Paddling the Big Salmon River

Story by Mike Stacey
Photos by Terry Hartrick and Mike Stacey


This account describes a self-guided paddling expedition down the Big Salmon River, Yukon Territory in August 2020, by Mike Stacey and Terry Hartrick.

The author (Mike) paddled solo in a 14’ 10” Nova Craft Supernova and Terry, also solo, was in a cruising kayak, both rented from Up North Adventures in Whitehorse. We had chosen the Big Salmon River to test our work-in-process expedition paddling skills and to provide a restorative and game-raising wilderness experience. In the event we found ourselves in a diverse, beautiful and remote wilderness environment – seeing no other recreational boaters throughout. The challenges were sometimes greater than expected, but the rewards were remarkable!

Terry and I had paddled together by solo canoe and kayak on the Bowron Lakes Circuit in British Columbia and on a 5 – day descent of the gentle Nisutlin River, in the Yukon, in 2019. Terry had extensive backcountry hiking and ocean kayaking experience and a career as a physician. I had similar hiking experience, commercial fishing ocean experience and a career in maritime search and rescue coordination. Terry has since become a canoe enthusiast; ease of packing and maneuverability among the deciding factors.

The Big Salmon River flows through the traditional territory of the Little Salmon Carmacks First Nation. We saw several shore sites used by First Nations fishers and hunters – drying racks and shelter frames – though none was active during our passage.

After our trip, I contacted the Little Salmon Carmacks First Nation band office in Carmacks to acknowledge that we had traversed their traditional lands (and to donate a book to their library).

Trip Planning

Pre-trip and en route planning was based on the 1983 map book Rivers of the Yukon Territory – Big Salmon River, Revised: 2016, by Mike and Gillian Rourke, published by Rivers North Publications, It includes 1:65,000 scale sketches of the entire route, with hazards and potential campsites noted. Our post-trip observations about changes we had noticed on the river were welcomed by the publisher for inclusion in subsequent editions (published from their updated digital copy when ordered). We also carried two full sets of Government of Canada 1:50,000 topo maps.

We contacted Whitehorse helicopter companies in case we needed a non-distress evacuation. They were pleased to discuss such a “contingency” plan and took enough detail to ensure an effective operation if required. As with the shuttle operators (Up North Adventures and Yukon Wide) communications would be from our InReach sets. Both Terry and I carried these devices, meaning we could also contact each other had we become separated. Distress level evacuations or injuries would be handled through official search and rescue organizations, initiated by contacting RCMP.

The Big Salmon River

It was 300 km from the put-in at Quiet Lake to our pick-up at Little Salmon Village. From its origin exiting the north end of Quiet Lake, the Big Salmon River (BSR) begins as a clear water 20 – metre – wide stream with a 3-5 km/hr current. It twists and turns between the Big Salmon Range and the Pelly Mountains, gaining volume with each tributary on its way to its confluence with the Yukon River, 240 km away, with a further 60 km to reach Little Salmon Village. The early paddling featured close-to-shoreline passages, several log jams and many sweepers and strainers, sometimes encountered with little warning due to the sharp bends. The later days featured broad valleys, larger volumes with stronger currents through 20-100 metre – wide channels, many riffles and gravel bars and the occasional rock-avoiding sleigh ride. Our last paddling day was on the fast (10 km/hr) and wide Yukon River, iconic and powerful.

Campsites were plentiful, though planning was needed to end the day at one suitable for the high water conditions. Most had no “improvements.” Several were on open gravel bars or beaches. Some were on higher shorelines in amongst trees. Usage by previous travellers was sometimes evident, though few fire rings were seen.

We did not make any campfires, partly due to the wet weather and partly to conserve the environment. The capability to erect a tarp in the open was a big plus. We used extendable boat hooks as main supports – see campsite photos.

The major factor affecting BSR conditions was the higher than normal discharge rate. The “Mean historical discharge” for our trip dates is 88-93 cu metres/sec, measured at the monitoring station (09AG001) near where the BSR joins the Yukon River. The actual discharge rate during our trip was 130-155 cu metres/sec. The resulting faster current likely necessitated the quick thinking required to pick lines that moved us along nicely while allowing us to avoid hazards: sweepers and rocks in the early going and faster flowing high volumes, whirlpools and rapids later on.
I have not found definitive difficulty ratings for this river – my less than expert assessment would be Class 1 and maybe occasional Class II rapids, for the flow rate we encountered. In any case, I will always remember my excitement when I first saw the river visibly flowing downhill and knowing that we were all in for an exhilarating ride!

Getting Started

We flew Air North from Victoria, BC to Whitehorse, YT, arriving August 13 mid-afternoon. After hotel check-in we stopped at Up North Adventures to view the rental boats and obtain local intel. The boats were in great shape and plentiful. Covid-19 meant that the usual influx of European and other tourists was not happening. Yukoners exercised good compliance with local Covid-19 restrictions, which were not very onerous at that time.

Dinner that night with old friends living in Whitehorse featured the news that “it’s a record year for mosquitoes … six times the normal amount.” Too late to cancel the trip (just kidding) … but there were virtually no bugs when paddling and only a couple of evenings when we needed head nets.

The Up North Adventures 4×4 shuttle truck picked us up at the hotel the morning of August 14. The driver had good local knowledge, having served many years as a Yukon police officer. We stopped to buy stove fuel and bear spray, then took the Alaska Highway 1 to Johnson’s Crossing and the gravel surface Canol Road, a WW2 era oil pipeline service road, to the put-in – a rustic campground on Quiet Lake, total driving time three hours. A camper there advised that another canoe party was “two or three days ahead of you.”

Day 1 August 14

We departed the put-in at 1330 and paddled 11 km to our first camp [61° 11.5’N, 133° 10.1’W], sighting Ospreys in their nest during our transit northward along the lake’s east shore.

We made camp in trees 100 metres west of the entrance to the Big Salmon River, arriving at 1600. Light airs, overcast, intermittent rain, 15°C.

As we set up camp a strong twenty – minute squall blew through – we were glad to be off the water. Quite buggy once on the shore. This campsite was well-used, as it was a short day’s flat water paddle from the road head. There were reddish streaks on the lake’s surface, possibly related to the dark red mosquito-like bugs flying low to the ground around the campsite. 10°C overnight.

Day 2 August 15

Departed camp at 1120. We entered the Big Salmon River and passed through the smaller lakes of Big Salmon Lake and Sandy Lake en route to our second camp. Light airs and rain most of the day. Aided by a 3-5 km/hr current we travelled c. 30 km during five hours paddling.

We spotted a pair of loons and several salmon spawners, likely Chinook that had travelled thousands of kilometres from the Pacific Ocean, up the Yukon River and finally the Big Salmon River (BSR). I had been a commercial salmon fisher on the West Coast of Vancouver Island years ago. I wondered if these fish might have been offspring of “ones that got away”! A consideration when choosing the BSR was whether our trip would coincide with the main salmon run, increasing the likelihood of bear encounters, including grizzlies. The salmon runs in recent years have been disturbingly low, however, including in 2020. Late on this afternoon we did spot large bear tracks in the mud, possibly grizzly.

The Rourke map book notated one part of today’s paddle: LPs AND LOG JAMS – SEVERAL SHORT PORTAGES ARE GENERALLY REQUIRED – USE EXTREME CAUTION … ESPECIALLY AT HIGHER WATER LEVELS … We did make a 100 – metre portage around one log jam, dragging the boats through mud, grasses and shrubs.

Late in the afternoon, shortly after re-entering the river after the portage, I rounded a bend to see a recently downed evergreen tree protruding from river left, blocking the navigable channel. I paddled hard to reach the shoreline on river right to avoid getting pressed against the tree and beached my canoe to wait for Terry’s approach.

Terry could not get his kayak to shore before fetching up port side against the tree, 20 metres from the river – right shoreline. He let the kayak go underneath the sweeper and called out that he was “all good,”with a good purchase on the sweeper and that he would get himself to shore hand over hand and branch to branch, which he accomplished in good order.

We boarded my canoe and reached the overturned kayak hung up on the shoreline 75 meters downstream. It was soon bailed out and all items except a paddle recovered – most had remained stowed inside the kayak. Terry came out of it with minor scratches and a reaffirmed reputation for composure under duress! The current at the sweeper was about 5 km/hr.

At 1830 we arrived at what the Rourke map book described as a “Sandy Camp” [61° 19.9’ N, 133° 20.7’ W] that proved to be a fine vantage point from which to watch the river flow by.

Day 3 August 16

Departed camp at 1100. Rain and SE winds increased during the day. Sighted moose tracks, eagles and swans. Current 4-5 km/hr. Distance travelled: 40 km over 6.5 hours.

I learned some gear lessons today. My (well used) Gore-Tex rain jacket soaked through by noon. A hastily fashioned rain cape tied over my shoulders worked well enough to keep me comfortable. By this point we assessed that the water level in the river was very high for August – the steady rain no doubt contributing.

We arrived at an excellent camp site [61° 28.6’ N, 133° 33.1’ W], river right, marked “Goodwin Camp” in Rourke’s map book, at 1730. Darkness descended at 2215. We were obtaining helpful weather forecasts from our InReach devices.

Day 4 August 17

It was cool and rainy overnight. We departed at 1140, encountering a faster current of 4-7 km/hr. We maneuvered around some rocks and rapids and frequent sweepers jutting out from the current-sculpted shorelines.
A great day for wildlife: a cow moose in a high grass meadow beside the river; an osprey and golden eagles; a large beaver working on some shrubbery on an open gravel bar that at first sight I thought was a small bear!

The beaver lodges on the BSR were not the symmetrical domes that we had seen on the more sedate Nisutlin River in 2019. Rather they appeared to be rough collections of branches and mud structured in a tent-like arrangement around trees that had fallen (been felled by the beavers?) into the water. My theory is that this design is more secure in a faster moving current, though I stand to be corrected by more knowledgeable folks.

We did see one substantial beaver dam that effectively blocked off a meander from the main channel. The water in the main channel had become a cloudy grey/green colour. We sourced drinking water from creeks that entered the river.

During the day we spotted a small daypack in good condition hung up on the shoreline. The current was fast so I did not risk a sudden turn to go broadside to retrieve the pack. We saw no related items downstream and I called in the sighting to the RCMP when we arrived in Whitehorse. There were no reports of “missing paddlers,” thankfully.

We reached a “Good HW Camp” campsite at 1700 [61° 36.9’ N, 133° 45.2’ W], river right, on a gravel/sand bar. Distance covered c. 30 km over 5.2 hours. Sunny patches during the evening!

Day 5 August 18

Cold overnight, just above freezing. We departed with clear skies and light SE winds at 1050.

We had the privilege of watching a salmon resting in a clear water back eddy in front of our camp during breakfast. This patch of water may have come from Souch Creek – perhaps the salmon was tasting its destination! Its tail and fin tips were worn white from its epic journey. Small diving birds plunged repeatedly and bravely into the slight current. A wonderful display.

The main stream current was about 4 km/hr and the water remained cloudy. High overcast during the day with a perfect halo around the sun at midday.

We made camp at 1730 at a “Good camp in the trees” [61° 33.9’ N, 134° 07.9’ W], river right, having travelled 36 km during 6.6 hours on the water.

Day 6 August 19

We departed camp at 1130 in fine conditions – high overcast, no rain. During the day we were treated to the sight of a cow moose and calf clomping up an embankment and into the bush as we floated by. There were significant headwinds for the last two hours of paddling. Otherwise (my rough log states) “a normal BSR at high flood day”! That means … carefully plotting a course around each bend and new area of turbulence, the occasional burst of speed to exit a developing close quarters situation and constant visual and regular voice contact with each other, discussing best routes and being ready to assist if necessary.

Another common event: grounding on gravel bars after choosing a less than clear passage among the options available and then pushing and pulling the boat free – without allowing it to get away completely! Strong paddles or poles were helpful and sometimes we both worked to free up one boat.

But along with all the above, there were many stretches of gentle paddling conducive to taking photos and savouring the delightful sights, sounds, movement and smells of the river.

At 1800 we camped in trees [61° 41.3’ N, 134° 30.8’ W], river right. In brilliant sunshine, on a raised bank with a grand view of the river valley, we hung gear out to dry. The day’s 42 kms over 6.5 hours on the water kept us comfortably within our passage plan. We appreciated a warm and dry evening.

Day 7 August 20

Cold overnight with a thick mist hanging over the river in the morning. Owls heard during the last couple of nights. Light NE winds forecast. We departed at 1110 helped by a current of 4-5 km/hr.

Overall, our solo paddling seemed to add about 3 km/hr to the speed generated by the current. That included lunch stops and pauses for photos, discussions or just “being there” – our moving average was probably a little faster.

Lunch today was at the confluence of the North Big Salmon River with the Big Salmon River. We spotted a good potential campsite for future trips on a high bank (with steep access) at 61° 45.7’ W, 134° 36.9’ N.

At 1645 we arrived at our last campsite [61° 52.1’ N, 134° 48.8’ W] on the BSR, river left, 7 km from its confluence with the Yukon River. We had travelled 45 km over 5.5 hours, helped by a 5 km/hr current.

This site was well used and featured a fire ring and a “table” structure that was handy for meal prep, etc. Likely its proximity to the Yukon River makes it a great destination for weekend campers. It did have a “getting closer to habitation” vibe! We made use of the easy camp conditions to prepare for our date with the Yukon River the next day.

Day 8 August 21

We departed at 1100 after watching an early morning mist dissipate from the surface of the water. Shortly after we left Terry spotted a black bear just inside the trees on shore, heading towards our just vacated campsite. The bear veered smartly into the woods upon noticing Terry’s kayak.

We arrived at the Yukon River about noon, in calm weather conditions, and noted its much stronger current – 10 km/hr according to my InReach. Our plan was to camp at a site identified in the Rourke map book about 10 km back from our potential take-out destination of Little Salmon Village. We intended to paddle to the village the following morning, not wanting to impact an active First Nations hunting and fishing camp by setting up tents there.

Unfortunately, we could not find the site described in the map book, so we continued on to Little Salmon Village, just past the confluence of the Little Salmon and Yukon Rivers. (I talked to the map book’s publisher, Jocelyn Rourke, after the trip. Jocelyn concluded that the site that we had not been able to find had likely grown over and she advised that she would correct future editions.)

At 1845 we found space for our tents near the boat landing at Little Salmon Village [62° 03.1’N, 135° 41.1’ W], river right, out of the way of potential users. Having to reach the Village to camp made for an eight – hour, 65 km – day – a long time in the saddle! Though this site worked for us, I would suggest that paddlers avoid setting up camp at the Village without first contacting the Little Salmon Carmacks First Nation. Many paddlers choose Carmacks as a pick-up location.

Little Salmon Village was a lived-in First Nations community until recently. Many intact cabins and game and fish-processing work stations remain, used during seasonal fish runs and hunts. A well cared for cemetery that we did not enter is co-located.

We talked with a three – generation First Nation family embarking on a moose hunting trip (“bulls only”) – grandad, dad and grandson loading a powerful skiff with some serious looking gear. They were interested in whether we had seen any moose on our trip.

Day 9 August 22 Saturday

The drive back to Whitehorse included 45 minutes on the gravel surfaced Robert Campbell Highway 4 to Carmacks and another couple of hours on the Klondike Highway 2 up the Yukon River valley, enhanced by the driver’s interpretative comments. It was a fine denouement to our adventure.

Reflections on the Trip

The Big Salmon River proved an exciting challenge to our paddling and expedition planning skills and a great learning experience. I will add some “must have” items to my gear list (e.g., dry suit) and carefully research historical river flow rates and any real – time data available from river discharge stations when planning future trips.
We found Yukoners to be welcoming and competent, with a “can do” approach tempered by a healthy respect for the hazards of outdoor life north of 60. Our own regard for the rewards of the wilderness experience is stronger than ever.

Trip Summary

River: Big Salmon River, YT, Canada
Dates: 2020 Aug 14-21
Distance paddled: 300 km Quiet Lake to Little Salmon Village
Nights camped: 8 nights
Days paddled: 7.5 days
Average hours on the water/day: 6.5 hrs Includes stops
Average distance per day: 40 km
Speed overall: 6.3 km/hr Includes stops – “moving average” was faster
Current: 3 – 10 km/hr

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *