Sockeye Cycle’s Klondike Canoe & Bike Tour
A trip report by Todd Matson
with photos by Howard Naness and Friedrich Kommoss
18 August 2013
Last month, I had the
of joining Sockeye Cycle for their Klondike Canoe & Bike Tour.
For those who would like to know more about that tour, here is my
personal account of the July 2013 trip.
I signed up for the tour with my friend Howard. We spent Sunday traveling from Los Angeles to Whitehorse. In Whitehorse, we met Fred from Germany, who was also on the tour, and on Monday morning the three of us caught a plane to Dawson City.
The Klondike Canoe & Bike Tour starts with an optional three days at the Dawson City Music Festival. Fred, Howard, and I had all chosen to skip the festival, so when we arrived in Dawson City, it was for the canoe portion of the trip.
Upon arriving in Dawson, we were each given a tent, a sleeping bag, a sleeping pad, and a dry bag. The dry bag was too small for all our gear, so we had to decide what to bring for the canoe portion of the trip. Everything else was sent ahead to Eagle for the bike portion. I had a hard time deciding what to bring, so I over-packed a bit. No harm done; better to over-pack than under-pack.
After packing, Howard and I walked to the sports store and bought fishing licenses. Then we headed down to the river where everyone was waiting for us so they could launch the canoes and start the voyage. Before we put the canoes into the water, Thom gave us a safety talk – don't drown, don't get eaten by a bear, stuff like that.
We were all
given canisters of
pepper spray to fend off bears. Thom cautioned us never to spray the
stuff upwind, because it would just blow right back into our faces.
«What happens if the bear is charging from
upwind?», we wondered. Thom's reply: «Just sidestep the bear
face him downwind.» Thanks for the advice, Thom, but I
if I'm agile enough to sidestep a charging bear, I'm probably agile
enough to get him into a headlock and pin him down, so I'll just do
It was late morning when we started down the river. The Yukon River is wide and the current is fast. I was impressed by how quickly we were swept downriver. Everywhere along the river, we could see eddies, areas of stronger currents, and places where the surface was unexpectedly roiling, suggesting hidden features below.
There was also a fair amount of flotsam on the river. Inevitably, there would be some tree branch moving faster than us somewhere on the river. It was tempting to think we could speed up by following the fastest currents. In practice, however, the currents were always changing, and it was futile to chase after fast water.
The Yukon is a quiet river, but at places where the current pushes up against a rocky bank, it makes a loud noise which sounds like cascading rapids. That noise made it seem dangerous to approach the bank at a bend in the river sometimes, but when we would get close, we could see that it was all sound and no fury. I felt very safe at all times.
Close to Dawson City,
a wreck of an
old stern-wheeler along the bank. That got everyone talking about the
gold-rush days, when the river was the main artery of commerce for the
region. Thom told us stories about that time. He has a wealth of
knowledge about the gold rush, as well as
the modern economy of the region, the native people, the wild plants
and animals, and even the geology. He brought along several
interesting books about the Yukon, and he gave us the opportunity to
read them during the trip.
Photo: Todd Matson
We didn't spend much time on the river the first day. We pulled up on the bank where the Fifteenmile River joins the Yukon, and we made camp there.
We soon discovered bear footprints. Lots of bear footprints. Shannon told us they were made by a brown bear, but we couldn't tell how long ago the bear had been there.
It turns out the Yukon River is very muddy. During our trip, it was warm enough to swim in, but nobody wanted to do so because you'd come out dirtier than you went in. In contrast, the Fifteenmile River was nice and clear, so everybody took a dip, even though the water was very cold.
Where the cold, clear water of the Fifteenmile meets the warm, muddy water of the Yukon, there is a distinct line in the water which fishermen call the "mud line". That's the place to look for fish. Gina gave me a lesson in fly casting, and I tried that for a while with no luck. Then I switched to a traditional rod and caught a grayling and a pike, both at the mud line. Jeremy caught a whitefish there too. We let them all go. (Actually, the grayling escaped...)
Fortunately, the group wasn't
relying on our fishing skills for dinner. Our hosts had brought along
some salmon which they cooked over an open fire. They also
brought a mini-keg of ale. With some couscous and vegetables, we had a
Around this time, someone more attentive than me noticed that our shoreline was disappearing. In fact, the water was rising quite rapidly. We had to pull the canoes up higher on the shore a couple of times before going to bed, then again in the middle of the night. Some of the canoes had been beached on a little spit of sand which later became an island, then disappeared completely. And the fire pit we used for dinner became totally submerged overnight. Days later, when we talked to the rangers in Eagle, we learned that the river had risen that night at the fastest rate for more than a month. We speculated that this was because recent rains far upstream were finally reaching that part of the river.
This being summer at high latitude, the sun stayed up forever. The others took advantage of the light by playing bocce ball until an unreasonable hour. I, being the sensible one, went to bed long before sunset, but Howard stayed up late enough to see the sun descend low over the river.
I woke early the next morning
and found a beaver patrolling the river just outside our campsite. He
seemed quite agitated. He would swim back and forth for a while, then
thump his tail loudly on the water and dive under for a minute, come
up, and do it again. I'm not sure what he was trying to accomplish, but
he was expending a lot of energy doing it.
Our second day on the river was a glorious clear sunny day. We were all relaxed, sociable, and in the mood to explore.
Before lunch, we stopped at a small creek and spent some time panning for gold. Fred found a tiny speck about the size of a grain of sand. Someone passed along a piece of gold-miner wisdom that you should look for gold not where the creek is now, but where the creek was a few hundred years ago. I particularly like that idea, not because of its relevance to prospecting, but because it helps to remind everyone of how incredibly dynamic the landscape is, with shifting creeks and rivers, and the mountains themselves slowly moving downstream as sediment.
We stopped at Forty Mile for lunch. That was the only place during the entire trip where we were unduly beset by mosquitos. When planning the trip, both Howard and I had given some thought to our mosquito strategy. Howard had heard that mosquitos are attracted to dark colors and ignore light colors, so he deliberately wore light colored clothing. I, on the other hand, had heard that mosquitos are repelled by garlic, so I deliberately ate a lot of garlic. I added a whole clove to the smoked salmon I was eating for lunch. I wish I could report on which strategy was most effective. In the end, however, we both cheated and used some of Gina's deet-free mosquito repellent.
Forty Mile is somewhat
interesting. It was the Yukon's first town, but is now completely
except for a caretaker whose job is to preserve the place for
historical interest. A few of the old cabins are still standing, and
you can walk through the town and read about its history on signs that
have been erected there.
At the start of the trip, I expected that getting into and out of the canoe would involve some discomfort as we got our feet wet again and again. In fact, the opposite was true. The water was warm and the mud was so soft and comfortable that it was a joy to feel against the skin. By the second day on the river, I stopped wearing sandals and went around barefoot instead. To avoid tracking mud into the canoe, I developed the habit of launching the canoe with my feet dangling in the water so I could rinse them off before treading on the hull.
We had some bad luck in the afternoon of our second day. Thom had chosen a few places along the river where he hoped we could make camp, but they all turned out to be unsuitable. As it happens, the river is changing all the time, so you can't rely on a particular spot to be a good campsite from one year to the next, or even from one month to the next. As a result, we had to paddle downstream much farther than expected, stopping every 30 minutes or so to scout a new location. I found it tiring, but quite exhilarating too.
Eventually, we found a great campsite on an island. I pitched my tent among some wildflowers which were swarming with bees. Elsewhere, Shannon found some caterpillars which particularly fascinated her.
We had an excellent halibut
dinner that night. Once again, I turned in early, but the others
continued the bocce madness and Howard stayed up late enough
to snap a photo of the
full moon rising above the river.
Photo: Howard Naness
Our third day on the river, we started to see some cloud cover, but it was a pleasant day nonetheless. We didn't have far to go, so we were able to move at a leisurely pace.
Sometime that morning, we crossed the border between Canada and the U.S. I was expecting a sign or some other symbol reflecting the grandeur of the United States. All we saw, however, was a line cut through the trees and a Yukon flag.
When we reached Eagle,
Alaska, there was some confusion about where to land the canoes.
Everyone passed the take-out point and had to paddle against a strong
current to get back. The ones who had it worst were Thom &
Keltie in one canoe and Howard & Fred in another. They had to
paddle at full strength for 10 or 15 minutes until they could reach an
eddy where the current was weak and they could make headway upstream.
It was a fun challenge and a great way to end the paddling portion of
Eagle is a small town with fewer than 100 people. It has a small grid of dirt streets joining together several small wooden houses, a grocery store, a laundromat, a defunct pool hall, and a courthouse/museum. At the outskirts of town, Fort Egbert is preserved as a historic site. There is a ranger station there too. And all this lies below Eagle Bluff, a dominating rock which rises above the eastern edge of town. Eagle would be quite charming, but the effect is disturbed by a large concrete building being built in the middle of town. It just seems out of place. I wonder how it will look when construction is completed.
Twice in the past decade, Eagle has been flooded during the spring thaw. We stayed in a bed & breakfast which was carried 30 feet uphill by the ice during a flood. Later, the building was moved back to its original location, and now shows no evidence of the ordeal except a few broken beams.
After unloading the canoes and settling into the bed & breakfast, Thom and Dustin brought the bikes out for us. I was given a Rockhopper, and I took it for a test ride. The shifters on the Sockeye Cycle bikes were somewhat unconventional. To release tension, you had to push rather than pull. It took me a full day to get used to that, and in the meantime, I would frequently find myself in the wrong gear by mistake. But that was really a minor thing, and the bike was excellent in all other respects.
Toward the evening, the whole group went out together for a ride around town. The mosquitoes were out, but we discovered that they wouldn't bother us if we kept moving at a moderate speed.
Jeremy found a couple short
stretches of single
track for us to ride on. I almost wiped out when I made the mistake of
trying to downshift quickly while climbing out of a ditch. As luck
would have it, I recovered gracefully and no one even noticed that I
had lost my balance momentarily.
While we were biking, someone spotted a sheep high on Eagle Bluff. The bed & breakfast had a telescope, so when we finished the ride, I set it up to look at the sheep. Then someone suggested there was a second sheep nearby. With the power of the telescope, I confidently announced that, no, the second sheep was just a rock. Then Dustin looked through the telescope and determined that the second sheep was not only a sheep, but a mature ram with a large pair of horns. Dustin is a better sheep spotter than I am.
There was a guided tour of the town and Fort Egbert scheduled for Thursday morning. Some of us thought we might join the tour, but when we found out it wasn't free, we decided to hang out at the ranger station instead. The rangers seemed quite happy to have company. The ranger station had a gift shop, and Fred bought several postcards depicting the unique flowers and plants of the region. I thought that was silly at first, but Fred referred to those postcards several times over the next few days, and I now realize they made an excellent reference guide to the local flora.
Eventually, it was time to start the bike ride. Keltie was training for a footrace, so she elected to run instead of ride. She got an early start, and the rest of us followed later on the bikes.
Everyone wore rain gear because the sky was bleak. There was a short period of light rain, and for a while it seemed that we might be in for a wet, muddy day. Soon, however, the rain went away and the road dried up. After that, we didn't experience rain again for the rest of the trip.
The first leg of the ride involved a significant elevation gain. Before we started, I naively expected to cover about ten miles per hour. The first fifteen miles were mostly uphill, though, and we went at only about half that pace.
At lunchtime, Thom parked the
van on a gentle ridge along the road. It was very windy there,
the view was amazing. It was there that I learned about fireweed.
Fireweed is a purple flower found all over Yukon and Alaska. It takes
root quickly after a disturbance like a fire, forming vast fields of
purple. It was in bloom while we were there, and was quite remarkable.
Fireweed is sometimes called "Alaska's Calendar" because it blooms
from the bottom to the top over the course of the summer. When the very
top is blooming, Alaskans know summer is almost over.
By my odometer, we traveled 39 miles that first day. For a while, we followed a beautiful stream. I was hoping we would make camp somewhere near the stream so we could fish it. At the end of the day, however, we did a big climb which took us high above the stream and, by my reckoning, about four miles away. For an ambitious moment, I thought I might like to hike down for some fishing, but then I realized I was actually quite tired after the day's ride, and was content to relax at the campsite.
We spent that night in a gravel
quarry. The quarry was much more pleasant than you would expect. Howard, Fred, and I
pitched our tents at the top of a knoll and were able to look out over
an endless expanse of boreal wilderness.
Photo: Todd Matson
Photo: Todd Matson
The next day started off with a stretch of about 10 miles which was mostly downhill. Along the way, we found abundant blueberries by the side of the road. The first time we found blueberries, we thought it might be a rare thing, so we ate as many as we could and saved others for later. It turns out they were not rare; we found many more blueberries along the way, and were surrounded by them at our campsite.
Sometime during the day, we came across about a hundred caribou. Shannon told us they were a small part of the Fortymile caribou herd, which was once huge, but was almost wiped out during the gold rush. It is now on the upswing again, but nowhere near the size it used to be.
Eventually, we came to the Fortymile River. This was the same river we saw joining the Yukon River at the Forty Mile settlement days earlier, but now we were miles uphill, and the river was a clear mountain stream perfect for fishing. Howard, Fred, Jeremie, and I all tried our luck, but we were all skunked. Gina told me she could see trout chasing after my fly, but I think maybe she was pulling my leg.
After fishing, we hit the road again. Since leaving Eagle, we had been on the Taylor Highway headed south, but sometime in the afternoon we came to a junction and turned east onto the Top of the World Highway. Both highways are compacted dirt roads. The Taylor Highway had almost no traffic – maybe five or six cars during the entire day and a half we spent on it. The Top of the World Highway was much busier, with a few cars per hour. For the most part, the cars were polite and slowed down for us, but I was always concerned that a car might kick up some gravel, so I tried to be extra cautious whenever they passed by.
On the Top of the World Highway,
there was a stretch of about five miles where construction was going
on. On mountain bikes, we were well equipped to handle the rough roads
of the construction zone. In one area where the road was torn up, I
found I was
gaining on a little compact car, and I made a race out of it. I was
able to catch up to his bumper before he reached smooth road and
Photo: Howard Naness
After what seemed like a long day of riding, we hit a short hill and came to the town of Boundary, Alaska. Reaching that town gave us a false sense that we were near the end of the day's ride. In fact, we still had a long way to go. Between Boundary and the U.S. / Canada border were four miles of steep climbing. It took about an hour to cover that short distance.
After crossing the border, we still weren't done. We found a couple of good-looking campsites, but they were clearly marked "No Camping", so we had to move on. Eventually, Thom found a nice looking spot which was bordered by meadows of fireweed and a white flower whose name I forget. By the time we reached that site, my odometer said we had done forty-four miles.
It was very windy when we made
camp. There were some places in the meadow shielded from the wind, and
I thought I would try to pitch my tent there, but I discovered that
the ground was too wet. In fact, there was only a small area
of dry ground suitable for tents. Howard, Fred, and I all helped
other to put up our tents because without cooperation it would have been
difficult to prevent things from flying away in the wind.
The wind was an opportunity for Thom. He had brought a parasailing wing along. We all walked up to the top of a hill, where Thom set up his gear, then launched himself into the sky. He stayed aloft for about a half hour before doing a perfect landing back at the campsite.
On our hike, we spotted some marmots. It was a family of marmots, with adults and adolescents. Everyone remarked on how fat the marmots were, but I thought they were skinny compared to the variety we have back home in the Sierras.
Eventually, the wind died down
and we had a pleasant dinner. There was more bocce ball, but I don't
think anyone stayed up very late that
night; we were all tired after a long day of cycling.
Photo: Todd Matson
The next day was Saturday, and a short day for us. We only did about twenty-nine miles.
At one point, Jeremie and Thom were cruising comfortably ahead of everyone else. Fred and I decided we would try to catch them, so we put the bikes into high gear and drafted each other for a couple of miles. We didn't catch Jeremie and Thom, but we closed the distance considerably, and it felt good to get the bikes up to speed on level ground for a while.
Because we covered only a short distance, it seemed that we reached camp early and spent most of the day there. This was our last night camping, and everyone was comfortable with the routine by now.
While we were snacking, Jeremie informed us that potato chips are not only a high-calorie food good for camping, but can be used as firestarter in a pinch. We challenged him to prove it, so he lit one up.
One curious thing about the trip
is that, although we were surrounded by forests, we never camped near
trees. This was a disappointment for me because I had brought a hammock
and intended to sleep in it at every chance I got. On Saturday, for the
first time, our campsite had two trees suitable for a hammock. They
were skinny little trees, and I had some doubt about whether
they could support my weight, but I put up my hammock anyway. Fred says
that when I was in the hammock, the trees bent an alarming distance
towards each other. Nevertheless, they held my weight and I spent an enjoyable
night sleeping outdoors.
Photo: Todd Matson
Photo: Todd Matson
Sunday was our last day on the road. We finished the 24 miles into Dawson City with little excitement. Both Howard and Thom got flat tires, the only ones of the trip, but they were easily fixed.
The last stretch into Dawson City is paved and is downhill, so we were able to get some serious speed. We ended up on the wrong side of the river, so we had to wait for the ferry to take us across. Then it was on to the hotel, where we unpacked and put an end to the wilderness portion of the trip.
There was still a lot of time left in the day, so we all went to the top of the Midnight Dome, just outside the city. Thom jumped off it with his parasail. Gina, Fred, Howard, and I rode down on our bicycles. That ride was even steeper and faster than the earlier ride down to Dawson City had been.
Later in the day, several of us
went to Gertie's casino for the old-timey dancing girl show. Then we
went to watch some live music. When I went to bed, the others were
starting another game of bocce ball. Apparently, it was epic. They
played right through the streets of the city and stopped traffic.
The next day was spent getting people where they needed to go. We all jumped into the van and headed for Whitehorse, then Skagway. Everyone scattered along the way, so Howard and I were on our own in Skagway.
Thom suggested that we head over to Haines and take a couple of Sockey Cycle bikes to Chilkoot Lake for one last bit of fishing at the end of our trip. That's exactly what we did. To our delight, the salmon were running, and it was amazing to see them jumping out of the water. Unfortunately, salmon don't bite while they're running, and we weren't geared to catch them anyway. We were hoping for some trout or dolly varden, but we didn't catch any of those either. I blame the warm weather.
While we were fishing on the Chilkoot River, someone warned us that a bear was on the way. It turns out there were two bears – a mother and her cub. We were told that the mother was well-known around Haines, and her name is "Speedy". We were able to walk up onto a bridge and look down on Speedy as she walked to the exact spot we had been fishing. It was very good luck for us; we were close to the bears without being in any danger.
While we watched, Speedy waded
into the river and caught a salmon. After Speedy chewed on it for a
while, the cub came up and took what was left away from her.
Photo: Howard Naness
Photo: Todd Matson
Photo: Todd Matson
Howard and I had a few more
adventures in Haines and Juneau, but the
Sockeye Cycle portion of the trip was effectively over at this point. I
hope that my narrative conveys our sense of enjoyment. I feel lucky to
have spent time in such a wondeful new place,
with a great group of people.
Photo: Howard Naness