Yukon River Expedition – Carmacks to Fort Selkirk
After restocking our supplies and taking on fresh water, we left the Coal Mine Campground refreshed and ready to take on one of the biggest challenges of our trip, Five Finger Rapids. We bid Moto farewell and wished each other luck and slipped into the fast current. As we slipped quickly down river, we passed under the bridge at Carmacks after a few short minutes and were only a few hours out of Five Finger Rapids.
The majority of the Yukon River is Class I flat water. Five Finger and Rink Rapids are the only stretches on the river below Whitehorse where one has to deal with Class II- III water depending on flows. The rapids are always the topic of much worry and discussion among boaters heading to Dawson City, no doubt spurred on by the tales of numerous deaths and accidents at the rapids through the years.
Five Finger Rapids does have a very grim history. During the gold rush of 1898 it claimed many lives, mainly due to poorly constructed rafts and boats. A dramatic if not outrageous description of Five Fingers Rapids from the gold rush days:
“Beyond these dangerous rapids there was a small police station on shore, and near it a special sort of net was stretched across the river so that all the people that were drowned could be caught in it and their identity established. The water is very rough for about a mile before reaching this net, and we were constantly tossed up and down. If anyone manages to get safely past this spot at the moment they have taken corpses out of the water, they are obliged to dig a grave and bury one corpse on a hill overlooking the river. This work is compulsory, and each miner is paid ten dollars for the task.”
Five Finger Rapids gets its name from Five basalt columns rise for the riverbed, forming channels the river must run between. The four channels to the left are impassable, many obstructions and class five rapids and not safely navigable.
Only one of the Five Finger channels was deep enough for the sternwheelers, but the current remained very strong. At low water, the boats could steam right up and through it. At high water, the falls created a 2-3 foot shelf. A sternwheeler ascending the rapid could only move up over the shelf until the wheel lifted out of the water and then the vessel lost power.The rapids were a significant enough hazard that water levels were watched far in advance with old pilot charts giving river markers noting on how to handle the channel depending on flows.
As the river funnels through the constricted channels, its speed is increased substantially. For this reason, steamers usually had to be winched through when travelling against the current. A cable that was anchored in the rocks was used to wench the sternwheelers up-stream. It took 15 – 20 minutes for a power-capstan on the deck to pull the vessels through the channel.
In 1903, the sternwheeler Mary F. Graff touched bottom at Five Fingers and cracked several hull frames. In 1911 there were complaints that nearly every season there was an accident caused by a steamer striking the rocks at Five Finger.
Blasting work started at Five Finger in 1900 and continued until at least 1927. Rock was removed and the channel widened by 20 feet.
After a quick break on an island for a bite to eat and a stretch break, we pushed on towards the rapids. Our goal for the day was to make it past both Five Fingers and Rink Rapids and to camp either at Yukon Crossing or shortly thereafter.
As we rounded a bend, the famous rock pillars stood into the view. We had been hugging the right shore for quite some time and were well prepared to get lined up for our run through the rapids. Our adrenalin was really pumping, heightened I’m sure by the late night discussions the night before discussing the rapids and the very high water levels and the number of fatalities from years past. Even now every couple of years the rapids will claim a victim or two as people attempt the wrong channel or are not prepared.
As the river picked up even more speed, we lined up for the center of the V and the first of half a dozen standing waves encompassed the Delta kayaks. The Deltas due to their wonderful primary and secondary stability and being loaded with gear with a very low center of gravity merely plunged right through the waves and our Kokatat paddling suits and spray skirts kept us nice and dry. In a few short seconds we were through the rapids and a few minutes later swung into the right channel below the rapids and pulled on to the bank of an island to survey our gear and celebrate our success!
We were a bit trepidatious about going through the rapids in touring kayaks prior to the trip. This was further exacerbated by pictures of kayakers tossed out of their boats during the Yukon River Quest that we had seen and due to the extremely high water levels we were floating the river at which produce the largest standing waves due to the hydraulics of the channel. However, the Deltas handled it with aplomb and again, I cannot recommend them enough for a Yukon River trip. They have the low weight, gear capacity, durability, and stability that one needs on a trip such as this.