Yukon’s Wind River shimmered like liquid silver, delicate ribbons stretching out down the valley as we flew above. The majesty of the mountains, proudly displaying their geological heritage in reds, yellows, greens and blues was humbling. Just as my heart found poetic wings to soar, a sudden drop in altitude clipped them, and caused a skip of beat. The tiny plane, our canoe lashed beneath, banked sharply to the right; the lake came rushing up to meet us as we landed.

I released my father from his seat in the back of the Beaver aircraft, dragged the kit ashore and together we waved goodbye to the plane as the drone of the propeller disappeared over the horizon, signalling the start of our great adventure. For the next month it would be just me, my dad, and a canoe. Excitedly, we set up our tents and lit a fire. It was a self-created bubble of comfort in Alaska’s vast wilderness. The paranoia that a bear could crash through our camp at any moment kept us on edge, but the sublime beauty of the mist on the lake under dawn light made a fine tonic.

The following morning, we set off and, using centuries-old canoeing techniques, began paddling down treacherous, fast creek water until we met the Wind River. Each corner we rounded offered yet another perspective and stunning view. The paddling was absorbing as we had to be constantly aware of hazards and opportunities. Narrow channels would meet larger ones, pushing our boat sideways into waves. Occasionally we would have to frantically paddle backwards to avoid being sucked under fallen trees. Standing in the front of the canoe to get a better view, looking down at the riverbed, was like gazing up at a clear night sky: the clarity of the pebbles and the vibrancy of the colours was hypnotic. Each morning I felt excited to pick up my paddle once again and make our way through more water. The roar of a thousand pebbles on their journey to the ocean became our daily soundtrack.

Before we set out on this expedition, my father and I had no idea of whether we would get on with each other, or whether there would be a massive family fallout at 63° north. Unless you’ve already been on a previous expedition with someone, there is no way of telling if the relationship is strong enough to see it through. Most people we met tended to be surprised that we were travelling as a father-and-son team, but Near Fort McPherson, we met a Gwich’in elder, a member of the group of native Canadians who live in this area, and he showed no surprise at our pairing. The idea of a son and his father heading into the wilderness for a month is completely normal in Gwich’in culture. For them, this is how families bond, how one’s sense of belonging is passed to each successive generation.

One of the joys of expedition life is sitting around the campfire. There is something about staring into the flickering embers that invokes an ancestral memory in the recesses of our human mind. When the skies are clear, there’s a breeze keeping the bugs away, and the tent fabric is flapping in the background, there’s nothing like it. But it was only after a hearty meal and a tipple of Yukon Jack whiskey, that our stories began. Stories of life. Of history. Of our history. For my father and I, there were things that could have gone a lifetime without discussion, but that turned out to be imperative once aired. The wilderness provides this opportunity. An expedition can succeed or fail on the basis of the individual’s sense of how they fit in the universe, the relationship between the team members, and, importantly, their relationship with the environment itself. I defy any soul to sit beneath those wide Yukon skies, and not feel the hairs on the back of their neck stand up in awe.

There is something about staring into the flickering embers that invokes an ancestral memory in the recesses of our human mind. I defy any soul to sit beneath those wide Yukon skies, and not feel the hairs on the back of their neck stand up in awe.
Canoeing The Yukon – Chris Lucas

Canoeing The Yukon – Chris Lucas

The Peel Watershed in Northern Yukon is the size of Scotland, and is rich in wildlife and diverse in landscape from the mountains to the tundra. For the Gwich’in people, this is home. Bear, caribou, moose and wolf roam amongst the dense spruce of the Taiga forest. Clear water rivers cut through the high mountains to meet with the mighty Peel River. The river lumbers, twists and turns its way to the Arctic Ocean. Here, beavers build their lodges, eagles fly and grayling thrash about in the eddies.

But beyond the beauty and the grandeur lurks a malevolent threat that could ruin it all. An abundance of minerals in the region means that the watershed has over 18,000 mining claims: this pristine wilderness is under threat. Thanks to the excellent work of the Protect the Peel movement and Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society and others, the land grab has been quashed and the Peel will be safe for a little while longer.

Clear water rivers cut through the high mountains to meet with the mighty Peel River. The river lumbers, twists and turns its way to the Arctic Ocean. Here, beavers build their lodges, eagles fly and grayling thrash about in the eddies.

Carving our paddles through the shimmering water, we moved our canoe sideways and into the fast channel on the right of the river. There he stood. Majestic and serene, a male caribou stood in the middle of the river. We hastily paddled backwards and grounded the canoe ashore on a gravel bank. Trying to keep our actions as smooth as possible to not startle the beast, we hurried to pull out the video camera from its waterproof container to record this incredible encounter. In our brightly-coloured outdoor gear, it was impossible to keep a low profile, but we carefully picked our way along the gravel to get into a better filming position. The caribou stood firm and just stared back at us.

I glanced down at the ground and a chill ran down me. Red globules of blood speckled the rocks at my feet – the caribou must be injured. Just then, into frame on the camera came a grizzly bear. To our horror, it chased the caribou across the river, directly towards us. We had no escape. Heading back up stream in the canoe was not an option. Running away would have been equally futile as bears can run at 30mph. With no alternative, we drew the pepper spray canisters that we had been carrying for safety in our packs and flipped the catches. The bear disappeared back into the scrub, presumably tired. The caribou looked at us almost apologetically. Long moments passed then suddenly, the bear appeared again, this time less than ten metres away from us. She circled around us, sniffing the air and showing us her powerful teeth. Perhaps we didn’t smell that good as she then waded to the other side of the river and disappeared again. How a moment so deadly can also be so beautiful is a mystery, but it will certainly be one burnt onto our retinas for many years to come.

Our next challenge was negotiating Peel Canyon, a famously dangerous stretch of river that had been tormenting a small corner of our minds since we started this trip. The grand finale of the Wind River before it joins the Peel, it swings violently to the left, before smashing into a wall of rock rising from the rapids. The water then recirculates in waves, sucking flotsam beneath the undercut cliff. The water that escapes hits buttresses, leading to a powerful series of whirlpools, where jagged, splintered trees are pushed and crushed like kindling into caves. The risk of canoeing this stretch of river could not be underestimated.

Canoeing The Yukon – Chris Lucas

Canoeing The Yukon – Chris Lucas

Once committed, there was no option to stop or adjust, so our line would have to be perfect. To drift too far to the right would mean a cold-water grave, but the left-hand side looked safe. There is a rule in paddling: the length of time you spend staring at a rapid is directly proportional to the time you spend getting mashed in it. We stopped looking.

Facing upstream, our canoe cut into the current, I waited until the last possible moment before I feathered my paddle blade to the catch the water to turn us. To dwell on the hazards would seal our fate, so we concentrated on the path through, but our over-exuberance meant we had too much speed on the corner. The boat ploughed into an eddy, threatening to capsize us with the ferocity of the turn. The boat rocked violently, then less so, then it was over: we’d avoided the most dangerous section.

We were now able to settle into admiring the grandeur of the canyon itself. Great dark cliffs loomed above us. The rock twisted and fractured into shapes resembling thumbprints. A great weight of water descended down its sides, with us squeezed between its stone walls. Our little red canoe veered left and right with the strong current. At the narrowest point, the canyon suddenly opened to reveal a long strip of sand, where we decided to make camp. We grilled fish over the fire and heard a bird of prey’s call echoing down through the canyon. The Wind River was now behind us and the Peel would lead us all the way to the Arctic Ocean. We were heading home.

There is a call to the soul that they call the ‘pull of the north’. It has ensnared many an adventurer’s heart over the years. The north is cold and unforgiving, and brutal if not treated with due respect. But it’s not malevolent: it’s a strict teacher, firm but fair, always putting his students’ lessons first. The exam is pass or fail. There are no re-sits. No deadline extensions. Flunking out runs the risk of being left frozen rigid and lifeless. But the rewards overshadow the discomfort and risk. My father and I saw sights others will never see, and our personal growth through our journey was invaluable.

By the end of the trip, autumn was arriving and the tundra transformed into flaming reds and oranges. With the canoe on the roof of the van, we set off down the Dempster Highway, heading south. This land hasn’t changed for so many generations. I hope it will still be preserved and cared for when my kids are old enough to take me on a canoe trip there. I’m already looking forward to it.

Chris Lucas is an avid lover of the outdoors, happiest journeying through the natural landscape on foot, by paddle, mountain bike or ski. Passionate about introducing people to the joys of wild country and the wonders to be discovered, he has spent many years honing his outdoor skills, taking groups to wild places all over the world.

The Yukon Assignment is about reflecting on the incredible landscape and the special experience of canoeing these remote rivers. Through talks, books, and a soon to be released film with Fieldgrazer Productions, Chris hopes to invoke the spirit of the land, adventure, and the joys of embracing the importance of family.

The expedition was kindly supported by Fieldgrazer Productions, Visual Impact Rental, Mountain Hardwear, Outback Trading, Alpkit, Light My Fire, and Global Telesat Communications.