Paddling the Jarvis / Kaskawulsh Loop

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.

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My kayak on the Jarvis River

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.

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Brett in his solo canoe

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.

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Noreen and Jim navigating a beaver dam

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Brett lining his solo canoe

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.

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My kayak and tent camping on the Jarvis River

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.

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The confluence of the Jarvis and Kaskawulsh rivers

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My tent at the Jarvis Kaskawulsh confluence

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.

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The mountains bordering the Kaskawulsh River

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On the Kaskawulsh River

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.

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The crew on the shores of the Kaskawulsh River. Note the atire in the middle of summer

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.


16 Responses

  1. chick says:

    Is it ‘middle of summer’ in mid-april in Canada?

    • Dan says:

      I’m trying to catch up on the backlog of activities and photos from last summer. Hopefully I can catch up and have this blog be real-time again. So many adventures!

      • chick says:

        Hehe, alright, so I’m just stupid :)
        Greets from minus 19 degrees in northern Sweden!

        • Dan says:

          No problem ! We’re finally getting up into positive temperatures here now, though it’s still down to -15C at night.
          This winter I saw a touch below -40C, the coldest I’ve seen in my life.

  2. scott says:

    Liked this post Dan. Rivers are no joke but I had a few chuckles reading this. Definitely more hard core than it looks. I’m hitting the milk river this year for a three day canoe and have heard stories of canoes getting bent around rocks or snapped in half…..really hard to know what to think until you are on the river. Have a good spring.

    • Dan says:

      Hey Scott,
      I’m just getting into the whole white water thing, so it’s a steep learning curve for me.
      What are you up to these days? I was at the Strata office about this time last year and they said you had moved on…?

      Hope you’re finding adventures, wherever you are.


  3. James says:

    Looks like some great camping spots out there. I love canoeing, kayaking but swift-moving water scares the shis outta me.

  4. Luke says:

    The photos are really good. Have you been studying photography? You seem to have really improved since you started the blog all those years ago!

    • Dan says:

      Hey Luke,
      Thanks man. I worked hard on my photography for the trip and really enjoy it now. I have not yet taken any classes, though I’ll be buying a big DSLR soon and want to see what classess are around as long as they are not the standard “this is the aperture, this is what it does, this is how you change it” type of thing.

  5. Bill W says:

    Great pics! Beautiful scenery out there.

  6. A friend and I have been looking at your hotsprings posting from 2009. Very helpful. We are driving North to AK, and hoping to find some nice stops along the way. If you have any suggestions for things to see or do around Whitehorse, it would be greatly appreciated. Thanks -Valisa (and Piper)

    • Dan says:

      Hey Valisa and Piper.

      Are you coming up the Alaska Highway? or the Stewart-Cassiar Highway (Hwy 37)? The cassiar is extremely beautiful and absolutely I recommend it. I drove up the Alaska and down the 37 and loved it.
      Also, how are you getting to AK from Whitehorse? I recommend going North to Dawson City, then over the Top of The World highway, one of the best highways I drove in my whole adventure.

      Where in AK are you going? Denali and the Kenai Peninsula (south from Anchorage) are amazing!

  7. We are planning on driving the Cassiar. We will look into the Top of the World Highway, neither of us have been on it. We decided to skip a detour to Haines because we chose to go to Haida Gwaii for a few days and are now a little behind schedule. We are headed to Homer, at the end of the road. I am actually moving to Seldovia (across the bay from Homer) so that will be the end of my journey, and Piper will fly out in late July. Thanks for the tips I am excited to look into Top of the World! Happy travels-Valisa

  8. Katie says:

    does anyone know how long the Wheaton river is?? I’ve been searching for ages and had no luck

    • Dan says:

      Hi Katie,

      Why do you want to know? Are you thinking about paddling the entire river end to end?
      Do you want to know in kms or days paddling?


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