The Pelly River – Tim Kotcheff Diary: July 19 – August 5, 1975
The Pelly River evokes memories of Fort Selkirk and Diamond Tooth Gertie’s gambling saloon in Dawson City where we not only lost our grub stake but were turned into laughable subjects of an Italian photo magazine. But we’re ahead of ourselves. More on that later.
A year earlier, Craig Oliver and I had ‘conquered’ the mighty Nahanni River – where greenhorns were turned into seasoned canoeists. Why, we were old hands now. As for the Pelly – no problem. It’s an easy run compared to the tension-filled charge down the fearsome Nahanni canyons.
We woke up on July 19 at the Taku Hotel in Whitehorse, Yukon. We were being picked up by our good friend Paul Lucier, a local outfitter but also the mayor of Whitehorse. (A former Liberal MP, he was appointed the first Senator from the Yukon region which he served until his death in 1999. I still treasure a note I received from him in June of 1975 telling me that all is well in the Yukon and he was ready for our arrival. I was quite touched by his thoughtfulness.)
After loading up the Beaver float plane at Schwatka Lake and moments before takeoff, yours truly noticed our paddles were missing. It was a quick return to town to retrieve them. So much for ‘old hands’. Would have been fun landing without them – up a creek without a paddle.
It was a two-hour flight to Hoole Canyon with a perfect landing which brought us close to shore just below it. Landing above the Canyon would have involved about a kilometre-and-a-half portage and lining on the south side of the river. Ugh. Who needed that!
Just above the landing point, we discovered an abandoned trapper cabin and this would be home for our first night. Time to settle into my new and permanent role as chief cook and bottle washer. Tonight’s menu included rum, steak, tomatoes and coffee. We climbed a nearby hill for a panoramic view of the river and then hit the sack.
Abandoned Miner Shacks
That night it rained off and on until our wake-up call at 6:00 am. The air was a brisk and cold but we were comfortable following a hardy bacon, eggs, toast and coffee breakfast. We always ate well on our trips.
The 530 kilometre-long Pelly was named by fur trader and explorer Robert Campbell in honour of Sir John Henry Pelly, governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company. It flows through the south central Yukon into the Yukon River which would take us to our planned destination – Dawson City. The Pelly is an easy paddle except perhaps in the upper sections and the major obstacle Hoole Canyon which we bypassed.
Time to get the show on the road. It would be 700 kilometres to Dawson City but the 7-10 kph current would get us there faster than we thought.
Rarely did we ever break camp before 10:00 am unlike the freeze dry crowd who are usually gung-ho at 5:00 am to take advantage of the still air. We set forth into fast but easily navigable water. Half an hour later, ran aground in shallow water. Took the wrong path around a small island. Chitchat time was over as we hopped into shin-high ice-cold water to lift our way out. It was wet feet the rest of the way. We resolved to stay focussed. 25 kilometres later we set up camp in an open mosquito-free area.
We set a record the next morning and broke camp at 8:15 am. Later I snapped a photo of a black bear very close to our canoe. His curiosity got the better of him and he stood still for a close-up while Craig nervously fingered his pistol.
A couple of close calls today. Brushed a submerged log and almost got sucked under and then we drifted dangerously close to a jammed tree trunk. Both silly mistakes that could have cost us dearly. We vowed to pay better attention to obstacles. Clear skies tonight. It augers well for tomorrow.
Up at 8:00 am to bright sunny skies to deal with some laundry, a cool bath and some target practise. A full breakfast and then broke camp at the obscene hour of high noon. For shame! More bears and bald eagles as we steered easily down the fishhook rapids. Trouble finding a decent campsite amid voracious swarms of blood sucking mosquitoes. We passed some old trappers’ huts. To date we have not met any other canoeists on the river. Later in the afternoon we surprised a timber wolf walking along the shore.
More drizzle but we finally found an acceptable campsite and settled in for the night. Lights out at 11 and slept like a log. By now, kinks began to form in my neck and shoulders as a result of steady paddling even though we switched sides fairly often. It goes with the territory. For me, a few days in the hot sun can lead to acute nausea. I was the weak link in this twosome. Craig seemed indefatigable. Some canoeists opt to take a day off for hiking to give the body a rest. Not us. We ploughed on.
As we neared the Macmillan River more splits and shallow water. We ran aground frequently. More wet feet. As we passed this intersection the paddling intensified. Two hours later, we heard the rapids at Granite Canyon long before we saw them. The 7 kilometre long Canyon is confined by 75 metre cliffs which amplify the sound of the rushing water. The walls begin to close in and the flow quickens. At the end of Granite canyon – a huge pointed rock stands in the middle of the river – Needle Rock. And just below, we made our campsite at Needle Rock Creek, home for a couple of days. An excellent site. It was fish for dinner – a large inconnu hooked at the mouth of the creek. Not a tasty fish. But what the hell. It was fresh.
Pelly River Bluffs
The Robert Campbell trail starts here and provides a convenient footpath into the hills alongside the creek. Temperatures drop into the low 40’s. Warm sleeping bags beckoned.
Next day after breakfast we headed up the trail – fishing rods in hand – to huff and puff our way up a tall bluff. We lunched at the top. Then back down to the creek to hook a couple of grayling. It was fish fillets for dinner. Feeling slight nausea today – too much sun perhaps. Had to lie down for an hour or so.
This was our tenth day on the river. Some serious rain overnight and we rose to dark and grey skies. A stiff wind promised to make paddling arduous and frustrating.
About 24 k’s from our campsite, we visited the Wilkinson homestead. The Wilkinsons were the last family trying to live off the river. Brothers Jared and Eddie have resided here since 1964 but no one was home when we arrived. But we were given a howling welcome by 10 vicious looking huskies – lucky for us none was unleashed.
Further downstream at Pelly crossing, we met one of the Wilkinson’s at an outfitting store – think it was Jared. Nice guy. Says his brother is hospitalized with a bad back and he’d been living alone for 3 weeks. He spoke of the loneliness of living in the wilderness. We of course were here to enjoy the wilderness. For him ‘wilderness’ was another word for desolation. He talked of raging forest fires that have wiped out huge tracts of forested areas. He talked of trapping, his only means of support and the hard times eking out a solitary existence. Our hearts went out to him.
Polly and John Lammers
We reached Yukon Wilderness Unlimited at the confluence of the Pelly and Yukon Rivers and decided to drop in. It was home to John and Polly Lammers both ardent naturalists and we joined them for coffee and chat. The conversation was so interesting we stayed for dinner – home-grown peas, beets, potatoes and bread along with wine, coffee and fresh strawberries – the sweet small ones…my, my.
John is a Dutch agronomist who has lived in the wilderness for 20 years. He is well read and educated and a thorn in the side of the Yukon government lobbying against the destruction and exploitation of the wilderness by mining and other commercial interests. A brilliant man who was, quite literally, a voice in the wilderness. We talked and argued for hours over drinks before turning in to overnight in a small cabin on his premises.
Up the next day to a bright sunny day and a walk around the gardens. And then strode down the old Dawson Trail – still here 70 years later. Shows how delicate and fragile life can be in this place. Trees take a long time to grow. Soil is extremely shallow and a scar on the ground can remain for an eternity. A great breakfast, more talk about nature and government and then we were on our way.
Within 20 minutes of launch – the great wide Yukon River. What a sight! A mile from side to side. Just below the Pelly – Fort Selkirk built in 1898 to defend the town of Selkirk.
July 31. Chilly and damp. We bathed in the river, ate breakfast, and packed up quickly for another day on the Yukon. Many abandoned cabins along the way conjuring up images of the gold rush and the struggle north to stake out land claims.
Head winds and more tough paddling. Spectacular scenery – high mountains on both sides of the river. More abandoned cabins. In the late afternoon we explored a desolate hamlet of Kirkman Creek. One homestead was left completely intact with bed, magazines, books and cooking utensils – very eerie. In a building at the rear, a storage room with Christmas decorations and stacks of letters. One was from the husband to his wife about problems he was having in Whitehorse and how he missed his home. What happened here? Was there a tragedy? With this mystery weighing on our minds we hit the river again in search of a campsite.
Kirkman Creek Homestead
Aug 1. Nice sunny day to start but scattered showers later. About 3:00 we arrived at Stewart Islands. Used to be a small thriving town with shops and post office now reduced to one re-furbished homestead and a few cabins – many others having been washed down the river as a result of high water and erosion. The width of the river at this point was double what it used to be. This has been home for Rudy and Yvonne Burian for some 40 years. The met us on the riverbank. Where they explained the mystery of Kirkman Creek (where they once lived).
16-year-old Jack Meloy came to the Yukon in 1906. Did some prospecting before meeting his wife Hazel and they lived on the Yukon River till 1968. Jack died at the ripe old age of 84 of an apparent heart attack. He fell out of a canoe while on a hunting trip, was saved by a friend but died later on shore of an apparent heart attack. 82-year-old Hazel moved to Dawson City where she still resides.
Unfortunately they couldn’t move things out of the Kirkman Creek homestead because it was bequeathed to the government but sadly neglected. The property and house proper have been ransacked, lived in by transients and in total disrepair. What a shame! It’s a marvellous piece of history. And that’s the ‘secret’ of the Meloy story. (We would later meet Hazel in Dawson City. (Read Craig’s story about Hazel here.)
Traffic on the river had now increased dramatically as we neared Dawson – canoeists, kayakers, boaters, etc. We got mired in some swampy water and couldn’t find a decent campsite in higher water until late night. We were exhausted – 9 gruelling hours of paddling covering about 70 kms. We slept in and not till 2:00 the next day did we hit the river.
Nothing much to see along the way. About the only excitement – the wind blew Craig’s hat into the water and it was a mad dash to recover what was considered to be a keepsake. It had been through too much to lose now. To bed at 11:30 pm. Tomorrow – Dawson City.
It was an easy paddle to the historic Dawson – its name is synonymous with the 1898 Klondike Gold Rush – conjuring up images of Robert Service, Jack London, Bonanza Creek and the multitude of prospectors, gamblers and prostitutes that raided the area during the gold rush to stake their claim to hidden fortunes.
Today, gold seekers still visit Dawson City and still prospecting for gold and finding it. This living cultural and historic oasis was once referred to as the ‘Paris of the North’.
As we approached and from a distance – a glimpse of the SS Keno sternwheeler – a visual legacy of the steamboats that plied the Yukon to deliver the tons of supplies to the booming Dawson City. Unfortunately none of the steamers in service at the time have survived but the Keno, built in Whitehorse (1922) has been preserved as a typical vessel of gold rush times. It played an important part in the fleet of steamers moving minerals out of the territory. In 1960, the Keno was moved to her present berth on Dawson’s waterfront as an historical reminder of an era now passed forever.
We pulled up our canoe on the river bank where it would be later picked up by the rental company. We schlepped our gear downtown and booked into a local inn – the Downtown Hotel.
Robert Service Cabin
What a way to end a canoe trip – Dawson City – site of the 1896 Klondike Gold Rush – so much to do and see. Old historical buildings are still scattered throughout the city. The famous and impressive Palace Grand Theatre built in 1899 where we took in ‘Gaslight Follies’ a musical memoir of the Klondike. There were tours of the Discovery Claim and Klondike goldfields. I even did a little panning at a tourist site. The cabin of Robert Service – the man who’s poems immortalized the gold rush. Law of the Yukon and The Shooting of Dan McGrew. He wrote his most famous ballads before ever seeing Dawson or the Klondike fields. Songs of the Sourdough was written in Whitehorse but Service eventually moved to Dawson in 1908. I took this photo of his cabin perched on a hillside overlooking the valley of the Yukon.
However, our biggest adventure was in Diamond Tooth Gertie’s gambling saloon. Sitting at the blackjack table things were going my way. Then Craig sat in and my luck changed dramatically. As the dealer worked us over, a young Italian lady approached the table. She was a journalist for L’Europeo – a kind of Italian Life magazine – and wondered if she could snap a few pictures of us. Sure, no problem. We should have asked what the story was about but what the heck, she was a nice looking young woman – what did it matter. Months later we received a copy of the publication – the picture and caption tell the story. We were props for a crime story and after another fast shuffle from the dealer – flat broke.
Hey, who’s complaining. It was a trip we’d remember for the rest of our lives.
Diamond Tooth Gertie’s Gambling Saloon
Casino in Fairbanks. Crime has become a problem in Alaska. Before the discovery of oil, life flowed peaceful and lazy. Now many young Eskimos have discovered prostitution and thousands of “professionals” coming from California & the Eastern States. Young people consider Alaska a better place to hang out than Las Vegas.
Will leave you with a few of my favourite lines from Robert Service.
This is the law of the Yukon, and ever she makes it plain:
Send not your foolish and feeble; send me your strong and your sane.
This is the Law of the Yukon, that only the Strong shall thrive;
That surely the Weak shall perish, and only the Fit survive.
Dissolute, damned and despairful, crippled and palsied and slain,
This is the Will of the Yukon, — Lo, how she makes it plain!