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The Classic Upper Wheaton Packraft Run(s)

Good times on skinny water

Story by Paul Burbidge May 2nd, 2017


Tony and I had acquired packrafts in the Spring of 2013. Neither of us had much water sense or skill and had been getting a bit of experience banging around on the standard Yukon rivers such as the Takhini and Wheaton.

We'd done an interesting bikepack/packraft of the Dena Cho Trail and Pelly River in May and were keen to get into the mountains with the boats. We decided that running the Wheaton from its source would be a good objective. We didn't have much experience figuring out what might have enough water to paddle so we decided to hike into the very start of the river and walk downriver until we could float.

We started out after work on Friday July 5, 2013 and hiked up Skookum Creek and then over a pass which took us to Matthew Watson's old mining cabin-we were now in the Watson River drainage. The cabin dates from the early 1900's. We setup a shanty camp and watched the caribou on the plateaus above.


In the morning we scrambled up to look at the old mine workings. We found lots of old artifacts but couldn't find the old adits. We packed up camp and followed the remains of a horse trail that leads down to the Watson River. Once we exited the valley we turned toward the Wheaton headwaters and left the trail behind.

We'd identified a small alpine lake as the start of the river (always open to interpretation). We reached the "river" and confirmed that we wouldn't be paddling anytime soon. We hiked down river and got into some deluxe bushwhacking near a few lakes. Eventually we found the old horse trail in the valley bottom that we were able to follow all the way to some neat sand dunes. After the dunes the horse trail was intermittent but the river was gathering water.

Once the creek coming in from the Radelet valley entered the river we were good to go. We blew up the boats and started a skinny run down the river.


I didn't get many photos once we were on the Wheaton. After Boudette Creek came in the river picked up speed and volume until a twisting section between Mount Ward and Mount McNeil. This section was very scenic but slow due to the long oxbows and lackluster current. Eventually the river picked up again and took us to our camp at the mouth of Berney Creek. We'd only been on the go for 24 hours at this point and decided to spend the night here and hike out to the truck in the morning.

I'm not sure I slept at all as I was fighting ants, mosquitoes and a leaky bed (boat). All in a great trip for sure.



Dave and Colin had been into the upper Wheaton in early June and reported it was high enough to paddle. Tony, Dylan, Paul C, Grant and I hustled out of work early on the following Friday to bust into the river.

We chose to go up Berney Creek and over a pass to gain the paddleable river more directly than Tony and I had done in 2013. Descending to our camp on the Wheaton we had great views of Radelet. Carrie and I would hike a very similar route to the same area in 2016.


In the morning we hiked a few minutes downstream until the creek entered from the north Radelet valley. We started making our way down the river which was all good fun. In the oxbow section I tried getting out and hiking across the land which was waist deep in water. It was sweaty, slow-going and no better than paddling the slow sections. We ran the river down to the upper Wheaton Bridge and hustled off to Paul C's 50th birthday cookout. Good times again.

For prospective paddlers: this route is very level dependent, you want lots of water coming out of the Radelet glaciers or it will be too bony to paddle. It's possible to blast off either route in a 24 hour period or the 2015 route in a single day. It really is a spectacular area though, and shouldn't be rushed. This really should be a classic route for new Yukon packrafters-- easy access, cool terrain and a fun river. I'm sure it will get done more in the future-I hope to get back there this year.

River difficulty is 2+ at good levels. There are significant sweepers on the section below Berney Creek. The river discharge at the Wheaton gauge during our 2013 trip was +/- 15cms, during the 2015 trip it was +/- 21cms.

Upper Wheaton.jpg


I hadn't intended to do a post on this trip but got a few good pics so I though I'd throw this up.

Almost 2 years to the day from our 2015 trip we were back on the same route to the Wheaton. The crew this time was me, Paul C., Dylan and Josh. We got underway at 5:30 on June 2nd and anticipated being at camp on the Wheaton around 10:30.

We hit deep snow before we even made a break for the pass. The snow meant that our previous route to the pass wouldn't be safe. We gained a rock ridge to avoid avy danger. The snow was bottomless and sodden. In most spots we could stay on top but if we went through it was right to the bottom. Paul C. plowed the trail up to the ridge where we hoped things would improve.


Once we made the pass we realized we were in for a hard time. The snow was just as bad up top. We struggled on for a few hundred meters and made camp on isolated grassy patches after taking half an hour to cover about 250 meters. Once inside our Hyperlite Mountain Gear shelters we were cozy and could enjoy the views. We hoped the snow would firm up overnight and suspected we only had about a kilometer of bad snow left before an aspect change would improve things.

We woke in the morning socked in with 4" of fresh snow. We all decided to push ahead, and see if things improved, rather than retreat. After about another 45 minutes of tough going we got through most of the old snow and cruised down to the Wheaton in about 2 hours..


We blew up our rafts at our 2015 campsite and started the descent of the Wheaton. Water levels were pumping (30 cms at the gauge) and we had the best run yet. There were more river wide sweepers this year but nothing that was too hard to avoid (although one yanked me from my boat when I thought I was a little more compact than I am). By 4pm we were at the upper Wheaton bridge where we took out.

On Sunday Josh, Dylan and I hit the normal Wheaton run for fun times. We were all in new boats and Dylan and I were keen to try out the new Gnarwhals in heavier water. The new boats are definitely stiffer and more responsive. A hole that used to bend our old boats in half seemed to have much less impact on the new rigs. Looking forward to more testing!

Paul C's trip report can be found here.


Dylan's video from 2017 version