Written by Laurel Winterbourne
Photography by Trevor Clark
Field Notes: Finding Flow on the Yukon
Paddling by the few canoes and occasional camper was a reminder that many people paddle the Yukon River, but most had never seen it done on a standup paddleboard. Wide-eyed canoe paddlers stared at us as we glided by.
Anxiety crept in with every day that our departure was delayed by rain, river safety prep and packing. As an experienced standup paddler in flat water and paddle surfing, I felt mentally unprepared for eight days and 200 miles on the Yukon River. The anxiety faded into exhilaration and awe as I stepped onto my fully loaded inflatable SUP and paddled into the swift current, leaving Whitehorse as a distant memory. The current quickly guided us out of the bustle and into the wild.
Every mile behind us revealed a little more freedom, relaxation and wild open spaces. The paddle stroke becomes as easy as moving one foot in front of the other, the rhythm of the river setting the pace. The human need for nature persistent, all encompassing, quenched with each stroke. Each bend in the river uncovered a new landscape: the cliffs steep, sun-bleached and ominous; the next bend, forested peaks scrape the sky.
Just as our flow with the river settled in, we turned a wide bend and there she was—the beast of a lake whose legendary reputation we’d been brushing off in the days leading up to the trip. Thirty-one miles of flat water known as Lake Laberge, notorious for its heinous and sudden winds that can blow a paddler out to its depths at a moments notice, or in our case, across its entire length.
White caps were beginning to form as the river opened up to the seemingly endless lake. Winds were blowing hard, but fortunately, in our favor. The tarp, intended for shelter in a storm, quickly became our sail. We tied a corner to each of our paddles and used our spare paddle as a rudder. The wind straining against the makeshift sail created a steady wake behind the boards as the flow of the river fell off in the distance.
At the end of a full day’s sail we found a camp spot, slightly sheltered from the wind and sweeping views of the enormous lake. Cleaning up after a hearty dinner, I glanced up and was startled by an animal not far from us. My naivety became obvious as my fiancé Trevor said, “That’s a bear.”
It hit me like a slap to the face, immediately trying to locate the bear spray and remember all the pamphlets I’d read about bear safety while preparing for our trip. Do I play dead or stand my ground? Make noise or slowly back away? Was it a black or brown bear? Turns out it was a brown black bear and fortunately it hadn’t seen us hidden by the shadow of a large boulder. After a few sniffs in the air, it trotted towards our tent, made a circle around it and continued on its way—a reminder that things can get real, fast.
The next morning proved to be as windy in our favor as the day before. With another full day of SUP sailing, we finally got to a place where the other end of the lake was in sight. What had seemed nearly impossible two days ago was now within sight.
We spent one more night on the lake and were able to finish sailing the remainder of the lake the next day. Without the tarp and Trevor’s ingenuity it could have taken us nearly a week to cross that lake with three- to four-foot wind swell. With the beast of a lake behind us, we were ready to take on anything.
We were rewarded with the return of the river’s current and a spectacular stretch of the Yukon called the 30-Mile section. The water changed from milky blue grey into the most beautiful jade green, so clear you could see each rock on the riverbed rushing under your feet. The mountains became steep as the river narrowed, creating a swift pace to the current.
Bits and pieces of history litter the 30-Mile section. Old trading posts, gold dredges and giant paddle wheel ships could be explored on the shore. Eating lunch and setting up camp where some of the greatest explorers once did created a feeling of timelessness.
Some days on the river were leisurely, letting the current carry us through burned forest and vibrant purple fireweed. Others, we paddled hard and fast. Food and sleep felt best after days like that.
The late midnight sun hung low on the horizon with its dusty orange glow. After eight days of paddling, it was over. All I wanted to do was keep paddling, the rhythm of the river calling me back to its flow until next time.