Big river rapids go smoothly under bow

YUKON: Kayakers find Five Fingers navigable in the right channel.

July 1, 2011 

Ben Histand is spending the summer kayaking the length of the Yukon River, 1,900 miles through Canada and Alaska. He will file occasional dispatches from the field. Originally from Soldotna, he now lives in Anchorage.

We pulled out of Carmacks after a one-day layover with full stomachs and light boats. Excess weight (water reserves, mainly) was disposed of in town, and we tried to batten down everything on the decks as much as possible in anticipation of what was to come.

Twenty miles downstream of Carmacks, the Yukon -- by now almost too wide to shout across and churning along at a brisk five mph -- is abruptly forced through a row of house-size basalt towers. It's a rare example of an obstacle that's been able to withstand the river's awesome weathering power. The resulting turbulence -- three-foot waves are common -- is known as Five Finger Rapids.

In older days, the rapids were enough of a nuisance to steamboats that one of the gaps in the basalt was widened with dynamite. More recently, the rapids have claimed the lives of several paddlers and commanded the wide-eyed attention of many more, including myself.

Twenty miles was plenty of time to imagine sinking steamboats and flipped kayaks. But when the rough water finally arrived, I took the right-hand channel as all the guidebooks said, looked up at the rock and down at the waves, and then watched my kayak bob straight through, seeming more than up to the task regardless of any guidance from me.

Having passed the rapids, ballast was no longer a concern and we started looking for a place to fill our water tanks. The Yukon carries silt by the ton and is about as murky as a bowl of pudding, so we zig-zagged downstream, nosing our kayaks into the mouths of small tributaries.

But even then it was hard to find good water, because the majority of the creeks were darkly stained by minerals. We turned away from eight inky creeks in a row. As we drank the last swigs of our remaining water, I began to wonder if there was a connection between all these tainted streams and the mineral richness of the Klondike, which we were fast approaching.

Finally we came to a stream with clear water. A porcupine was there too, but I was thirstier and made him move.

The Yukon must be among the least road-affected rivers in the world. Back at Carmacks we had seen one of only two bridges over the Yukon that we will pass on this trip, which made it a significant landmark. We arrived at the bridge on wheels, having left our kayaks at a campground outside of town that offered complimentary bicycles. Freed from the boat, my legs sang as I pedaled. The bridge was also a rare chance to see the river from above, and it looked humongous.

Our first order of business in Carmacks was finding something tasty to eat. We quickly established that there was one hotel, one grocery store and one restaurant (which happened to be closed when we arrived). This being Canada, there was also a full-size hockey rink. I asked the cashier at the grocery store about the restaurant and she said, "Oh, you don't want to eat there, I eat there every day!"

She convinced us. But there was still plenty to make Carmacks a feast for the senses, between the bikes, cars, people and the chips and salsa and root beer from the grocery store. We ate a bacon sandwich at the campground cafe and shared a cup of coffee that tasted like much, much more than just a cup of coffee.

Now, with plenty of water to drink, the rapids behind us, and a quickening current, it won't be long before we're drinking coffee in Dawson.

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