Yukon’s Snake River
Submitted by Tim Gregg
The Snake River in the Northern Yukon is a fantastic river that has many moods. If you get lucky you can experience several of them during the same trip. The four of us (Tim, Bill, Ardie, and Sherry) paddled it in the middle of July 2001 when it was in a high and rolling mood brought on by good snowfall in 2000 and a fairly early melt. After the upper technical section the river began to fall slowly and we paddled a different river near the end. If you are looking for an intermediate, far north river that starts in the alpine above the tree line and dances for 200 miles through rolling hills covered by pristine boreal forest, this river is for you. The overview below describes the Snake as we found it. Be aware: We had good weather and plenty of water to work with. We are experienced whitewater boaters and came well prepared for wilderness travel. Our trip was great but… be sure you are ready for changes in the weather, be sure the water level is appropriate for your paddling skills, be prepared for carnivorous biting bugs, and be ready to handle accidents or spills in ice water by yourself. It can be the trip of a lifetime but do not fly into this river unprepared.
THE RIVER: The Snake River from Duo Lakes to the Peel River, (Actually we continued paddling the Peel River to Fort McPherson, but since that is a separate river, I will do it separately.)
DATES: July 8, 2001 to the end of the Snake on July 17. We paddled the Snake River in 7 days of about 30 miles per day. We hiked, camped, washed, and cursed mosquitoes the other days. A 30-mile day is not difficult with high water but, based on other reviews, the top end gets very bony at lower levels and will require more time.
DIFFICULTY LEVEL: My (unofficial) rating would be a low class III on average. Most of the river by far is solid class II but there are some class III moves in the upper canyon, several solid class III rapids along the way (which can be cheated), and a class IV canyon near half way down. Some paddlers use a spray cover for canoes but we did not. Everything on this river would be great fun in a whitewater boat but given the temperature of the water, the remote location of the river, and a loaded tripping canoe we cheated some big stuff, lined one big class III hole train and portaged the class IV.
PUT IN: Duo Lakes are (of course) two small lakes situated in the midst of snow-capped mountains. Plan a day of alpine hiking here. If you consider the portage to the river (1.2 miles away) as a hike then plan for two days of hiking. Trust me here…. you will enjoy the first day of hiking into the mountains more! There is a good (read long) hilly trail from the lakes to the river or… you can take a shorter route through head high brush, steep hills, and a quagmire swamp that will suck your boots off. Take the trail.
TAKE OUT: The normal take out for this trip is the "Taco Bar" near the confluence of the Snake River and the Peel River. It would be hard to miss this take out since it is the point where two big rivers join and there is a mile wide rock bar where they meet. (I have assumed that this big rock bar is the "Taco Bar" but there was no sign saying so and no one was taking out when we passed.
WEATHER: We flew to the river in a rainstorm. When we met the bush pilot in Mayo, I asked him about the weather. He said (and I quote) "Its shitty, I sure as hell would not want to fly in it, put your stuff in here and lets go." On the flight in we saw mountains from time to time. Mostly we saw clouds, but he found the lake somehow and flew away from us in weather that was getting steadily worse. A bush pilot is at the bottom of my list of future jobs!
The first three days of paddling we had about half days of rain and half days of broken clouds and 50 degrees. After that it got clearer and hotter every day. By the time we hit the Arctic Circle (On the Peel) it was 80+ degrees and the sun never set. It sometimes dipped behind mountains but it came up again in a few minutes. Everyone we talked to said that it was unusually hot Arctic weather.
HIKING/SCENERY: Count on a couple of days at least to hike and do it before you leave the mountains. There is easy access to the alpine but distances will fool you every time. You can easily see for 5 miles to the top of a hill that looks to be a mile away. Farther down the river you can take great hikes up dry stream beds that go for miles and miles. Get in aerobic shape before you leave home and you can still get a workout! There are wildflowers (mostly Fireweed) everywhere. We saw elk, caribou, moose, mountain goats, bear, beaver, porcupine, flacons, eagles, and thousands of wolf tracks…. no wolves.
FISHING: Forget it. They say that Duo Lakes are over fished so I did not try. The upper 100 miles of river would probably be good fishing but you are paddling too intensely to be able to cast. After that the river is too stained to do much good. This may be due to the high water but the hills surrounding the lower stretches of the river seem to be mostly dirt and are constantly caving into the river. It may be stained all of the time.
CAMPSITES: There are 1000s of rock bars that make good campsites. They are durable and show little signs of camping. Please leave them that way. There is plenty of firewood after the first day or so, but none until you get below the tree line. Take a good self-inflating air mattress and a bug proof tent and you will sleep fine. Be sure to seek and destroy any mosquito that gets in your tent before retiring. Otherwise you will wake up with a bug the size of Bella Lugosi in there with you and you will be thirsty for three days.
INSECTS: There is no better mosquito hatchery on the planet than the Snake River corridor. There is also the inch long horse flies that the locals call "Bull Dogs". They can find an inch of exposed skin in 2 seconds flat. If you want a free trip, tell your buddies that they do not need head nets and then buy one for everyone. You can easily sell them for $1000 each.
LOGISTICAL SUPPORT: Joanne and Scott McDougall from KanoePeople in Whitehorse Yukon. [email protected]. Good folks.
MAPS: It’s a long river and you need to know where you are every day. Some paddlers use a GPS but we were trying to get away from technology. Maps are available at Macs Fireweed Bookstore in Whitehorse. [email protected] or 1 800-661 0508. Be aware that Magnetic north is 33 degrees east of True North.
Day 1 – 30ish miles. Begins with a class II meander through bushes. Clear water. River is 20ish feet wide here. Enter the Upper Canyon after 5-6 miles. Upper Canyon is a pushy class II-III eddy hop for a mile of so. You can see to the next eddy and then to the next. No scouting required but don’t get cocky, its pushy and your boat can leave you quickly.
Day 2 – 30ish miles. Wider river now. Class II but you can easily take the inside of the S bends and miss the heavy waves. At about 55 miles you enter a 1.5 mile long bolder garden with some good waves. Don’t get pinned and keep the bailing bucket ready….. No eddys!
Day 3 – 30ish miles. At about milepost 60 you come to the Lower Canyon. Eddy left above the canyon but don’t miss the ferry, you are only 30 feet above the drop. There is a big rock bar eddy and a steep portage trail on the left. 200 yards up and 200 yards down. Eat your Wheaties that morning. 4-5 miles of big wave class II follows.
Day 4 - 35ish miles. At Milepost 95 +- you come to the heavy class III wave/hole train near the end of the mountains. It is cheatable on the left or the right but seems to suck everything into the first big hole. We lined our boat with no embarrassment whatsoever. Afterwards there are more S turns and some tight braiding through the trees.
Day 5 –30ish miles. Easier water now. Low class IIs with the occasional wave train curves.
Day 6 – 30ish miles. Easy fast water. Fewer and fewer rapids. Muddy enough so you can hear the sand on the bottom of the boat. Mostly a float day, the excitement is over.
Day 7 – 25ish miles. Easy fast water. We hit the Peel about lunchtime. There is a cable car across the river about 1 mile upstream of the confluence of the Snake and the Peel. Crack out the six-pack.
Well that was our trip. Hope you enjoyed it. There are a lot of similarities between the Snake River and the Wind River both of which help make up the Peel watershed. The Snake is bigger, has more whitewater, and more mountains to see. We met (and paddled a day or so with) a German guy (Frank) who had just come off the Bonnet Plume River. He reported that it had still more whitewater. (He also cooked a mean pot of spaghetti!…Thanks Frank.)
If you have any questions or would like to discuss the Snake, the Wind, or the Peel Rivers please feel free to contact me at [email protected]. (The AOL screen name and the river are coincidental.)
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