En Route: The Trans-Territorial Canoe Expedition

Dispatch No. 1 from a 2,600 mile canoe journey across Canada's Territories

Pete Marshall, Winchell Delano, Steve Keaveny and Matt Harren are currently on a four month, 2,600 mile canoe journey across Canada’s Northern Territories. Click HERE to read the team’s second dispatch.

By Pete Marshall

When we told people we would be hiking through the Chilkoot Pass, then paddling through the headwaters of the Yukon River in early May, we got mixed responses.

“It’s a little early to start, don’t you think?” was the most common, and the most charitable one.

This would mark the beginning of our 2600-mile canoe expedition through Canada’s Territories. Our route is long and ventures almost entirely above the Sixtieth Parallel, so there is only a brief window of flowing water, sunlight, and mosquitoes that opens between the eight months of ice that encrusts the region for the rest of the year.

And indeed, in hindsight, it was a little early to start our trip.

Our canoe expedition began as a hike from the Pacific Ocean, right outside of Skagway Alaska. By our second day on trail, we had passed through the coastal rainforest, made our way above the treeline, and were snowshoeing over an ever-deepening wilderness of snow. This was the famed Chilkoot Trail, but any evidence of a trail was buried beneath a thick layer of snow. Below the Golden Stairs, the sight where those famous photographs of thousands desperate gold seekers lining up to move over the steep mountain pass were taken, we encountered whiteout conditions. That night, as we huddled in our tent, the wind picked up and in the morning, with limited visibility (although not limited enough to miss the rubble left by the many avalanches that had scarred the slopes around us) we trekked up the pass.

At the top the wind was screaming at over forty miles-per-hour and almost every bit of rock and earth, save for a few black outcroppings, were engulfed in snow and ice. Only a patch of shingles from the Canadian Customs and Parks Canada Ranger station poked above the snowdrifts.

Snowshoeing over lakes buried in snow, over a trail that was somewhere between the walls of the ravine, we descended into Canada. We passed camp shelters that were covered in snow. I knew this was a popular hiking trail and became somewhat crowded in the summer, but at this time we had it all to ourselves. It was certainly one of the most magical and challenging beginnings to a canoe trip any of us had ever experienced.

By the time we reached Carcross, and picked up our canoes and paddling equipment from the outfitter who had shuttled and held onto our gear while we hiked the trail, strange dreams of actually paddling on a canoe trip were running through our heads.

But this was not to be.

While the winter this year was mild, spring was being very relaxed about arriving on schedule. This meant that nearly one hundred miles of headwaters to the Yukon River (including Lake Laberge) were covered in rotting ice. Too brittle to walk and drag the canoes over, too thick to paddle through.

Maybe we should have left even earlier. At least then the ice would have been thick enough for us to walk over. As it was, we would have to drag on the shore, chase leads, wade through freezing water, and constantly fall through the ice.

In these conditions the water is so cold it burns the skin, and the progress we’ve made so far would have been impossible, even deadly, without our Expedition Drysuits (Generously donated to us by Kokatat). We live in them. Every morning, the first thing each of us do is put on our drysuits and begin the slow and arduous days work of plowing and dragging through the rotting ice, and we don’t take them off until we’re ready to get into our sleeping bags.

We’ve developed various strategies for dealing with this obstacle of ice and water: The shoreline has often provided us with ice that was solid enough to drag over, other times we would try to follow a line of stable ice off shore. Often, we would fall up to our waists, or up to our arms. Fortunately, with our suits, we were able to mostly just laugh about it, pick ourselves up and continued forward.

Then, one morning it snowed ten inches.

After we had made our way through Lake Laberge, we came to the open current of the Yukon River. For over two hundred miles and three-and-a-half days we were treated to downstream current and no ice. It was a pleasant break, and simply delightful to actually paddle all day on what was supposed to be a canoe trip.

But all good things have their time and place, and alas, must come to an end. It’s an unfortunate fact that you can’t canoe across the Continental Divide by going down stream the whole way. And so we had to leave the quick and easy miles of the Yukon River and point our bows upstream.

The Pelly River is a major tributary that feeds the Yukon River with the drainage of a vast network of rivers, streams, mountains and wilderness of the eastern Yukon Territory. And boy was it draining. From the first morning we canoed onto the river and slowly began the seemingly endless task of paddling against its current, the river rose. Every evening I would place a stick on the water’s edge and wake to see that same stick covered in an additional four to six inches of water. The brown current of the river, silty from the acres of dirt and earth it daily tore up, carried huge trees and piles of debris down with it. Soon the sand bars and pebbly beaches we had dragged up the first couple of days had been submerged. Then we noticed the tall cut-banks we had often paddled under were filled with water, and soon the shore almost disappeared all together. At one side there was a mighty, relentless river, on the other side a flooded forest that often reached beyond the eye and far beyond the glutted river channels.

We developed a strategy of hugging the shore. Jolting our muscles, tendons and bones against the ever increasing, ever flowing current. Over and over we had to make long and exhausting ferries as we chased after the little bit of slack water that hung in the inside bends of the river. None of us had ever paddled so hard only to average about one-mile per hour. In the morning I would wake up, look at the river (the speed of the river must have calmed in my dreams) and think, “How the hell are we paddling up this thing?”

After three weeks and over two-hundred miles traveling up the Pelly, we are now resting outside of Faro, a small community in the Yukon Territory. Most people here tell us they have never seen the river this high. Across the territories communities have been evacuated, roads washed out. “Quite the year for such an expedition,” we’ve been told. Yet, all four of us feel incredibly privileged to be able to travel in this area. Mountains line the river valley, and the few people we meet are all incredibly generous and hospitable.

In short, after crossing over hundreds of miles of snow, half-frozen lakes and streams, and going up a flooded river, all with three of the best traveling companions I could ask for, I have already had one of the most adventurous and beautiful summers of my life.

And there are still three more months before this adventure is completed.

To learn more about their route, the crew, or support the expedition, visit Canoe2012.com. Click HERE to read the team’s second dispatch, and stay tuned to CanoeKayak.com for more in the field updates from The Trans-Territorial Canoe Expedition.

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