I left home in the summer of 1980, assuring my parents that I would return to Vancouver in the autumn. I told them I would be camping for the summer with friends. However, I kept secret that those friends would drive me all the way into the Yukon Territory from where I’d canoe on my own.
Our adventure began when we entered the Alaska Highway. Back then it was unpaved, making the journey perilous with potholes, loose gravel, animal crossings and lots of dust. Eventually we arrived at the Yukon’s capital – Whitehorse. After another gruelling 36 hours we came to the gold rush city of Dawson. We took in the sights there, then left our truck and canoed into the wild.
After a great summer of camping we returned to Dawson to pick up the truck and hit the road again on the Dempster Highway. We headed 400 km north for the Arctic Circle and the Eagle river. The Dempster is known for its vast emptiness, and endless tundra with no human habitation to be seen.
By that time, autumn was setting in with rain bucketing down and very cold nights.
Once we arrived at Eagle Plains Lodge (that proclaimed “last food and lodging this side of Arctic Circle”), we were in need of some creature comforts. We shared a last meal there, feasting on chicken burgers, fries and apple pie. After 40 years I can still taste that gorgeous dinner! However, at the same time, feelings of doubt were arising in me. It was beginning to dawn on me that I was embarking on a perilous course and didn’t want to show my friends that I was feeling scared. It was as ‘though I was facing an abyss. So rather than stalling my departure, I chose to say good bye and head off that very evening.
I loaded my canoe with provisions and equipment, shared last hugs with Pam and Jim, then pushed off into the swift current. That moment is permanently embedded in my memory: two friends waving good bye, the sound of the rushing river, the cold evening light, and then… just me and nature.
With every stroke of the paddle I was heading further into the unknown. The strong current challenged manoeuvring of the heavy canoe. I expected grizzlies to block my passage, or a fallen tree to tip me into the icy water. Eventually, I stopped scaring myself and settled into the moment. I found a good spot for a camping and made a fire. That first night I wrote in my journal: “Day 1. Started my journey. The Eagle river swollen from recent rains. Heading due north. Should enter the Porcupine river in a few weeks…, I hope.”
Settling in for the night, (with the Winchester at my side), I imagined Kajtek and Koko sitting by the campfire, and fell asleep with a smile – “I’m not alone, they’ve got my back”.
Excerpt from my journal, 1980 Yukon, Canada
The old compass rests on top of the journal of my Yukon adventure. This compass is a good luck charm. It shows me that no matter what, I can always find my way home!