Snake River, Yukon 2000

Writing about my trip in retrospect, I realize that many people may see this as well past their threshold of pain. While some of the aspects of this adventure were uncomfortable, I would do this again in a heartbeat.

The Snake River is in northern Yukon Territory, paralleling the border between Yukon and Northwest Territories, Canada. It flows into the Peel River, which in turn flows into the Mackenzie River, ending in the Arctic Ocean. It’s a very remote northern river that runs thru a deep glacial valley. It is not part of the Snake River in Idaho.

The elevation drop of the section we paddled was 2000 feet, which was fairly gradual. This means that we didn’t need to run any waterfalls. The tree line was usually midway between the riverbank and the mountain peaks, which gave us wonderful hikes, scenery, and (gratefully) a source of firewood. Although this was billed as a low mosquito trip, those little devils obviously forgot to read the itinerary. Nevertheless, I was prepared mentally and chemically for mozzie hell, and thus they didn’t bother me.

The outfitter/guide service was Nahanni River Adventures www.nahanni.com. This was my third trip with them. They are a superb organization that pays attention to detail, safety, and comfort. Eleven guests plus three outfitter staff took this 180-mile journey spanning 14 days.

June 30 – The trip to Whitehorse, Yukon

In some ways, Canada is a foreign land, in other ways it’s like Wisconsin. In the airport, teenage girls clad in Nikes and Reeboks are engaging in valspeak (like totally whatever), but often end their sentences in ‘eh?’. Clueless businesspeople are shouting into their cellphones. But it’s still different from America, as the hustle and bustle are absent. People are moving s-l-o-w-l-y, irritatingly so.

I’ve been traveling for just a few hours and I’ve already skirted disaster. It seems that I left my air tickets with the baggage check-in person. An hour later, she’s watching for me at passenger check in; I hadn’t even discovered that they were missing yet. This may not sound miraculous, but this was Canada Day weekend, Canada’s busiest travel day of the year, and this HUGE airport was packed. Despite this – and a late takeoff, I met the connecting flight with no spare time, expecting to seem my bags the next day. Again, some air travel guardian angel made sure that my important bags made the connection (truly less than 2 minutes).

July 1 – Whitehorse

This city feels like Hollywood’s version of what small-town America was like in the 1950s, except that there are an absurd number of bars. Drinking is unfortunately as much of an occupation here as it is in many other Canadian Indian (First Nation) communities. Today was Canada Day (Independence Day), and the festivities included a parade, entertainment, and other fun events. The parade was complete with a homecoming queen, girl scouts, the local fire department, and the Philippine-Canadian Association (“They make great food” says the announcer). But although the city appears the be about half First Nation peoples, neither the parade’s spectators nor participants appears to be.

Later that evening was the trip’s orientation meeting. The Canadians were gregarious, the Europeans reserved, and me, the token Yank. I was surprised and delighted to see Tom and Stephen, co-travelers on my Burnside Trip of 1998.

July 2 – To the Snake!

Our 5 hour van trip up to Mayo was punctuated by pit stops every hour or so. Although the ride was pretty, the scenery was monotonous. The group had fun getting to know each other. One highlight along the way was Lac Lebarge of Sam McGee/Robert Service fame. Another was a restaurant that served cinnamon buns bigger than your head. Our arrival in Mayo was not what I expected. Mayo does not seem to have a center, just a handful of streets and a potholed dirt road that led to our air charter firm, “Black Sheep Aviation and Cattle Company”. The dock was in better repair than the Single Otter and Cessna, but we loaded our gear, strapped on the boats, and we were off! Ernie, our pilot (with his “Guam-Paradise Tee Shirt) flew us thru clouds and mist, sometimes barely above mountaintops, sometimes between peaks. The engine seemed to be strong after a hesitating start. Two hours later we were landing at Duo Lakes. We made camp, swatted bugs, and relaxed.

The land here is soft. We’re halfway between two peaks; the softly sloping earth is dense with willow and mosses. A few stunted spruces are visible higher up, and the lake itself is fairly tiny. The mosquitoes aren’t bad; our deet is keeping them at bay.

July 3 – Duo Lakes

We awoke to chilly weather in this broad alpine valley, about 3 miles wide. We’ve been told that Duo Lakes is about 2km from our put-in, and that we’ll need to make a short portage (aka ‘death march’). From here, I can see mountains for many miles around, most of them towering 4000-5000 feet, some with spotty snow covering. We also were able to see the Bonnet Plume, another popular river. There are no roads, airplanes, or other people for as far as we can see. We began our day with a short hike up a nearby unnamed mountain (dubbed Mt. Bob). We started with full layers and raingear, and quickly shed our layers as the temperature climbed. The views from the mountaintop were fantastic, but I was woefully out of shape. Along with the other ‘desk job’ folks, we stopped at Wimpout Point, allowing the young’uns, led by Henry (our superhuman guide), to complete the ascent.

The assistant guides, Matt and Noel, were quite young (22-23). Matt’s area of expertise was geology and botany, and although he seemed to lack the ability to see the environment as an ecosystem, he did possess a huge amount of knowledge.

I requested being paired with Chris, a Brit with good paddling experience, reasonable skills, and a delightful conversationalist.

July 4 – The Portage

While not a death march, schlepping 7 boats, two weeks of food for 14 people plus all our gear was difficult. This time, I let the young’uns take the heavy stuff, and went for the bulky gear. The portage was only 45 minutes round trip. It has started getting buggy.

The terminus of the first leg of the portage was not the put in. The river was low at this point, as we needed to carry the gear another 300 yards, load up the boats, and then we were off!

Notice that I didn’t say anything about getting into the boats. With the low river level, we still needed to push and drag the canoes for another mile, knee deep in frigid water. My partner, Chris, pulling at the bow, must have done most of the work, as I could barely hang on as we moved the boat downstream. After an hour of wet bruised feet, our rivulet joined another braid – and then we got in and were off!

For the other paddlers that read this, you know of the feeling you get when you first get into the water – like putting on a warm coat. The river was swift, moving about 5-8 mph, and we hit and scraped dozens of rocks, but felt exhilarated with being back in the water. At the end of the day, we were tired, bruised, but happy. After another delicious dinner, we listened to Robert Service’s ‘Cremation of Sam McGee‘ and turned in.

July 5-6 – To Reptile Creek

After just a few hours paddling, we reached the confluence with Reptile Creek. The river here has become narrow and fast, and numbingly cold. We hiked a few miles east up a ridge, following a stream, through a dense spruce forest. Finally, after a quick scramble up a 10′ canyon wall, we were on the ridge, giving us sweeping views for what appeared to be 20 miles in all directions. We could see the Bonnet Plume, Duo Lakes, (our put-in) and Mt. Macdonald. This may have been the most extraordinarily beautiful vista I’ve ever seen. This was a fairly short hike with no need for a Wimpout Point (except when I overstepped a boot). After a couple of hours just enjoying the vista, we headed back to camp. Before I left, Susan obviously went thru my bags and hid chocolate bars in every imaginable nook and cranny. This has been a great treat, albeit a bit dangerous (a bear could have found them before me).

July 7 – The Chill

Despite the rain and a 20+mph headwind, we embarked for “Rainy Cold Miserable Gravel Bar”. I was truly chilled, slightly past the limits of my gear, and began to wonder how far I was from hypothermia. I wasn’t wondering how close Trudy was from hypothermia – her gear was not up to mine, and mine was evidently borderline. Marcel suggested that I sleep in my damp clothes, a practice used in the Swiss military. Theoretically, my body heat would dry the clothing. This neat trick worked, albeit fairly torturous for the first hour. That evening, it snowed on the mountains around us.

July 8-9 – To Milk Creek

The storm blew out and we set out for Milk Creek. All along, streams and springs of various sizes have been joining the Snake. During this day’s trip I was seeing more, feeling the wind, smelling the vegetation. The damp day didn’t affect my spirits, and seeing Dall Sheep on the surrounding hills was exhilarating. Chris and I were very coordinated. He doesn’t seem to mind my overactive NHAMC bow paddling style, and we were taking lines perfectly (except for the odd gravel bar from poor river reading). Henry seems to be a bit concerned about some people’s abilities, or perhaps he’s just being cautious. He warns us away from sweepers and strainers, paddling on the same side, upstream leans, and sideward travel, all pretty basic stuff. This would be annoying for someone with a firm knowledge of cl3-4 skills, but since I’m working within my *basic* comfort level, I’m happy to abide by his paranoia. When in the bow, I’m confident that Chris and I can perform any maneuver. Later, with the skills that I learn from Noel, I extend that comfort level to bow or stern.

Our destination was Milk Creek, a very fast flowing white stream (from lime sediment). This was one of the most beautiful spots we camped at. The confluence was in a small canyon, with steeply eroded walls. The hills around us are shale and limestone, many with gravel slides.

After making camp at Milk Creek, I bathed (brrrr!), did laundry, and dried out, vastly improving my spirits.

The next day, at the fairly late hour of 11:30am, we began our hike to the top of a small mountain to the south of milk creek. This gave us a view of the snow-capped peaks around Mt Macdonald, 7900 ft. (we weren’t sure which mountain was Mt Macdonald). Again, the desk-job set stopped at wimpout point – the others continued around the bowl and arrived a few hours later. At every 50 yards of elevation, the flora changed. At the lower levels, there were Harebell (with strawberry-like flowers) and moss campion (moss mounds with bright pink flowers) then further up were artic Lupine, labrador tea, arctic heather, and an all-yellow flower like a black-eyed susan, tiny white flowers, not more than ¼” across, fireweed, and then further up were large white cupped flowers like hollyhock and blueberry. The mountains looked like those in the Desert Southwest; the foothills like alluvial fans.

I didn’t particularly enjoy this hike. Perhaps I’m not a hiker at heart, perhaps I was just tired or lazy this day. It was hot, close to 85 degrees, and I was low on water. Again, I overstepped a boot (this was getting old), but I had a pair of polypro liners on, and did not even feel the wetness.

By the time we got back from the hike, it had started to rain.

July 10 – To Mud Beach

Although we thought the rain would clear, in the morning, the weather had worsened. The 85-degree day of yesterday seemed like a distant memory – it was in the low 50s and drizzling. Chris and I were separated, as some rough sections remained ahead. Now I was paddling sweep with Noel. I welcomed the change, as it gave me an opportunity to learn Noel’s (and NRA’s) stern techniques and improve my river reading skills. Towards the end of our paddling day we came to what was billed as a cl2 canyon run – but it turned into “Good God Almighty Canyon” with two monster standing waves, followed by a must-move around a boat-eater hole, and then another must-move around another standing wave. After scouting the water level (*very* high), Henry decided to have the guides and Werner run all the boats through. On the last trip through, Noel and Matt dumped, despite an alleged low brace performed by Noel. Cold and wet, we limped to our new home at Mud Beach and made camp. (Note: These are my names for the camps.)

July 11 – Mud Beach

The rain started last night, not that it ever really stopped yesterday. I’ve begun counting the time to pickup. The group is in good spirits however, but we’re not hiking, just paddling, eating, and shivering. We delay our put in – perhaps the headwinds will subside. After a few hours, despite no change in the weather, we decide to continue.

We still have many more miles to cover and the river is slowing – it’s now quickwater and cl1. The terrain has changed dramatically. Now the mountains are smoother and made of a loose shale-like rock. The sides are sharply cut away by the river, often undercut. In some places, unexpected eddies and crosscurrents toss the canoe about, but Noel presses onward. Then we approach Narrow Canyon.

This was again supposed to be a cl2 set of waves and maneuver around a rock, then a hard right turn avoiding six large standing waves, ending at a fairly big hole. It was now a cl3-4. The danger was not having enough momentum and thus not steering into the eddy. We scouted the section, chose a very conservative line, and made the turn atop the first 5′ wave with extraordinary precision. Nevertheless, it was scary, as waves look very different when you’re in them. Elaine and Danny missed the turn and made the smart decision to straighten out and blast thru the whole mess. What started out as a maneuvering error turned into expert navigation of very tough water. They got a bit wet but remained perfectly upright.

Marcel and Cecille were not so lucky. They missed the turn, couldn’t re-orient the boat in time, and got turned to the side by the second wave, then sucked in by the third. The boat and its occupants were tossed over the remaining waves, “maytagged” by the hole, and then spit out scattered across the river. Noel and I did a sweep, picked up the stragglers, and headed to camp at Potato Beach.

July 12 – Potato Beach

The rocks on this gravel bar were the size of potatoes, but my mattress (and tremendous fatigue) gave me a good sound sleep last night. I avoided the mud; as I’ve learned that mud and tent zippers are a bad combination.

It’s raining fairly hard. Henry’s plan was to spend the most time in the mountains and paddle more quickly thru the foothills. It’s buggier here (major understatement) the scenery is less dramatic, and the river is now brown and silty. But shale canyons with huge waterfalls surround us – and this is beautiful in a very different way.

The cold, damp, and rain have gotten to me. I don’t want anything more than getting off the river and into a warm dry hotel. The delineation between dirty and clean (or dirty and worse) has become irrelevant – now the only thing that matters is wet and dry. This soon deteriorates into wet and damp, and I find that I’m taking off my wet clothes and putting on damp ones, allowing the wet to become damp and the damp to become wet. The tent leaks – and smells like a horse is living in it. This also soon changes – now it smells like a horse died in it. As a result of Marcel’s drying trick and tent seam leaks, the sleeping bag is damp. Silt and mud cover everything. This combination has made the overall Zen complete. I am now one with the river.

I’ve stopped drinking the river – actually I’ve stopped drinking much at all. The mosquitoes have become fierce. Using “the shovel”, exposing tender deet-free flesh has become truly scary. I’ve switched into storage mode.

Chris and I are paddling together again, with me in the stern, and today we must cover 65k-70k (about 40+mi) thru a headwind. The river is now quickwater – there are no obstacles, no undercut banks – just the occasional sweepers and strainers, and they’re easy to avoid. Both of us are weakening a bit, but we’re plodding thru. We stop at V-beach. It’s good to be back with Chris. He’s a fascinating individual who has traveled in virtually every country on earth.

July 13 – V- Beach

We awoke. I thought the rain let up during the night – and it did a bit. We’re now in solid drizzle. I awoke with two blisters from paddling on my left. It’s odd; I started this trip with my right as my on-side, now it seems that my left has become my on-side. After two weeks of switch paddling, it seems that I’m just about ambidextrous. While this should make me happy, I’m honestly not happy about anything. In just 24 hours, Ernie will pick us up and take us back to civilization. Maybe. Plus — I’m out of chocolate!

Tom (and those with barometers) seem to think that were locked in a huge system, and there’s no way in hell that Ernie would chance a pickup. We press on. We have 70k to paddle today, and the river has widened and slowed to just about 4-5 mph.

The broadened river has allowed us to travel as a flotilla. We were treated to antics by Matt (climbing and laying across the boats) and a stern headstand by Henry. Time flew by when we were linked up in these two flotillas, and we probably covered 8-10 miles. We pressed on, despite the drizzle, blisters (which many of us were experiencing), and nervous mood.

July 14 – Pickup day

VFR (Visual Flight Rules) mandate 3000′ ceiling and 5 miles visibility. We awoke to 700′ ceiling and 1 mile visibility – at best. We were still 30 minutes paddling from the pickup point. As we broke camp, the weather further deteriorated. We were all fairly quiet, knowing that there would be no pickup today – or maybe longer. By the time we hit the water, the ceiling dropped to <500′ and it started raining again.

In 15 minutes, as predicted by Mr. Spock’s Triquarter reading (Matt’s GPS), we’re at the confluence with the Peel. The river has now tripled in size. Visibility was <500 feet. Well below VFR, we know that this is even far below EFR “Ernie’s Flight Rules”. We paddled north.

Suddenly, we all heard the drone of Ernie’s Single Otter – but the plane was not visible. There was an urgent shout of ‘river right’ — and we all turned around and see the Otter coming DIRECTLY at us – and it was CLOSE. The appearance of the Otter was like an apparition coming out of the mist. We furiously paddled out of his flight path, and then across the wide river to where the plane had stopped.

I wanted to be on this plane no matter what – and Henry obliged. The group split up and we were airborne.

I’ve heard many stories about bush pilots, heard the adage “there are bold pilots, old pilots, but no old bold pilots.” The fact that Ernie flew thru this was – to me – a miracle. The Otter flew low, following the Peel’s valley upstream. At times, the wingtips seemed to come within just yards of the mountainsides, but at least the visibility here was better than at the confluence. The sheer joy of being ‘rescued’ cannot be expressed.

Epilogue

I wanted to get into the rhythm of the river, to be part of it. The river is water and silt, and by the end of the trip, I had indeed become part of it, and quite miserable. Be careful what you wish for…

I did enjoy many aspects of this trip: the scenery, the constantly challenging cl2-3 whitewater, and the friendliness of the group. The trip tested my paddling abilities (the open-end remained up, so I guess that I passed), my resolve, stamina, and ability to get thru adversity. I love paddling on northern rivers, the remoteness and untouched beauty are deeply attractive to me. There are also aspects that I did not enjoy. The lack of wildlife (we saw only one caribou, one moose, many Dall sheep, countless ground squirrels, picas, birds, and one fish). I did not enjoy the rain, and that my gear was just not good enough for the weather we encountered. But I have learned from my mistakes and look forward to my next arctic river.

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