Paddling the Jarvis / Kaskawulsh Loop
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999 Days Around Africa: The Road Chose Me
Soon after my arrival in the North it became clear white water paddling is the summer activity of choice here. With very little previous experience I was soon thrown in the deep end and had some interesting times paddling a tandem canoe with Brett in the Wheaton River, the local favourite. This summer the flood waters were as high as anyone could remember, keeping things very exciting.
It was obvious I needed to learn a lot in a short time, so I signed up for a White Water Raft guide course, and had a fantastic weekend paddling on the very famous Tatshenshini River, or “the Tat” as it’s known locally. There are a couple of great class III rapids on the river, and we had a fantastic time blasting right into them with a raft full of guides in training. When given my chance to command and steer the boat, I managed to flip it in less than a minute, giving myself a long swim to safety in the process.
Back in a canoe, my tandem skills were progressing slowly, and it was suggested I try a solo canoe in whitewater. I now hold the record for the fastest time-to-swim on the Wheaten River, flipping over in the first 0.1 seconds. Multiple frigid swims and a meltdown later, my solo canoeing career came to an abrupt end.
Feeling defeated, it was suggested I attempt a whitewater kayak, a craft I had a very limited amount of experience in. A short float down the leisurely Watson River and an afternoon practicing my far-from-dependable roll on a lake was apparently all the experience I required to navigate the very remote Jarvis / Kaskawulsh loop in Kluane National Park.
Setting out just past Haines Junction the crew consisted of Brett in his solo whitewater canoe, Jim and Noreen in their tandem tripping canoe and me feeling very small and inexperienced in my now heavily loaded kayak. I had rolled the empty kakyak a few times in a lake, and was not feeling overly confident about my skills in this setting, loaded with all my precious camping gear, which had to stay dry at all costs.
For the first couple of hours the Jarvis river is extremely beautiful and not overly challenging, with some small rocky sections rated class I or low class II at a stretch. Gaining confidence, we all paddled around a corner and immediately found ourselves in a horrible mess of logs, branches and other nasty hazards that did not look at all friendly. Lots of yelling and back-paddling had my heart rate up in an instant. For the next few hours we slowly and carefully picked our way down, doing our best to stay away from the nasty hazards. I lost my nerve on one particularly nasty bend and decided the best thing for me to do was walk overland dragging my kayak while the others paddled down to me without incident. Dry land felt great.
We had been warned of masses of beaver dams and endless chest-deep swamps to wade through, though the reality was not nearly so bad. Two or three times the river was completely blocked by massive log jams, and we had to detour around, pulling our boats over beaver dams and down trickling streams until we could re-join the main flow. Entering the current on a nasty looking corner provided some heart-thumping moments for everyone, especially Jim and Noreen in their much larger and difficult to turn craft.
We pushed on and on, as the river grew sleepier and sleepier until finally spotting a small river joining in, where we had been told was very good camping. Staring too long at the upcoming rapids did nothing to calm my nerves, though there is nothing like exhaustion for a good night’s sleep.
In the morning we immediately found ourselves in a continuous stretch of rocky class II rapids, with swift water thanks to the impressive and continuous grade of the river. I found this stretch challenging and immensely fun at the same time, grinning like mad. Though a swim here would not have been enjoyable thanks to all the rocks, I liked my prospects better than the logs and sweepers of the previous day.
Again the river mellowed, and again we pushed on, until finally coming to the mighty Kaskawulsh River, a giant muddy river full of braids draining the Kaskawulsh Glacier further into the park. Apparently just for fun we paddled to the far side, then front ferried back again, something I did not at all enjoy or feel comfortable about in my tiny kayak.
We camped here at the confluence and in the afternoon hiked up a nearby peak for impressive views of the surrounding beauty.
The Kaskawulsh is large, swift and muddy, though it does not have any difficult rapids. I had a few close calls thanks to the nasty whirlpools that form when braided streams re-join and did not particularly enjoy this stretch, feeling very exposed and small on the enormous river.
After many hours, we spotted the Dezadeash River joining the flow – our exit point.
From here, we only had to paddle a measly 8km upstream which is normally not overly difficult. In this day we paddled straight into a howling headwind and the massive waves it whipped up. I’ve surfed waves on a board many times, but I was not particularly happy to be surfing down the face of these waves, far from safety in the frigid river. Brett had the most difficult time of us all, tasked with providing steering and power with his single blade paddle.
Many hours later we all dragged ourselves to shore, extremely exhausted and happy to have arrived at Brett’s truck which we had stashed in the bushes a few days earlier.
A spectacular paddle and an full-on introduction to out tripping in the Yukon.