Big Salmon and Yukon River to Dawson City
By: Robert Pavlis
Distance: 780 km
Duration: 12 - 15 days
River Travel: Intermediate
Lake Travel: not applicable
Karpes, Gus - The Big
Karpes, Gus - The Upper Yukon River
The Big Salmon runs parallel to the Teslin and meets up with the Yukon River about 1.5 days travel below Carmacks. You can end your trip at Carmacks or continue on to Dawson City, with Carmacks being about half way.
The logistics of this trip are extremely easy. You can rent a canoe in Whitehorse and take a shuttle to Quiet lake, the put. Paddle to Carmacks or Dawson City, both have canoe drop off. Then return home. You can fly out of Dawson City, or take a bus back to Whitehorse. This same bus passes through Carmacks.
There are two outfitters in Whitehorse, Canoe People and Up North. Both will provide a shuttle to the put in which is about a 3.5 hour drive from Whitehorse.
Quiet lake can have quite a bit of boat traffic, but once you enter the Big Salmon river, you are fairly remote, until you reach Carmacks. The stretch between Carmacks and Dawson City is remote with few people living on the river.
There are two sets of canoeing guides for this trip, one set written by Gus Karpes and the second by Mike Rourke. Neither is particularly good, but both provide enough information so that you do not need topo maps. Follow the current and you can’t get lost. The only real use for the maps is to know how fast you are traveling.
The Big Salmon starts off as a small river about 50 feet wide, and gets wider as you go down it. There are no real rapids on the river, but there is good current and some sweepers. People have been killed on this river, but even limited moving water experience should make the trip an easy one. In Aug 2002, there were no sweepers that would cause any problems, unless you have no experience or you are careless.
The Yukon River is much wider and has a strong current of about 5 km/hr in August. There are two rapids on the river, both are run on river right, and neither presented any problems. It would be difficult to class anything on this trip above a class II rapid for August.
Camping is mostly on gravel bars, but there are some nice camps on the shore. The book by Gus Karpes lists virtually none of them.
The whole 755 km goes through medium size mountains with the terrain changing constantly. Some mountains are smaller, some larger, some solid rock and others tree covered. The scenery is constantly changing and remains interesting for the whole trip. The best sections are the Big Salmon and below Carmacks. If you can only do part of the trip, I would suggest doing the Big Salmon to Carmacks - it is great.
Comments from a fellow traveler I met, who has done both the Big Salmon and Teslin to Carmacks says the Big Salmon is the better choice.
August 2002 may have been an unusual year, but there were no bugs on these rivers.
I decided to try my first ‘north of 60’ trip on the Big Salmon and Yukon rivers, as a solo trip. I left the Toronto air port at 3:00 pm, arrived in Whitehorse at 11:00, and was on the water by 3:30 P.M. the following day. The logistics for this trip are great. 24 hours after leaving home I was paddling in Yukon.
I had arranged both canoe shuttle and canoe rental through Canoe People, who were really helpful in planning the trip. As the trip date approached, the people working there got less friendly - probably because I was now dealing with hired help instead of the owners. In the end, they had no one else going on the shuttle which was $430 for one person, so I contacted Up North and got a shared shuttle for $130. Up North seemed to have more river traffic than Canoe People.
I looked at the books by Mike Rourke, but the writing on the maps was very small and even with my glasses was difficult to read. I decided to get the ones by Gus Karpes. His river stories are good, but he has not done a good job with the maps. Distinguishing features on the river are wrong much of the time, and almost none of the camps are marked. One section on the Big Salmon has changed a lot, and he has the changes marked in the wrong place.
This was going to be a tough trip. I was using air miles and could not get the days I wanted, so I had one less day than originally planned. After talking to people in Whitehorse, I also decided to try for Dawson a day early to spend more time in town. I had 12 days to do the 755 km trip or 63 km per day. I knew the rivers had current but did not know how much. Without some good current I would never make the trip on time. In hindsight I would allow for a minimum of 14 days on the river.
August 5 2002, (20 km day)
Left quiet Lake at about 3:30 pm and paddled to Big Salmon Lake. There is a very nice campsite on the west side of the lake, but it was taken. There is another one farther down the lake also on the left, and several at the end of the lake. Sandy lake also had several camp sites, but since this area has road access, most were taken by fisherman.
On the shuttle we talked to our driver about all kinds of things related to the area, weather, fishing, bugs etc. Almost none of what he told us turned out to be true! Be careful about the advice you get.
August 6, (40 km)
The river had current almost immediately, which was good news. A short distance into the river I saw the first Chinook Salmon. A very dark red and huge (2 - 3 feet long). I saw hundreds of them over the next few days. The Big Salmon is a beautiful river. The water is very clean and the constant ripples, and bends make the river a real joy to paddle.
Camp sites are limited to some sand bars. I stayed at a fairly nice one at Sheep Creek (km 60). I stopped a bit early, since it started to rain. Did not see anyone on the river today. During the trip I saw people about every second.
August 7, (65 km)
There were good camp sites just before Moose Creek on RL, and one that was OK at Moose Creek. I only noticed one exit from Moose Creek, so I am not sure which exit this is. Excellent campsite at the hairpin km 90.
Seen a very large black and white spotted bird in the trees just above the water. As I got closer it was definitely a raptor. I found out later this is a ‘baby’ Golden Eagle. They are huge. Over the next week I saw young and adults every day - up to 5 a day. In most cases they were low above the water, and I could get as close as about 25 - 40 feet before they flew away. Close enough to see the yellow in their eyes. After a few days I was able to spot them quite a distance away.
The ‘fast water’ at km 80 was disappointing - just swifts.
Camped at km 125 with an excellent view of the mountains.
August 8, (25 km)
Today I reached one of my trip goals. Saw my first wild Grizzly. She was drinking at the side of the river. As I drifted closer she saw me, turned and stuck her head into the trees with her bum hanging out. As I paddled closer - she decided to take off. Cute face - at least from a distance.
Got off the river too early today - too much free time in camp. The plunger on my stove was very dry. I had left the stove turned on a bit, and the leaking white gas dissolved the oil around the plunger. Some cooking oil solved the problem.
There is a nice camp at km 146 at a small creek, RL. I camped at km 170 at a nice spot in the woods.
August 9, (58 km)
This was a long day. The current slowed down quite a bit at km 175 and I was getting behind schedule.
Saw several moose in this area, and quite a few Bald Eagles. I was playing hop scotch with a couple of Yukoners on holiday today. I paddled one section and saw a cow and calf Moose which let me get real close. Then saw two more cows. The Yukoners passed the same area shortly after me and only saw one bull.
The South Fork adds little water, but the North Fork made up for it. After km 215 the current is quite strong again. There is a great camp site at the North Fork, but it was too early and too rainy to stop.
In Guss’ book, he marks the section at 226 as having changed, but the real change is outside of the marked area - just north of it. This is a weird area. The river has cut off a large elbow, making a short cut. The whole area looks like a bomb went off with dead trees everywhere. Huge amounts of rocks were moved around. In one place a new 10 foot wall of rocks was piled up. The current is fast here and I was swept through it too fast. Wish I had stopped to take pictures. It looks as if the change took place this past spring, but it has been at least 7 years since the change took place (based on the printing date of the book).
Camped just past this area on river left. There is a class II rapid formed as water is pushed off a rock face, and just below this on RL is a great camp site in the woods. If you miss it there is a larger one a km down river on RL.
August 10 (80 km)
Reached the Yukon early today. What a big river. It is more like canoeing on a very long lake that has quite a strong current. Stopped at Big Salmon village - worth the stop.
The next guide book starts at Carmacks - 1.5 days from Big Salmon, so along this section I really did not know where I was or how far I traveled. I camped just past Small Salmon Village. Small Salmon Village is worth a stop. It has a good maintained ‘spirit’ graveyard. The natives have built a small house above each grave, some complete with windows. You can probably camp in Small Salmon, but I preferred to be by myself. Found an acceptable camp site about a km down river on RL.
Checked my maps. To keep my schedule I need to paddle about 80 km each day. Hope the current on the Yukon keeps up. I was traveling about 9.6 Km/hour when paddling.
August 11 (50 km)
Met some scouts paddling in 10 canoes today; lashed in pairs with large sails. Camped at Carmacks, at the downtown camp ground. The problem with this camp is that it is a throughway for the locals to go from town to the store. A better place to camp would have been at the Up North camp ground about a Km up river from the town. Apparently they have hot showers, a food wagon and they will give you a ride to the store.
Talked to a fellow from Japan who had just completed the Teslin in a folding kayak. Last year he did the Big Salmon and said he preferred it to the Teslin.
One of the reasons I had planned to stop at Carmacks was to get some good restaurant food, and get cold drinks and snacks. To be honest, none of these interested me. Even after a week on the trail I was quite happy with my dried food.
Made good time today. I did the 50 Km in 1/2 day. Current must be picking up.
In the evening I had a visitor stop by. At first I thought she was stopping to collect the $10 camp fee, but it turns out she just wanted some ‘company’. She asked for liquor, then smokes and finally she asked if I had any cream to rub on her nipples! A short while later a friend of hers joined us. We had a great talk. It turns out she was the daughter of the local chief, and her friend was in line to take over that position. He told me all about their local history, and about dealing with bears in the woods. Not sure how much of the stories I believe, but they were great fun.
August 12 (93 Km)
Today is the big day - I get to run the Five Finger rapids, one of two on the whole trip. People have been killed at these rapids, and the soon to be chief had warned to keep far right.
You can see the rapids from a long distance away. The adrenaline starts to flow long before you get close to them. They are quite a site. There are four rock pillars across the river with gaps between each. Portaging would be very difficult since the banks go straight up. As you get closer the heart pounds faster and faster.
Well, sorry to say, the rapid was no big deal. Take the center of the right channel, DO NOT stay far right or else you will get into trouble. The right channel is just a big tongue with some standing ways at the bottom..
A bit farther down you reach Rink rapids - this one is reported to be smaller than Five Fingers, so I was not too worried. As you approach all you see is white foam across the whole river. You have to remember that things up here are much bigger than in Southern Ontario and you see so much farther. It takes quite a bit of time to reach the rapid. If you stay right, you end up with virtually no waves and no rapid. You could probably run this rapid at any point except right in the center.
Camped at Minto. This was originally an Indian settlement, and is now a free camp ground and the last chance to get to the highway before Dawson. Minot can have a lot of car campers but when I was there, I was alone until very late in the evening. There is a shelter, so it is a good place to stop if it is raining.
August 13 (56 Km)
Fort Selkirk used to be a popular town until they moved the road. It is now maintained by the local natives and is a very interesting stop. The view back across the river to the confluence of the Pelly is great. You can camp here.
From here to the end of the trip I experienced quite strong headwinds. They came up around noon, and ended around 6:00 P.M. Paddling solo was very difficult and I started taking long lunches and paddling late. It was the only way to get down the river. The amount of wildlife is also much reduced compared to the Big Salmon - this might be due to the larger size of the river?
There are numerous wood camps along the river, but the ones I selected to stop at were usually empty with nothing to see. Another reason I might select a different guide book next time.
I stayed on an island around Km 467 (I assume the distance from Whitehorse).
August 14 (75 Km)
There is a camp at Selwyn River, but it did not look very good. The camp at Isaac Creek looked better.
Nothing special happened today. Lots of wind. Camped at mile 340 on a large island. For the second day in a row, I did not reach my daily goal. I am starting to get tired, and paddling all day is becoming too much for me.
After setting up camp, I wondered around the island and found quite a few fresh bear tracks - Grizzly I think. I was too tired to move the camp, so I decided to mark the tracks, and sleep with my knife under the pillow. In the morning, there were no new tracks.
August 15 (111 Km ) the longest and best day of the trip
At the current rate I will not make my intended landing in Dawson, and the winds keep coming. So I decided to get up early. I was up at 4:00 A.M. and on the water by 5:00. At this time of the day it is still dark, but light enough to be able to see well.
The first few hours were magical. The clouds were dark and fierce and the fog heavy. I’d drift in and out of the fog, with the dark clouds rolling past overhead. At times I could not tell which direction I was going, but I was going down stream. Slowly the sun came up and burned off the fog. Probably the best 2 hours of the trip.
I paddled hard until 2:00 when the wind became too strong. I had lunch, and sun bathed. I even fell asleep, naked on the beach.
At 6:00 P.M. I got back on the water and soon connected with the White River. The confluence of these two rivers is unbelievable. The river suddenly boils with the addition of the cross current, and it turns a milky white. For the next 20 minutes, you feel like you are paddling in a boiling stew pot. The boils are not enough to cause you to worry, just enough to make the ride fun.
The area of the confluence shows major damage from these two rivers. This must be a great place to be in spring run off - as long as you are on land. Make sure you stock up on good drinking water before meeting the White.
I was going to camp around Steward Island, but I suddenly got a tail wind, so I put up the sail, and floated down stream. That soon ended and I again had a head wind.
At Excelsior Creek, the river widens quite a bit. The wind was howling towards me. To my right were some very high vertical cliffs. I was getting very tired and was mostly drifting with the current. I looked at the cliffs and realized that If I dumped here, I was dead. I was close to the cliffs, but there was no place on them to even get out. The far side was much too far away. Even if I did get out, I could never stay with the boat and would loose everything. Adrenaline rush big time.
The river made a right turn, but the wind did not stop, and the cliffs were still very steep. I decided to make a run for a nearby island since the waves were starting to get bigger. Just as I got in the lea of the island, I heard a big crack which scared the life out of me. It was only a beaver.
Magically as I got to the end of the island the wind stopped completely. I was beat, physically and mentally. I paddled a few more miles and camped at Km 659. It was 9:00 P.M. Put up the tent, and left the tarp off - it looked like it was clearing - it rained and I had to get up in the middle of the night to put on the tarp.
Not sure if I had much supper, but my trip notes do say “too much Rum tonight”.
What a day. Saw 3 moose, 2 bald eagles, 2 beavers, drifted in complete fog, and lived through the cliffs of Hell. Life does not get any better than this.
- 69 miles (111 Km) today!
August 16 (82 Km)
Got up early. I wanted to get to Dawson before the winds came up. It was a beautiful day, sun shining, but for the first time on the trip there was wind in the morning.
Somewhere along this stretch of river I stopped at a creek, on RL to get water. The river bed was covered with gold coloured dust. I figured it was probably fools gold, and I was too anxious to move on, so I just left it behind. If you are ever in the area, check it out.
The guide book warns you to stay well right when approaching Dawson or “you might be swept right past the town”. Don’t listen. The dock is at the far end of town, and the current is not that strong. I followed the advice and ended up stuck in a mud bar.
I had decided to get to Dawson a day early, and good
thing I did. This was their Discovery Day festival . I got the last hotel room
in town, and it was in the Bunk House - also the smallest and noisiest room in
town. Dawson is a great town, but you don’t need more than 1 or 2 days there.
Best place to eat is Klondike Kate's.
This was one of the best trips I have ever done. I highly recommend it.
By Robert Pavlis
Kayak Yukon would like to thank Robert for sharing this detailed trip report. If you have a trip report from another Yukon river we would be happy to post it for you.