03 On the Yukon

I hitchhiked north. My supplies and raft weighed about 110 pounds and fit into my backpack and a large duffel bag.


My plan was to float the river in two parts. I would begin at Dawson City and float 500 miles down to the new Alaska Pipeline Haul Road northwest of Fairbanks. I would then hitch down to visit Denali for a few weeks. The second part would be to float the upper Yukon down to Dawson City, another 500 miles. But first I cached most of my equipment and hiked through grizzly country for two days out to the base of that tombstone mountain that had transfixed me last summer. It rained the first days and gray-crowned rosy finches hopped upon the melting snowbanks plucking insects lying frozen upon the snow. Alone, amid dark rock mountains, I touched that mountain’s base, an accomplishment unimaginable a year ago. Then on to Dawson where I bought my food, puffed up my raft, and packed my supplies aboard. I sat down on top of the raft, paused to look around and deal with any last-minute reluctances, and then, savoring this moment, pushed off. My raft started drifting down the Yukon.


It was mostly a very quiet time, just lying on my raft floating on a large, gentle river through the long arctic days. I drifted, never paddling downstream because there was no hurry. There were occasional abandoned cabins to visit, 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 until 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 more and more of its watery shroud behind as a damp trail. Occasionally it would rest. Then there would come the moment when, with great effort, its legs were able to lift its abdomen up, push free from the surface attraction that held the insect’s underside to the raft – and stand! Now its front legs could be used to wipe off the face and pull the antennae 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 raft filled with my pack and supplies. Or I might extend my legs out and lean back on my hands or elbows. Sometimes I would lay all six feet of me on my side or lie 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 set up my tent with 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, and push off. By the time I was ten yards off shore, all the mosquitoes had dropped away and I’d float all 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 preserver, 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 a while, we gradually drifted towards one another. I was respectful enough not to frighten him by paddling so I drifted down with the current. Like me on the Grand Ronde, he pursued his intent of 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 world of a river flowing in the arctic but this world with its billions of years of lives, each ending in death, within a vast universe. Something that I had always thought of as immeasureably beyond me was now me comfortably within. It wasn’t a big moment like my first walk in bear country. It wasn’t a thought or an epiphany. It was just this subtle, but noted, unlooked-for shift in feeling between me and the world that happened at that particular place, now far back upstream along the Yukon, that still resides within me. I am 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 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 candy bars and postcards and into the Yukon Flats.


Ah, the Yukon Flats. I had no anticipation that the Yukon Flats even existed, let alone what they were. The Yukon is turbid brown, heavy with glacial silt from the vast icefields of the Saint Elias Mountains. The Yukon Flats is the first place, after four hundred miles confined between highlands, where the Yukon can really spread out into a two to three mile-wide tangle of channels. The river slows and drops some of its load. 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. Very rarely did I ever see the entire river. Instead I was floating on narrow channels through a maze of low-lying islands. 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.

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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 the one channel that flowed beneath the haul road bridge that would be the end of this half of my journey. 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 joined another channel and deepened. Sometimes the current grew so smooth and slow that I wasn’t sure if the river had come to a halt here.


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. If the willows appeared to be gliding to the left, then I was drifting to the right. If the willows appeared to be gliding to the right, then I was drifting to the left. I enjoyed finding the dividing line, that point where the willows remained stationary to their background. 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 mattered much in the Yukon Flats.

These images are not from the Yukon.

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 (65°49’32.00″ N 144°03’38.00″ W) 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 carried me southwestward. Amidst the Flats I drifted for two hundred miles until the channels merged into a larger and larger river and the Yukon became one channel again. 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. Floating the Teslin would let me join the Yukon downstream of Lake Laberge’s thirty miles of slack water, allowing me to bypass an impassable obstacle for my soft, inflatable raft, especially if there was a headwind.


This was a different trip. Night now existed and was growing longer quickly. There were no more mosquitoes. The Teslin was a much smaller river. The water flowed with a rich, tea-brown clarity. Its shores were closer, the river shallower. There were fewer islands so I camped more often on the shore. Later, the Teslin converged with the Yukon, flowing very clear after its slow passage through Lake Laberge, and now I was on the Yukon and it was growing bigger with each new tributary. The well-named White River came in, laden with glacial silt from the St. Elias Mountains one 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, four hundred miles downstream, would give it a chance to rest and put down some of its burden.


I stopped at Fort Selkirk, a ghost town from the pre-highway steamboat days. In the school house were old reading primers from the British 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 darker-skinned 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, I who had turned a dream of floating the Yukon into a reality, now I felt worthy to submit my application to the National Park Service. Now I felt worthy of the high calling of seasonal naturalist at Denali National Park.


As I followed the flowing river north, the fall migration followed it south. Flocks of robins and a large flock of nighthawks passed south overhead. The spotted sandpipers that had been a constant presence, bobbing along the shore, left. Small flocks of resting 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 this second half 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. The Yukon was a delight but most of the stretches I floated were also the summer highway for people living along it. A few times I passed tugs pushing barges upriver to resupply towns. But I could get Out 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 the main stream flowing down from those mountains, packed for an overnight hike, stowed my supplies and raft, and went hiking, following the stream towards the top of its drainage. Bear scat appeared within the first half mile but probably 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 abundant 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, twenty to thirty-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 sure felt it – but I imagine youths, 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 died 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 passed on a siren song that lures us towards horizons. Out There calls from deep within, chants 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 thirty-five 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 on smooth, engineered surfaces in a direction not of our choosing.



However, my main memory of that hike was of another place. That first afternoon, after having climbed above treeline, I stopped to rest beside what was now just a small creek near its headwaters. No mosquitoes at the end of August. All was still. The creek curved in a way that created a low sheltered concave spot within the slope that gathered and held the Sun’s warmth. 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 deeply 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. A place of grace.


A few days later, I spent the day beside the river in my tent as the first wet snowfall dripped tannin-brown slush from spruce branches. The next day I struggled against a strong, cold north wind that almost held my raft to a standstill. But on a nice day, Dawson City came into view. I made sure to come ashore 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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