YUKON CANOE TRIP…. PELLY LAKES TO DAWSON CITY
Travelogue by Al Ekholm
18 - 31 JULY 1999
Distance -916 KM
Time - 14 days on the Pelly and Yukon Rivers
Portage - One 1.8 km, Hoole Canyon, took three trips to get our stuff across (4 hours).
Rapids - there are some, class II –III all should be scouted. Individual white water skills will determine which rapids to run, line or portage. Any riffle referred to in the river guide means at least Class I rapid
Date of travel -18 – 31 July 1999
Water levels – medium/low, the melt was two weeks later than normal.
Weather – First part lots of head wind, rain in the middle part, hot on the Yukon River.
Start – Fly into Pelly Lakes from Finlayson Lake.
This canoe trip has historical interest that Robert Campbell went down the same river 159 years ago. He explored the area setting up trading posts at Pelly Banks, Fort Selkirk and Francis Lake. Not much has changed in the upper part. I am sure Hoole Canyon portage was just as much fun for him as for us. Very little canoe traffic, we only saw two other groups on the entire Pelly system.
The departure date was set for 18 July from Finlayson Lake at 225 km on the Campbell Highway or 530 km from Whitehorse. Warren LaFave from Inconnu Lodge would fly the group to Pelly Lakes.
The wind was blowing and there were large white caps on Finlayson Lake, so we knew that there would be a flight delay. I had contacted Warren from Ross River and arranged a take off time but with the wind the time was uncertain. From Finlayson you can use the radiotelephone on the McEvoy channel (10). This helped us in updating the time for pick up which ended up being around 7 PM. We also used the opportunity when in Ross River to drop of two thirds of our food since we had the Hoole Canyon Portage to look forward to.
After a short 45 minute flight to Pelly Lakes, we were dropped off at one of Inconnu’s out cabins. We had permission to use it that night, very nice. It was adjacent to an old Hudson Bay trading post, long ago abandoned.
Inconnu were able to load canoes, equipment and four paddlers on the Beaver. The cost was $535.00 in total and that was split four ways. We had a view of where we would be going and the mountain ranges around the Pelly Lakes. Traffic Mountain at 6782 ft was easily picked out and has been used by many as a navigation aid in earlier days.
We had some time that day to check the area out, the old buildings. The water was clear and the scenery just great. Seems like the ideal location to start the 900 km canoe trip to Dawson City.
The original plan was to canoe 60 km a day. On the Yukon River this is no problem but on the slower Pelly River 40 km would be more realistic. After Faro the current is faster and you can make better time but on the upper part distances cover would have to be realistically looked at. Also the three days of very strong headwinds did not help the travel days.
There are no guidebooks from Pelly Lakes to Big Campbell Creek, so you have to map read and try and interpret where or if there are any rapids, or other area of concern.
This area supports a surprisingly large variety of birds. They were our constant companions till Big Campbell Creek. Also good fishing in the area, since it has little impact from recreational fishing.
There was little evidence of any campsites or heavy human use. Also noted were the limited places for camping once on the river leading out of Pelly Lakes. A good gravel bar is located at the outlet to the Pelly River on river right.
Slate Rapids was our first concern on this part of the river. From information gathered the rapids had to be lined/portaged and then run the best line. This was our first test with loaded canoes on how we would approach rapids and the decision making process on when to run or line. All rapids where checked out prior to committing the canoes. We chose river right and lined part way and seeing the clear channel paddled most of it. Some maneuvering was required but no real problem. Standing waves at the lower part of the rapids are more of a concern. This proved true on all rapids encountered on the Pelly.
This approach gave us a chance to practice our draws, pry’s, up stream ferries and other fast water techniques. Great confidence builder, knowing there were more unknown challenges ahead. Our biggest concern was Granite Canyon which reflecting on it now was easy. Or maybe we were just good by then and those rapids did not cause any problems.
Where the Hoole River enters the Pelly there is a short class II – III rapids. We had a chance to view it from the road on the way.
It was decided to run it river right. Some lining and then down the V. There was a tricky rock to get around but other than that just some maneuvering and keep an eye out for the standing waves.
On the Pelly there are a lot of surprise rocks so you do have to be aware when paddling. At times they are difficult to see and could cause problems. Around the Horton River there is a set of rapids that we approached river left. Again checked it out and then down the V.
Hoole Canyon was a major concern and also the dreaded portage. Looking for the "White Wall" where the portage starts. We lined river left and pulled out just short of the "White Wall". This would be a serious problem if you miss the take out.
It is a 1.8 KM portage and we spent four hours carrying the gear. We took numerous trips to get everything up the three hundred foot "steep" bank. The trip across the trail is good, and it is in great shape. After all it has been used for hundreds of years.
The trip down on the other end is more difficult due to the narrow gravel path. The shoreline is rocky so if you intended to camp do so on the upper part of the portage where it is flat.
We were aware that there was some fast water after the portage, but is should have read "rapids". There is some maneuvering and the river narrows and there is a chute and of course a ledge. This was the only rapid that was not checked out prior to running. A little tricky after a long day.
The head winds as we approached Ross River made the paddling strenuous. We also picked up our food drop and had a chance to rest and waiting for the wind and rain to stop. Finally we left and camped about an hour out of Ross River.
The old trail between Ross and Faro can be seen on river right. There is movement to make it a hiking trail between the two communities. This area is also a popular day canoe trip between the two communities.
There are lots of places to camp with great views. Lots of logjams in this area so again you have to be aware and stay in the main current.
Once past Faro there are great views of the mountains of the Anvil Range to the north and the Pelly Mountains and the Glenlyon range to the south. The campsites are great with all kinds of choices.
The FishHook Rapids proved more fun than a problem at these water levels. Big FishHook Rapids has a great campsite, I would rate it a five star. Next time, a must stop. Also this was the day when the rain arrived, a drizzle on and off for three days. We lost the view of the Glenlyon Range due to low ceiling.
The next area of concern is Granite Canyon just after the Macmillan River enters the Pelly. It was the last unknown and proved to be an interesting paddle with a chance to see Needle Rock. At high water I am sure this would be a ride. It took 30 minutes to negotiate the five km and its three sets of rapids. We followed the suggested route but could have gone down the middle if wanted. There is ample time to switch sides but we chose river left at the start and then river right after the middle.
Nice campsite on river left at Needlerock Creek. Also a trail for hiking. The rest of the paddle to Pelly Crossing is just a bunch of turns with the village about four hours away.
Our last place to replenish and then on to Dawson City. Bradens Canyon is an interesting place, some unusual rock formations. Passing Pelly Farms and Stepping Stone and then Fort Selkirk and this left us 286 km to Dawson City.
Reflecting back, we did require more time at least three more days. A rest day would have been helpful.
If interested in contacting Inconnu Lodge and Warren LaFave he can be reach by phone in BC 250-860-4187 during the winter and
e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. The Lodge phone number is 867-969-2127. Also the web site www.inconnu.com
As for traveling on the aircraft, there was room for the four passengers, two canoes and related equipment. We did leave two thirds of the food in Ross River. If you are planning this type of trip you need either four or eight participants. Each flight is $535.00. It could get pricey.
Other Pelly River information on the web:
http://pages.cthome.net/skoggard/ (not really river related, but a great read!)