Storytelling on the Yukon River

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The second instalment in the Not Your Day Job series.

I was introduced to the canoe as a prairie teenager. Some 50 years later I remain a keen paddler, now in the Yukon, with decades of family camping trips, visits to First Nation heritage sites, and land use planning exercises as a Parks Canada historian. Now retired, I keep my paddle in the water by providing the cultural content for a seven-day canoe trip on the Yukon River for the Road Scholar Program. The program, founded in 1975, is a US-based non-profit education organization. It considers itself “a university of the world” offering its “road scholars” “inspiring instructors, spirited conversations, new friends, new experiences — the best of the university experience.”

Entering Lake Laberge. Photograph by David Neufeld.

My contact with Road Scholars coming to paddle the Yukon has been universally positive – they are mostly over 50, some over 75. They come with a lot of life experience, are well educated, open to taking on a new challenge – some have never been in a canoe before – and have the patience and resilience to put up with pretty much anything that can happen on the river. They are also keen to learn and experience new things. And they have plenty of good stories as well.

The logistics of a seven-day river trip are handled by Ruby Range Adventure, a Yukon-based outfitting company. They provide the camping gear and canoes for the trip and, most important, the versatile and skilled guides. These young men and women are keen, have excellent water skills, can keep track of weaker paddlers, whip up magnificent meals, and announce snack time just as the tenor of the group begins to flag when there is a headwind. They also read poetry, identify birds and trees, and set out the rules for no-trace camping.

Ruby Range guide in 2013. Photograph by David Neufeld.

The setting for the trip is the middle Yukon River, a 320 km paddle from Minto Landing – the site of both the traditional gathering place for the Selkirk First Nation and the ferry crossing for the Minto Mine trucks hauling ore to Skagway – to Dawson, the home of the Klondike. Once in the current, learning the river includes balancing your load, mastering the J-stroke, and keeping a sharp eye forward. Paddling demands attention, avoiding shoals and back eddies, and learning that a paddle stroke now might save you 30 or 40 arm-straining and panicky strokes later. You are travelling several rivers and you need to know exactly which one you’re in. There is the cartographic river, the splash of blue between the shores, which really tells you nothing. Even the riverbank that you can see isn’t much help. What you want to track is the river current within the river; this one winds its way between banks and around sandbars (which regularly move about) and you want to be in the part of the current that has enough water to float your boat. You need to look forward for the clues for this hidden river. But first you need to master the J-stroke.

Day two on the lake, 2013. Photograph by David Neufeld.

My role on the trip is the cultural lectures. In the near-endless warm light of a northern summer, after camp has been set and dinner comfortably digested, we saunter along the shore of our sandy island or sit on the riverbank. I count on the extended natural environment experience to set tone and storytelling to communicate content. Over a decade of these trips, I’ve developed a series of topical interactive stories arising from guests’ questions. The first evening’s talk, drawn from my Learning to Drive the Yukon River, contrasts the characteristics of Euro-American and Yukon First Nation ways of life.

Following this introduction, I outline the human stories behind the 25 years of work leading to the Umbrella Final Agreement – the Yukon First Nations’ treaty signed in 1990. The extraordinary opportunity to be a historian witness of the negotiation of a modern treaty – and to be responsible for elements of treaty implementation – has deeply affected my understanding and commitment to Reconciliation. My chats with Road Scholars revolve around how Yukon First Nations and Canada have created a meaningful accommodation between cultures. Subsequent talks rely upon my education at what Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in Elder Percy Henry calls his “University of the Bush.” These stories address the cultural significance of caribou, the existential value of clean river water and the contemporary challenges of building a shared future in the Yukon. This approach brings people along a reasonably straightforward intellectual path suggesting that there are multiple ways of being in the world.

Mid-trip we consider the period before roads, when steamboats connected villages and towns from Whitehorse to the Bering Sea. A brief review of river hydrology and the many wood camps along the river explains the complexity of steamboat operations. This episode also includes the colourful story of the sinking of the SS Klondike in 1936 as experienced by six-year-old Phyllis Simpson.

Fort Selkirk, 2016. Photograph by David Neufeld.

We also consider gold – the original gold rush, the industrial dredges active from the teens to the early 1960s, contemporary placer mines and the proposed mega-mines now on the drawing board. One evening on our August trip this year, we had a grandstand view of helicopters delivering supplies and pulling out core samples – the crew and drilling equipment hidden deep in the trees.

We spend an evening considering outcomes of treaty implementation and First Nations agency. A review of the ‘Peel Plan’ debacle which pitched the Yukon government directly against First Nation governments and their environmental allies highlight the large gap yet to be bridged between Western and Yukon Indigenous ways of being in the world. At the same time the agency of First Nations is demonstrated by the creation of the international Yukon River Inter-tribal Watershed Council, a cooperative of 70 First Nations and Tribes in Alaska and Yukon, dedicated to the protection and preservation of the Yukon River Watershed.

Finally, we consider Caribou. Among the oldest and still-extant animals in the region, caribou remain revered and cherished neighbours. I describe the 200-year-old images of North Slope caribou incised on bow-drills which ended up in the British Museum. These incisions, barely more than a centimetre high, impressed caribou researchers with their rich detail and the obvious intimate knowledge of and care for these animals. It is the story these artefacts tell – the magic character of the relationship between the animals and the people – that is the interesting thing. The Vuntut Gwitchin claim they share hearts with caribou. Contemporary threats to caribou herds have spawned fierce and effective Indigenous political advocacy for protection of the herds. I conclude with the success story of the recovery of the Forty Mile herd near Dawson.

White River enters Yukon, fed by Kluane glaciers, 2019. Photograph by David Neufeld.

Unlike urban and rural travel, a river trip removes much of the agency of a scripted program. Serendipity is what you get: a moose and calf on the bank, a sudden rain shower, an intimate immersion in place (canoes are strong on intimacy; this works as both good and sometimes not so good). It’s also important to get the clients to tell their stories and frame how they ended up on the river.

Relaxing at camp, confluence of the 60 Mile, 2019. Photograph by David Neufeld.

Travelling the Yukon River with ‘Road Scholars’ is a rewarding and satisfying service. Invariably patient, certainly experienced, yet keen to learn more, they have been a pleasure to travel with.

Yukon River rafting, 2019. Photograph by David Neufeld.

The Road Scholar canoe trips, Parks Canada, and my Yukon College classes are all platforms for telling stories. Good storytelling is tailoring the content to your audience.

Last stretch to Dawson, 2019. Photograph by David Neufeld.
Feature Image: Sunrise below Minto Landing. Photograph by David Neufeld.
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