Billie's

Backpackers

Hostel

Fairbanks, Alaska

 

A YUKON EXPEDITION

Courtesy of Hosteler
DAVID SMALL

THE YUKON
EXPLORING A WILD RIVER

     The Yukon rises in a series of small lakes in Northwestern British Columbia and forms itself at the head of navigation at Whitehorse. From Whitehorse, the Yukon travels northwest to its confluence with the Porcupine River where, at Great Bend, above the Arctic Circle it turns southwest and continues to the Bering Sea, a navigable length of 1,955 miles.

     The river's undeveloped nature, accessible put-in and take-out points and (general) Class 1 character make it an attractive destination. In spite of its great size, development is minimal. In Alaska, only one bridge spans the Yukon River. Travel may offer more than a week between settlements. Encounters with bear or moose swimming in close proximity are commonplace.

Emphasis should be placed on reliable equipment and technique. Articles with wool, cotton, leather, or wood parts require special attention.

     The prudent traveler should be fully equipped in advance, particularly concerning stove fuels. The travelers outfit should be designed to be mailed in and out.  Water and some course supplies are available at many settlements.

     Residents of Emmonak report typically six craft arrive yearly originating at Whitehorse. Many travelers are of Japanese or European origin.

     Yukon Territory and Alaska weather are changeable. The sequence runs: May (cold), June (dry), July (hot), and August (wet). After August, anything may happen.

     The prevailing northeast winds of spring turn to shifty gusts driven by the geography of the river's course. By mid-summer, the winds trend more and more from the southwest.

     Mid-July is the start of the rainy season with strong winds driven upriver from offshore weather systems. The lower in the river one is, the less geographic protection there is from winds. Below Pitkas Point, terrain is quite open.

     The raft used in this transit is a 10' Avon Redseal fitted with a rowing frame assembled from PVC conduit segments and U-bolted oarlock weldments. Successful progress was entirely due to the rowing this frame allowed.

     Mosquitoes and other insects will be encountered in any area with tem­peratures above 50F. Campsites located in vegetation are dictated by river height and involve clearing, mosquitoes and danger from large animals.

     I was particularly happy to travel with a good tent, a compass and repeating rifle.

     I hope this information breaks a safe trail for the next traveler.

David Small

On the Banks of the Yukon

August 2000

Dawson City view from Yukon River

YUKON 2000:  Miles & Dates

 

Milestone

Miles

Day

Date

Whitehorse

0

   --

1

May 30

Carmacks

202

202

7

Jun   5

Minto

258

56

8

Jun   6

Fort Selkirk

282

24

8

Jun   6

Stewart Island

390

108

10

Jun   8

Dawson

460

70

11

Jun   9

Eagle

562

102

12

Jun 10

Circle

713

151

16

Jun 14

Porcupine River

789

76

19

Jun 17

Beaver

876

87

20

Jun 18

Stevens Village

976

100

21

Jun 19

Yukon Bridge

1012

36

22

Jun 20

Rampart

1077

65

24

Jun 22

Tanana

1152

75

25

Jun 23

Ruby

1282

130

29

Jun 27

Galena

1340

58

30

Jun 28

Koyukuk

1372

32

32

Jun 30

Nulato

1395

23

32

Jun 30

Kaltag

1436

41

33

Jul 1

Grayling

1576

140

36

Jul 4

Anvik

1596

20

37

Jul 5

Holy Cross

1642

46

39

Jul 7

Russian Mission

1722

80

43

Jul 11

Fortuna Ledge

1784

62

45

Jul 13

Pilot Station

1830

46

49

Jul 17

Pitkas Point

1850

20

50

Jul 18

Mtn Village

1868

18

52

Jul 20

Emmonak

1943

75

56

Jul 24

Bering Sea

1955

12

58

Jul 26

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

David Small was introduced to boating and woodcraft during his early years on the Eastern seaboard. Following several years of sea service in the Navy and Merchant Marine, he operated small sailing craft in Western Europe.     

     For a decade, he traveled the oceans alone in a 33' boat, visiting the world's six inhabited continents by the Eastabout route around Africa.

     Within the margins of these activities, David lived fifteen years in East Asia, served two tours as a soldier in Israel, married, and is the father of several children. He now resides in an 1898 gold rush cabin along the banks of the Yukon River.

NORTHERN CUSTOMS, TRADITION & ETIQUETTE
  • Personal expectations and conduct in northern regions differ widely from warmer climes.  
  • Best camps are made using subdued colors at least a ? mile from a settlement. The ends of islands are attractive, as are confluences of tributaries.  Often choices are forced by river height. Private property claims are conceded to start at the normal high water mark at the start of vegetation
  • When visiting towns and villages the introductory local questions will often relate to the movements of fish or game. It is social to remark sightings but not proper to actually hunt or fish or to display hunting or fishing outfit on your boat or person. These are traditional First Native subsistence areas. Hook and line fishing is notably unproductive.
  • Wear modest clothing in vicinity of settlements and do not introduce playing cards, dice, and suggestive literature or aerosol devices such as shaving cream or WD40. Avoid the use of dark glasses. Do not informally socialize along the river; never consume alcohol with casual acquaintances and keep your own counsel. Very little can be assumed from Yukon River residents dress or equipment ? people are measured by what they do rather than what they can buy.
  • Elders are in a position of leadership and should be deferred to through eye contact or by greeting, even if the elder in a group is not the first to speak.

 


TECHNICAL PHRASES


  •  All compass bearings are magnetic.
  • All coordinates are derived from non-differential GPS on appropriate Canadian or USA datum and expressed in degrees, minutes, and seconds.
  • 'Bell' refers to placing bells on items. Useful for bear or other wild animal alerts.
  • 'Bold water' is deep and safe to navigate craft in, identified by tongues and boils.
  • 'Coarse supplies' are ordinary nondurable merchandise.
  • 'Freeze Up' and 'breakup' indicates the formation of ice in the fall, which blocks navigation until release of the river in spring. The Yukon River is typically open from 1 June until 15 November. Lake Laberge is usually the last ice out.
  • 'Head of Passes'  Yukon Delta branches at this point to its 80 mile wide discharge into the Bering Sea.
  • Measurements are in statute miles.
  • 'okta (s)' is 1/8th of celestial sphere, used in measuring overcast.
  • 'Painter' is the line used to secure your boat. You should have at least 30 feet at each end. Bell the painter when camped.
  • Radio communication. The marine VHF is used commonly for communication on the river. For informal chatting channels 71 or 68 are usually used, channel 16 calls will communicate with commercial traffic.  Many residents who do not use a transceiver have a scanner, which receives all aviation and marine radio.
  • Right and Left banks facing downstream.
  • Safe water is potable drinking water
  • Temperatures in Fahrenheit.
  • The author often mixes 'I' and 'we' in his log entries; 'we' refers to him and the vessel. 'I' refers to him only.
  • Wind speed in knots.
  • 'VPSO' acronym for Village Public Safety Officer.


NORTHERN RIVER SENSE


     Follow 'bold' water as marked by tongues and boils. It is your indication of a deep and swift river. Keep your vessel lined up in the current so if snagged you will not broach. Bold water runs from cutbank to cutbank, not necessarily in a straight line. If there are two opposite cutbanks there is a gravel bar between them. Rippled or faceted water may indicate shallows.

     Bears are unlikely to walk into a noisy camp. Be loud when setting camp. Start by using a pea whistle. A camp in the open is the best plan. Do not pass your water over the side of the boat, catch it in a jug and distribute this over the approaches to your campsite.

     Most travelers and residents will carry a repeating rifle of .30 caliber or larger. Keep your chamber empty and the magazine loaded, tape the muzzle with a 6" length of DUCT tape. This is known as, Loaded and in a field-ready condition.  When a gun is passed to another, the recipient acknowledges he is in control by saying; 'Thank you'. Guns, knives, and tools are returned in the exact manner they are passed. In your choice of a knife, make it a sheath knife with a thin blade you can draw and use with one hand. Know a man by the sharpness of his knife. It is best to get safe water at villages along your route. The dangers of suspect water far out-weigh any shortcut benefit.

     Make a capsize decision with your party before you embark: will you stay with the boat or strike for shore? The river is very cold and your prior risk assessment is important. Clip the painter to your belt so you will not be unwillingly separated.  Place bells on your painter when in evening camp.

     When the sun is low, the river channel is hard to see, as it is when the wind gusts or rain obscures your path. Be prudent and take a break at a convenient landing. Always wear your life jacket and have enough equipment in your pockets to meet immediate needs if cast ashore.

     If you have a good camp, confidence in your own ability, and a good rifle you will have nothing to fear. However, if you do have fear the river will know it and will not release you.

     If you send supplies ahead in the US Mail, send it priority. Unopened priority mail can be re-addressed and forwarded to a new destination at no charge. Call it a ?Bounce Box?.