Canoeing the Yukon River

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A beautiful way to experience Canada’s North this summer is to canoe the many rivers and lakes in the Yukon Territory.

A day trip on the Yukon

The great thing about this river, is it’s very deep and mostly flat, especially in certain parts, so it makes for a great mellow river trip. Take fishing gear if you like to fish, there are plenty of fishing opportunities on this river. There are plenty of big pike living here. The long summer days means you’ll have plenty of daylight.

In early August when we were visiting the Yukon, our friends suggested to do a day float on the river. We dropped two vehicles off where the bridge crosses the river about 31 kilometers east of Whitehorse. There is a small dam and rapids there, and there is a place to put in your canoe just below the rapids.

How to get there

The Yukon Territory is way up there, north of British Columbia, and makes for an epic road trip. The driving distance from Vancouver, BC, is 2400 km and is the same from Calgary, Alberta. It takes three full days of driving to get here, but you get to experience the Alaska Highway. The Alaska highway is a must do, but you need lots time to do it and experience all the great scenery along the way.

There are two ways to get up North: regular scheduled flights go every day from Vancouver and Calgary. Or, do the epic drive to make a road trip out of it.

The Yukon River

The Yukon river is a major waterway in North America. It originates at the Llewellyn Glacier at Atlin Lake and travels 3190 km (1980 miles), through Alaska, and empties into the Bering Sea. It’s the longest river in Alaska or Yukon.

You can canoe much of this river, spending over 2 weeks going from Whitehorse to Dawson city, a distance of 735 km (460 miles). Shorter trips include Carmacks to Dawson City which will take you 7-9 days at 415 km (260 miles) and Whitehorse to Carmacks about the same number of days (just over a week) at 320 km (200 miles). Of course, if you have less time, you can canoe a section of the river in a day, which is what we did when we were out on a visit up North.

Much of river is very accessible to beginners and families. Friends paddled the route from Whitehorse to Dawson city with their four year old twins.  

Paddling the Hellman canoe down the Yukon river on a gorgeous summer day.

Paddling the Hellman canoe down the Yukon river on a gorgeous summer day.

About the river

The river itself winds a lot so the actual route is about 30 km. A good spot to take out is just after Miles canyon where the river goes into Schwatka Lake. There are floatplanes tied up there and a good place to take your boat out of the water. Drive into Miles Canyon road and park along the Schwatka lake, about 10 km south of Whitehorse (401 Miles Canyon Road). If you don’t want to paddle Miles canyon, just drive to the Miles canyon suspension bridge along the same road. There will be lots of people here checking out the canyon. The canyon itself is beautiful and worth it to check out, especially if you are planning on paddling it to know what to expect.

Level of difficulty

Aside from one slightly technical section at Miles Canyon, the river is very relaxing. In certain places the current moves very slowly so you can really take it easy. Other times it moves a bit quicker, but there are no rapids and no technical water that we encountered in August.  

This lake is incredibly deep and clear. Though it’s glacier fed, by the time it’s in the valley it’s already crystal clear. You can often see right down to the sandy bottom. You’ll definitely see fish, so if you do want to go fishing, you’ll probably have to go to shore so you don’t spook them.

Miles Canyon

miles canyon, yukon river

Miles Canyon, Yukon River. The turbulent, swirling eddies are very visible in this photo. Image b Papa Marinas via Flickr.

The only technical section is Miles canyon. Miles canyon is a deep ravine where the river narrows and speeds up. It’s surrounded by steep cliffs, and the increased speed of the water coupled with the depth of the river causes several eddies that swirl and can pull the tail of your canoe. You’ll have to be comfortable steering to be able to safely navigate this section, it’s short, but you have to be experienced. Many people have capsized here because the eddies can catch you off guard and quickly spin your boat.

What to bring

Bring a hat and plenty of sunscreen, and you also might need bugspray. In August the bugs weren’t that bad but the North is known for big bugs, including Mosquitos, Noseeums and Black flies, but only for certain times of year.

You can rent a nice canoe in Whitehorse at Kanoe People or Up North Adventures. These companies also offer river tours if you prefer to go guided rather than self-guided.

The route is long and took us almost 8 hours. That coupled with the car shuttle made for a very full day. Bring lots of food and water, or bring a water filter: I took my Katadyn filter bottle and LifeStraw bottle and just drank filtered river water.

Have you ever paddled in Canada’s North or in Alaska? Comment below.