Exploring the Yukon: An Unforgettable Kayaking Adventure

A group of canoeists on the Yukon River
The forests and rivers of the Yukon give you a true taste of the wilderness. Photo: Ruby Range.

The Canadian region of the Yukon has always captivated the imagination of adventurers and nature lovers. It’s a place where First Nations artists find inspiration in its glacial rivers and pine forests, expressing their connection through vibrant paintings and carvings. The renowned Canadian poet, Robert Service, praised the “granite ribbed valleys” and “peaks that pierce the aurora” in his verse.

For wilderness guide Chloe Dumont-Samson, the Yukon has a special place in her heart. Having first visited over a decade ago, she fell in love with the area’s untouched beauty. “You can step foot in the heart of the forest and feel like you’re the first person to ever set foot there. That extreme feeling of wilderness is something I’ve never experienced anywhere else in the world. It’s a sense of total freedom that you have to personally encounter to truly understand,” she eagerly shares.

Today, Chloe works for Ruby Range, leading canoeing expeditions down the magnificent Yukon River. Her expertise in paddling this extraordinary waterway, from selecting the right canoe to bear-proofing your campsite, makes her the perfect person to offer guidance for a memorable adventure.

Where to Find the Yukon River

The Yukon River stretches an impressive 3,190 kilometers, originating from British Columbia, Canada, and traversing through the Yukon region before continuing westward into Alaska and eventually meeting the Bering Sea.

“As you journey down the Yukon, you’ll encounter different types of minerals and riverbanks,” Chloe explains. “Some sections feature elevated banks, while others display volcanic rock or lush forests. However, the overall landscape remains consistent as you navigate through the boreal forest.”

It’s essential to acknowledge that the Yukon River passes through the traditional territories of the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in, Tutchone, Tagish, and Tlingit First Nations.

Permits for Paddling the Yukon River

Canoeists paddling down the Yukon River, Canada
Canoeists traveling down the Yukon River, free from the need for a permit! Photo: Ruby Range.

Fortunately, you don’t need a permit to paddle the Yukon River or any other rivers in the Yukon. However, if your canoe or kayak is motorized, you must provide proof of competency, such as a Pleasure Craft Operator Card (PCOC) or a boating safety course certificate.

If you plan to fish during your Yukon adventure, make sure to obtain a permit. You can easily obtain one online or at various locations in Whitehorse, the capital city of the Yukon. Chloe emphasizes the importance of respecting the rules and contributing to the conservation efforts that aim to maintain the health of the fish population.

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Timing Your Yukon Paddling Trip

A frozen river in the Yukon, Canada.
During the winter, it’s impossible to canoe on the frozen rivers of the Yukon. Photo: Getty.

The optimal time for paddling the Yukon River is during the open season, which typically spans from late May to mid-September.

“The river remains icy and snowy until mid-May, sometimes even later,” Chloe reveals. “My first trip last year was at the end of May, and we still encountered patches of snow. Prior to that, it’s nearly impossible to navigate. After mid-September, it becomes increasingly challenging to predict the weather, especially in terms of cold temperatures.”

Choosing the Best Routes for Yukon Paddling

The most popular and iconic route for canoeing on the Yukon River is the 715-kilometer journey from Whitehorse to Dawson City. This scenic expedition usually takes around two weeks to complete and includes crossing the renowned Lake Laberge. The accessibility and excellent put-in and put-out points make it an attractive choice for many adventurers.

If you prefer a slightly shorter route, you can start your adventure at Minto and paddle 312 kilometers to Dawson City. However, Chloe highly recommends exploring lesser-known waterways that branch off from the Yukon. The Teslin River, for instance, meanders through the traditional territory of the Teslin Tlingit First Nation, offering stunning scenery and an even deeper sense of wilderness.

“The Teslin River shares similarities with the Yukon River, showcasing a beautiful boreal forest landscape. The feeling of true wilderness intensifies, as encounters with other travelers become rare. And as expected, fewer people mean more opportunities to observe wildlife,” Chloe points out.

One captivating option is to begin at Johnson’s Crossing on the Teslin River, then navigate your way to the Yukon River. From there, enjoy a couple of days paddling down the Yukon until you reach the First Nations village of Carmacks, covering a distance of approximately 370 kilometers.

Preparing for a Canoe Trip on the Yukon

A woman canoeist on the Yukon River.
When canoeing, you’ll need good upper body strength and a strong core to maintain a seated position. (Photo: Ruby Range)

While considerable paddling experience is not necessary for canoeing the Yukon, being physically fit is crucial. Chloe advises, “You’ll grasp the paddling technique within the first few days, and then it becomes a soothing and repetitive motion. However, it’s essential to understand that you’ll spend a substantial amount of time in a seated position. Therefore, having a strong core and back muscles greatly enhances your comfort.”

To prepare for your Yukon adventure, complement your regular cardio and endurance exercises, such as running, cycling, or swimming, with exercises that strengthen your upper body. Consider incorporating press-ups, planks, and triceps dips into your routine. If unsure, seek professional guidance for a canoe trip training program.

Maintaining a positive mindset is equally important for a fulfilling trip. “Having a positive attitude and embracing the Yukon experience in all its aspects ensures a fantastic journey,” Chloe stresses. She encourages travelers to embrace the unpredictability of weather and circumstances. Paddling for four to six hours daily and participating in camp setup are integral parts of the adventure. “Contributing to the collective effort, whether it’s setting up the camp or helping with meal preparations, fosters a sense of camaraderie and transforms the trip into an unforgettable experience,” she adds.

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When it comes to packing, Chloe recommends including essentials such as a sleeping bag, sleeping mat, waterproof clothing, river footwear, camp footwear, a change of clothes, long-sleeved base layers, mosquito repellent, a cap or hat, sunglasses, a fleece, warm socks, and a puffy/down jacket. While the Yukon experiences all four seasons, layering your clothing will ensure your comfort as temperatures fluctuate throughout your trip.

Proof that there are sunny days in the Yukon! Photo: Ruby Range.

Selecting the right canoe is crucial for a successful Yukon expedition. Chloe recommends river-tripping canoes, such as the Nova Craft Prospectors, which are 16 or 17 feet long, providing ample storage space for your gear. However, it’s important to pack wisely and prioritize essentials. Secure your belongings with clips or bungee cords, placing heavier items near the centerline of the canoe and lighter items at the bow and stern. Overloading the canoe will cause it to sit low in the water, affecting stability and maneuverability.

As for sustenance, be prepared to bring all the necessary food for your trip since there are no villages along the river where you can restock. Only Carmacks offers limited supplies. Chloe emphasizes the importance of not relying on catching fish for sustenance. “Relying on catching fish is not only risky for your group, but it also endangers the ecosystem. It’s imperative to respect nature and its delicate balance,” she cautions.

However, sourcing drinking water is possible in the Yukon. “We filter water from the river, mainly from creeks, as the Yukon water tends to be silty, with high mineral content that clogs filters quickly. Whenever we come across a creek, we take a moment to filter water into containers,” Chloe explains.

Proof that there are sunny days in the Yukon! Photo: Ruby Range.

When it comes to safety, Chloe strongly advises that travelers without extensive backcountry and paddling experience opt for guided canoe expeditions. The government of Yukon provides valuable safety tips on its website, including filling out an online travel plan, traveling with others, and carrying essential survival equipment, such as a satellite communication device. Chloe emphasizes the importance of being adequately prepared to avoid unnecessary risks, as emergencies can impose a tremendous burden on local resources and hinder the experiences of other travelers.

Wildlife Encounters in the Yukon

Bald eagles and other birds call the Yukon their home. Photo: Ruby Range

The Yukon is home to a diverse array of wildlife. From majestic black bears and grizzly bears to lynxes, wolves, Arctic foxes, beavers, otters, and a variety of bird species like bald eagles and ospreys, the region offers numerous opportunities for wildlife sightings.

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To maximize your chances of encountering wildlife, Chloe suggests maintaining a calm and quiet demeanor. “The less noise your group generates, the better your chances of seeing animals, particularly during the early morning or late afternoon when they are most active. However, it’s important to maintain a safe distance from any wildlife you encounter to respect their natural habitat and ensure your safety,” she advises.

Setting Up Camp in the Yukon

A tent under the shelter of spruce trees in the Yukon, Canada

Finding an ideal camping spot along the Yukon River depends on its water levels. During high water levels, options may be limited, and camping on the forest edges becomes more common. Chloe highlights the significance of local guides in these situations. “Our experienced guides possess in-depth knowledge of the best spots and accommodate groups accordingly. During high water levels, it’s crucial to avoid camping on private property without permission,” she advises.

As water levels decrease, more camping opportunities arise, such as gravel bars and sandy beaches. Typically, a large tarp acts as a kitchen and rain shelter during camp setup, often supported by trees or paddles. While sheltering from the elements is not always necessary, it largely depends on the weather conditions and the comfort levels of the group.

Bear-proofing your camp is essential to ensure a peaceful night’s sleep. Chloe recommends positioning the cooking area away from sleeping tents since bears are attracted to food smells. “We strictly adhere to protocols to contain all attractants, including food, cooking gear, and scented personal items, in bear-safe containers. Non-scented items such as clothing and sleeping bags can remain with you in your tent,” Chloe explains.

Leave no trace and keep the environment pristine for everyone! Photo: Ruby Range.

When camping in the Yukon, it’s crucial to follow Leave No Trace principles. This means extinguishing your campfire completely and packing out all waste. As for human waste, Chloe sheds light on the common practice of using “cat holes” or designated common areas for toilets. “When using cat holes, we ensure they are deep enough for proper decomposition. We provide a poo bag containing a shovel, toilet paper, and mosquito repellent. After use, all toilet paper is burned in the fire, and we meticulously restore the site to its original condition. It’s essential for everyone to learn and adopt these best practices to preserve the pristine nature of the Yukon. Don’t hesitate to consult your guide for any questions or clarifications,” Chloe emphasizes.

The Yukon presents an unparalleled opportunity for an awe-inspiring adventure. By following the guidance of experienced guides like Chloe Dumont-Samson, you can fully immerse yourself in the untamed beauty of the Yukon while respecting its ecosystems and cultures. Embark on a journey like no other and discover the wonders that await along the Yukon River.

Ready to embark on a Yukon canoe expedition? Visit UpStreamPaddle for more information.