Story by Mike Stacey
Photos by Terry Hartrick and Mike Stacey
Looking back, the paddle down the Teslin River in the Yukon Territory was a straight-forward exercise – a mid-summer canoe trip with easy access, wonderful solitude and a steady favourable current. Even considering the tendency to let difficulties fade from memory, I recall the journey as being peaceful and rewarding, while calling for the usual situational awareness and prudent execution.
The trip was planned as a 306-km, seven-day paddle, starting August 8, 2021 at Johnson’s Crossing where the Alaska Highway bridges the Teslin River close to where it exits Teslin Lake. After being shuttled there by Up North Adventures van, we were to paddle 200 km to Hootalinqua, at the junction of the Teslin River with the Yukon River, then a further 106 km down the Yukon River to a take-out at Carmacks, which has road access.
On August 7, we checked our rented canoes and purchased gear that hadn’t been allowed on the air flights (e.g., bear spray). There were lots of boats and stock to choose from as few paddlers were out on the water, partly due to very high local water levels and lingering Covid uncertainty, although recreational travel had been approved.
Day 1 August 8
After the 1.5-hour drive from Whitehorse, we arrived at the put-in. We checked and loaded our gear, re-checked our maps and set up the spray deck. At 1400 hours we started north downriver under patchy clouds, light SE winds and a 21°C temperature. This was Terry’s first expedition by canoe, after switching from his customary touring kayaks, adding another interesting dimension to the journey. On this first day, conditions were perfect. As long as we were moving even the mosquitoes were not an issue.
We soon noticed the absence of civilization’s trappings. Tracking lost luggage and the challenge of travel under Covid-required regulations faded away, replaced by the sights, sounds and smells of the outback boreal forest. Noting the river’s flow, feeling the loaded canoe’s motion and taking in the natural surroundings quickly became top of mind.
Shortly after we had started paddling Terry sighted a large, light brown bear crossing a small tributary stream on river right, 100 m up from the Teslin, probably a grizzly. It paid zero attention to our passing.
“We decided against camping there because of fresh tracks left by a large bear…”
After several hours paddling with a steady current, we checked out a campsite that Rourke’s Guidebook for the Teslin River noted as suitable for high water levels. It was located in trees on river left with a small creek entering the river beside it. We decided against camping there because of fresh tracks left by a large bear slipping down the muddy slope from the campsite to the water’s edge.
Another site 1 km further along on river right, also wooded and three metres above the shoreline, proved very satisfactory. This site may have been what Rourke’s called “Good camp … 100 Mile Landing … easy landing” and indicated old cabin remains (not sighted by us).
Several Teslin River campsites had rough improvements and all were usefully wooded or forested. Several campsites had fire rings. Our bug netting was sometimes deployed and found helpful! “High water” campsites like this one, 3 m above the water, are welcome finds when the river level is high. Though the “improvements” indicated regular use by recreational paddlers, we saw no other people on this journey.
By 2000 hours, when we secured the canoes, the day had cooled and the wind had veered to the S and SW. We had travelled 36 km in five hours, helped considerably by the current, encountering no unavoidable hazards.
Day 2 August 9
Morning brought cooler 6°C weather, sun and calm winds. The mosquitoes were plentiful but fortunately not particularly quick or agile. The upriver sites that we had viewed (aside from the site featuring recent bear activity) had been low-lying and buggy. The hanging bug net helped us to cook and eat in relative peace. I plan to upgrade this net to a Eureka! NoBugZone CT 11 for future trips. We light no fires on this river due to the high wildfire hazard. The bug netting was critical to mitigate the mossies, especially in the absence of campfire smoke.
“…we passed several fish and game processing camps on the shores…”
During the trip, we passed several fish and game processing camps on the shores, indicative of usage by First Nations hunters and fishers, although none of these sites was currently occupied. The Teslin River runs through traditional territories of the Teslin Tlingit Council and the Tagish First Nation, who along with the Southern Tutchone and Northern Tutchone First Nations form the Kwanlin Dün First Nation. For a deeper understanding of these peoples and the land I recommend the large format, hardcover publication “Kwanlin Dün – Our Story in Our Words” © 2020 Kwanlin Dün First Nation. I discovered this book after our trip. A pre-trip read would provide great context.
A noon departure had us paddling into light to moderate NW headwinds under a clear sky. In late afternoon we experienced some faster currents in shallow waters. They sometimes pushed us towards riffles, occasioning hard paddling to avoid grounding. At times I misread the current’s effect, and I had to get out and drag the canoe to deeper water. The canoes weighed 50 lbs / 23 kg and were loaded with about 300 lbs / 136 kg, including paddler, retaining 8” / 20 cm of freeboard. The Nova Craft website gives the Supernova’s capacity as 850 lb / 386 kg.
The cutbanks showed the thin layer of topsoil. This valley is in a “discontinuous permafrost” zone. Warming temperatures are causing the permafrost to thaw in places. Apparently wildfires destroy foliage allowing the sun to warm the ground.
Eventually the contrary headwinds faded and we found ourselves in a faster, steady current. This made for a less strenuous paddle, much appreciated after a tough start. For our second night we found another very good “high-water” campsite on river right, with an abandoned log cabin twenty metres back in the trees. The Rourke guidebook suggested this had been a trapper’s cabin. The cabin door faced north, perhaps because rain often arrived with SE or SW winds.
We had travelled about 30 km in good weather and the evening continued fine with a high overcast sky.
Day 3 August 10
Another fine morning: 8°C, high overcast, light SE winds. The river current looked to be about 6-7 km/hr at our mid-morning departure. We had favourable light winds under mixed cloud and sun all day! The river was wide, with no memorable obstacles.
“…a great day for animal sightings“
It was a great day for animal sightings. We saw several cow moose feeding in the shallows. Very peaceful … although one solitary cow did watch us closely as we drifted by. When I was abeam, she took a single assertive step in my direction. I had tried to be inconspicuous so as not to alarm her but in hindsight I should have backpaddled earlier to give her a wider berth.
Our practice upon meeting wildlife was to cease unnecessary movement and noise and drift by. The cow with a calf had been completely submerged, but once her head was clear of the water she quickly sized us up and guided her calf away into the bush.
Around mid-day, with our “speed made good” from 8-10 km/hr, we came across a large raptor that I believe was a golden eagle, in shallow water. It took off with a slow but powerful flapping of wings, passing by a few metres away. Awesome.
We stopped for lunch at Sheldon Creek, which would be a fine high-water campsite on another trip. Numerous animals had left tracks on the mini-delta. The weather was mostly cool enough that dry suits were very comfortable. Bug head nets came in handy when off the river.
At 1830 we made camp at O’Brien’s Bar, an excellent site, clear but with sufficient trees for setting up tarps, etc. Abandoned mining equipment generated conjectures on how the various pieces might have functioned. The ground was bordered on two sides by the river and the views were great. Ledges visible across the river appeared to be old river beds, some 25 m above the present level. I’ve heard that miners looked for gold on these old river bottoms.
Day 4 August 11
An early wake up was rewarded by the sun peeking through medium overcast clouds, light E winds and finding that the bugs had taken the morning off. Again, we departed in mid-morning. We had been monitoring a wildfire “at the junction of the Yukon and Teslin Rivers” for several weeks, to ensure we would have good air quality and could avoid active fires. This would be the critical day, as we approached the confluence of the rivers.
We had lunch at Mason’s Landing, featuring an easy sand bar landing with several abandoned log structures. There was evidence of the site’s use by locals: a motor boat, petrol cans, lawn chairs, etc., though no one was about. We had seen moose again that morning, so this gear may have belonged to hunters.
By early afternoon we began to see smoke rising from the hills ahead and saw that the forest on the immediate shores, mostly black spruce and white spruce, had recently burned. In some places the topsoil itself had been burned to a white/grey ash, exposing tree roots. It made for a sombre float down the river, reflecting on the power of the fire, and we were glad that it had been extinguished by recent rainfall and cooler temperatures. Apparently one effect of forest fires is that the permafrost can melt more under burned areas because the (previously mentioned) absence of foliage allows the sun to warm the ground. The Teslin River Valley is an area of “patchy dis-continuous permafrost.” The more I learn about wildfires, the more I realize that the outcomes, positive and negative, are complex.
By late afternoon we reached the Yukon River confluence, looking for a campsite co-located with Hootalinqua, an historic site on the far (left/west) side of the Yukon River. Hootalinqua was a significant ship building, commercial and administrative centre for settlers and miners in the late 1880s and early 1900s. It has been a major meeting and trading place for indigenous people since long before then.
A moderate S wind generated one-to-two-foot waves coming from our left side as we paddled hard to cross the Yukon, reaching the left bank at 1800. The wind did not drop much that evening and kept the area free of mosquitoes! We set up camp alongside a permanent roofed shelter with fire ring, picnic tables and outhouses nearby (maintained by the Yukon government and volunteers) and set out to explore the abandoned structures of Hootalinqua, which included a telegraph station.
Several buildings remain from the original settler community, maintained to a basic structural integrity condition. Firefighters had laid out their gear in case the fire reached the area. Pumps and suction hoses were ready on the shoreline and sprinklers were fastened to the roofs of critical structures. The nearest active plumes of smoke that evening were about 5 km away.
The TravelYukon.com website states Hootalinqua means “running against the mountain” in the Northern Tutchone language; it was …“a popular site for trade …[amongst] the Tlingit, Southern and Northern Tutchone people.”
That evening we made use of the first-class picnic tables, spreading out gear and dinner, fanned by a pleasant breeze from the water that brought the odd whiff of smoke. We were confident that the fires were small enough and far enough away not to be a danger, enabling another solid backcountry slumber. Position 61° 35.14’N, 134° 54.19’W.
Day 5 August 12
In the morning we considered our options in light of the strong winds just experienced. Did we want to paddle two days to a take-out at Little Salmon Village or Carmacks, on a wide and fast Yukon River, then running at a very high level? The weather forecast via InReach proved persuasive: south winds at 21-57 km/hr, becoming 21-45 km/hr at 1700 that day.
Accordingly, we used InReach to arrange for an Up North motor boat to pick us up and take us back upriver to Whitehorse. We weighed the disappointment of shortening our time on the water against the likelihood of a rigorous, challenging paddle through an area some of which we had seen on a previous trip. A bonus – we would see the Thirty Mile part of the Yukon River and the famous Lake Laberge, from the water, albeit at a fast rate of speed!
The shuttle boat’s ETA of 1900 hrs gave us more time to check out Hootalinqua, all the while enjoying the scarcity of bugs. The steady winds contributed to these pleasant conditions, perhaps why it had long been favoured by indigenous travelers. Interestingly, we saw few deer or horse flies during the entire trip.
In late afternoon a party of four paddlers in two canoes arrived, having also paddled down the Teslin River. They were young, temporary foreign workers, just finished tree planting and vegetable picking contracts and were now savouring a Canadian canoe adventure. We shared information with them (and some spare supplies), congratulating them on their choice for an end-of-work celebration.
“…four-foot waves on Lake Laberge…”
Mark Stenzig, owner/operator of Up North Adventures, arrived in a well equipped 30-foot landing craft. He reported four-foot waves on Lake Laberge on his passage north from Whitehorse – good to remember for future canoe trips.
The transit up the river made an interesting and brisk denouement to our canoe trip. On the passage through the Thirty Mile River section of the Yukon River we noted campsites with picnic tables and outhouses (installed by Canadian Ranger volunteers). Some were almost awash. We arrived at the boat landing on the southwest side of Lake Laberge at dusk and were back in Whitehorse by shuttle truck before full dark.
Reflections on the Teslin River Trip
The “two paddlers in solo canoes” model worked well for us, providing some safety redundancy while allowing enough independent movement and photography opportunities. Our practice was to always be in sight of each other and to stay closer together when conditions were in any way hazardous. We carried FRS radios for chats (never used!) and we each had InReach devices in case of emergency or long-distance separations. We encountered no unavoidable dangerous obstacles. The high water level meant limited but sufficient campsite choices, while the steady moderate current was most welcome. The absence of other people on the river was definitely a plus. Seeing the wildlife was gratifying; seeing the wildfire aftermath reminded one of nature’s sudden power.
The tempo of the river and the wilderness surroundings were peaceful and restorative. As I write this, in January 2022, we are planning to take further instruction to boost our river paddling skills, while we research our next river.
Trip Summary 2021 Aug 08-12
Route: Down Teslin River from Johnson’s Crossing to Hootalinqua (on the Yukon R.)
Distance: 200 km
Duration: 4 camping nights; 4 paddling days + 1 shuttle day
Current: 3 – 8 km/hr
River flow stations: Teslin Lake at Teslin 09AE002; Yukon River at Whitehorse 09AB001
Paddlers & boats: Terry Hartrick and Mike Stacey in two 15’ Nova Craft Supernova solo canoes rented from Up North Adventures, Whitehorse.
Access: Scheduled airline from Victoria to Whitehorse; van to put-in and from take-out (take-out van was replaced by a motor boat).
1. “Rivers of the Yukon Territory – Teslin River” by Mike & Gillian Rourke, Rivers North Publications ©1983 Mike Rourke, revised 2014. Cerlox bound soft cover guide book with map sketches.
2. “Kwanlin Dün – Our Story in Our Words” © 2020 Kwanlin Dün First Nation. Coffee table size hard cover presents indigenous history and knowledge of the land.
4. Water levels and discharge rates are at https://wateroffice.ec.gc.ca/ The site is cumbersome but it’s worth the effort to extract the data you need.
5. Wildfire maps: https://cwfis.cfs.nrcan.gc.ca/maps/fw