As I neared the bridge crossing over the channel connecting Tagish Lake and Marsh Lake, my excitement grew in anticipation of meeting Alyssa and Dave Sawicki who ran the marina just past the bridge. I had met them on my first trip down the Yukon in 1999. Actually, Dave was running the marina and Alyssa worked as a hydrologist in Whitehorse, some seventy miles from the village of Tagish. On the first trip, I had stopped there for the night and had eaten in the take-out restaurant.
While talking to Dave and Alyssa they told me that each fall they take a moose and a mountain sheep. I asked Dave if he would sell me some moose meat. He looked me in the eye and said, "No! But I will give you some moose meat." When I left the next morning, Dave handed me four moose steaks each weighing about one pound. And that is how almost all of my encounters with people living on the river went. They opened their homes to me, were helpful, and more than once, offered meals to help me along the way.
As I passed under the bridge, my heart sank at the sight before me. There were no boats tied to the floating docks. The dock sagged to the water level and in some sections was submerged below the surface. The little take-out store where Dave sold ice cream and sandwiches was boarded up as was the house Alyssa and Dave had lived in. I knew I would not see either of them that day, or ever again for that matter. I pulled the kayak out onto the muddy river bank and walked around the buildings just to make sure that the place really was abandoned. But, there was no sign of life.
Besides wanting to see Alyssa and Dave, I had wanted to fill my water bags. Even though they were not there, I took all of my water bags, put them into my folding water bucket (to make it easier to bring them back to the kayak) and walked to the nearby gas station since one can always get water at any gas station. Well, almost any gas station. This one (Race Trac) had no water. My next stop was a store across from the gas station. The lady behind the counter, next to the mailboxes, said they had no water either. Her advice was to take it right out of the lake and drink it. She claimed that's what she did. After seeing the many motorboats plying the waters between Tagish and Marsh Lakes, I decided to pass on that suggestion. I figured if I did not actually see the person drink directly from the lake, I sure would not do so either.
Then, as I stepped out of the store, I noticed a campground across the street, and walked to it thinking once again that campgrounds had water. I stopped at the first large camper and after enquiring about water, was told the same thing, "No water." Was this a conspiracy? Did those Canadians have something against US citizens? Was it that I did not have any deodorant on?
Carrying my empty water bags (fortunately I had a couple of liters of water in the kayak), I stopped at a pay phone to call my wife and tell her where I was and that I still was. As we talked she told me that my passport was in the mail and would be in Eagle, AK in a few days. At first she had intended to send it to Dawson City but I had been warned by Canadians not to have any packages sent to Canadian cities because Canadian mail is truly snail mail. I would have had to get the equivalent of a Canadian green card and apply for citizenship status before my package would arrive in Dawson. So, my package would be waiting for me in Hagle, which is seventeen miles downstream from the US/Canadian border, the official border crossing complete with a customs agent who would check my passport.
The view across Marsh Lake, Yukon Territory.
Marsh Lake had earned its name due to the shallowness of the water along the shorelines. Crossing it that day was not difficult because there was no wind to speak of until the evening when I stopped. I did find a great campsite along the west shore of the lake. It was on top of a gently sloping sand dune, about 20 feet above the water. There were trees and shrubs on top which helped to break some of the wind. But it was open enough to allow the wind to blow the mosquitoes away. After I had set up my tent, brought all of my gear to it and carried the kayak up to the tent, I started my bear fire as close to the tent as was safe.
On the opposite shore was the village of Marsh Lake. I think the sandy beach area was used frequently by its townsfolk because there were many fire rings, cans and other trash left behind. I stoked the fire and went to sleep hoping to be in Whitehorse the next evening.
I crawled out of my tent the next day a little later than usual. That late exit ensured that I did not reach Whitehorse that day. Even though I paddled the whole day I was still about an hour away when I decided to pull off the river. I had paddled about seventy miles, leaving the campsite at 9:00 am and stopped to put up my tent at 7:00 pm. The reason for the slow going was wind. It had picked up and was not a problem when it blew from behind me, but the lake did not follow a straight line, alas. When I passed a promontory, the wind hit me full force in the face, driving the waves over the bow of the kayak. Thank goodness for the spray skirt.
As I continued to paddle that day, I also began to let my mind drift; I lost my focus. But, I became real focused and real alert when the wind and waves, coming from the right, drove me onto a sandbar. I would have rolled over but, bracing myself with my arm on the sand prevented that from happening. It took a couple of minutes to push myself free with my paddle.
A ways down the lake I passed by a rocky cliff where a couple of golden eagles were watching the river. One was at the top of its own spruce tree. It was minding its own business as far as I could tell. Suddenly, without any provocation on the part of the eagle, two gulls descended on it screeching obscenities at the hapless eagle. They harassed it until it took wing and flew to another nearby tree. That seemed to satisfy the two obnoxious birds and they decided to check me out. Seeing that I was moving downstream they curbed their tongues and kept their screeching obscenities to themselves and flew off to harass someone else.
The other eagle was on the rocky shore of the lake feeding on what appeared to be a rather large fish. It was no more than twenty feet from me as I passed by. Because there did not seem to be much flesh left on the bones of the fish, I decided not to confiscate it for my supper.
Soon I came to the end of Marsh Lake and to the point where the maps indicate, for the first time, the Yukon River. The current was quite slow, probably a couple of miles per hour but I was happy with that because it allowed me to just drift with the current and relax.
The dam and locks on the Yukon River,
upstream from Whitehorse, Yukon Territory.
Later that day I came to the Blue Bridge. There is a low dam just on the downstream side of the bridge. But on the right side, as one goes downstream, there is a set of locks that allows boats to get past the dam. One can go through the locks, portage around the dam or go over the dam, a drop of two or three feet. Having a folding kayak I chose not to go over the dam for fear of having the kayak fold at an inopportune time. Tearing the bottom out of the kayak skin would also have greatly reduced the duration of the Great Kayak Expedition.
As I approached the dam locks, or dam and locks, I saw that there were a couple of people on the bridge platform of the locks reading the directions about how to operate the lock gates. The directions were in several languages (as I discovered on my first trip down the river) which I could not decipher. Even the English directions were hard to understand. So, I began to blow my whistle until I got their attention. When I was close enough, I asked if they would let me through. They said they would be glad to do so. That saved me a lot of time and a lot of climbing up and down the riverbank and the lock ladders.
I would have had to beach the kayak, climb up the bank, open the upstream gate, get back into the kayak, take it into the lock, climb the ladder back up, close the gate, wait for the water level to drop, open the downstream gate, climb back down the ladder, take the kayak out of the lock and to the riverbank, climb back up and close the downstream gate and finally get back into the kayak and continue downstream. Just thinking about the whole procedure as I write wears me out.
Because the people worked the gates for me I was through the locks in five minutes. As I passed through and into the swirling waters below the lock and dam, I thanked them profusely. While I had waited in the lock, they told me they were going upstream in their motorized rubber raft.
I continued to paddle letting the current do the hard work of carrying me toward Whitehorse. About an hour after passing through the locks I came upon a pack of dogs. It appeared they were sled dogs who had made their great escape. When they saw me, the whole pack began to run downstream keeping pace with me. Some of them even tried to swim out to me but when they saw they were losing ground, they swam back to shore and rejoined the pack in its chase. I don't know if they saw a meal in the kayak or a long lost owner. I was not going to stop to find out.
Soon the pack saw me slipping away and gave up the chase. All but one committed dog. It ran along the shore, leapt narrow creeks, bounded up hills and rises, tore through the underbrush and jumped fallen logs in its attempt to catch me. The poor dog kept up with me for a couple of miles until it came to the very wide mouth of a creek. It gave up then and stood, salivating, watching me disappear around a bend in the river.
I had hoped to be in Whitehorse by the end of my paddling day but just did not want to push it any more. Anyway, I would have gotten there quite late, maybe close to midnight and there would have been no one there to take me around the big hydroelectric dam.
Also, there was something that needed to be done before I continued into town: I needed to take a bath. After all, this was my fourth day on the river and I had worked up a sweat each day. After I had found a good campsite and had everything in place, a good fire going, the tent set up, clean clothes laid out and the kayak pulled completely out of the water, I soaped up the washcloth (I probably should have used a Brillo pad), set out the shampoo, stripped and plunged into the icy water (about 45 degrees).
The shock of the water took my breath away. I shot to the surface, soaped down, shampooed my hair and plunged back in. I resurfaced spewing river water in all directions. The steam rose from my blue body as I stood by the roaring fire trying to thaw my congealed blood so that it could once again flow freely through my shriveled veins and arteries. But it sure felt good to be clean and have clean clothes on again. I repeated this act of masochism several more times in the coming weeks.
The next day, a clean body would arrive into Whitehorse.
Show Low, Arizona