2009 Yukon River trip report

02 of December 2009

The Yukon, even 1500 miles upstream, is a huge river, being one half mile wide in spots. In normal flow years she is a dangerous and treacherous river. This year as I start my journey down this massive Alaskan river the conditions are more difficult. The May breakup floods, the worst in over 100 years, partially destroyed Eagle, with many complete homes, cars, boats, trucks, propane tanks and ten of thousands of trees swept into the river. Much of this debris became lodged on islands and shorelines, while other debris sank below the surface of the murky Yukon. These are the conditions that I would have to contend with when I entered this difficult world.

Launching into the unknown, alone, I always feel a bit apprehensive. Things happen, good things and horribly bad things. Once I am into my expeditionary world the feelings fade quickly. I am at home, the wilderness is my home, and a place I feel most comfortable. The Minnow, my 16 foot Seda sea kayak, and I are passing the steel bulkheads protecting the main part of town. Passing Calico Bluffs I am already comfortable on the river. I am learning how the turbulence and currents affect my boat as I cruise through them. Occasionally, my paddle strikes something underwater. The water is so murky that I cannot see more than a couple of inches beneath the surface. I decide to shallow up the stroke a bit. “Good idea”, I say to myself!

While the river offered challenges the skies were not going to be easy on me. Thunderstorms were developing all around. I pulled ashore to change into some Gore-tex rain gear. “Ah’ the romance of kayaking in the rain’ I commented to myself. Heavy rain began pounding me as I shrunk under the cover of my hooded jacket. Lightning strikes close enough for my hairs to standup shook the forests close to me. “Welcome to the Yukon summer” I uttered. What an excellent way to start my journey!

My destination for this evening was the Phonograph cabin. This cabin is located in Yukon Charlie River National Preserve, about 60 miles from Eagle. Paddling all day I was learning that the turbulence and currents were manageable and survivable. They would push my boat around, sometimes considerably, but as long as I stayed alert I usually found easier water around the turbulence. Just a sum zero game, stay in my boat and I would be fine. Get into the water and things would get very sporty and unmanageable in a hurry.

The mountains that I was traveling through were nothing but gorgeous. Crimson fireweed carpeted many of the hillsides with valleys giving hints to more distant mountains. Bluffs came to the rivers edge, some collapsing in giant rockslides that peppered the river with million year old rocky missiles. I learned to paddle away from these hazards. Every moment in this wilderness taught me a new lesson. You either learn here or you could easily perish.

The bluffs are easy to identity so navigation is no problem. I began searching the right shore for signs of the cabin. Peering through my binoculars I see a boat beached on the shore. As I closed in I recognized this as a Park Service boat. Two Park Service Rangers, Scott and Adam, are clearing firebreaks around the cabin. I had met Scott at Park headquarters in Eagle. We talked a bit and as more rain began to fall I hauled some gear up to the cabin.

The cabin was a wonderful place with a hot tub; queen sized bed, gourmet resident cook and Hawaiian dancing girls. Ok, how about a hard slab bed, small wood stove, no hot tub, a dinner of Mingo cooked MRE’s and no dancing girls but lots of dancing mosquitoes. Thankfully, the cabin was dry and had screen on the door. Mosquitoes were rather active outside with only a few penetrating the screened interior. As rain was cascading out of the heavens again I cooked my dinner inside. In a few hours my bag and two inch sleeping pad were going to feel wonderful on the raised platform. After dinner I wrote in my journal and made a satellite phoned call to Libby, my basecamp manager. I gave her my GPS position and a summary of my day. I would do this each day. I fell asleep, as moderate rains hammered the metal roof, thinking of today’s Yukon adventure and what tomorrow would bring.

Ah morning, another day of adventure with a mix of clouds and sun. My MRE’s are warming in their heater packs. Most of my meals are military foods. Easy to make, tasty and nutritious! They are much better then the C rations that I ate while I was in the Marines. While breakfast is cooking I am stuffing my sleeping bag and packing the Minnow for another day on the river. After a quick breakfast I push off into the unknown. I stay with the shore current that is running about 8 mph. It has some very interesting hydraulics though, “Lots of trash under this murky mess I remark to myself”. Occasionally, my paddle hits something in the water. This has happened before, actually many times in the past two days. I readjust my paddle stroke to shallow it up even more. I would not like to battle the monster that lurks just under my keel. It is beginning to lightly rain again, wow, what a surprise. There are actually pluses to the rain, no mosquitoes and the wilderness smells are so intense and clean. I do not like the winds though. They are a bit nasty and can be dangerous on the river.

It is close to lunch and I need to take a little break to relax my legs from cramping. Five hours is about as much time as I can be in my cockpit without a bit of stretching and exercise. I usually try to find a beach with gravel as this gravel is easy to walk on. The mud can be knee deep and is very sticky making it even more wretched. After a quick lunch, gorp, and some exercise I move on.

This evening I would like to be 60 miles downriver from the Phonograph cabin and relaxing at Slaven’s Roadhouse. Yukon Charlie River Preserve is not only beautiful but has some nice accommodations. Well at least for the backcountry! I headed for the cut-bank current on the other side of the river. Many roils and boils tossed the surface into a jumbled mass of cross currents and turbulence. Pretty messy here! The winds are blowing upriver, as usual, and are blowing near 20 mph. The rain has returned so conditions are fairly challenging. Some of the small whirlpools seem to suck the Minnow backwards or at least make moving forward slower. This is a tough area to be paddling in. The river floor must be a mess here. I continue to move closer to the cut-bank shore current.

The rivers width varies from one half of a mile wide to as much as a mile. Here it has narrowed to a half mile or so. With this narrowing the current has increased as has the turbulence. Sweepers seem to be everywhere. These obstructions are very dangerous and I am very wary about being to close. I find the faster current close to the shore. My speed picks up by a couple miles per hour. I would like to ride this swift puppy for a couple miles but they seldom last that long. The river seems to change currents at will. Sometimes the main channel is the place. Other times it is the cut-banks. Just have to search for the best current. Now I am charging at close to 8 miles per hour. Smack, crash, the stern of the boat takes a hit from something lurking underwater. I never saw anything, just a jolt by something much larger than I. Checking my rudder for damage I head out to the main channel. Slower current here but safer, or am I?

At one point my mind wandered and I wondered how many strokes I was paddling each day. On average I was dipping into the water about 4000 times per hour or about 32,000 to 40,000 strokes in an eight to ten hour day. That impressed me in two ways. One, that was a lot of work and two, what possessed a so called intelligent person to assume such abuse. I have no idea! Ah, the mind games played when you are solo.

I was about thirty miles from Phonograph cabin and getting close enough to Glenn cabin to start searching. I navigate by landmarks on a map and by speed and time, called dead reckoning. By knowing the current speed and time in water you can estimate your position fairly accurately. It is quite accurate when you get use to it. I start to move back to the left shore to prepare for my setup. Glenn cabin would be a good stop for a quick lunch and to stretch my legs and back out a bit. Continuing on, left paddle, right paddle, left, right, left! “Oh crap I say to myself”. My paddle is stuck in some debris. I twist my back violently to the left and really yard on my paddle. At the same time I kick the rudder hard to port. This action slows and rolls the boat to port and I almost capsize her. Twisting the paddle I battle with the unseen enemy until it finally releases. The Minnow pops to an even keel.” Wow, was that sporty I say to myself”. During the melee I did hear and feel a pop in my left shoulder. I paddle away from the shore to some what safer water. Resting the paddle on the cowling I check out my shoulder. I rotate it,” ouch, that hurts way too much” I think. I find that I can paddle, with pain, but I cannot bridge and get full power out of each stroke. I tell myself that,” this more than sucks”, but at least I am still under power. The Marine motto is, improvise, adapt and overcome. I will overcome even this serious and sporty condition.

Glenn Cabin is before me as I land on a narrow gravel beach. The cabin is still in fine condition as the Park Service maintains this wilderness lodging. I open the door to see two beds and a woodstove. The cabin even has a small food cache for the unfortunate few that come unprepared or find themselves in deep trouble. I manipulate my shoulder listening to a whole new series of cracks, pops and groans from deep inside the messed up joint. I have some decent range of motion but with pain in both shoulders. I check for a separation on the left side with a weight and it starts to pull the tendons. This tends to indicate a separation! Not a good sign. My right shoulder is also making noises and hurts. Not much to do except take some Naproxen and aspirin for the swelling and pain. I relax while I eat some nuts, chocolate and dried fruit for lunch. After that I stuff my butt back into the cockpit and proceed to paddle the remaining 20 miles or so to Slaven’s. Being a Marine and high altitude mountaineer I have been injured worse and survived. This is just another walk in the Park.

I ride the main channel current and paddle lightly until I see Slaven’s Roadhouse on the left bluff, high above the river. This is a huge two story cabin! The 3 hour ride down from Glenn cabin has been uneventful and easy. Even the turbulence was diminished and ‘no rain’. I was pleased about this turn of events as it gave my shoulder a nice rest. I enjoyed the slower pace, for the first time, exploring the river and its breathtaking shorelines in a more relaxed manner. I was able to study and enjoy my surroundings thoroughly.

Approaching Slaven’s I made my approach carefully as to hit the gravel landing area. There is a canoe on the rock and gravel beach but this landing area is huge compared to most other beaches. The Minnow scrapes over the rocks as she glides to a stop, her bow beached, I lift my hurt body out of her cockpit and onto dry land. I drag her out of the water and breathe a relaxed sigh as I get out of my PFD and Goretex jacket. I think that it is nice to be on land again and to be erect and alive.

I hike up the hill to the cabin. Slaven’s is a large two story affair many times the size of Phonograph and Glenn cabins combined. I find the entry and walk into a small museum. Rocks are displayed and many pictures and historical displays adorn the walls. Going through another door I enter a room that looked like a Chinese laundry with cloths hanging everywhere. In the center is a large woodstove; to the left a bed with a sleeping bag. To the right side is a large table with four people sitting and enjoying good conversation. I recognize one of them, Carl, another National Park Service Ranger I met at Park headquarters in Eagle. He introduces me to his guests, Uve, Robert and Francisco. Uve and Robert are for Munich, Germany and Francisco is from Spain. They are canoeing to Circle, another 50 miles down river. I introduce myself and take a seat at the table after I am offered a beer. Yes, these guys have beer. Cold beer too! Germans are so cool! Of course, my beer is for medicinal purposes only. Yeah right! After a little chatter I checked out the upstairs and find a small kitchen and four bunks one of which had my name on it. A bed with a real mattress! Not a great mattress but it still qualified as one. I would be sleeping in high happiness tonight and no mosquitoes to boot. After this I finished my tasty Canadian beer, hiked back to my boat and hauled what I needed up to the roadhouse.

I have some medical training from my time in the Marines so I started to assess how bad or good things were. My left shoulder was hanging a little lower than my right, not a great sign. There was some swelling and my hand had some numbness. That would get worse over the next eight days on the river. My suspicion was a dislocation. That would explain some of the nerve issues. The ligaments were stretched and this also indicated a separation. All in all a sucky situation! Range of motion was limited and it was painful but not that bad. I have a very high pain tolerance. Circle had a road connected to civilization and was only a day out so I figured I would hang in until at least Circle. The decision maker was that Uve and his friends had no problems with me traveling with them. With the current I knew that I could travel as fast as a canoe. I would be safer traveling with a larger group. With that decided I hauled my gear up to the roadhouse, finished my delectable beer and prepared my dinner of MRE’s and fruit, dried of course.

Carl told me that Slaven’s is a turn of the century refurbished roadhouse situated at the mouth of Coal Creek. A hundred years ago it served up food and provided lodging for riverboat travelers and miners of gold on Coal Creek. Today it serves as a rest and relaxation haven for Preserve visitors, hunters, fisherman and kayakers.

He also told me about the gold dredge on Coal Creek. Carl said “it is a quick twenty minute hike to the dredge”. That sounded good to me so I picked up my camera and a water bottle and headed out to the trail to find this historical gem. Two things that I forgot in my haste to go exploring, bear spray and repellant. I fortunately never saw a bear. I saw lots of mosquitoes. They were terrible. Clouds of them and me with no deet! I ran a good portion of the trail both ways to escape them. The 80 year old dredge was worth the gauntlet of vicious little sucking machines. Fascinating old historical structure! I love history and all the artifacts that exist from our past.

The evening passed quickly talking with my new river mates as did a great nights sleep. I was taking the maximum dose of Naproxen at this point so I had to sleep on my back. Not the most comfortable way to sleep but sleep was needed and my bed was so very much appreciated. In the morning I felt as good as can be expected under the conditions and was looking forward to the paddle to Circle. After breakfast and repacking the Minnow we started down the river. This was different for me. I paddled one hundred and twenty miles in two days, about sixty miles a day. Today I would just travel fifty miles in about ten hours. A real easy day! Of course, it rained as that seemed to be normal with winds that were moderate in the storms. Fortunately the lightning was not as severe so we did not have to stop. I stayed mostly in the main current as this allowed me to relax and really enjoy the river and the lands that it flows through. This was unusual for me. On expedition I generally travel through the territory quickly. I do see a great deal but not as much as I could by slowing down. Today I was having a splendid time observing as I slowly floated by. I was connecting to the river in a way that was much more intimate. Occasionally, I would close in on the canoe and talk with my river mates. That was also cool. Being alone on most expeditions I get use to the solitude and desolation.

This section of the river was fairly easy. Turbulence was interesting and I saw my first large whirlpools, possibly as large as 50 feet in diameter. They would pull my kayak as if I had no rudder. The first one I entered startled me and took me a couple of seconds to figure out what was happening. A kayak is very maneuverable even with an injured occupant so I was able to get out quickly and cleanly. I became much more observant of these hazards. My shoulder just ached but worked well enough to maintain power when I needed it. My hand was numb in most parts, just that tingly feeling. That I did not like but what could I do about it out here.

Past Circle the Yukon opens up to the Yukon Flats. This is 300 miles of river meandering through Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge. Here the currents slow as the river gets wider. It also gets very difficult to navigate as literally hundreds of islands appeared on the river. But here we were still in the mountains with a good current and beautiful country. Circle was on the left back of the river behind an island and was difficult to see. Our key landmark was a final bluff along the right bank of the river. We moved closer to the left bank and saw the bluff. It was unmistakable, hills and then nothing but flat terrain for as far as we could see. Impressive! Searching the shoreline for our landing spot in Circle was a bit laborious as a shallow channel had to navigated to the boat ramp. After a few minutes of dragging the rudder on a gravel bar we found deeper water and a way to our landing. Once all the boats were beached and pulled out of the water we relaxed a bit and then walked around Circle.

Nice frontier town. They even had a washeteria, a communal building that has washers and dryers, bathrooms with showers and a tap for fresh water. A good place to get fresh water as the water on the Yukon is extremely silty. This silty water is not good for filters, just clogs them up quickly. I did get water from some of the small tributaries but it is much easier to push a button and watch clean water fill my bottles. Besides the washeteria, Circle has a small store that we checked out. Goodies are always welcome. I bought a can of fruit cocktail and some chocolate. Pogey bait is wonderful in a harsh environment. The fruit cocktail cost $2.45 so one has to expect to pay dearly for these little culinary delights. Above the boat ramp there was a small park-like area that we camped. We talked that evening and then went to bed in our tents. Big decisions would be made in the morning.

I had a major decision to make, whether to carry on or go home. My shoulder sucked, my hand was mostly numb as was part of my wrist now. It was painful and I knew it would not get any better. Uve was continuing down river, Robert and Francisco were headed back home to Europe. They found a local that would drive them to Fairbanks. I could get back to Tok and my truck the same way. Decision time! The next takeout point, Dalton Highway Bridge, was 300 plus miles and 8 days from Circle. Uve and I talked about my hanging with him to the bridge. His attitude was that was fine. My navigation skills through the Flats would be good to have. I figured that I did not drive 7000 miles to kayak 200 miles. I had enough Naprozen and aspirin for a month. Anyways, I really wanted to continue so we set off for the bridge and a new adventure.

The flats were just that, flat and the river was slower moving. I learned to read the river by looks and sound. The main current carried enough sediment to produce a hissing noise through the paddle. Listen to your paddle and it leads us to faster water. Even the cut-bank currents were slower and fewer. I became much more intuned with the river and the environment. I realized that this injury was a painful positive rather than a negative. I was learning and observing more than I ever would have had I been able to just overpower this thing. This had turned from a physical race to a learning experience. I loved this new pace. I was still in pain but it was very manageable and I was still in the wilderness.
That day become a new awareness of my joining with the land rather than just passing through on a physical challenge. My mountaineering skills allow me to get by when others succumb to the elements. These skills allowed me to possess huge capabilities to survive and enjoy the beauty around me. There would be difficult times but the Yukon has a way of mellowing one to see ten minutes ahead and forget the present which means forgetting the pain in my shoulders and the numbness of my left paw. Just float past wonders of the world in quietness and tranquility that only a select few are ever able to enjoy and savor. I was one of the select few and I thanked God that I was here, injury and all.

The currents that we followed this day were slow and mellow. One of the areas on the maps that concerned us was called halfway whirlpool. This we never seemed to have found but I did find some other large whirlpools, some as large as 50 feet in diameter. The first one kind of shook me up. I was paddling away on the opposite shore as Uve when my boat started to veer to port even though I had my rudder fully to starboard to counter act this. Thinking to myself, “my rudder had snapped off” I pulled it out of the water to check its condition. Condition was fine! Then I started to check the surface turbulence that I was stuck in and noticed the large circular rotation of the pool. I did not know these things existed in real life. I thought only in movies would you find such a large phenomena. All this analysis was accomplished in less that a minute. Things happen fast in the wilderness.

My kayak is extremely maneuverable so once the condition was analyzed I was able to remedy the problem quickly. Pushing deeper into the whirlpool I gained a little speed and kicked my rudder and added power with a couple of efficient paddle strokes. Soon I was looking at this whirlpool in my wake. I remarked to myself about how cool that was.

There were many turbulence problems like this on the river and it was a wonderful learning experience to be challenged and solve these problems. I think that I did pretty well considering all of them and the simple fact that I never took a bath in the river unless I wanted a bath.

Clouds had been developing all morning and by noon they were very thick. A new line of thunderstorms was developing so both Uve and I dressed in our best Gore-tex waiting for this new onslaught of rain and wind and lightning. Our wait was not long in coming. We were in mid channel when we heard a train coming out of the forest. Uve had never heard this before but I had. A micro burst was headed our way. I have been pounded by these storms in Montana while on land. I had never been in the water with one. I told Uve what was coming our way and it would be on us in a minute or two and it would be no fun. Just head into the storm, keep your heading into the storm and expect at least 50 miles per hour winds for about 5 minutes or so. After that expect heavy rain and lightning strikes! The winds came ripping out of the forest and onto the river with a vengeance. Waves were ripped up instantly with water torn from the surface and thrown into our hidden faces. We just tucked down as low as we could get in our boats and waited it out as water from the rains and the river pelted us. With the storm finally past us and rain falling in torrents I pulled over to Uve to see how he was doing. He was fine just wet and really impressed with the storm. I guess these things do not exist in Germany. We moved close into shore for a little safety if another one of these things was to beat us. The lightning was not as bad as it could have been and did not chase us of the water. The rain continued to pound us for the next forty five minutes diminishing as we moved away from the storm cell.

With the day finally drying out, a mix of clouds and sun followed us down the river. Getting rid of the gore-tex was nice. I could dry out a bit. That was a nice touch. In the flats the temperatures were nice, now possibly as high as 70 degrees, so with the exertion of paddling I was not cold at all. We continued to move forward but now looking for an island to call home for this evening. In the main channel we decide to checkout an island that caught both of our attentions. Low, flat with mostly gravel! This was going to be home for this night.

This was a pretty nice island with a log for our kitchen, sandy areas for the tents and just breezy enough to keep the mosquitoes away. We also found a companion ashore, Big Foot. Well actually Baby Big Foot. Being in the wilderness your mind becomes much more inventive and some say challenged. No radio, music, television or video games! Just your imagination and all the beauty and ruggedness that is your world at this time! Life is immediate! Life can end in one catastrophic event at any time. Your world is intertwined with death, beauty, natural violence and your own goals of spiritual renewal and physical challenge in the wilderness. Hence your mind becomes your entertainment box. No wires, no electricity, no tuning guide, just that masterful device we call a brain and within that brain your child like imagination. This is where Baby Big Foot came from.

One of the first items of discovery on a new island is an initial search to find out who else occupies your little spot in paradise. Mostly looking for things that will eat us, like bears. If your island is large you search areas that are likely areas for bears, on small islands we search the whole thing. On this island which was probably an acre or two in size a complete search was begun. While searching I found geese and duck prints. No bear or wolves out here and then I saw him hiding behind a tree stump. Another stump but this one with arms, legs, a torso and head! Wilson came to my mind instantly. We were not ‘Castaway’s’. Our situation not nearly as desperate as Tom Hank’s character but by this time my imagination was looking at the world differently then when I could turn on my imagination with a hand held remote. I picked him up, or her, and brought him back to the kitchen log. Setting him there I put my ball cap on him and he became part of the team. Pictures were taken and introductions given. Uve and I named him and then he became the camps mascot for the evening. Baby Big Foot became an integral part of the journey and our collective memories on this Yukon adventure.

Some wonder why I take the risks that are incumbent in these expeditions. The purity of the experience, the excitement but I think mostly for the solitude and enjoyment of the experience, and the ability to out smart some very challenging situations and the enjoyment of my imagination in all ways. Huck Fin on the Mississippi, Lewis and Clark exploring the Yellowstone region, adventure and a childlike feeling that all in the world is grand and less complicated than it really is. An escape into a world that is pure and simple, you either survive or perish in a wilderness that gives you unbelievable beauty and challenges you with difficulties beyond reason. In other words we are given a time of undeniable enjoyment even in times of deepest peril with a love of wilderness and a belief in our own prodigious talents and abilities. That is why we are there talking to a stump with a San Diego Padres ball cap.

Baby Big Foot Island was a perfect island campsite. We relaxed after our day on the water, vicious storms and all. Uve asked me if these storms were common and I told him yes. We talked about his home in Bavaria and his job as a police officer in Munich. I asked if he ever thought that he would be floating down a wilderness river in Alaska. “No” he told me. Just a dream that finally became fulfilled! We finished camp chores and made plans for tomorrow. I showed him how inaccurate the maps were in the area. I pulled a GPS reading and plotted it on a map. It showed we were camping in water. The island was too small to show up on a map. That is a problem in the flats. Many more small islands in reality than on maps! I told him just follow the river, it leads you and will take you to the sea. We talked about visiting Fort Yukon and being above the Arctic Circle. Nice evening to relax and get to know another person that looked at life in a similar vein. We retired to our tents and left the guard duty to Baby Big Foot.

Waking up early we packed up quickly so that we could travel the 50 miles to Fort Yukon. An unusual morning greeted us, no clouds and warmer. Pushing off into the turbulent river we paddled mile after mile under a warming sun and easy wind conditions. This was my sixth day on the Yukon and by far the warmest and driest and most pleasant. I found a couple more large whirlpools and was challenged by more turbulent water. My hand was numb as was some of my forearm and I was hurting but this was a great day. The suns warmth just penetrated my body and soul. At times I just basked in the heat. No rain all day. As late afternoon crept up on our river flotilla Fort Yukon appeared on the left shore.

Pulling into an area that would provide us enough room for tents we secured our boats and then walked into town to find a store and washerteria. Fort Yukon is a fairly large town stuck way back in the wilderness. All the streets are dirt with a few cars traveling them. The local Athabascans seem to prefer ATV’s thought. Many just cruised back and forth around town. Well the stores were closed until Monday morning. This being Saturday night I guess we were out of luck there. Never did find the washerteria! We did find some of the most hospitable people that I have ever had the pleasure to meet. The towns Baptist minister and his wife invited us into their home and gave us water, chocolate cake and ice cream and a place to charge my satellite phone and camera batteries. We sincerely enjoyed our time with David and Heidi and really enjoyed the chocolate cake. Back at camp a local Athabascan came by and we talked about Alaska, the river and his life as a native dependent on the river for food and a life. Many of his friends came by to visit. These people live in world of subsistence, joined to the earth in a way that many have a difficult time understanding. In some ways this is an easier life but much more dependent on their own resources to eat and to survive. Meeting and living like the locals has a tendency to change ones outlook on life. In many ways kayaking the Yukon changed me. That is why I will be back there next summer.

The local populations accepted us as one of them because they realize how difficult it is to survive on this river. We were much more like them than like our own cultures and they respected that we lived as they do, with a love of the river and the lands that are connected to the river. I was pleased to be here and to be understood by people that understood me and my ambitions. We finally went to sleep at 3AM tired but pleased with our time in Fort Yukon. We slept above the Arctic Circle for the first time. Cool!

This would be a more difficult day only in the sense that we were leaving a town that treated us so well on about 5 hours of sleep. After another MRE breakfast I packed up the Minnow and with Uve we pushed off into the wilderness and the land called the Yukon Flats. We talked as we paddled on this 7th day of my adventure. It had turned from a physical marathon to an experience that would change me and my ideas towards my next expedition. I was sore and hurt but already thinking about what was next.

The Yukon Flats are interesting in the sense that the river just meanders through islands that are way too intricate and easy to get lost in. Being lost here is not a problem, the river all goes in the same direction and destination. It just takes more energy and time. Out of Beaver, Alaska we took a “shortcut channel’ that was so slow of current that we had to paddle most of it. This added many hours to the river and lots of expended energy. It was pretty but I assume the main channel would also be pretty with lots less soreness and pain for me. A local told us about this shortcut. He was correct; it was a couple miles shorter in a motorized boat. In self propelled vessels time and energy have to be considered as our motors do not push us at 20 mph. A lesson learned for sure. I guided us mostly down the main channel. I listened to my paddle and searched for the easiest way with my eyes and my expanding knowledge of the river.

Soon the idea of a camp for the evening was upon us. We picked another gravel island for our evening’s camp. After setting up camp we walked around our new home looking for any signs of bears. We saw many footprints of large bears. These barren ground brown bears can be very difficult at times. I wanted to know if they were around. I love bears but also respect the heck out of them. I broke out the shotgun, loaded a couple rubber slugs and went to search out the islands. I searched one end of Bear Island. I saw more bear prints but no bears. The other end of the island was not searched as I was tired from a long day on the water and a lack of sleep from our time in Fort Yukon. We secured our boats, ate dinner and were tucked away in our tents by 11pm and probably asleep by 11:02. I would write in my journals the next morning. Sleep came to me quickly and pleasantly. In the morning large brown bear prints were next to both tents. We heard nothing as we slept!

Morning came as did another MRE breakfast. The usual regimen was to prepare food, pack my boat and then eat after my breakfast was warm. Each day the same! This was a little different though. We had traveled 200 plus miles of the Flats with only another 100 or so more to go. Only one more camp before the bridge and the end of my trip I suspected. My shoulder would not holdup to Nome, this I knew. The bridge was the last place to get out of the river with a road. Flying out was way beyond my budget on this trip. So moving down the river now was with some dread in the face of this knowledge.

This day’s weather was better than the last two, sunshine and warm, no clouds at all. We both basked in these splendid conditions. Even the river was somewhat less turbulent. She flowed with a steady 4 mph current. We watched a lynx walk the shore, he as much as us in amazement as to our presence. During the ten days of travel down the river we only saw two lynx and of course a mass of ducks, beavers, geese and other shore birds. If there was a disappointment this was it. We did see many bear and wolf tracks though. The river was unusually calm or maybe I was that much better kayaking but I was very relaxed moving from shore to shore exploring the river. Uve in his canoe stayed in the fasted currents. A canoe is much more difficult to maneuver, so I moved around testing my shoulder to see if I could continue to Nome. This would be our last day in the Flats to. In the distance I could see low mountains again. It would be nice to see hills and flowers and forests. The last 5 days in the Flats were gorgeous but these lands do not compare with the mountains. Maybe even see more animals there. This was an easy and wonderfully restful day. Got to work on my tan and enjoy a superb wilderness travel day.

Late in the afternoon we began to search for a place to sleep for the night. Night is such a misnomer here; it is light 24 hours a day. It never gets dark; I can read a map at 3 AM if I choose. We both spot a gravel island and discuss where to land. It is a large island with a great deal of gravel, mud and sand. We have found a decent place to land and relax. As our boats grind to a stop I extricate myself from the cockpit of the Minnow. Erect again, I walk around a bit to get my land legs back. A short distance from the boats I find large brown bear prints, fresh to. Uve and I search more and find more fresh prints. Ah I say, “this must be Bear Island II”. I think we will be sleeping with the shotgun this evening. After dinner, tents setup and a little cleaning we build a fire to relax around and dispose of some burnable trash. The boats are pulled up on land next to a small inlet off the main river. They are 15 feet away from the tents and all cleaned up and secured for the night. Uve and I talk about tomorrow and the bridge and plans past that. I am all most certain that I will pull off the river here as my shoulder is not good at all. It is painful and my hand and arm are numb most of the time. I have to sleep on my back. I am being forced out by injury; the river has put me on injured reserve for the season. That is life out here, at least I am alive. It could be much worse.

Sleep comes quickly after I enter my soft and warm sleeping bag. Uve wakes up first and is stirring around outside. He asks me why my boat is floating in the inlet. That gets me out of bed quickly. The Minnow is afloat and where she was stowed are large foot prints, bear prints. Close to both of our tents. Fortunately my boat stayed in the inlet and did not start its solo journey down the river. That would have been really bad. Uve and I heard nothing all night. We had at least one bear hanging out within 15 feet of our tents and he pushed my boat into the water without us ever waking. He was going after my boat for the food in it. It was properly stored but he could still smell it. We figure he pushed on the boat trying to get at the food. We just looked at each other in awe at the stealth of these animals.

It was time to pack and head on out to the Bridge and my takeout point. The sky was clear, warm temperatures greeted us already and the river was calm with no winds. The last three days were like this, warm, windless and blue skies. We gobbled our breakfast down and set out into the looming mountains. Fireweed carpeted the shoreline and slopes of the mountains. The river narrowed to three quarters of a mile with the current speeding up in the narrower canyon. I split and paddled to the left bank of the river to visit some fish camps. At a small point I encountered a huge whirlpool, almost 100 foot in diameter. The center was at least 5 feet in diameter and dropped about 15 inches. I expected to see Capt. Jack Sparrow and the Black Pearl. I paddled through the edge to get a good look. Impressive is all that I can say about this pool. I am sure that it was powerful enough to drag a person to its depths if one was unlucky enough to enter this monster. I passed this last massive whirlpool and continued on in fairly placid water. Passing hillsides of more fireweed I just relaxed and allowed the scenery to flood my brain. I headed back across the river as I knew that the pipeline and bridge were within the next turn of the river. Talking with Uve we saw it for the first time. It was really quite exciting but also a bummer as I could now see the end on my excursion on this great river. A barge was tied up to the commercial landing so we had to go around this large obstruction to the public landing ramp. Sliding to a stop on the gravel I got out of the Minnow for the last time on this trip.

Wow, this place is so busy. Trucks, barges, tug boats, people everywhere what a profound change. I think I want to be back in the wilderness. We pulled the boats up on shore and then went for a little hike towards the large buildings up on the flats above the river. There was a gas station, restaurant, hotel and a place to take a shower with real soap. I suspected that we were a bit ripe after 10 days on the river. The shower was 10 bucks, a little steep but that included a towel, soap and shampoo. We went back to the boats for some clean cloths, paid our money and became clean humans again. I could not believe how good this warm water from the ceiling felt. After the shower I shaved and this completed my journey back to cleanliness. After this Uve and I sat down to a great dinner of a hamburger and french fries. I even had some ice cream. We talked to some of the tourists and local workers. It was nice to sit in a chair again and enjoy dinner without cooking it ourselves.

I talked to some of the locals to see if a doctor was near. I really wanted to continue downriver and wanted to see if a doc could take a look at my shoulder and tell me everything would be better in a couple of weeks. I knew better but one can always hope.
Back at the river we setup our tents and relaxed the rest of the day. Sleep came early that evening.

In the morning Uve and I hiked up to get some breakfast and talked about plans. In the morning Uve would continue on. He ultimately made it to his takeout point in Russian Mission near the Bering Sea. I boarded a van that took me to Fairbanks and then another to Tok where I joined up with my truck again.

The journey back on the Alcan was a wonderful way to think about what I had just done. I paddled over 500 miles of backcountry Alaska with more than 400 miles of that with damaged shoulders. I was pleased with my adventure and happy to be heading home alive. Back home it was found that I separated my left shoulder with some nerve impingement and tore a ligament in my right shoulder.

It is now four months later and I still have to mostly sleep on my back. I knew that I could have made it to Emmonak but I am sure that the ocean section on the Bering Sea would have dispatched me into another dimension called a long Dirt Nap. I made the right decision albeit a hard one.

One question that is asked of me often, “do I consider this a failure”. I ask them how far they have kayaked or know of anyone that has kayaked 500 miles on a major wilderness river in Alaska. I was disappointed with the injury, of course. This is the price one can pay when attempting very difficult expeditions. Torn-up shoulders are actually a cheap price. Many injuries on expeditions end in death. I also did not ask for a rescue, just figured it out myself and attacked to a point where I was able to extricate myself.

Most expeditions never make it from the inception phase to the push-off stage. This little thing called funding dooms most plans. I consider any expedition that actually gets to the execution of the plan as successful. After that it is a crap shoot as to whether you will succeed or die. That line is extraordinarily thin. I feel very fortunate to have been able to paddle 500 miles on this great river. Fortunate to experience the solitude, beauty, danger and the wonderful weather of the Yukon Basin, to meet new friends and immerse myself in a wonderful culture and to survive to plan my next Arctic adventure.

Success is breathing after all is said and done. I am alive and well enough to plan my next expedition. Maybe this will be the one that dooms me but I believe that will not be the case. So is this a complete success, yes. I was able to execute my plan and survive.

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1 Comment »

  1. Great info! thanks for sharing. Hiking is also my hobby.

    Comment by logo water bottles — December 11, 2009 @ 12:01 am

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