I wanted to write about my experience on the Woodland Ways Yukon expedition, to offer my personal insight into the trip, and what I took away from my time out in country on what was my first Woodland Ways international exped.

This trip was a big deal for me for many reasons. It’s the longest flight I’ve ever taken, the flights to and from Whitehorse tripled the total flight time I’d had in my life leading to that moment. It was the longest single stint of camping I’d ever done, the longest single canoe journey, the furthest North I’ve ever been, as well as the furthest place away from the UK. It was a lot of firsts.

Mountains from the plane

As a Woodland Ways instructor, you can be sent on any course, at any location that we offer. That in itself is a very exciting prospect. It means that the job is never the same, the flora and fauna in each location, even among our UK sites, varies significantly to offer something interesting every time, not to mention the different groups of people we get the pleasure to meet. The chance to go to Canada though was special. It’s a country I’ve dreamed of visiting for an incredibly long time, and it definitely lived up to my anticipation! To be selected to staff this expedition was an honour.

The official start of the expedition is in Whitehorse, which is the meeting place for all of our clients, whether they travelled on the same flight, met us from another country, or if they’d arrived early. We met at the Airport, and shared a vehicle to the hotel to meet the others. Even getting to this point, we’d seen some beautiful scenery. The flight between Vancouver and Whitehorse was a couple of hours of vast snow capped mountains as far as the eye can see. I’d seen two eagles fighting and the trip hadn’t even started.

While in Whitehorse there was plenty of opportunity for free time while myself and the Canoe Trail team organised the course logistics. We sorted the food shop – enough food and supplies to get us to the halfway resupply point (plus some contingency stuff!). We spoke to the outfitters to organise the boats and equipment we’d need, and discussed an in depth itinerary and menu. Whitehorse is a really interesting small town. By North-Western Canada standards, it’s a huge bustling city, with all the shops and amenities you could need. Backed by the Yukon River and stunning mountains beyond that, you won’t forget you’re in a rural province. We had a short trip away from the town to an area called Miles Canyon, which I’d definitely recommend.

Once it was time to get on the water, there was an obvious air of anticipation among the group. After travelling and being amongst civilisation it was time to get going on our journey, following the footsteps of the hopeful gold rush miners of the 1800’s. The river looks fast from the bank, but beautifully clear with a turquoise hue. A beaver swam across the width while we were talking safety procedures and best practice. Just a few hours later and we’d spotted several bald eagles, and a grizzly bear. Day one took us to around 8 miles onto Lake Laberge.

Grizzly from a distance

Lake Laberge is massive, around 35 miles long, and in places more than 3 miles wide. It’s not an easy paddle. The second day was long and into almost constant head wind, it’s hard work. The second morning highlighted to us the importance of good bear drills. While in bear country, we make sure we have a set of protocols to follow to prevent any close encounters, it’s not great for the bears to get too accustomed to people, or associating them with food! A black bear made their way up the beach towards us, having smelled our breakfast on the wind. Making ourselves larger, and shouting at the bear stopped their advance and they disappeared into the woods. The encounter was handled safely and properly, with the outcome being an amazing view of these impressive creatures., another experience that will stay with me forever.

Black Bear Photo credit: Bess Saunders

After a few hours paddling, we made a raft by tying three boats together in a V shape to help cut into the wind, to increase morale, and to try and make it a little easier. This is exactly why we recommend training as soon as you book on, it’s physically demanding. That made up day 2, which was the longest day on the water, with a lower than average distance covered. It was gruelling, but nothing worth doing comes easy, and I really feel like it made the rest of the trip better, knowing we’d accomplished those difficult times to get to the rest of the river.

Lake Laberge

Over the next few days as we progressed down the river, steadily heading north towards Dawson, we were treated to some truly breath taking views. The scenery is genuinely beautiful, with rolling hills and imposing mountains, the beautiful colour of the water glistening in the sun, the lush greenery of the aspens and the spruce trees that blanket the surrounding land. I was lucky to witness a bald eagle catch a fish on the wing, something you’d usually only see in nature documentaries. This happened roughly 10m away from the back two boats of the group. We’d spotted the bird in the top of a spruce, and I started taking photos as we drew closer. It happened so fast but it’s something I’ll remember vividly for the rest of my life. To be so close to such a powerful animal and to see it catch a meal in such detail was special. The photos of the bird in action are blurry, but I still love it. A moving subject doing something unexpected, photographed by a novice who was in a moving canoe, I’ll take that! Luckily my paddle partner Heather didn’t mind keeping us facing the right way!

Eagle with Fish

Another reason this trip was so special to me, was that I turned 30 while we were out. I’m not really bothered by birthdays, being made a fuss of, or being sung to (as the group will testify!) but this was just perfect. We camped at a site with an information board (below) and I tried some gold panning for the first time. Having followed a prospector on social media for some time, I was keen to try my hand on the same ground that was used by the old timers in their hunt for their fortune. I was successful. Not in making a fortune, but in finding some gold. A very, very small amount of ‘flour’ gold. Enough to see the colour though, so I’m happy!

Cyr’s Dredge sign

The halfway point is in Carmacs, it’s essentially a campsite and truck stop. There are shower and laundry facilities there, a roadside cafe serving hot food, and a 3km walk down the road where there is a small shop we can resupply. Think Co-op food petrol station. We made use of some rest time. It’s important to have some easy days to make the most of the trip. Another day’s paddling and we’d passed through 5 Finger and Rink Rapids, and on to our next campsite. It was only a couple of days between Carmacs and our next proper rest stop – Fort Selkirk. By now, everyone is settled into the routine of setting up camp, with everyone taking an equal share in the different chores that need to be done, cooking, washing up, filtering water, lighting the fire and collecting firewood, digging a latrine if there wasn’t a pre-existing long drop, and any other camp chores. We all lost track of time and what day of the week it was. Yukon is called the land of the midnight sun, and with good reason. I think the latest I stayed up was 23.30 and it was still broad daylight as it was at midday.

Fort Selkirk buildings

Fort Selkirk was an interesting place. A small settlement that was build and abandoned with an incredible story to it. There are lots of cabins, old motor vehicles, wrecks of old watercrafts, graves and other evidence of the old gold rush, and the people who flocked to the area. It was too difficult or expensive to remove them, so they were left for nature to reclaim. It’s amazing how they’ve stood the test of time, and Fort Selkirk really emphasises that. The buildings are holding up incredibly well, and they really offer great insight into what life was like.

Fort Selkirk
Fort Selkirk Scenery

Once we left Fort Selkirk, we resumed our usual routine of daily paddling, well rested after exploring the area with a full day’s rest from the water. The next time we’d be taking a day off would be in Dawson. More mind blowing scenery and even more wildlife was spotted as we made our way downstream. All in all, we’d seen 8 bears – including 2 black bear cubs and a grizzly. We’d seen an otter, several beavers, and a few moose too, with 2 young calves. There was plenty of track and sign of other wildlife on the beaches we stopped at for lunches, around the camps in the evening, and even some that you could spot from the river. By this point, the Yukon has been joined by several other large rivers, and hundreds of small creeks, and the flow is very fast. You still need to put the effort in, there’s still often a headwind, but everyone was much more comfortable than when we were on Lake Laberge, which seemed so long ago. We’d stayed at some beautiful camp sites, some of which we’d found had been used, some were untouched. The food was exceptional, given what we had available to us, and the need to use ingredients that are shelf stable, we never went hungry.

Bear with cubs
Moose with calf
Beaver on bank
Bald Eagle pair
Tracks with items for scale

On arrival into Dawson, it was mixed feelings among the group. We were tired and ready for the creature comforts we’ve all grown to take for granted – a shower, a bed you don’t have to pack away, the internet. For me, something I particularly missed was music. I wouldn’t have listened to it while out there, but I was grateful to have it back. Dawson is a very small town. With dirt roads and a small assortment of shops and tourist attractions, it was easy to see everything in a day. We were obviously sad that this amazing trip was coming to an end, but a feeling I personally felt was that it was very busy and crowded. I wanted to be back in the woods or on the river, among the trees, mountains and wildlife. The following day was the shuttle back to Whitehorse, with almost everyone falling asleep on the journey as we sat back and undid all the distance we’d covered by canoe. Even the shuttle offered beautiful views of the surrounding country, even a different perspective of where the road is nearer the river was a sight worth seeing.

There’s a phrase you may have heard, the “Lure of the North” and it’s something that you certainly feel after spending time out in that area of the world. It’s a desire to get lost in the mountains, to meander through the woods, to journey on the rivers and to see those amazing things. To spend time in those amazing places. It’s an area I will need to revisit, and I hope I get to join this expedition again. There’s no way we’d be able to promise the same expedition, to see or experience the same wildlife, but I think that’s part of the magic of the place, you know your experience is unique and genuine.



Related posts