Yukon River Expedition – Shipyard Island to Carmacks

I want to apologize to our readers for such a lengthy delay in getting part two of this article published. Sometimes life simply gets in the way and you find yourself pulled in a million different directions. To cope, you prioritize and unfortunately this is one of the things that was put on the back burner. That being said, we are happy once again to recount part  2 of  our adventure down the mighty Yukon River.

Day 5

Passing by a freshly burned patch of wilderness.

After saying goodbye to our new-found friends at Hootalinqua and Shipyard Island, we proceeded to head down river. We had received reports that the next 30 miles might be very dangerous and to proceed with caution as a forest fire had been burning on both sides of the river for the past couple of weeks. We made it just a couple of clicks downriver when we started witnessing the devastation. Both sides of the river were charred black.

Hotspots still smoldered and we moved through patches of smoke as we continued towards our goal for the evening of Big Salmon. Occasionally we would round a bend and still see certain ridge tops aflame and the smell of burnt earth was heavy in the air. Fire fighting in the remote Yukon wilderness is a real challenge. With no road infrastructure, the only way to combat fire is with hot-shot crews that parachute in and with airplanes dropping retardant. In this case, it looked as if the Canadian government had decided to let this fire burn out naturally and burn it did.

Yet even here there were signs of life. Already fresh blades of grass were making their way through early sections of the burn, a testament to the power of nature to heal herself if given time.

New Life Already Beginning

At times ash fell like faint snow. At others the smoldering smoke hung like a misty fog.  Lightning strikes, fires and re-growth are part of the natural cycle of things and the Yukon Government has taken a mostly hands off approach with land management in regards to fires. This is partly by necessity due to the lack of access and development and partly as an attempt at sound land management practices. It was interesting seeing this at work. All the land is at different stages of growth: blackened hillsides stripped to bare trunks like porcupine quills, or a bright blush of the pink Fireweed flower that is always the first thing to grow after fire, a sign of hope like when you first notice that a bad haircut is beginning to grow out. Then comes bushes, then poplars, and then, at last, the spruce trees return.

As we passed river mile 122, we looked for the remains of the hull of Steamship Klondike. Unfortunately with the water being as high as it was, there was nothing to be seen. The Klondike was built and 1929 and was the largest sternwheeler on the upper river, at 210 feet. Upon her completion, she was immediately put to work ferrying cargo and passengers up and down the river from Whitehorse to Dawson City. In 1936, the ship, with an inexperienced pilot at the wheel, failed to successfully make a bend in the river and smashed into the rocky cliffs at river mile 95. The boat immediately was out of control. One passenger reported that “she buckled along her whole 210 feet of length… and started to sink… as she drifted helplessly, bumping and making more holes at each bend.”

Rescue attempts were haphazard, but eventually all passengers made it to safety, some having been rescued from their cabins by chopping down the doors with axes. A few cows were lost as was nearly all of the gear and freight that Klondike was carrying. Some of it was salvaged by folks as far down as Fort Selkirk at river mile 296.

The SS Klondike shortly after the wreck

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