Floating the Yukon

On the Yukon

My plan was to float the river in two parts. I would put in at Dawson City and float 400-500 miles down to the new Alaska Pipeline Haul Road northwest of Fairbanks. Then I would revisit Denali. Later, I would hitch back to the Whitehorse area and put in on the Teslin River which would join the Yukon downstream of Lake Labarge so I wouldn’t have to paddle that lake’s 30 miles of slackwater, an impossible feat in my soft inflatable raft, especially if there was any headwind.

But first I hiked out to that tombstone of a mountain and touched the cliffs at its base. All alone out in dark rock mountains. It rained the first days and gray-crowned rosy finches hopped upon the melting snowbanks plucking insects lying frozen upon the snow. Then I came back to Dawson, bought my food, puffed up my raft, packed my supplies aboard, sat down on top of the raft, paused to look around, deal with any last-minute reluctances and then, savoring this moment, push off. My raft started moving with the current. I was on my way.

It was mostly a very quiet time, just lying on my raft floating on a large, gentle river through the long arctic days. There were occasional abandoned cabins to walk around, probably built by the men who had lived along the river chopping wood for the steamboats that had plied this river for sixty years. But almost all my waking time was spent on my raft – because if I ever landed, I was quickly swarmed by mosquitoes. Except for occasional explorations, I’d come to shore only to get drinking water out of a clear side stream or to defecate. Otherwise I simply floated all day. Occasionally the current would carry me near a high cut-bank filled with burrowed swallow nests and for several delightful minutes I’d be in the midst of hundreds of swooping, chattering swallows, some hovering a few feet from me and then the current carried me beyond.

Sometimes I’d rescue drowning insects from the gray-brown glacial silt water and place them along the top of the tubes of my raft. I’d get down close and watch one dry itself in a process that unfolded in an obviously logical way. The first big effort was to drag its body out of the drop of water it was caught within. When it finally burst free of the bubble, then it would rest. It was still enshrouded in water but it was no longer within that large confining mass. Next, it would drag itself along the surface, leaving a damp trail so that more and more of the water adhering to it was left behind. Occasionally it would rest. Then there would come the moment – when – with great effort the legs were able to lift its abdomen up, break free from the surface attraction that held the insect’s underside to the raft – and stand! Then the front legs would wipe off the face and pull the antennaes through its claws. The last stage of drying off the wings varied among the insects. For beetles with smooth wing coverings, it was easy. For open-winged insects, it was slow and laborious with occasional rests. Gradually, the drying wings rose higher into the air, filling out, regaining their loft. Usually there would then be a couple of experimental flits of the wings and then – flit – the insect was gone.

I would sit cross-legged atop my 4’x6’ “deck” of pack and raft tubes, then shift to my legs extended in front, then lay all 6’ of me on my side, sometimes lay on my back gazing upward. When I was ready to camp, I’d drift down onto the head of an island, jump out, pull my raft onto shore, and then set up my tent with a mosquito-inspired speed and precision that improved day by day. I’d throw my supplies into the tent, dive in, zip the door shut and hunt down every mosquito that had made it into the tent. Then I would roll out my sleeping bag, eat dinner, go to sleep. Sometime in the increasing light of the perennial arctic day I would wake, eat breakfast, pack up my supplies within the tent. Then I would come out of the tent, take it down fast, pack it up, load the raft, push off. By the time I was ten yards off shore, all the mosquitoes had dropped away and I’d float all that day.

Very little happened. One day a porcupine crossed my path. He was paddling across the Yukon. He was only about a fourth of the way across; he still had a long way to go. But his hollow quills acted like a life jacket, buoying him high in the water so all he had to do was a slow dog paddle to keep moving across the current. He would land on the other side miles downstream of where he had started and proceed with his life in a completely unknown part of the world. So for awhile, we gradually drifted towards one another. I was respectful enough not to frighten him by paddling so I drifted down with the current. He pursued his intent of, like me on the Grand Ronde, crossing the river with the least effort by paddling ninety degrees to the current. He was only a few feet away when I passed down ahead of him. I looked into his brown eyes. He continued on his way across while I continued down on mine, slowly diverging from one another.

One day, while floating, I heard a sound in the forest. I interpreted it as the short squeal of a hare caught by a hawk or fox. I’m not sure what it was about that moment, that exclamation at what I assumed was the end of a life, but I suddenly felt at home within this world. “This world” in the big sense. Not just this day on the river in the arctic but this world with its billions of years of lives ending in death within a vast universe – something that I had always thought of as outside of myself was now me within it, in a comfortable way. It wasn’t a big moment like my first walk in bear country. It wasn’t an epiphany. It was just this subtle but noticeable, unlooked for shift in feeling between me and the world that happened at that particular place now far back upstream along the Yukon. I was now part of this world in a way I hadn’t been before.

 

The most dramatic thing in that part of the trip happened as I approached the town of Circle. I was out in the current, assuming that I would see the town up ahead on the left bank in enough time to paddle my raft over to it. I was planning on stopping for an hour to mail some postcards and buy some decadent food treats. The river, which had always been flowing as one channel with occasional small islands, quietly, suddenly opened into three channels and I could see the town of Circle about a quarter mile down the left channel but I wouldn’t be able to paddle fast enough to make it across to that channel so I floated past Circle and into the Yukon Flats. Ah, the Yukon Flats. I had no anticipation of what the Yukon Flats would be like. The Yukon is turbid brown, heavy with glacial silt from the icefields of the Saint Elias Mountains. The Yukon Flats is the first place where the river can really spread out and drop some of it off. As the silt settles out, it clogs the channel, forcing the water to flow along a new path which will, in its own time, clog with more silt. The river keeps reworking itself, splitting into channels flowing in different directions. For a day I tried to track my progress on my maps until I realized that the channels were rearranging themselves faster than any map could keep up with.

There came a point where I simply had to surrender to hydrologic confidence that the current couldn’t flow to a dead end, that all the channels would eventually have to inevitably gather together back into one channel before I reached the haul road bridge. I had to relax into drifting heedlessly wherever the current carried me. Those became magic days, floating with no sense of where I was at all, far from any road, just floating on channels that would split and turn. Sometimes I floated along channels only a few yards wide; sometimes on channels that spread and shallowed to a few inches and I’d have to get out and pull my raft until it deepened. Sometimes the current grew so smooth and slow that I learned to tell which way I was moving by noticing how the willows on the bank appeared to be moving relative to the taller trees beyond them. Did they seem to be gliding to the right or the left? And where exactly is that line where willows sliding left shifts to willows sliding right? That’s the line of straight ahead. That is the precise direction my eyes are moving over the surface of this earth at this moment. My direction is constantly changing but at this moment, that is the direction I am moving – not that it matters much.

I drifted by sand bars with colonies of Arctic Terns, the most buoyantly beautiful flyers I’ve ever seen, floating above me. As the Yukon Flats implied, the land was of low relief so there was no sense of progressing through a landscape, just the unpredictable twists and splits of channels that would occasionally rejoin a large channel of the Yukon but then later split again. (To sense this reality, go to Google Earth, go to Circle, Alaska and then follow the river northwest to watch this happening.) The currents carried me northwest just up to Fort Yukon on the Arctic Circle and then turned southwestward. Floating through the Flats from day to day for two hundred miles until the channels merged into a larger and larger river and the Yukon was one channel again and soon thereafter I came to the haul road and that part of the trip was over. I got a ride with a trucker into Fairbanks, took a shower, washed my clothes, and headed back to Denali for a few weeks of roaming.

 

In August, I did the second, upper part of my Yukon Trip. I hitchhiked with my 110 pounds of equipment back near Whitehorse to the Teslin River which would join with the Yukon River downstream of long Lake Labarge. This was a different trip. Night now existed and was growing quickly longer. There were no more mosquitoes. The Teslin was a much smaller river. Its shores were closer, the river shallower. There were less islands so I camped more often on the shore. The water flowed clear though brown. Later, the Teslin converged with the Yukon, flowing very clear after its slow passage through Lake Labarge and now I was on the Yukon and it was growing bigger with each new tributary. And then the well-named White River came in, laden with glacial silt from the St. Elias Mountains a hundred fifty miles away and the Yukon became opaquely silty for the rest of its way, struggling to carry this heavy load until the Yukon Flats gave it a chance to rest and put down some of its burden.

I stopped at Fort Selkirk, a ghost town from the steamboat days. In the school house were old reading primers from the British Commonwealth empire. Stories with pictures of white girls in party dresses having tea parties in their rose gardens, all so proper. What thoughts would have arisen in the native kids out here in a wilderness where winter dominated the year as they read these stories? The non-native cemetery with headstones was separate from the native cemetery. There was a stone memorial in the Mounties section of their cemetery inscribed with a verse from Robert Service:

“This is the law of the Yukon,

and ever she makes it plain:

“Send not your foolish and feeble;

send me your strong and your sane”

I chanted that, sometimes proudly bellowed it, strong and sane, as I floated on down the river. Now I felt worthy of the high calling of seasonal naturalist at Denali National Park. Now I felt worthy to submit my application to the National Park Service

As I followed the flowing river north, the fall migration followed it south. Flocks of robin and a large flock of nighthawks flew past overhead. The spotted sandpipers that had been a constant presence, bobbing along the shore, left. Small flocks of ducks in the shallows watched me float by. Near the White River, a large flock of five thousand sandhill cranes circled and clamored at the end of the day, perhaps voting whether to stop for the night or keep going. They eventually decided to land on sandbars just downstream of my camp.

 

My main memory of that part of the trip was a hike I took. I had floated the Yukon because I had wanted to go far beyond the roads, to get way out there, completely on my own, just me and the world, out to a place where I would be the only person to have stood there during my lifetime. I could get there by hiking cross-country away from the river. So I studied my maps and selected an area ahead where low mountains drew close to the river. I landed at the mouth of one of the larger streams there, packed my pack for an overnight hike, stowed my supplies and raft, and went hiking, following the stream toward the top of its drainage. Bear scat appeared within the first half mile but probably just black bear. I hiked cross-country, following the stream throughout the day and by late afternoon, I was ascending the final rounded tundra ridges towards the summit ridgeline. Communal piles of wolf scat were common atop every rock outcropping that stuck out along the ridge. I was out there, gazing in all directions. About three miles across the next wide drainage on the next dividing ridge was a mid-size, 20 to 30 man mining operation. It was too far away to hear but through my binoculars I could see the bulldozers at work.

We live and move within a gradient that stretches thousands of miles to Out There and, more importantly, stretches back tens of thousands of years to a situation that has deeply shaped our souls. Maybe it’s a young male thing – I don’t know – but I imagine youth, like fairy tale heroes in search of their fortune, leaving overpopulated birth places devoid of opportunity, in search of a place they can call their own like that porcupine swimming across the Yukon. Some die in the search but those aren’t our ancestors. Our genes come from the ones who were successful, the ones for whom the search led to a wonderfully exotic mate, hills to roam, and secure places for one’s children to romp. Our ancestors from the deep past have shaped within us a siren call that lures us towards horizons. Out There calls from deep within, calls of new worlds, new possibilities. If the world of people gets too much, head for the hills. Head Out There.

But on the next ridge over from Out There sat a mining operation. And that was 35 years ago. Another mine might be strip-mining Out There at this very moment. We have populated and so changed the world that the Out There we imagine no longer exists. The urban-wilderness gradient still exists so we can still have the experience of heading out into the wild but the wild is becoming domesticated as we fill the world in. To those of us who have sought the shaping influence of the wilderness, we humans are losing one of the greatest gifts that being alive on this Earth has to offer us – the complete responsibility for each step. Instead, we place our feet too often in a direction not of our choosing.

However, my main memory of that hike was of a place. That first afternoon, after having climbed above treeline, I stopped by the now small young stream to rest. No mosquitoes. All was still. (In fact, in a few days, I would be spending the day beside the river in my tent as the first wet snowfall dripped brown slush from spruce branches.) The stream curved in a way that created a low sheltered spherical spot. It was warm. I was alone, in a place where no one would ever find me. The rippling of the autumn quiet stream was the only sound. Around me, the tundra brush displayed full autumnal colors. Oranges, reds, and golds against clearest blue sky. It was very peaceful. Way out beyond the wild . . , it was peaceful. I sat back, letting the peace flow through me for a long time. Nothing remarkable happened there but that orange place remains special in my memory.

And then one day, Dawson City came into view. I came to shore a few feet downstream of where I had pushed off in June. As my raft deflated, I sorted my supplies for the hitchhike south. I carried my trash to a garbage can. I dropped the first load in and the bang of it hitting the metal bottom was so painfully loud that I had to gently lay the remaining trash onto the bottom of the garbage can. My ears had dilated wide open to a quiet world.

 

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