When the word “Gold!” rang out from the Klondike in 1898, one of the main ways for prospectors to get there was by river – specifically, the Yukon River. It was a wide and wild, powerful and pristine waterway when sourdoughs travelled it; not much has changed in 120 years. It still exudes a wild essence, a sense of isolation when you’re on it. Depending where you put-in, you may not have any road, cell, or WIFI access until you arrive at Dawson City. That’s where the Klondike and Yukon Rivers meet and from where Klondikers ventured further into the wilderness seeking their fortunes.
To begin our 310-kilometre journey, we put in at Minto, a three-hour drive from Whitehorse. A remote trip like this means paddlers may see more wildlife than people, a prospect I was keen to explore.
Nature did not disappoint. Thirty minutes downriver we spied mountain sheep high on a ridge along the shore. The Yukon is such a large river – everything in this country seems to exist on such a vast scale – it took sharp eyes by guide Erin Kohler to spot them.
Half an hour later, nature turned nasty. Rainfall punctuated by lightning flashes and peals of thunder forced us ashore. We were lucky, though – half an hour later, it moved off and we paddled on.
We spent a night at Fort Selkirk, exploring the historic site of old cabins, stores and churches. As the fort came into view, we were just paddling past the mouth of the Pelly River where it enters the Yukon and spotted a cinnamon-coloured black bear foraging on a small island. We angled the canoe away from the island, as the current threatened to push us right into the bear’s lap.
That wasn’t the last bear we’d see.
The Pelly-Yukon junction is featured in Jack London’s story, Finis, about a man who kills three wayfarers for their dog team. Good thing the gold rush was over – and we were paddling, not mushing! Besides, the only gold we had was in my teeth – no dust or nuggets anywhere!
The third day we spotted another young bear on Halfway Island, but it skedaddled into the brush before we got the canoe set for a photo.
We saw more bald eagles than bears or other wildlife. The best views always seemed to come around mealtime. One whooshed very low over our heads while eating dinner the second night. After breakfast on the third morning, one perched on a branch sticking out into the river, just downstream from our campsite. It sat unconcerned, grooming its feathers as we paddled past.
That raptor was a wild ambassador bidding us farewell from the river, as we paddled toward Dawson City, the hub of the Klondike Gold Rush. A decades-old landslide scar on a mountain by Dawson meant we could see our destination long before we got there. Drawing closer to the docks, a paddlewheeler like those used by Klondikers pulled out, planting thoughts of other water-based adventures in my mind.