Canoeing the YukonLooking for Ghosts at the Headwaters of the Yukon
It’s a little known fact, the Klondike Gold Rush had more paddling than hiking.
Snowshoes and hot chocolate were the two things that we wished we had brought more of as we hiked over the Chilkoot Pass to get to our canoe. Now I stood at the shores of Lake Bennett in the cold with the creaking of wet logs that held up what was left of a church, echoing in the ghost town behind me. I shook my hands to keep the blood moving and painfully untied the frozen knot in the rope that was holding up the bear bag. The night had sprayed the trees with a thin layer of frost, while the morning-sky was crisp and dripping with something that resembled slush. It had been a cold night in October even for the Yukon. Most of the leaves were down, already enhancing the winds hollow echoes at night. I had set out in the first week of October, after the last cruise ship left Alaska, to follow the footsteps of the Klondike Kings in search of ghosts and gold.
Although it is a ghost town now, in the winter of 1898 there was a city here. This city was like one you could find anywhere in the Wild West, except this was in the middle of the Wild North. It made Compton (another more-famous goldrush town) look like a kiddy pool during the gold rush. There were desperate gun fightin’ whiskey drinkin’ men from all across the country that had just trudged, slogged, and screamed up the roughest 33 miles Alaska had to offer, carrying over two thousand pounds each.
The shores of Lake Bennett were as far as they got before the winter froze over. It was on this scrappy beach that the biggest paddling journey of the North started. None of these guys had remembered to bring ‘Boat Building For Dummies’ so few knew how to build a boat. When the ice broke on Lake Bennett in the spring of 1898, it is said that some 2000 floating coffins pushed off towards the rapids of the Yukon River.
Many never realize that the Klondike Gold Rush had more paddling than hiking. 450 miles from this dilapidated church down the Yukon River travelers found the town of Dawson, where a rusher’s dreams would come true. Unfortunately, in order to get to gold heaven, many of the rushers went through towns described as ‘hell on earth’ where some of the roughest people in America bought and sold dance hall girls, rotted from scurvy, and tried to sleep through the winter over the screams for help of others. Not many of these people knew how to build a boat, and when the ice broke on Lake Bennett in the spring of 1898, it is said that some 2000 floating coffins pushed off towards the rapids of the Yukon River. There are many reports that the tormented souls and remains of the unlucky ones can still be seen in the woods around here, something that we would soon find out for ourselves.
Today, you can take a train into Bennett, talk to a park ranger and buy a t-shirt with all the other bumbling tourists. Boy scouts and church camps paddle these lakes for the summer months. However, there is a notice posted at the ranger station once mid-September hits warning you that there isn’t anyone patrolling the area in the off season, the weather is unpredictable, and that sadly, the t-shirt shop will be closed. During this off-season, however, I got the Yukon experience I was looking for.
The Southern Lakes District of the Yukon comprises the beginning of the mighty Yukon River, which was the gold rush highway. These lakes run one hundred miles through snow capped peaks and mist after starting at Lake Bennett. The water curls around Lake Tagish, runs through 6 mile river spilling into Marsh Lake, the mouth of the 2,000 mile Yukon River that runs across Alaska and into the Bering Sea. Thousands have done this river highway since 1898, but in October, we paddled alone through spectacular woods that made the boundary waters in Minnesota seem crowded.
Even though we didn’t see any people, we weren’t entirely alone on this trip. On day two, after zoning out for a break, a mother grizzly charged from the woods with her cub ten feet away from me. Luckily she wanted nothing to do with me and just wanted to scare me away, which she had no problem doing. On day 8, a migrating group of trumpeter swans landed next to our canoe honking as if they were on spring break. As far as human contact, (at least the living kind) we saw nothing on the water, and only at the start of the canoe trip did we run into people.
Most of the lakes are easy paddling, with glass smooth water reflecting the snow-capped peaks that are set on the orange forest. Sometimes parts of the lakes do kick up, like the infamous Windy Arm of Lake Tagish, where waves have flipped a few overzealous boats into the icy waters.
The nights were swelling as winter closed in, and the woods seemed to be hauntingly alive. I don’t know if it was lack of civilization, cold, or the moose tracks that we saw on the beach, but there were a few nights where I stayed awake, curled in my sleeping bag, trying to drown out the sounds of the woods. Some say ghosts walk the woods turning down heaven for their lust of gold. There were creeks in the trees, things that sounded like whispers, and a chilling sensation that there was something else with us on the cold beaches where we slept. In the deep of the Yukon Territory, there isn’t much to do but tuck yourself deeper into your bag and smile at all of it, or hope that it is a bear.
As we entered onto the Yukon River, I thought about how many people ignore this area during what I think is the best time to see it. The fall in the Yukon is a favorite time for the locals to enjoy the color of the mountains after the crowds. I looked down towards Whitehorse as we exited the large basalt walls of Miles Canyon, food supplies dwindling, my sleeping bag frozen, and my back sore. The river continues, as all rivers do, and perhaps sometime I will follow it to the sea, but for now I think I have had enough nights awake listening in the dark. I slipped on my down jacket and watched the Northern lights bloom and fall into the Yukon River. This land has a deep history with death and a tormented past, but on a cold night like tonight, as the wolf howls and leaves fall; I have never felt more alive.