Trapped on the Wolf River
by Yvonne Harris - Special to the Yukon News, originally published August 2nd, 2000
This summer, I was part of a group of six who paddled the Wolf River on a five-day
This river starts at Wolf Lake, 80-kilometres north of Teslin, and flows south into the Nisutlin River, with the take-out at Teslin.
This was a trip through a land of amazing beauty, but also a trip that was frightening and dangerous for four of the canoeists.
It is hoped that this article will provide enough information to prevent another rogue canoe from making a devil's pact with the river above the legendary falls on the Wolf.
The river flows gently out of Wolf Lake and soon accelerates into moderate white water.
After the Red River enters, the Wolf becomes a meandering stream as it passes through a gentle landscape which must qualify as Yukon's best moose pasture: We saw moose at every other bend in the river.
As we paddled towards Caribou Creek, the river speed increased and we boulder dodged the last section before reaching camp at the confluence of the creek and the Wolf River.
We would have all the next day to scout and run the rapids which included a Class II-III section and a portage around the falls. It all seemed very well planned.
Immediately downstream of Caribou Creek is the Class IV ledge that marks the beginning of the whitewater section leading to the falls.
But where exactly were the falls?
Although the party spent most of the day scouting the river, by mid-afternoon we had not reached the falls.
The day was getting on. We decided to run the rapids and eddy hop until we spotted the falls.
We portaged around the Class IV ledge and scouted the first bend.
Julie and Bob were the lead boat, with Pippa and Lawrence, the Ottawa couple, following.
My partner, Sheila, portaged downriver as she did not want to run the Class III rapids.
I waited at Caribou Creek for Bob to return and run the rapids with me. It was already 4:30 p.m. when the first canoe began the whitewater run.
Later, Sheila and I learned what happened.
As Bob and Julie paddled through moderate whitewater on the bend above the falls, the canoe began shipping water.
In this high water, the take-out was not visible and neither Bob nor Julie were aware that the falls were on the next curve of the river.
Their canoe shipped more water as they paddled into the more difficult Class III section.
Now they realized they were too close to the falls to make the take-out.
To avoid swimming the Class VI drop, they abandoned their canoe shortly before it broached on a small rock immediately above the falls, a 4.5-metre drop.
Bob scrambled onto the rock that pinned the canoe while Julie, who had remained upstream of the canoe, was trapped against the broached canoe by the strong current.
In a survival move, Julie pushed herself under the canoe and miraculously popped up on the down river side, but right at the lip of the falls.
Bob grabbed Julie's life jacket snatching her just before she was sucked over.
From the small rock, they were able to jump and wade through an eddy to the big rocky island that would be their home for the next two nights.
Upriver, the second canoe entered the final approach to the falls.
Although Pippa and Lawrence had stopped to bail, they were still unaware of the location of the falls.
Bob frantically tried to warn the approaching canoe. However, as all the paddles were gone, it was difficult to clearly indicate the "Danger! Take out!" river signals.
The second canoe sped directly toward Bob and Julie, but landed on the rocky island at the lip of the falls.
Everyone was safe. While all the gear had been tied in properly and most of it retrieved, the broached canoe was being quickly destroyed by the force of the water.
The group realized that there was no risk-free escape from the rock. They set up their tents and settled in to wait for Sheila and me to launch a rescue.
However, since Sheila and I had spotted the two tents from a distance, we assumed our companions had set up a comfortable camp on the opposite side of the river.
The next morning, Sheila and I started out early to make contact with the rest of our group, bushwhacking through some very mean and gnarly undergrowth.
When we finally reached the party, we could see that the four canoeists were trapped on a mid-river rocky island between two falls.
It would have been easier for them to escape from Alcatraz than to get off this rock.
The distance and the roar of the water limited our communications to sign language. We indicated we would cross the river below the falls to assess the possibility of a river rescue.
The group on the rock signaled back telling us not to come across but to paddle out to Teslin and get help.
Our day was just beginning. We had to make a double portage to get the canoe and gear over the two-kilometre portage trail and then through the dense bush and tangled downfall to the put-in below the falls.
Bruised and exhausted, Sheila and I finally loaded our canoe and began paddling out, arriving in Teslin late that evening to alert Mike Hodgson of Search and Rescue.
He contacted the RCMP and arrangements for the rescue were underway.
As the four canoeists were waking from their second night on the rock, their rescue helicopter, stationed at Haines Junction and piloted by Doug Makkonen, left for the accident scene.
Like the rescue helicopter in the film, The Perfect Storm, the Jet Ranger is capable of lifting people in a rescue chair from extreme locations.
Lloyd Freese and Kevin McLaughlin of Kluane National Park, Cpl. Pat Egan and the pilot made up the rescue team.
They initially flew over the accident site to assess the situation, then returned to drop Lloyd on another mid-river rock, close enough to signal to the party to pack up their gear.
While the helicopter hovered inches from the rock, Lloyd was dropped off on "Alcatraz" to assist with the evacuation and two canoeists were lifted off and transported a short distance downriver to a safe gravel bar.
All the gear was lifted off and a long line and net used to transport the one undamaged canoe.
The last two canoeists were evacuated and the group was at last freed from its long imprisonment on the small rocky island.
The rescue team had done a smooth, professional job.
Canoeists paddling this river for the first time, should be aware that the falls are a short run (approximately one-km) from Caribou Creek (Canyon on some maps).
I tied a yellow cloth marker on a tree along the river-left portage trail, marking an access point to the river.
From this marker, it is possible to bushwhack towards the river and reach a look-out over the elusive falls.
I will be back to run that Class III Section on the Wolf and when I do, I will be starting my portage around the falls at a safe spot well above that devilish drop.