Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Paddling the Upper Yukon 1: Tàa'an Män (Lake Laberge)

Landing at the Ta'an Kwach'an Council village of Upper Laberge. We've paddled 10 km, another 50 km of flat water paddling before we have the current carrying us again..
This summer I've been working the Road Scholar program (previously know as Elder Hostel) in the Yukon. These trips are relatively small groups of older adults wanting an edu-tourism experience. Ruby Range Adventure delivers the program employing me to provide introductory talks on Yukon history to their clients, a combination of hikers and paddlers. As part of the program I was able to join the last canoe trip of the season for their trip from Whitehorse to Carmacks, some 340 kilometers down river.

Upper Laberge village is beautifully located on the eastern shore of the lake. While no longer permanently occupied, Ta'an Kwach'an people are clearly working on maintaining the buildings and the site is regularly used by youth and Elders.
In the village I was fascinated to find the remains of one of the 1950s Indian Affairs matchbox houses. These "kits" were shipped throughout the north to provide basic - an understatement of astonishing dimensions - housing. Gavin Renwick notes that "The government house creates insulation from the land... a traditional lifestyle cannot be internally accommodated. (T)he separation of workplace and homeplace symbolizes an implicit cultural contradiction, the division of land from home."
Tàa'an Män, the Southern Tutchone name for Lake Laberge, is the centre of Ta'an Kwach'an traditional territory. There are few permanent residents along the lake. The west shore has a small scattered village of houses and some cottages and one family on the east shore is only accessible by boat. However, there are traditional campsites along both shores for fishing and hunting with trails connecting to the wider territory.
I have been on the lake in bad weather - it is a whole lot of not fun. But on our three day passage the lake is quiet and passive. We have a gentle southern zephyr every day except on our final leg on day three when the wind freshens and hastens our canoes into the mouth of the Thirty Mile River. At night the skies are clear and for those in our group who do not need sleep the Perseid meteor shower entertains.
We stop for lunch in a small bay, watching the cumulus clouds billow upwards in the hot weather. Southwards, behind us, we can see thunderstorms but above us only sunshine.
Marie, our guide, like the rest of us, feels the heat. We relax and just float beneath the endless sky. The lake goes on and on, not as challenge or task, rather as an experience. We paddle, because that's what you do in a canoe, but rather than making distance we simply watch the majesty of the landscape scroll by. Perhaps this is what heaven feels like.

Blue Moon Canoe

Early in summer I proposed a canoe trip to our hiking club. Originally planned as a five day expedition I found few people were current in their paddling skills and that several novices were also keen to come along. The plan was adjusted to include a canoe and paddle intro session on a small lake and a shorter overnight trip on our stretch of the Yukon River.

Peter Long photo
After a hearty breakfast at our friend David's cafe, we walked down to the river front with our gear where Scott and his staff set out canoes, paddles, life jackets and provided a helpful river safety briefing. We matched novices with experienced in each canoe and packed up. One after another we practiced our first eddy turns out into the river current.

The weather was sunny and warm. Our fleet of seven canoes and support boat meandered downriver, each canoe exploring nooks along the river bank or experimenting with paddle strokes trying to master the straight line. Others stopped for a shore lunch and hiked up Little Takhini Creek to see the beaver dams.

Peter Long Photo
At Egg Island, our overnight camping spot, we landed like geriatric Viking raiders and spread out over the island. We met two young families already on the island and they kindly moved things about to give us elbow room.

We set up a comfortable camp and over the afternoon hours a magnificent feast came together. We invited David and Doree Story, who live on the river near the island, over for dinner. The Storys have acted as stewarts of the island for the past twenty years and we were pleased to be able to honour their time and effort in keeping Egg Island such a pleasant place. The evening rollicked with colourful stories, jokes and high spirits.

Our island compatriots in their freighter canoe approaching The Duts'al Dhäl on the last leg of the trip.

Barb led us in Pilates exercises in the mornings to keep us from stiffening up while Peter tracked our journey on his GPS. I refrained from asking our average speed.

We stopped for lunch at Chamia and relaxed before ending the day at Policeman's Point just another two bends down the river.

The fleet approaches the upper end of Lake Laberge, a successful trial. Next year we'll tackle something more ambitious.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Egg Island Retreat

Mid-summer and not a single multi-day trip on the river. I decided to just bail from the house and camp out on Egg Island for a few days. Not far downriver from our home, Egg Island, like most of the islands and sandbars in the Yukon River, is egg-shaped. However, unlike many of the other egg-shaped islands, Egg Island is in a good place to go camping. Thus it is celebrated by being named Egg Island.

Launching the boat at Takhini Crossing is sometimes a challenge. Loaded for a trip it is heavy and once in the river it wants to leave on the current. Launching solo requires finesse, back the truck up to the river's edge, tie off the boat to a tree, carefully lay out the painter so the truck doesn't run over it as the trailer is backed into the river. When the top of the trailer fenders are underwater - hopefully before the truck starts to float - jam the brakes on, watch the boat float off the trailer (or not, in which case start over) and once it is clear drive the truck forward pulling the trailer from under the boat. Quickly jump out of the truck, grab the painter and pull the boat fast to shore and then jump back into the truck and get out of the boat ramp. Finally return to the boat, pull on the life jacket and start the trip. Maybe the engine starts right away or maybe you decide to float downstream for the first few minutes.

Its a short run to Egg Island. Past the Adamson fish camp - only another week or so until the salmon arrive - and around the bend I pull up on the downstream end of the island and nuzzle into the bank close by the camp spot. Unload the boat, carry the drybag with tent, clothes and sleeping bag to the camp site, haul the kitchen box and cooler over to the picnic table in the grove of spruce and heave ropes and tarp under the table for later.

Previous visitors have left a sculpture. A short log stands upright under a tripod of driftwood sticks. On top of the log is an array of tiny pine cones looking like plump little dancers in a circle. On one side a long slim willow wand is anchored in the sand, the sharpened end points at one of the pine cones. Perhaps a boreal forest pine cone henge? Later during my stay I move the wand slightly walking by and magically the pine cones, each leaning on the next, begin to turn and spin on top of the log. Each cone follows its own erratic curve off the edge of the log. While it offered only one performance I am impressed by the maestro who set this up.

I settle in with a good book and watch the river. A loud buzz catches my ear. Before I can place the sound a brilliant red float plane roars past, not more than 5 metres above the water slightly more from the trees shielding me from its wingtip. I stop worrying about mosquitoes after that.

After dinner and a placid hour or so reading a book beside the river I head to bed. I'm awakened in the darkness by the sound of rain on the tent fly. Quickly, and naked, I'm out of the tent scrambling through the cold shower groping for the tarp under the picnic table, trying to keep my spread out gear dry. I'm now paying the price for a lazy evening. Back in bed I warm up and slumber into the morning. First job; set up the tarp, then coffee.

Later in the morning I float downriver to the sandbars around the corner where I find eight campers just rising to make breakfast. All are in their late twenties and come from eastern and central Canada. Well educated and already into their careers, cutbacks and economic malaise closed their future and they found each other in the break backing primary labour field, replanting shorn forests in the backwoods of British Columbia. They are recession refugees, economic victims with interrupted lives. One of them had previously lived in Dawson City and they all agreed to a float down the Yukon River after their work ended. Although the future was grey their spirits were high and they were taking advantage of the "found time" in their lives. I wished them the best and continued downriver towards Lake Laberge.

The Duts'al Dhäl (grey rock mountain in the Southern Tutchone language) is at the upper end of the lake. At the base of The Duts'al Dhäl is Chamia (where you set fish nets), the camping spot of Tachokaii - the creator figure of Yukon River Athapaskan culture - where he dreamed the first canoe into existence. A few years ago a First Nation carving group reproduced Tachokaii's work, working through the summer making a traditional cedar canoe. We live in a marvelously rich place. Forest fire smoke from further north wreathed through the valley towards the end of day.

About 5:30 I returned to Takhini Crossing and picked up my wife, just back from work. I opened a bottle of wine and we prepared a fine dinner of spinach salad and cassoulet. The evening passed delightfully with a colourful sunset and the coolness of dusk ushering us to the tent. Early in the morning, after a quick coffee, it was time to return to the car and send her off to work. Another relaxing day on the river for me.