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Expedition Interview: Martin Trahan – Pull of the North

Inside a 2,000-mile journey on the Yukon River

By Conor Mihell
Images Jay Kolsch

When an international team consisting of a British ethnographer, an American photographer, and a Canadian cinematographer looked to round out their crew for a 2,000-mile canoe expedition on the Yukon River, they recruited a French Canadian with a solid expedition resume. In 2015, Martin Trahan was part of "Blue Gold Paths," a six-month, cross-Canada canoe journey from Montreal to the Arctic Ocean. He joined the 2016 Pull of the North expedition barely a month before the team's launch on Lake Bennett in late May.

Pull of the North aimed to investigate local indigenous populations on the Yukon River and to document how their lifestyles are changing. Brit Ian Finch focused on the ethnography, while US-based photographer Jay Kolsch took still images and Quebecer Caroline Cote shot video. Problem was, Finch, Kolsch and Cote had minimal canoe experience. Enter canoe veteran Trahan.

We caught up with Trahan to learn more about the expedition.

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CanoeKayak.com: Most of the photos we've seen from your Yukon River trip are gritty and hard-edged, making it appear as though the trip was physically demanding. Can you speak to the challenges of being out there?
Martin Trahan: What I found the most difficult in the planning of the expedition was having only 30 days to plan for such a long trip. We had to finalize the menu, buy the food, and set up three resupplies in very isolated places. We also had to travel from Montreal to Whitehorse with all our gear.

On the Yukon River, we were paddling downstream with a strong current. We only had to do one portage and it was the dam in Whitehorse. We had to deal with a lot of rain in some pretty cold and windy conditions. It rained more in the first month on the Yukon River that in the six months of my cross Canada journey in 2015. Initially, we were very excited to take advantage of the midnight sun. But it's tough to sleep with so much daylight!

We were in an area infested with grizzlies. We tried as much as possible to camp on islands, and taking care to cook away from the camp. Sometimes we had nightmares related to bears. We didn't sleep very well in places where we found bear tracks.

Our team consisted of two English-speakers and two French-Canadians. Since both Anglophones did not speak French, the expedition dialogue took place in the language of Shakespeare in English. Caroline and I found it to be a mental challenge sometimes.

You made this trip in part to document the plight of indigenous people on the Yukon River. What did you discover?
The communities we encountered are dealing with sharp declines in the salmon population, a resource that's essential to their survival. Our goal was to experience these cultures and to sensitize the world to their increasingly precarious situation. The salmon represents a culture and identity to the native communities of Canada and the western Yukon. As we made our way to them, it was our aim to ground ourselves in their story and landscape as we go.

Jay's pictures also capture the grandeur of the landscape. What was it like for you and your team to be in such a big, wild place?
Although I have paddled from Montreal to Inuvik in 2015, the Yukon provided more majestic scenery. The snow-capped mountains, the clear water and lush fauna and flora have made me experience strong emotions. I felt so small and vulnerable. What we saw after each bend was always a surprise and wonderful. I love the sense of freedom of being out there. Life on the Yukon River was so easy and I miss it. We were waking up around 7 a.m., eating breakfast, paddling for four hours, eating lunch, paddling for another four hours, eating dinner and going to our tent to sleep.

The Yukon is a classic, bucket-list river. Can you share any tips for readers wanting to paddle it?
Kanoe People (an outfitter in Whitehorse) is the place to contact to plan your expedition. I would recommend hiring a floatplane from Alpine Aviation to start your trip at the glaciers on Lake Bennett. It's not free but so worth it. We planned our resupplies for Whitehorse, Dawson City and at the Dalton Bridge in Alaska. At the end of the trip, you have no choice but to take an expensive flight out; there is no road.

The midnight sun allows you to travel any time of day, which is really cool. You won't be stressed to find a camping spot before night falls. There are lots of grizzly bears. Carry bear spray and bear bangers for sure, and I highly recommend a gun. Also, get ready to face the most vicious mosquitoes and black flies in the universe!

— Martin Trahan and the Blue Gold Paths were among the finalists for Expedition of the Year in the 2015 Canoe & Kayak Awards.

— Read the CanoeKayak.com digital feature Pull of the North or grab the 2017 winter issue of Canoe & Kayak to see more images from the expedition.

— Check out Trahan’s latest 2018 expedition to paddle three 18-foot canoes on a seven-month, 4800-mile voyage from the Pacific Ocean near Seattle to the Atlantic Ocean at the tip of Florida.

— Read more on paddling in Yukon.