Semi-Southeast Adventure: Paddling the Nisutlin River

It’s fast becoming a fall tradition for my boyfriend Bjorn Dihle and me to head north and do a week-long paddle on a Yukon river in September, when the trees are turning, the moose are rutting and blue skies are an especially welcome sight.

This year we decided on the Nisutlin River.

After a ferry ride to Skagway, we drove north. It was evening by the time we dropped off two bikes in Teslin, on the Alaska Highway. A man we met as we were locking up our bikes next to a gas station told us the night was the coldest the Yukon had seen since summer’s end. The night was clear, and he pointed up at the full moon.

“That’s the rutting moon,” he said.

We gave him a ride home (he was regretting his decision to wear shorts) and drove back along the Alaska-Canada Highway. Then we went partway up the Canol Road, until we realized the road was so pitted the 40 miles we planned to drive would likely take us a few hours. We set up camp, woke up with freezing feet and headed on the next morning.

The Canol Road — so named because it was built as part of a failed Canadian oil pipeline project in the 1940s — is apparently quite the place to see spruce grouse. We, and the hunters who rolled in soon after sunrise, surprised quite a few clucking quietly on the side of the road, pecking at stones for their gizzards.

When we got to the pullout along the river we got our double, inflatable kayak, a new purchase for the trip, and filled it up with gear as the river flowed quickly past us. Gray jays, known colloquially as “camp robbers,” perched on our luggage and our open car doors, looking for attractive scraps.

We parked the car in a far corner of the put-in, wedged ourselves comfortably in place between our piles of roped-in food and luggage, and we were off.

The first day was unequivocally the most memorable day of the trip. The water flowed quickly; Bjorn got out his GPS and we figured that even without paddling, we were moving along at a steady four miles per hour. Inflatables are especially prone to whims of wind and current, so I steered from the back and we both paddled. Sometimes, we’d stop and watch the river bottom pass by not too far beneath us.

After floating along for a few hours, Bjorn spotted movement in the high grass off the right bank of the river, ahead of us.

“Is that a bear?” he whispered.

We stopped paddling, attempting only to keep the nose of the boat pointing forward. The brown shape took form in the grass as it came into view.

“It’s a moose!” Bjorn said.

The moose stared at us, nostrils flaring and then dashed across the river in a splash of spray. It stood briefly on the opposite shore, sides heaving, and then ran into the brush along the river.

We floated along quietly, listening to branches crack, and then it reemerged and trotted into the river again, heading downstream.

It was a young male, the velvet on its small antlers hanging bloody and torn. It waded into the river until its legs were submerged and just barely visible.

It stared at us, eyes bulging, nostrils still flaring.

We floated closer. He stared at us. We stared at him.

Bjorn got out his bear spray. He stared at us. We stared at him.

And then, we were downstream, floating farther and farther away. The moose stayed standing in the stream of water, watching us until we disappeared.

“I wonder why he was acting that way?” Bjorn said. “Maybe he was just really hormonal.”

I shrugged. Last year, on the Pelly River, we’d seen a male moose across the water as we were breaking camp in the morning. We’d attempted to call it in but it stayed, not leaving and not coming, on the other side of the river. It was probably hard for male moose to negotiate hormonal pulls toward some things and adrenaline-fueled runs away from others, I thought. Maybe that was why he just stood there.

About a half an hour later, however, we saw something that likely explained, at least in part, why the moose was acting so strangely.

“Look!” Bjorn whispered, pointing ahead and to our right. “It’s a wolf!”

“Where?” I said, scanning the forest where he pointed. “I don’t see it!”

“Right there!” he said, still pointing. “Oh my God, there’s another one! And another one! And another — there must be ten or twelve wolves! Most of them are white!”

“Where? I said, scanning frantically. “I don’t see them!”

Then I saw one — the flash of a pale gray head leaping between two trees, farther back in the forest than I’d been looking. The whole thing from when Bjorn noticed them took less than five seconds, and then they were gone.

“Wow,” Bjorn whispered. “I can’t believe we just saw that.”

“You mean that you just saw that,” I said. “I feel like this is one of those pictures full of dots with hidden pictures inside them. I can’t believe I missed all those wolves.”

“You saw one,” he said. “And they were far away. Let’s stay here. Maybe there are more.”

We drifted along, watching the forest, and then it happened — about 30 seconds after the rest of the pack disappeared, a young wolf, maybe six months old, appeared much closer to the bank of the river, running easily in front of us for about 10 seconds.

I scrambled for my camera and managed several pictures of the tops of trees. Bjorn hadn’t been sulking and had more luck.

Lessonlearned.

“Wow,” I whispered.

We paddled on, looking for a place to camp, hoping maybe we’d have another encounter. And then they started howling.

Call me crazy, but I love the sound of wolves howling; it was my favorite part of the whole encounter. It’s beautiful, and eerie, and plaintive, and sad, rising to a crescendo and then falling, carrying for miles. One howl rose after another as we pulled onto a track-covered sandy beach. The deeper parts of bear prints filled with shadow as the sun stretched long down the river.

The wolves were howling on both sides of the river now.

“I think they’re talking about us,” Bjorn said.

The sounds faded as we set up camp. By the time we’d boiled the water for Bjorn’s trademark camp drink, a Whiskey Tango, they were gone.

The next few days dawned foggy and overcast, though the clouds rose toward afternoon.

“Look at that!” Bjorn said, pointing, the afternoon of the second day. “It’s some kind of bird of prey.”

The bird stopped, its wings flapping, beating in place.

“It’s an osprey!” he exclaimed.

I snapped a far-away picture against the now blue sky as he wheeled above us.

Farther along the river, juvenile bald eagles bathed themselves in the shallows. We neared a flock of mergansers that spooked and flew downriver. We neared them, and they spooked again. And again.

We passed moose hunting camps, some the skeletal remains of tee-pee like structures, some full-fledged cabins. Beavers dipped into the water, slapping their tails at night. The river slowed as, early on the third morning, we passed a flock of Canadian geese. They rose into the air and flew off in formation.

The third afternoon, we passed the Wolf River and camped at the point of an island the water diverged around. The next morning, we entered into a protected delta that led to the wider open expanse of Teslin Lake. An immature eagle perched on a collection of driftwood branches that almost seemed a sculpture.

We kept to the shore — like the ocean, the wind can sometimes whip the lake into a frenzy, though it stayed calm when we were on it. By midday, we were at Teslin Lake, where we deflated the kayak and hid it and most of our gear in the woods. We were relieved to discover our bikes still locked to an old sign near the gas station.

We pedaled the 30 miles or so west to Johnson’s Crossing, spending the night at a campground next to a gas station operated by some very nice people.

I was borrowing a friend’s bike, and we were reluctant to risk more than two wheels worth of spokes on the pitted road. So, the next morning, Bjorn woke up early and pedaled up the pockmarked road as I (quite blissfully) read David Mitchell’s new novel, “The Bone Clocks,” by the Teslin River. (The Teslin River flows out of Teslin Lake, which the Nisutlin flows into.) By early afternoon, Bjorn found me. Relatively short wilderness sojourn complete, we headed to Whitehorse for some live music and hot springs.

Bjorn had been curious about the Nisutlin, as one man he’d talked to had told him it was his favorite river. Just the same, it was more convenience than anything that made us choose it — it was what we had time for.

We didn’t see anything that would make it our favorite, but it was a good time just the same. The water is completely flat, making it a good river for families with small kids or members who aren’t so into whitewater.

The September river trip is a tradition I can get used to. Now we just have to figure out which river is next.

Contact Outdoors writer Mary Catharine Martin at maryc.martin@juneauempire.com or at 523-2276.

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