Clinic Stories

The End of the Earth - Part 4

Past the Lake

More on Dr. Morris's Yukon River Trip

When I exited Lake Labarge and was back onto the Yukon River the trip improved. While it was still overcast with intermittent rain, it was warmer and the trees and cliffs lining the river blocked the wind. The water was not only flowing faster but was calmer. My stress level dropped as I knew where I was, even if it meant that I had 388 more miles to cover. My appetite had not returned but I forced myself to eat on a scheduled basis. I still did not have feeling in my toes or my finger tips but by sleeping with my feet elevated and moving my legs around while in the kayak the swelling in my feet was reduced. Day 4 ended with camping on a muddy bank but I was able to dry my gear out on tree branches and to make a roaring fire.

It did not rain overnight but once again I was soaked. When the temperature dropped overnight the condensation in the tent drenched everything inside. I was out early on day 5, a Friday, and I planned to spend 16 hours on the water to make up for the time lost with the harsh weather and in doubling back searching for the outlet to the lake. It began to rain soon after I started but this was different than the windy squalls on the lake. This was a downpour of heavy rain that parked over the river and did not move. The water was quiet and made for easy paddling but the rain was unrelenting. I stayed in the kayak for over 10 hours before I took my first break.

Although I planned to get 16 hours in on Friday knowing that I could not travel on Saturday (for religious reasons) by 14 hours I could no longer maintain consciousness. I camped in a less than ideal area chosen by exhaustion. I kept falling asleep while eating and finally collapsed into my sleeping bed. It poured all night, nearly 24 hours of torrential rain.

Being a rest day I slept late and emerged from my tent into another world. For the first time since I arrived in the Yukon I could see clear blue skies. The sun warmed the air, my equipment dried up and my spirits soared. I took a much needed rest day and saw countless animal tracks in the mud. Eagles dotted the skies and the world came back to life. Before day 6 I did not see any reason to have sunglasses or insect repellent. Now they were a necessity. Until now I had seen few animals as most were hunkered down in the storm. Because it was cloudy and raining for 5 days and every thing was covered except my face I did not apply sunscreen, regrettably so. Exposed to ultraviolet rays for 24 hours daily my face burned and cracked with bleeding and scabs on my nose and cheeks.

With few markers to tell me where I was I estimated that I would reach Carmacks, a town of 500 people at the halfway point of the trip late on Day 7. To my surprise within a half hour I started seeing homesteads, a road with occasional vehicles, then a campground. In less than an hour after starting I was in Carmacks! Despite the weather and woes I was essentially on schedule, though at a heavy physical and emotional price.

Day 7 sailed along passing the only two areas of rapids on the Yukon. Day 8 was the third day of beautiful weather and I stopped at Fort Selkirk in the morning.

Fort Selkirk was founded in 1852 and served as a mission, military outpost and trading post until it was abandoned in 1950. It is being restored and in the Summer has two First Nations hosts, an aunt and her niece. It is accessible only by water and the guest register asks how did you arrive – paddle, motor boat or float plane.

I passed the White River by the end of the day and the river was now opaque from silt, described as the Ganges on laundry day. In the afternoon the winds kicked up easily reaching 60 mph. It did not rain and I stayed on the river as the wind was at my back and sped me along.

The weather held on day 9 and by paddling 12 or so hours a day for the last three days I was closing in on Dawson City. The last 60 miles threw up an unexpected challenge – as more rivers flowed into the Yukon it widened to two miles and was dotted with islands. The current differed greatly from one channel to another so that sometimes I was sailing along and other times was paddling in dead water. Again in the late afternoon the winds kicked up but this time as headwinds. I tried to get out but currents, winds and cliffs prevented it for some time. While literally being blown backward against the current I was finally able to land on a narrow strip of mud to wait out the storm.

Directly across the river from where I stopped was a couple camped with their canoe on an island. When the wind dropped enough I paddled about ¾ of a mile to their site and talked to them for nearly 2 hours until the water was quiet again. The man was a retired Alaska State Trooper who had been canoeing for 40 years, she works for Alaska Airlines and they were a well of information. I learned: I was 12 miles from Dawson City, they had a GPS with the ability to send texts by satellite and there are maps of the Yukon River that detail every twist, sand bar and camp site – some with cabins - and show where the current is the strongest. With a GPS and detailed maps I could have cut 2 days off of my trip and and reduced the stress and effort by even more.

The trading post in Dawson City that receives kayak rentals did not open until 9:30 AM the next day so I stopped two miles from town and camped on an island having covered about 250 miles in 3 days.

Next – The Way Home

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