How to Paddle the Yukon River


The Yukon River is one of the most storied rivers in Canada. With an epic history typically associated with the Klondike Gold Rush, the river’s incredible geological, ecological and human history spans millennia. The section of the river from Whitehorse to Dawson City is about 700 kilometres long and is one of the most worthwhile canoe trips in the country for a range of canoe trippers.



Getting There

The ease of access is one of the Yukon River’s assets. Multiple airlines fly into Whitehorse daily from cities including Vancouver and Edmonton. It is also connected to BC and Alaska via the Stewart Cassiar and Alaska Highways.


Equipment and Supplies

Danielle Howlett 

Several canoe tripping outfitters have storefronts in Whitehorse that are walking distance to the river such as Kanoe People, Yukon Wide Adventures and Up North Adventures. They offer canoe and equipment rentals, guided trips and the option to drive you and your equipment to or from different put-in and take-out points on the river. Yukon Outfitters Directory also has a directory of outfitters around the territory. Whitehorse is a small city with several supermarkets and camping stores, so you can buy food and fuel in town.


How Long

The Yukon River has a fast current and with the exception of Lake Laberge, it is feasible to cover over 100 kilometres in a day without much difficulty. To savour the experiences offered by the river, I recommend setting aside 12-14 days to get to Dawson City.



Mike Rourke’s Yukon River mapbook includes detailed hand-drawn maps from the Marsh Lake headwaters upstream of Whitehorse to Dawson City and labels campsites, Klondike relics, geological features and a summary of the river’s history on a kilometre-by-kilometre basis.


Drinking Water

The Yukon River becomes progressively siltier as you move downstream, quickly clogging pump filters. Refill bottles at clearer tributary creeks or bring a collapsible bucket and let the water sit overnight to let some silt settle. Boil or purify with Pristine or similar.


Hazards and Safety

Danielle Howlett 

While I’ve heard hardcore paddlers scoff at the lack of portages and single mandatory rapid—the Five Finger Rapids—the Yukon River should not be taken too lightly. At high flows, the Five Finger Rapids swell in size, meaning a dump here results in a long, cold swim. The 50-kilometre paddle along Lake Laberge is often fraught with afternoon lightning storms and the high winds form dangerous whitecaps. These hazards can be managed with a bit of experience, caution and common sense, so this river is accessible for canoe trippers with moderate experience as well as families with motivated kids. The amount of access points along the river makes it easy enough to be broken into smaller legs, or to avoid hazardous spots. More experienced paddlers can also start the trip on a tributary like the Takhini River to add whitewater. The Yukon is home to large mammals including grizzly bears, so carry bear spray and know how and when to use it. Keep a clean campsite with your food stowed securely and follow Leave No Trace principles.



I paddled the Yukon River with a sedimentary geologist and a forest ecologist. Along with the people we met along the way and the small library of fiction and nonfiction that we brought downriver, we concluded that this river undoubtedly has something that will interest everyone. 



Danielle Howlett

It’s impossible to miss the plethora of Klondike Gold Rush artifacts scattered along the river and its banks all the way to Dawson City. The more spectacular stops include Hootalinqua, a gathering site for Southern and Northern Tutchone and Tlingit people at the confluence of the Yukon and Teslin (Délin Chú) Rivers. During the Klondike, the influx of miners resulted in the establishment of a post office, police station and other structures that are still (mostly) standing. Downstream on Shipyard Island, the 130-foot-long wreck of the S.S. Evelyn is mind-boggling to see parked on a remote river.

Be sure to stop at Fort Selkirk just past the confluence with the Pelly River (Ts’ekínyäk Chú), which is in the homelands of the Selkirk First Nation (Northern Tutchone) and was used for at least eight millennia before being forcibly taken over by the Hudson’s Bay Company in the mid-19th century. Today it’s a historic site managed by the Selkirk First Nation with a campground and interesting people to talk to about Selkirk history, how the river has changed in recent decades and what campsites to avoid downstream because they’re in a local grizzly bear’s territory.



Keen observers will be able to track the history of the region’s forests through the fire scars. Some streak like tiger stripes up hillsides, intersecting with sections of unburnt forest where slightly more moisture was probably available. Combined with meadows of fireweed, many decades of forest history are sometimes visible at the same time.



Leaving Whitehorse, you’ll initially experience the meandering river exposing cutbanks composed of glacial sediments and formations from older river systems. The river transforms downstream into a braided system with prominent evolving gravel and sand bars when the silty White River (Tadzan ndek) joins, draining from the Kluane Mountains. Keep an eye out for the layer of white volcanic ash in cutbanks, deposited when Mount Churchill erupted in Alaska 1150 years ago. Towards Dawson City, the uplift of the mountains to the north exposes the gold veins that make the Klondike famous, which continues to erode and wash into river sediments as flakes and nuggets known as placer (pronounced “plasser”) gold.


Books to Bring

Worthwhile literature set in the Yukon River watershed includes Jack London’s The Call of the Wild and Robert Service’s poetry, particularly “The Cremation of Sam McGee” and “The Spell of the Yukon.” While much of the more famous Klondike literature is told from a colonial perspective, Life Lived Like a Story by Julie Cruikshank, Angela Sidney, Kitty Smith and Annie Ned shares important Indigenous perspectives on the Gold Rush.


Check out more on the Yukon: