It was over two years of planning, looking at maps, and figuring out if a route would or could connect. Our goal was to loop the Pacific Ocean to the Arctic Ocean via human powered travel. The trip would take us over 1000 miles, 4 resupplies, and two countries.
On June 15th 2022 we set out. The weather in Haines, Alaska was overcast and dreary. We had a few miles to paddle on the ocean and then we would be in the delta of the Chilkoot River, and needing to upstream a little ways until we got to our bikes. The biking was probably the section we had thought about the least, and so we did lots of ‘on the fly’ calculations of distance, time, speed, elevation in order to know where we were going and how long it would take.
After traveling just under 200 miles from Haines to Kluane Lake by bike, we finally transitioned to canoe, which would be our home for the next 2 months. We met the drop at the Techàl Dhâl Visitor Center, which is also where the Slims River used to flow into Kluane Lake but no longer does. Climate change has permanently changed the flow of the river, so that water melting from the Kaskawalch Glacier no longer flows into the Slims. It made me think seriously about what we were doing for our planet. The summer before we had been evacuated from our home for 2 weeks as firefighters battled a blaze that threatened to take our house and neighborhood. I remember checking CalTopo to see the latest fire updates and spreads, and little did I know that I would have to do that on this trip as well.
Starting off at Kluane Lake was hard as our muscles weren’t used to big days of paddling, and within the first 5 hrs I had to take many breaks and stretch my aching muscles. We were lucky that the wind held off because we knew wind on Kluane Lake could stall us for 2 -3 days. A town called Destruction Bay had been wiped clean off the map due to wind a few handfuls of years ago. So when we were met with glassy calm waters, it made me feel even more lucky.
Our CalTopo map had taken on a life of its own. When we started out we had maybe 20 – 50 things labeled, the overall route (which you can see on the left in the image below), and then some major milestones along the way. As we moved through the terrain, each day we would measure different routes, different sections, label important features such as active forest fires, big log jams, and turns in the river we needed to avoid. By the end of our 2 months, our map had grown to include over 400 labels, lines and markers (which you can see on the right in the image below).
Niki and her partner used the CalTopo mobile app to access and update their map, check distances, and navigate as they traveled the route. To learn more about using the mobile app, check out the Mobile Specific Tools and Functions page in the CalTopo user guide.
Kluane Lake flows into Kluane River and that was the start of a stressful 10 days of paddling. The rivers were all in flood- the Donjek, the White and the Yukon. We paddled these rivers defensively since they were mostly fast moving, 10 mph waters, flowing into log jams, sweepers and strainers. I felt like we had to be on our game the entire time. There wasn’t much relaxing and at night we would plot how far we wanted to go the next day. We’d map distances down to the foot. Sometimes I’d map two different routes just in case we needed to take a deeper channel than a smaller side one. It really allowed us to have confidence in the backcountry knowing we could check the surrounding area, plan our route, look for areas on Global Imagery where we could camp.
Those first few rivers were fast and furious, cold and rainy. Most days we were pulled off the river for a few hours because of thunder and lightning. Only a few times were we truly worried about the river rising and maybe flooding us. It wasn’t until we reached the Yukon river that we could relax a little, but it was a short paddle into Dawson from the White. Someone told us we could do it in one really long day but after already paddling 20 miles of the White we were too tired to go that whole way and just camped 20 miles from Dawson.
Dawson City was our next resupply and for that we were transitioning to light gear, less equipment, only the essentials; because we were about to start moving upstream towards the Continental Divide. We had scouted the river 2 years prior, and then again went 10 miles up the Chandindu before starting out in our canoe. We were moving anywhere from 1 mile an hour to something less than that. Our dry pants were leaking, filling up with water up to our ankles that made it feel like shackles tying you down to the river bottom. The water was cold and it took hours for our hands and feet to warm up after we were done with the river. Our gear was cold and wet and putting it on every morning was the worst part of the day. I remember looking at the map wondering what was a new channel or what was an old channel. It was hard to tell and because the river was in flood the maps weren’t all that accurate.
We realized quickly that the Chandindu was much faster than most rivers that people upstream. On average people upstream rivers that are anywhere from 3 – 7 feet per mile of gain, and the Chandindu was 35 feet per mile. This meant faster water, more hazards and by day 10 we realized we wouldn’t make it to Seela Pass before running out of food. At one point we thought we’d check out a winter trail someone had built for winter-travel. We heard it was about 500 meters to the north of where we were and our contact sent us GPS coordinates so we could pinpoint it exactly. Being able to punch these coordinates into the CalTopo mobile app with ease was a real treasure. We were cold, tired and hungry and being able to know where we were going without too much effort was priceless.
Since the Chandindu proved to be too hazardous, we turned back down and accessed Seela Pass via the Blackstone River. This meant we were upstreaming a river that was moving much slower and made it possible to get to the Continental Divide another way. Seela Pass was spectacular, we were in Tombstone Territorial Park and was one of my most favorite parts of the trip. The water was crystal blue, like nothing I had ever seen before, and the animals were amazing.
Seela Pass was the highest elevation we’d reach on the trip. Everything from that point onwards was downstream and it felt good to have that milestone behind us. As we transitioned back to the boat and started to paddle down the Blackstone, the ease of moving with the water instead of against it was real. The Blackstone is a spectacular river, winding its way through mountains and imposing rock. We did some hiking along the way, but mostly just navigated the class II whitewater, camped on gravel bars, and watched the crystal clear water flow beneath our boat and off our paddles.
The Blackstone flows into the Peel River, a river two to three times as large as the Blackstone! We had to be careful not to get caught in the middle of the river when a rapid was coming. There were some big class III rapids that we ran, damaging the boat on one, and some class IV rapids we lined around. On the Peel there is a class V section of whitewater, called Aberdeen Canyon, that we had to portage. The portage itself took us 2 days to complete. On day one we did 2 trips, first with our barrels the second with our dry bags. The second day we went back for the canoe and slogged it up and over trees, mud, muskeg, tussocks. It was super helpful to have creeks labeled on our CalTopo maps because the only landmark we had was that “the trail starts on river right after a creek”. We passed three creeks within this zone before finally stumbling upon the trail. We used the Scanned Topo layer on the mobile app heavily even though we knew they might be outdated. It was the best recon we could find and having them at our fingertips was so helpful. We’d usually compare the Scanned Topo maps with Global Imagery to have the best idea of what we had ahead of us.
And as we continued to paddle the Peel towards Fort McPherson, the river changed. Wind started to become a factor, and there were a few days that we couldn’t go anywhere because the wind was so fierce. Many more rivers flow into the Peel, so by the time we arrived at McPherson the river was slow moving and silty. We again, found ourselves looking forward to meal time and relaxing on the gravel bars.
Our final resupply was waiting for us at Fort McPherson, where big water awaited. The Peel flows into the Mackenzie, which is over 3 miles wide in places. We had to go upstream on the Mackenzie for a short period to get into the East Channel of the Mackenzie that would dump us out on the Arctic Ocean. Luckily the wind was virtually non-existent for turning the corner along Point Separation on the Mackenzie. As we neared Inuvik the wind picked up and we battled 3 foot waves for 3 miles as we came into town. We hadn’t planned on staying there but with the storm we knew we weren’t going to make it further than that.
After leaving Inuvik, the weather mostly cooperated. Although there was one night, close to the Arctic Ocean, where we almost got flooded out of our campsite. As the Makenzie delta rises and falls with the tide, we got caught in a 60 mph wind storm and had to find a new campsite at 7pm in the evening. We didn’t end up getting all our gear safely to a higher point on shore until about 9pm, and only at 11pm did we climb into wet gear to sleep.
We had some intel from the locals that we could go stay with some Reindeer Herders who lived most of the summer at a whaling camp called Whitefish. The Inuvialuit People manage the reindeer herd and we were lucky enough to dry out our gear and spend the night there.
The next day was our final paddle into Tuk, again the wind and weather shone bright smiles as we paddled the last 20 miles without a ripple on the horizon. The weather up there can change in an instant and we knew it wouldn’t be unlikely for us to be stuck for more than a few days waiting for the wind to clear. Luckily we caught a perfect window and had smooth sailing into Tuk. There were mixed emotions coming in. I was super excited and glad to have reached Tuk safely, excited to see my Dad and my sister who had traveled to see us finish. I was also sad that this part of the summer was coming to a close; and the idea that we may never get to see the Arctic like this again as permafrost continues to melt and destroy the way of life up there made me sadder still.