I’m heading to Alaska again this summer to tell stories in libraries and at a festival and starting to think about a new adventure. Here below is an article I wrote 44 years ago about a trip I took with 3 friends down the Yukon
‘A journey of 1000 miles begins with one step’ and with this in mind I began to plan a float trip down the third longest river in North America, the Yukon. From the high country lakes of British Columbia and flowing northwest through the Yukon Territories, the Yukon was the water route for thousands of gold seekers in 1898. Seventy-three years later, this same area to Dawson and the Klondike gold fields is almost completely uninhabited. Except for a small mining community, this land returned to wilderness and wild animals, where the imagination can still run free. Not ending at Dawson, this cruise and exploration was to continue for an additional 1500 miles across the entire State of Alaska and finishing at Norton Sound on the Bering Sea.
Preparing a trip of this magnitude required two basic steps and involved hundreds of small detail preparations. First and most important I found able and willing travel companions in my friends Doug Stakes, Eric Skidmore and Ken Jones. Providing the best equipment and proper supplies was the other big step. My long experience with Folbots around southeast Alaska convinced me to select two Super folding Folbots for this great adventure. The four of us met at Ketchikan for a departure by ferry to Skagway. A day and a half later we disembarked at Haines to visit friends. Here we sorted out a veritable mountain of supplies, assembled the boats and to our amazement discovered that there was room for it all. After we surveyed the lakes by air, complements of a willing pilot and found them free of ice, we proceeded to the headwaters of the Yukon via Railroad. ‘Nobody buys a one way ticket’ exclaimed the reluctant railway agent, but we did and got off the train at Lake Bennett, the first of a chain of lakes we’d have to navigate before getting on the river itself.
Under brilliant clear skies, on June 5th we assembled, loaded and eagerly pushed off our Folbots. We paddled into a light northern wind, which later turned into quite a tempest. Churning up waves from 4 to 5 feet, we experienced an exciting hour after which the weather returned to almost a dead calm. By 9 o’clock we camped under clear skies and observed the first of many beautiful sunsets we would see during what would be a 80 day trip. Almost uninterrupted good weather favored us for he following three weeks. We alternated paddling with a little sailing, did some unexpected ‘ice skating’ over frozen stretches and enjoyed mostly carefree and unforgettable wilderness cruising. Three days after starting we caught up with winter. Rounding the windy arm of Tagish Lake, we were stopped by a sheet ot ice, clear across the lake. We had to make camp and wait. Despite hard winds all night, we awoke to the encouraging sight of an open passage across the mile wide lake. We paddled to the far shore and continued along open water on that side. We dragged our Folbots over many stretches of ice without harming them and felt rather elated over this experience. When we reached ice free waters again we benefited from good winds in our direction. We tested our sailing abilities with a home rigged sail for twenty miles across Marsh Lake. Entering the main current of the river we could afford to sit back and let the Yukon push us. Ahead of Whitehorse, the provincial capital of the Yukon Territory, we passed Miles Canyon, once the most dreaded section of the river, where men and boats were lost in their race to the Klondike. The canyon waters have since been tamed by the Whitehorse Dam. We procured last minute supplies during a brief stop in Whitehorse. Returning to the swiftly flowing river, we headed for the famous Lake Laberge, the scene of the cremation of Sam MgGee. For this occasion we made a commemerative bonfire and read Robert Service’s immortal poem, on the ‘marge of Lake Laberge’.
The next morning brought clear skies and fair winds as we sailed to the mouth of Laberge. We passed the rotting hulk of a long forgotten sternwheeler and entered the Thirty mile stretch of the upper Yukon. Turning around the many tortuous turns of the Thirty mile, we noticed a most awe inspiring array of wildlife. Within two short hours we watched a bobcat or lynx casually stretched out on a high bluff, a coyote running along the beach, two large grizzlies huddled near a log and a cow moose grazing in the underbrush. Above in a clear blue sky we noticed many ducks, terns and gulls flying profusely overhead. At that time we appreciated our smoothly running and silent Folbots the most. It would have been impossible to approach these animals closely with noisy motors or metal boats. We felt quite assured in seeing those big grizzlies from our Folbots rather than from land.
Following the way of the gold seekers we observed many relics and silent reminders of their one time presence. Now and then appeared old stern-wheelers washed ashore, parts of old dredges, a wheelbarrow by a creek and numerous tumbled down cabins. Our minds wondered and questioned. Would the men who broke their, backs, hearts and left families behind to trek across this primitive land, understand us young men, as we followed their path for recreation and to prove to a changing world, that we could still travel long distances on our OWN and without internal combustion engines.
Five Finger Rapids was the last major obstacle for the Klondikers. Three huge pillars of rock protrude in the Yukon to create five narrow channels of surging waters with tremendous turmoil of frothy waves and spray. Consulting our map we decided after inspection for the right hand channel. Our Folbots seemed tiny amidst these powerful masses of turbulent water, but they handled splendidly. We passed in perfect form without any trouble, only to regret that we could not repeat it. The challenge of these strange environments like a set of tough rapids is equaled by the joy of meeting a stranger in the wilderness.
Sitting over a campfire and sharing coffee, our new friend was Roger Mendell- son. He had just come down from Whitehorse in a freight boat in the company of two dozen sled dogs, huskies and malamutes. He was repairing an old cabin for a season of winter trapping. We shared food, drink, stories galore and helped placing moss on the cabin roof before we proceeded to Dawson.
We pondered over the matter of timing as we paddled into Dawson some 460 miles downstream from Whitehorse. We arrived on June 21st, the summer solstice and longest day of the year. That night we climbed with local folks a hill, known as the Midnight Dome. This is an annual ritual, watching the sun go below the horizon at eleven thirty and come back up at one in the morning. Traveling further north we would cross the Arctic Circle at Fort Yukon. If we had reached there around the 21st of June, we would have experienced the phenomenon of the midnight sun. However, we had an unexpected delay, as the Canadian Mounted Police appealed for our assistance. A forest fire was burning about 20 miles from Dawson and we were asked to lend a hand. Four days later we were back in Dawson, tired and grimy, but celebrating with gusto. We surfaced a few days later to return to our river.
From the peak of Midnite Dome we had already a good preview of the country and the course of the river. As far as visible the Yukon twisted its way between range after range of the Ogilvies Mountains. Leaving the Yukon Territory we re-entered the United States for Alaska, which greeted us with rain and lots of rain. Wet and miserable we discovered an abandoned looking cabin, which displayed the following note: ‘Welcome, feel free to use this cabin and the wood; we ask only that you keep things clean and replace any wood that you use.’ We learned of an unwritten code of this great land, as we warmed our bodies and raised our spirits by the fire of a welcome Yukon stove. This was the first of more cabins with similar invitations which we used overnight as our home.
Past Eagle, the first town on the Yukon in Alaska, the river spread out into the famous Yukon Flats. The water meanders for 300 miles over a broad plain, attaining a width of over ten miles in spots amid a veritable maze of islands. Our maps became useless because the rampant river cuts new channels, creates new islands and removes previous land areas in its restless advance. Thankful again for our preference to paddle cruising, we could carefully inspect and then follow the main channel at our relatively slow speed. We had the joy and benefit of being on our own, while motorized boats require a pilot for navigation. Near Circle at the beginning of the Flats we passed a sign: ‘End of the Road’ to mark the northernmost end of the American Highway system. With an air of glowing satisfaction we had passed beyond the realm of the automobile. Hereafter we pondered often over the silent atmosphere, which at first seemed overwhelming, but gradually became a welcome feature of our wilderness journey. Each sound that breaks the silence takes on important dimensions. The crack of a twig, the song of a bird, the splash of a fish and the echo of our names as it rebounds many times from the surrounding hills.
The Flats came to an abrupt end beyond Stevens Village, where we approached Rampart Canyon. Here the Yukon compresses its huge volume of water into a passage of barely 300 feet width. Extremely swift we advanced some 90 miles in 16 hours of an exhilarating run and then rested a day at the village of Rampart. Almost like clockwork the King Salmon were running and the big fish wheels creaking. The water of the Yukon is so silty, that fish can not see a lure and consequently we had been fishing along the clear side streams. Mostly we landed Arctic Grayling, Pike or Whitefish, but those Kings given to us by local fishermen added a delicious variety to our diet. We also bought more food and supplies at some villages. Although we could easily have subsisted on bear or moose we encountered, we refrained from wanton waste of life and meat, because we had only the four of us to feed. Yukon hospitality was not limited to the use of cabins, because in many villages we were befriended with offers of food and lodging. We appreciated these conveniences after three or more days on our own in the woods. Sometimes the villager’s hospitality is abused by “drifters or floaters’’ as they call them. One can only hope that outsiders will consider the extra strain that even a lone individual can bring upon the resources and graces of a small village in the North. By the time we reached Kaltag we had made and left behind many fine friends to be long remembered. From Kaltag the river turns almost due south for 150 miles toward the town of Anvik. The Yukon runs straight and wide along this stretch with a reputation for ferocious winds to cause high and choppy waves. Our Folbots had already established their ability to navigate safely in roughest sea. Without any trouble we met this challenge and pushed merrily ahead in spite of unusually rough conditions. However we found ourselves plagued by mosquitos, which were by far the greatest nuisance, if not hazard of the North country. Mosquitos shared our living by constantly appearing in our soup or tea. Some of the available repellents provide sufficient protection in all but the most severe conditions, when it becomes advisable to wear a head-net and keep the mouth closed.
The miles fell quickly behind us and we soon passed Holy Cross, where the Yukon turns toward the west at Devil’s Elbow. We experienced a complete transition of landscape and inhabitants near the village of Russian Mission. Instead of Athabascan Indians we met smaller sized Eskimos and their way of life as forests changed to tundra. It was August now and berry picking season. Our pan fried bread was enriched with blueberries. The Kings had stopped running and were replaced by Chum Salmon. With the fish wheels gone, the fishing method changed to set and drift nets. Timing continued to play an important part on our trip. Paddling was not only good exercise and our means of travel, but provided time and inclination for meditation. Just when we arrived at Russian Mission, the Orthodox bishop made his annual appearance by float plane. We witnessed a solemn and impressive Eskimo service.
Further downstream at St. Mary’s we arrived in time for the annual get together celebration of the people from the lower Yukon. We joined the merry making and renewal of friendships and watched the wonderful performances of latest Eskimo dances. Hereafter the days were getting shorter and the nights distinctly colder We had reached the Yukon Delta as we headed for Alakanuk, situated on the southernmost of the three main channels. Still thirty miles to go, we faced the most violent winds we had been prepared to expect. Unbearable conditions forced us to take refuge on a small island, where we spent two miserably wet and cold nights. Calmer waters returned on the third day and so we proceeded into Alakanuk and then paddled the ten more miles to the Bering Sea.
The last few miles of our long journey turned out to be beautiful, where the low land meets the sea in a hardly distinguishable way. Standing at the last point of land, surveying the vast Bering Sea to the west and looking back to where we had come from, our thoughts turned to many wonderful as well as trying adventures we had gone through. My friends and ! will never forget the moment of arrival at our journey’s end as we exclaimed in jubilation: “We have done it!” The echoes of the surfing waters and the triumph of this episode will often be remembered as the high time of our young lives.
We paddled back upstream to Alakanuk and bid farewell to our friends. Reluctantly we packed up the Folbots and hitched a ride on single engine Cessna plane to Anchorage. During the homeward flight we started making plans for our next adventure.