YUKON RIVER EXPEDITION – a race along the way & the Yukon River Quest Race
June 2004. Canada.
It got cooler as the night turned into morning, so I couldn’t understand how Ed was keeping warm wearing only a cotton T shirt. He said he was okay, but not long afterward exhaustion began to set in and he started to feel sleepy. He stopped paddling several times trying to fight fatigue. Eventually he couldn’t take it any longer and said he wanted to stop. We paddled on a little further trying to find the right place. As we rounded a bend we saw two tents erected on a flat gravel area that stretched several hundred metres, it looked the perfect place. Our first thoughts were to pass it by, but Ed really needed to stop, so after second thoughts we decided to pull over. The current was swift, so it took some effort to ferry to shore. We landed next to the campers’ food drums, which were left 120 metres from their tents as a precautionary measure against bears.
Once on dry land Ed instantly hit the pebbly ground. He lay flat on his back with his hands and arms by his side, totally exhausted, dead to the world. I walked around the gravel bar, which was part of an island, filling in time and trying to keep warm in the chilled air. The hills on shore were steep and high and a landslide was taking place opposite us. Every few minutes rocks would tumble and splash into the water. The valley was silent except for the rumbling and tumbling of the landslide and in the dim light, it felt an eerie place. I soon tired of standing around getting chillier with every passing moment and watching Ed turn into an icicle perhaps never to wake up again, so I prodded him with my foot. He let out a moan, moved a limb or two and then mumbled the words, “I’m freezing”. Not surprising, given that he was still in his T shirt. He stood up and shivered as he put on more clothes and to my relief he was willing to get back in the canoe and paddle on.
We had lost precious time, one team had passed us and others must be creeping up, so time spent on shore wasn’t to our benefit. We had to keep moving. We were taking part in one of the longest canoe races in the world, the Yukon River Quest. This 750 kilometre race, which we had incorporated into our 3300 kilometre journey, was just a small part of our overall expedition.
Saturday 5th June 2004.
It had been a dream of mine to paddle the entire Yukon River for several years and now I was on my way. Just the name Yukon conjured up vivid images of grandeur, remoteness, adventure and danger. Our river journey was about 3300 kilometres long, running through one of the most remote wilderness areas on earth. Although I knew it would be an extraordinary experience, I also knew it would be a gruelling challenge, and an amazing dream to chase.
The Yukon River
Even though I had always thought that I would be taking on this expedition alone, as I have done on many other expeditions, Ed Van Eer, a twenty year old, had become my paddling partner. I first met Ed when he undertook work experience with me while he was still in school. He was always interested in doing such a trip, so when I asked him if he wanted to accompany me on the Yukon journey he leapt at the idea.
As we sat on the plane waiting for take-off I wondered whether young Ed really understood what he had taken on! He had paddled the 135 kilometre Avon Descent white water race twice before and had been paddling on and off for five years, but that was really the extent of his marathon paddling. With youth on his side, however, I felt confident that he’d do well.
Both Ed and I had been busy leading up to the trip and never made time to discuss the trip in depth, so now, on the plane, it was the ideal opportunity. Unfortunately during the long cramped flight, with the distractions of movies, meal breaks and drinks, time flew by so quickly we still didn’t get around to it. Even on our two night stopover in Hong Kong we were too interested in what was going on around us.
An hour before landing in Vancouver, Ed noticed another huge aircraft flying next to us. Thankfully, it soon veered away. As we started to descend, Vancouver Island came into view and soon after we could see the spectacular range of mountains behind the city of Vancouver. We were here, our overseas adventure was about to begin. Vancouver is the departure point for many cruise ships going up the inside passage to Alaska, however, we had planned to head north to Whitehorse by ferry, a much cheaper alternative, but it departed from Bellingham, Washington State in the USA.
Tuesday 8th June.
After a short stay in Vancouver, it was time to leave and head to Bellingham by bus. Oddly, we had to go south into the USA to catch the ferry to go North! After clearing the city suburbs we arrived at the Canadian/U.S. border, which was situated in the middle of a market garden area. A long line of trucks queued but our bus went straight to a coach custom post.
As I went through the first part of the customs an officer asked me “how did your cycle trip go across America?” Crikey how did he know that I’d cycled across the U.S.? Then in dawned on me, obviously they kept a record of my entry into the U.S. from my last trip, in the computer. On that trip I cycled 10,700kms, backpacked 1,200kms and kayaked 4,300kms which included paddling the entire 4000km Mississippi River. This awesome journey took me through thirty states. I started in New York and zig-zagged up, down and across the U.S.A. finishing in Los Angeles, California.
Many of the custom officers were far less friendly than the first, so it was a relief to finally move through customs and back onto the bus. We sped through the American countryside and arrived at the quaint and inviting town of Bellingham, which had a relatively new ferry terminal. The day had turned hot and it was great to sit on a seat outside the ferry terminal, watch the water and relax. There wasn’t a single cloud in the sky and it was glorious.
We boarded the ferry at 4.00pm and went straight upstairs on deck where people were pitching their tents. Ed was keen to join them, but because his tent wasn’t self-supporting, it was going to be a challenge to keep it up. Within minutes Ed had erected his tent, tied it to the boat railings and a deck chair that he weighed down with his pack. He was pretty excited to be sleeping in his tent for the first time. I chose to make my bed on a white lazy-boy deck chair in a three sided enclosed part of the upper deck, called the Solarium.
Ed pitching his tent on the ferry deck
At 6.00pm, as the sun still shone brightly and all the cars and passengers were on board, the ferry’s horn sounded as it motored out of the bay. The houses to the north were shimmering brightly as the evening sun rays captured their colours. Over to the east, clouds were swirling around the summit of a large mountain, but then lifted and cleared providing spectacular views. The countryside standing between the mountain and the shore was lush and green.
As the ferry cleared the bay and headed north towards Alaska it would follow a route called the Inside Passage. There were hundreds of islands that lined the Canadian and Alaskan coastline and the ferry would weave its way through them, avoiding the open sea and stopping at various locations along the way. Several cruise ships used the same route. This passage is regarded as one of the most scenic and picturesque areas in the world, with eagles, killer whales, whales, bear and many wild animals swimming or roaming the shores.
The ten tents set up on the back deck were now blowing briskly in the breeze and behind them at the stern of the boat the U.S. flag was flying at half-mast in memory of the former President of the United States, Ronald Regan, who had recently died. Several Islands to our west, in the direction of Vancouver Island seemed matted together, making it difficult to see where one island stopped and the other began. Soon after, the city of Vancouver appeared on the starboard side, with high, snow-capped mountains behind, creating a picture perfect scene.
By nightfall the wind had increased significantly and the tents on the upper deck were now billowing and shaking. I retired to bed on my extended deck chair just after 11.00pm, a little before the ferry ventured into the Georgia Strait, where the channel severely narrowed between Vancouver Island and the mainland.
Wed 9th June
I awoke as first light appeared just after 4.00am. Apart from looking at the scenery there wasn’t any reason to get up, so I huddled up again and tried to grab some more sleep. During the night a storm had developed and the wind was now wild and the skies heavy with cloud, a stark contrast to the sunny day before. All the tents were flapping, a few were ready to take off, whilst others were nearly horizontal, and Ed’s tent was on the verge of collapsing. By 9.00am people were scurrying around. Many of the campers were taping down their tents again, trying to stop them from being blown over the rails. Ed was a little worried about losing his, so he took it down and joined me in the solarium.
Our deck consisted of a variety of people; local fisherman and women returning to work destinations along the coast, a family from South Carolina, a guy from Israel, a German couple and other backpackers ready to explore Alaska’s south-east. We all had one thing in common, we didn’t mind roughing it on the back deck! For many the ferry was just a means of getting to work or moving between communities.
The passengers on board passed the day away by talking, sleeping, reading, knitting, eating, and looking at the scenery. For those people who wanted to know more about the area, National Park Rangers gave lectures in the ferry’s front lounge.
As the ferry was about to leave the shelter of the islands and head into more exposed waters, the captain told us over the tannoy to expect rougher weather. Soon after the staff handed out ‘sick bags’ to everyone just in case their belly churned! By now the sky looked dark and violent and with the wind strength increasing, the passage ahead looked very bleak.
Fortunately there appeared to be no one suffering from sea sickness as we crossed the exposed waters. Once back into the calm, between islands forested with pine trees, three pods of Orca whales swam down the channel, the nearest pod being only 150 metres away. The Orcas, which could be seen from afar had huge dorsal fins, much longer than I had ever imagined. Thrilled and excited passengers were on deck hugging the rails, each trying to get the best view.
The trip through the narrow channels was simply stunning. Thin waterfalls cascaded down the vertical slopes and landslide scars streaked the steep mountain sides. The ferry slipped through the islands allowing us to look on, and dream for hours. I wanted to stay awake for ever to take in all the amazing sights but my eyes were ready to rest a little after 11.00pm.
Thursday 10th June
In the early morning we were advised over the tannoy that we would be arriving at the town of Ketchikan within the hour. I decided to take a shower to freshen up but unfortunately many other passengers must have decided to do the same earlier and left me with cold water. Although the mountains created a great backdrop, I was a little disappointed with the town itself. It wasn’t the prettiest town I had seen, but apparently there were some excellent stunning bays and glaciers nearby, great for kayaking. Three huge cruise ships were docked a few hundred metres from the town centre ready to offload their passengers.
Cruise ships in harbour
We were allowed to go ashore for three hours, some people took a tour but Ed and I did our own thing and walked along the main street, looking for something to make an impact on us. We walked for kilometres and found nothing apart from a closed shopping mall. We should have taken the tour, we thought. We walked on, turning just short of the first cruise ship, checked out a group of float planes, which were taking off every few minutes and then returned in the direction of the ferry. The shopping mall was now open so we decided to have a good hearty breakfast at MacDonald’s. We were told later that all the tourist shops were located a little further south from where we had walked, so we had missed out in seeing Ketchikan proper.
The ferry took aboard a few new passengers at Ketchikan and moved on to the town of Wrangell. Wrangell was a very pretty place. Its forests, even near the ferry, were full of eagles perching majestically in the trees. The waters around the area had changed texture and colour, due to silt being carried from the glacial mountains down the Stikine River, which entered the Sound nearby. I felt envious when I saw a lone kayaker paddling across the bay.
Docking at Wrangell
The sky was still overcast and the weather cold as our ferry moved on to Petersburg, but the back deck, still full of colourful tents brought brightness to the boat. We moved into a very narrow channel, where the shores were only metres apart and surely a nightmare for the skipper but fantastic viewing for the passengers. I stood on deck appreciating the stunning country around us but disappointingly, apart from eagles, we hadn’t seen any whales for some time.
Several passengers disembarked upon reaching the small town of Petersburg at 9.30pm where it was colder and almost dark. Lights from houses and street lights cast a warm glow over the town and with the harbour side full of fishing boats they added a real charm and character to this small island town. However, it was the wonderful backdrop of the snow-capped mountains that topped off the splendour of an already exquisite scene.
We slipped away from Petersburg an hour later, and as we moved into a wider channel the view of the snow-capped mountains was breathtaking. By midnight, people on our deck were bedding down. I laid out on my plastic recliner chair and watched the mountains go by; it was pure magic and I had a sense of both wellbeing and contentment. At that time I couldn’t think of anywhere else in the world that I wanted to be. I didn’t want to miss any of the magnificent views of the mountains but eventually my eyes could no longer stay open and as I snuggled up in my sleeping bag, free from the outside chill, I allowed sleep to overtake me.
Sleeping quarters on deck under the canopy
Friday 11th June
After having a brilliant night’s sleep, I woke on our approach to the old Russian community of Sitka, on the island of Baranof. I showered early this time, before all the hot water was used up by other passengers.
The channel narrowed before Sitka and several snow-topped mountains spread before and around the town. A non-active volcano was a dominant feature on a nearby island. It was one of those features that had you spellbound and enticed you to visit it. Unfortunately for us it wasn’t going to be possible on this trip. On arriving at the ferry terminal we had two and half hours to kill, so we decided to take a bus tour to town for $7.00. It was too far to walk, so a tour was the next best thing. The town was bigger than I had expected and heavily supported by various government departments, the government being the largest employer. Fishing was the next largest industry followed by tourism. With all the cruise ships stopping off at Sitka, two in the harbour, one leaving and another arriving, I could see that tourism was very rewarding for the locals.
Fishing boats in the Sitka Harbour
After the bus driver had dropped off some of the passengers in town, we continued to a forested park that was full of huge Totem poles, all etched with different carvings. Through the trees we caught glimpses and views of the bay. A cruise ship was anchored and passengers were being taken ashore in small boats. The return bus ride to town was minus two passengers who were accidentally left behind!
The quaint town consisted of a scenic harbour, mountains as a backdrop, a beautiful Russian Orthodox Church, which was the town’s centrepiece and many tourist shops. It was bitterly cold and it stayed that way all day. With the symptoms of a cold developing I visited the chemist to buy some tablets before sightseeing and taking in some historical facts.
We sailed away about midday on a nine-hour cruise to Juneau, motoring along a wide channel with more snow-capped mountains peering down. The temperature dropped further. Nevertheless it was good to be on deck to see a whale swim near the shore and breach several times, as did another one in the centre of the channel a little later. It was a great photo opportunity.
We turned south, along another wide channel surrounded by more spectacular snow-capped mountains, heading towards the town of Juneau, the capital of Alaska. To the north the mountains were full of rainstorms. Just the sight of them sent a chill through my body; to think that within days we would be kayaking in this cold weather! Glaciers were sandwiched between the mountains in the south-east, which were almost clear of clouds. We passed by another whale, and as we did so, I couldn’t help but wish that I was out there in a kayak with it.
Evening in the mountains
As the ferry headed towards the Juneau terminal a huge spectacular glacier dominated the vista but disappeared from view the closer we got to shore. The ferry terminal was well out of town and although we were told that a tourist bus would be waiting to take passengers to town, it didn’t turn up. Disappointed, we sat in the ferry terminal. I took the opportunity to make a phone call to my wife Jenny and to Alaine who was running my kayak shop.
A number of new and younger passengers boarded at Juneau; they looked more rebellious than all previous passengers that were camped on board. Due to the wind and the cold all the tents were now gone and the backpackers filled every deck chair in the solarium. Passengers bedded down as soon as the ferry took off on our last overnight leg to the town of Skagway.
Saturday 12th June
Early morning, I peered from under my sleeping bag with bleary eyes and saw a never ending range of snow covered mountains. It was such an amazing and beautiful scene, but I was so cosy and warm that I closed my eyes and allowed myself to drift back to sleep for a little while longer. When I woke again it was time to get up as we were soon docking at the Haines ferry terminal. Within the hour we were away again steaming in the dim morning light, down another fiord which led directly towards Skagway. As the ferry turned I could see the faint, ghostly outline of a large cruise ship motoring behind us along the eerie, shadowy channel.
Approaching Skagway, cruise ship behind
The narrow fiord was magnificent with high snowy mountains on either side. It was an incredible finish to our four day ferry journey north along the route known as the ‘Inside Passage’. For just a fraction of money paid by the passengers on the cruise ship behind us, we saw the exact same magnificent scenery as they did, although I’m sure that their accommodation and meals were a little more luxurious than ours!! From Skagway we would take a train and bus ride to Whitehorse.
When we docked, Ed and I lifted our packs and walked ashore towards the heart of Skagway a few hundred metres away. It was about 6.00am and the town was quiet with no shops open for us to investigate. We walked about 400 metres to the White Pass railway station to leave our gear so we could check out the empty town. Despite the enormous amount of tourist shops, they were all closed at this hour of the morning.
Early morning in Skagway
The café adjoining the station was serving coffee by the time we got back from our little walk, so we ordered a huge, takeaway cup. By 7.30am the station was livening up. Many other tourists were lingering and buying tickets for the train ride over the mountain. This was a real tourist town and the scenic railway was a big attraction. Today there were several different trains going out; some were steam trains booked out by train enthusiasts. We booked our own train departure for 12.30pm which gave us enough time to have a good look around Skagway. Without the cruise ships coming to town, Skagway, as it is today, would never survive.
At 8.00am we walked around the town again, visited the river and called in at the trail office. I originally had ambitions of walking the historic Chilkoot Trail, which started near Skagway and meandered and climbed across the mountain range to Bennett Lake, where we intended to start our paddling journey. However, the logistics of planning it from Australia and the time it would take to do such a trip proved too difficult. We also had too much gear, and it was near impossible to get a canoe delivered from Whitehorse to Bennett Lake. So we had to be content with taking a train journey across the mountain instead.
The Chilkoot Trail, which led up the mountain range and over the Chilkoot Pass to the lake system, was the most famous route taken by prospectors and would be miners who made their way to the Klondike Gold Rush in the Yukon. It all started when gold was discovered in 1896 on Bonanza Creek, a tributary of the Klondike River, just 17.7 km from Dawson City. In 1897 when the word got out, the Klondike Gold Rush was on. People from all walks of life and all parts of the globe stampeded to the gold fields in search of their fortune.
Skagway was a small town so it didn’t take us long to explore it and as we didn’t have anything else to do when we returned to the station, we ended up walking around the town for a third time. After three laps of Skagway and three coffees later we boarded the train for our scenic trip to the other side of the mountain and into Canada. Once there, we would catch a bus to the town of Whitehorse in the Yukon Territory. We shared the forward carriage with eleven other passengers going on to Whitehorse. All the other carriages behind were filled with cruise ship passengers.
The scenery was breathtaking and it was obvious why this train trip was so popular. Mountains with snowy peaks, creeks with torrents of water, fairy-tale forests, amazingly built bridges, steep sided hillsides and then a lone moose racing across the stark plateau.
At Fraser, on the other side of the mountain, we were supposed to have been met by a bus, but it hadn’t arrived! Apparently it had run out of fuel and we were left waiting for an hour before another bus, which was carrying a load of train enthusiasts, squeezed us on board.
Scenery on the way to Whitehorse
Our journey towards Whitehorse continued to be mesmerising with beautiful lakes and forested hillsides. We eventually arrived at our ‘Up North’ Bed & Breakfast in Whitehorse around dinner time. We settled in and later I walked to the nearest phone 2kms away to call Jenny and tell her that we had arrived. By bedtime it was barely dark and the local kids were still playing outside on their motorbikes until well after midnight. Nevertheless, I managed to sleep well on the plump pillows and soft sheets.
This time a year the sun only goes down for a short time so it is light for all day and most of the night. Further north it is light for nearly 24 hours a day.
The Lakes: Sunday 13th June
After my good night’s sleep and a superb 5 star breakfast, Ed and I were off to the shops. We didn’t have room to bring all our gear from Australia, so we helped the Canadian economy by buying some local gear. We needed to purchase our canoe, plus a whole heap of camping equipment and food for the following week.
I had been emailing Mark from ‘Up North Adventures’, and had arranged to buy a second hand Old Town canoe for $800.00 which turned out being in good condition. It meant that our transport would only cost us 12¢ a kilometre and with no camping fees along the way, it was going to be a cheap holiday. The most costly item was the $300.00 second hand spray deck that fitted on it, but I knew when the weather turned rough the spray deck would be worth every cent.
Advice was given freely by Mark at the ‘Up North’ store. He also showed us how, and loaned us tools to fix ropes along the side of the canoe to attach the spray deck. The day was hot and we had a lot to achieve and much gear to buy but it was hard to know what to purchase first, so we checked out all the shops to see what was around before making our purchases. Luckily, as I couldn’t find them in Vancouver, the local book store had all the maps of the river. Without the maps we would have been running the river blind and that wouldn’t have been a good start. We also needed a small 12 volt battery but by the day’s end we still hadn’t found one. We did however manage to buy enough food for our first weeks paddle, which would start in the mountains near the Alaskan/Canadian border and finish back at Whitehorse. In two shifts we carried the food back to ‘Up North Adventures shop’ where Mark, the son of our Bed & Breakfast host later delivered it to the B & B for us to pack that night
Monday 14th June 2004. Whitehorse. Day 1
I woke slowly, allowing myself time to enjoy the pleasure of lying in a comfortable bed. The decision to get up was almost too hard, but a superb breakfast was beckoning and how could I miss that? So with a little more vigour I threw the bed clothes off me and got ready and went down to the dining room to find Ed patiently waiting. Laid out on the table before us was a variety of chopped fruit, cereal, and waffles with maple syrup, orange juice and coffee. Blimey what a spread! We both tucked in as if we would never see food again, but I soon became too full. I thought I could eat, but I was no match for Ed who continued to eat long after I had finished. I could see that we might just have to double our rations on our long trip or Ed might fade away!
Today was Monday the 14th June 2004 and the big day, it was time to make a start on our amazing journey through the wilderness. But first we had to pack before walking 2.5kms into town to search for our last few items of equipment. Our last shopping spree had to be brisk, so I soon bought a water filter and a few other needed items at Mountain Sports and a neat seat and foam mat at another store. Ed bought a fishing rod and some fishing gear, which we hoped would ensure that we would eat well on the trip. Ed was regarded as a good fisherman.
My new camera that I had bought in Hong Kong was a little more sophisticated than the others I had owned so I took the opportunity to have some film processed so I could see the results. We continued our search for a small closed cell 12v motorbike battery that would be connected to our solar panel that we had brought with us and used to charge our satellite phone and Ed’s walkman, but we still had no luck. A simple item that is readily available in Perth turned into a shopping nightmare and an expedition in itself. On our search we also bought a plastic downpipe so we could convert it into a waterproof container for our large quantity of river maps.
The day was warm and energy sapping, just like an Australian summer, but somehow we just managed to find enough energy to shop for two last essential items, two paddles, and a Kokatat PFD for Ed. With our two paddles being lost in transit from Hong Kong, we had no choice but to get new ones. On our return to ‘Up North’ headquarters Mark rang a couple of battery stores that we hadn’t visited and managed to find one on his last call. We were very happy.
With everything now purchased it was time to leave the comforts of Whitehorse and pack our gear into the ‘Up North’ truck to be taxied by Mark’s employee, Helmut, to the small town of Carcross which was about 50 miles away. We arrived there at 5.30pm and were dropped off next to an old railway bridge on the opposite side of the river to the main part of Carcross and where the lake filtered into a narrow channel. Conditions were far from favourable; it was particularly windy and the lake was full of white caps. The strong wind was coming from the same direction as we were headed but other than that, it was a truly a stunning place to begin our journey. In Australia it would be considered mad to start a paddling journey at that time of night but way up here, in the north, at this time of year it never gets dark, although it does get cool.
When all our gear was out of the car, Helmut left us in peace to load our canoe for the very first time. The canoe looked big when empty but as we started packing, the space soon filled and we finished up searching for more room. A local lady came across to chat, she was very friendly but as we wanted to get on, we didn’t encourage too much conversation, only enough not to appear rude. I felt a little bad when she left as she was really interested in what we were doing.
Loading for the start of our trip
Originally, as I mentioned earlier, I wanted to start the journey closer to the mountains, at the mountain end of Bennett Lake, some 30kms upstream from Carcross. The logistics of getting there proved too difficult however, as there was no road into the lake at that point. The only way in was by the same scenic railway we had crossed the mountain on, as it finished its journey at the lake but getting our canoe on to the train became too complicated to organise and impossible to consider. So at this point, with so few days to spare, our only easy option was to start here at Carcross and paddle 30kms up the lake to the locality of Bennett where the water shed off the dividing mountain range into the lake. At that start point we would turn and start our journey proper.
After taking several photos it was time to begin our journey, fasten our spray deck and paddle away. No one was there to wave goodbye as we headed south into a strong wind and choppy waves. It seemed crazy to be heading in the opposite direction to our ultimate goal at 6.30pm at night, but we just couldn’t wait any longer to start our journey.
The nearest mountain had a few streaks of patchy snow in the higher gullies and the sky was heavy with cloud. The mountains in the far distance looked cold and laden with snow; it made us shiver just to look at them. We were rugged up in our waterproof paddling jackets and Kokatat PFDs (personal flotation devices) heading to the first corner where a large stand of pine trees were dominating the sky line. As we pushed on towards the far reaching snow line, several white capped waves broke over the bow of the canoe spraying Ed with icy water and causing him to shiver.
The paddle was rejuvenating, we were physically pounding away all those lazy days of the last few weeks and it felt really good. Ed and I had only paddled together four times back in Australia, so this was our first real test of compatibility. We also hadn’t experienced such cold, windy weather for some years, and in Ed’s case this was probably the coldest weather he had experienced in his short lifetime. We struggled on for one and a half hours and had covered little distance against the strong wind, so when rain threatened we stopped at the nearest suitable place to camp. Minutes later, just as we were erecting our tents the heavens opened and the rained poured and never stopped. Once in our tents though, we didn’t come out for the rest of the night.
We were in bed by 9.00pm listening to that wonderful sound of the rain hitting our tents. It was a cosy feeling being warm and dry after such a trying day. Here we were in the wilderness facing the elements with a storm raging outside and I was relishing it. We were on a journey that thousands of people dream of doing but very few attempt. How lucky we were to be here.
Even with the storm raging it was still light outside. And as there were no curtains or blinds for us to draw in our tents to shield us from the midnight sun; the only way I could achieve some darkness was by placing my trousers, T shirt or underpants over my face. The trousers and T-Shirt were more acceptable, I didn’t think my underpants would help induce a good night’s sleep! I soon fell into a deep sleep and by morning I was trying to remember all the weird dreams I had dreamt. For some reason I always have vivid dreams when I camp.
Tuesday 15th June. Day 2
Our comfortable warm sleeping bags enticed us to stay in bed until 9.00am. The rain had gone, though the sky was full of violent clouds and the wind was still howling, so I knew that paddling today wasn’t going to be easy.
We had a leisurely breakfast using nearby railway sleepers that formed a table and bench. Later Ed returned from toileting in the bush declaring that this was the first time he had been to the toilet in the outdoors. Being a fisherman, I couldn’t believe that he hadn’t dug a hole and squatted before. By the time we had sorted ourselves out on that first morning, it was nearly 12.30pm.
We took off and within seconds we hit the headwind and our progress was immediately stalled; in fact when Ed stopped paddling, it was impossible to make headway paddling myself. Because of the slow speed, we had plenty of time to look at the patchy snow that was melting before our eyes on some of the nearer mountains. But it was the snow-clad mountains in the distance that were beckoning us. They looked majestic and inviting but unfortunately they seemed to be getting no closer. We needed to be right amongst them to be at our destination near Bennett Station.
It wasn’t long before Ed’s first blisters developed, so he covered up with gloves. We focussed on points ahead, which became our goals, but with the incredibly slow pace it seemed to take forever to reach them. Rocks, boulders, sleeper piles, railway signs all became important markers in the distance ahead of us. We would judge our speed by them. Many were only a few metres away while some were a hundred metres ahead. When we reached them we knew that we had moved. Our pace was literally so slow that I’m sure a snail would have travelled faster.
We passed by a point where an old hut and steel boiler stood. We didn’t stop but instead kept on paddling being tossed around by the larger waves. The lake was at its widest just before it split into two arms and it was here that we had to paddle even harder to avoid being pushed back towards where we had started.
At another point of land we stopped on the sheltered side and slid our boat in a watery hollow between a build up in gravel and the shore. We tried shielding ourselves from the wind behind some trees to have our lunch of bread and cheese.
Lunch time was a chilly concern
As soon as we returned to the water and moved out into the channel, we gave it our full power, but covered no distance. Waves rolling towards shore had us on the edge of our seats as we smashed through them and trying to keep control. Ed was getting the full brunt of the water that lashed over the bow and soaked him. It was cold and I felt sorry for him but someone had to be at the back where it was much drier!!
Our gruelling ordeal continued and kilometres gained were very few. The wind gusted and as we moved around the various points of shoreline we would almost come to a standstill. Looking at the rocks and other markers on shore only reinforced that we were moving at a snail’s pace. I began to appreciate what a snail had to go through to get from place to place!
By 6.00pm the sun was trying to peer through the clouds which brought us some joy, however the wind was still howling with a mighty force. Three ducks sat in line, the only wild life we had seen all day. We forged on to the next point to see if we could see any camping spots further along the shore, but there was nothing but white caps, rocky shores and an island several kilometres away.
The snow-capped mountains still beckoned but the rough, exposed conditions and the site of a good camping spot nearby encouraged us to call it a day. We erected our tents in a sheltered part of the bay, on the flattest spot of the gravel beach. Foot prints riddled the beach, but fortunately they were only moose and not bears!
Ed was tired, and after nursing several blisters all day, he was decidedly happy to set up camp, light a fire for warmth and have some hot food. In five and a half hours we had only paddled 11kms. It was truly heart breaking; it was the slowest five and half hours I have paddled in my life.
Wednesday 16th June. Day 3
Despite getting up earlier at 8.00am it still took us two and a half hours to get ready and get on the water. The wind wasn’t half as bad as the previous days and I felt a little more positive that we were going to achieve a lot more. All but the odd cloud had disappeared, and surely that was another good sign?
As we rounded our first point everything looked promising; our speed, although still slow, was better than the previous day. However, rounding the second point the conditions deteriorated. As I glanced over to my left to check the shoreline, I saw a moose and two calves grazing near the water’s edge. We moved deeper into the bay to get a closer look but the wind and waves had us fighting for stability and control. For a brief moment I got Ed to steady the canoe whilst I took out my camera and got a couple of quick shots. By this time the wind had blown us well towards shore and danger. The moose, sensing us, moved her family into the forest. The surroundings were reminiscent of a Canadian Wilderness picture book and it was thrilling to see our first real wildlife.
A moose and calf at the water’s edge
At the next resting point we found old spoons and an array of rusting cans left by the early prospectors on their way to the gold fields, we left them there for someone else to discover. As we stood on the point full of relics we felt the wind increase even further and our hopes of reaching our desired destination fade. We were experiencing what many of the locals had warned us about, rough, windy, dangerously cold lakes.
Heading towards the start of the lake
By 1.00 p.m. we had reached an island which marked the border of British Columbia and the Yukon Territory. Out in front of us the lake was full of white caps and the narrow channel acted like a massive wind tunnel. We moved across to the island, landing on a magnificent grainy beach with an old timber bench and table nestled in a clearing of the pine forest. Fully sheltered from the wind, the surrounds looked particularly inviting.
Time to turn and head back towards the Yukon River
Immediately we walked to the other side of the island to check the conditions. As I stood on a rocky outcrop looking along the lake, buffeted by the strong wind, I could see a tiny island, a derelict building, a little further on the eastern shores and the complete narrowing of the channel. My goal was within grasp and it was luring me. I gazed at the scene with watery eyes and a heavy heart, I wanted to go on but the wind and common sense told me otherwise. With the race that we were going to take part in only a week away and the fact that we were 150km from Whitehorse where it started, we really didn’t have the time to keep going. At only 2kms an hour I had to ask myself what was more important, paddling those next 15kms, which could take two days, or getting back for the race? We had already hired a canoe, paid our $300 entry fee and I was sure it was going to be one hell of an experience, and one that we simply couldn’t miss. Not only that, how could I ask Ed to strain any longer when it was my dream to start at Bennett Station and not his, he was happy to start at the beginning of Yukon River which was about 100 kilometres downstream of us. I also had to remember that this trip wasn’t just about my own goal, it was about succeeding as a duo.
With only 15kms to go it was so close but yet still so far away. Reluctantly, I decided not to go on, but instead to turn the boat and head for Whitehorse. I cursed. Why couldn’t it have been a calm day?
We had lunch in the shelter of the island utilising the table and bench made from a railway sleeper. The view was stunning, the lake looked calm, and though it was a great camp site there in the friendly forest, it was too early for us to stop as we were now on our way to fulfil another goal, getting back to Whitehorse to race.
It was with great pain that we left the beach and headed downstream but it would be even more painful if the wind swung around and was against us.
As soon as we left the shelter of the island, the wind whipped us down the lake at an enormous speed. Wow! This was great, but the canoe became more like a tank as the strong wind and continuous waves hitting us at an angle effected my steering. Suddenly I had to work really hard to keep control of the boat. My usual ‘J’ stroke that I used to keep the boat straight was having no effect and so I had to resort to a steering stroke called a stern rudder and plenty of them at that. Although the stern rudder stroke reduced our speed it didn’t really matter as we were travelling at a super-sonic pace with the wind anyway. My only real chance to keep the canoe straight was to head straight down the waves. Doing this had the desired effect, I was in more control, but the waves were not going in the same direction as we wanted to go and continually pushed us towards shore. Every so often though I would change direction and head out into the lake crossing the swells and waves and then when far enough out I would turn the canoe and ride the waves towards shore again.
Surfing back with the wind behind us
As the waves picked us up and the canoe started to surf Ed accelerated his paddling rate to surf faster. I could sense he was enjoying the ride but this wasn’t the warm waters around our home city of Perth, we were in a cold Canadian mountain lake. As another wave picked us up, we started to surf once more and Ed again paddled harder to gather speed, not really thinking of the consequences of capsizing in a freezing lake far from shore. I had images of us capsizing in the water and ending up like a frozen fish!
A few minutes later a large wave pushed us broadside and broke over the top of the boat. The boat quivered with instability and for a moment I thought we might capsize, but thankfully our bracing skills kept us afloat. The wave flushed across the spray deck leaving puddles of water in our laps. I immediately straightened the boat and suggested to Ed that we had to be more careful; we couldn’t afford to have fun in this unforgiving environment. From then on, I was more alert for any big waves creeping up from behind and we both took more care.
Our passage back to Carcross was much quicker than the way up. We were virtually flying down the lake, despite our unorthodox route of zig-zagging like a pair of novices. Ed usually paddled on his left and I paddled on my right. If Ed changed over to paddle on his right, the wind would take complete control of the canoe making it impossible for me to steer.
We were now familiar with all the points along the shore and when we came to the old hut that we had passed on the way up, we stopped to explore it. The hut had a very low roof and we just couldn’t work out why it was so low, making it impossible to stand up in, even for a short person. Alongside the hut there was a large boiler and a lot of other steel relics that had deteriorated with time and the harsh conditions. Though there was a great camp site nearby with fantastic views of the mountains, we decided to take advantage of the wind and move further on.
We later camped two or three kilometres from Carcross, but well out of sight of the town. Over in a corner on the other side of the lake, we could see a sail boarder and two kite boarders flying across the water. The weather conditions were perfect for them, sunny with plenty of wind to help them race across the lake. But I couldn’t help but think that they must be crazy sailing in such freezing water!
We pitched our tents and lit the fire to cook tea. The smoke from the fire was more of a nuisance, so we soon let it die out. The evening turned out to be hot and the sun just kept on shining. We found an old spoon with ‘Billy’s Bakery’ engraved on it, presumably another relic from the gold rush days. Ed was tired and suffering with lower back pain so he soon retired to his tent.
Thursday 17th June. Day 4
I woke up during the night feeling cold so I zipped up my sleeping bag to bring back some warmth. I snuggled down and went back to sleep and had a vivid dream, this time about building roads. In the morning Ed said he had heard a bird in the night making a funny call. It was actually a waterbird that could have been a Loon.
The water out in the lake was dead calm and there was not a breath of air. I was spitting chips! If only we hadn’t turned around yesterday, today would have been perfect weather to get to Bennett Station!! It took us two hours and twenty minutes to ready ourselves, leaving at 10.22am. It was an easy 2km paddle into Carcross where we originally starting from. Carcross had once been an important community back in the gold rush days. As we entered a narrow channel the current built up against old railway bridge pylons, so we made sure that we were careful going between them. We pulled in on the left side near a native Indian information building. A native Indian spoke to us from the balcony, “Where are you going?” he asked, I didn’t quite understand him at first, but he then went on to say “You have to be careful crossing those lakes ahead of you, they are very dangerous when the wind picks up, which it will”.
I left Ed sitting in the canoe and rushed off to the post office to post some post cards. It was only a small post office but it had three workers. I then called into a store for two small bottles of orange juice and two ice creams, a bit of a treat. As I crossed the road a car drove past with two ugly, rough looking characters inside, reminding me of the film Deliverance. In contrast, on the other side of the road, were several rich, overweight tourists, one with a big fat cigar stuck in his mouth. What an awful sight! I just couldn’t wait to get back in the canoe to find the wilderness.
We enjoyed our ice creams on the riverbank before paddling down the short channel aided by the current. The right side of the river was dotted with abandoned houses and cabins. We moved under our first main road bridge of our journey and into Nares Lake. The mountain to our left was snow-less but still beautiful.
Noisy geese were taking off ahead joining forces with another flock to create a wide V as they flew higher into the sky. Seagulls mingled in small groups in several places on the lake and looked a little out of place as we were miles from the ocean! A few houses were dotted around the lake and in the woods. Some were basic cabins while others were quite grand. Nares Lake wasn’t big so we soon paddled across it and entered the much larger Taglish Lake and into Windy Arm to pass between Bove Island and the North shores. Here the views of the distant snow clad mountains were absolutely stunning. I felt a little sad; there was something special about paddling below snow-capped mountains and now we were leaving them and going in the opposite direction.
We soon stopped and sat out on the very calm lake stunned by the absolute beauty, taking photos to try to capture the visual experience that overwhelmed our hearts and mind. We paddled on and then stopped again wanting the view to last forever but we knew it couldn’t. It was hard to imagine how different and amazing our experience would have been though if the lake had been as rough as the previous day. Today we were becalmed and we felt so lucky to see it this way.
By lunch time we couldn’t resist stopping at a point called Perthes Point that gave us grand views of the mountains. The name reminded us of our home in Perth, Western Australia. It too is a beautiful place, but here the scene was much more dramatic. The day was absolutely quiet and apart from chewing on our bread and slurping our hot noodles, the only other faint sound we could hear was from the two streams that were cascading down Lime Mountain.
Lunch at Perthes Point
An hour later we were back on the water energised and feeling refreshed and full. We paddled through a narrower channel into another part of Taglish Lake, passing some beautiful houses and cabins at a place called Ten Mile. There seemed to be several new buildings, but oddly not a soul to be seen.
Once out in the bigger lake, we were afforded views up into the right Taku Arm where the water again met the snow-capped mountains and where we saw our first power boat race across it. The lake was so shallow and crystal clear that we could see the bottom. Beneath us were rocks, a few rock slabs with miniature canyons and then further into the lake nothing but dirt or sand. In the very far distance we could see the end of the lake and where it narrowed again into a channel. Leading towards it were several houses scattered on the western side of the lake. I was envious. What a great place to live – then the thought of all those mosquitoes and the very cold winters came buzzing to mind.
The lake was still calm, the weather hot – I guessed around 30 degrees. We could hear the echoes and voices of children playing way over on the shore but other than their screams, and shouts of laughter, it was silent. Like me, they too seemed happy with life. We continued our silent paddle across the water full of our own thoughts.
Two small boats, one fishing the other racing across the water, caused a ripple as their wake eventually reached us. Where the lake narrowed we could see a boat attempting to sail, it moved little however in the breezeless afternoon. Ed then spotted a rather large fish beneath us that excited him. I looked down but it was gone in a flash! The lake then became shallow again giving us views of the barren bottom.
As we moved into the channel of the Six Mile River, joining Taglish Lake to Marsh Lake, our passage was aided by the current. This gave a much needed boost to our morale after having no assistance all day. I asked Ed if he wanted to camp as we had completed our quota of kilometres, but he was keen to keep going. National and local flags were flying from many houses on the right bank. The houses soon petered out and began to reappear on the left bank a couple of kilometres before Taglish Bridge. More flags and houses but still no people. Leaving the community we moved under our second bridge as a fisherman hauled a small fish out of the river. Over on the right bank there was a small mariner campsite and fuel station, but it didn’t take our fancy so we kept going.
As we entered Marsh Lake the surrounds on the western side were low lying and swampy with some slightly higher ground way over on the eastern side where we didn’t really want to be. Our passage across the lake was like paddling into a huge void. Campsites looked scarce along the swampy shores and the low areas had grasses so green the whole area looked like a mosquito lair. We paddled on, moving over areas less than 60cm deep trying to avoid bogging down in the shallows.
I took out my binoculars, stood up in the canoe and searched for any suitable site. We were now desperate and realised we should have stopped before entering the lake. Way over to the west I managed to focus on what looked like a small beach so we headed to it. The spot was backed by thick forest and a green grassed area pitted with holes. As I stepped out onto the beach, very fresh bears’ footprints, as long as my hand, were embedded in the sand. I knew with certainty they had been imprinted today as yesterday’s rough weather would have washed them away.
The beach was damp and small, just enough room to squeeze in two tents. I walked on the grass to see if it was any better. Instantly a mass of mosquitoes flew up into a cloud and circled. At that point Ed was fairly insistent that he didn’t want to camp at this great spot! I looked at the beach again, which was penned in by dead pine trees and littered with bear tracks and admitted to myself, it really wasn’t the finest camp but it was the best we had seen. I suggested to Ed that we give it a go, we had to get used to mosquitoes sometime, and I was sure we would wake up in the morning with all our limbs still intact! The only hope of finding a better spot was way over on the other side of the lake, but if the wind picked up in the night it could be one hell of a dangerous crossing on the way back over in the morning.
But my reasoning didn’t convince Ed that this was the place to lay our head for the night. After looking at the campsite again I conceded that it was far from perfect and for our own safety paddling two and half kilometres or so across the lake to check another spot probably was the wisest decision.
I was a little disappointed as we moved away from the beach, it could have been an exciting night if we had stayed! Instead we headed out into the lake. The water was still glassy, apart from a speeding power boat that created a wash that wallowed slowly across the lake. As soon as we could see the shores clearly on the eastern side we aimed for a spot north of a small cliff. We soon landed on stony ground which had half a metre of sloping gravel. This had to be flattened with our spare paddle to give us a level area to pitch our tents and prevent us from slipping off our sleeping mats. I had brought a thin self-inflating knee-length sleeping mat to save weight and space but Ed wanted to be extremely comfortable so he had a long thick one for extra comfort. Kids nowadays aren’t as tough as they used to be!
We immediately heard a noise in the trees. Was it a bear? I walked towards the sound, but forgot my camera. I turned back to get it and by the time I returned whatever it was had fled. Ed said he saw a small dog or something. Damn! I wanted something bigger – even a wolf would have been good though! I had read a lot about the Canadian wilderness and all its wildlife so I was keen to see some of it. Soon after, another noise came from the trees and I turned just in time to see a rabbit jump out and hop along the shore. So much for Ed’s dog and so much for the Canadian Wildlife!
We leave the mountain range
The further north we were going, the more we were losing the snowy mountains but this campsite still gave us beautiful but distant views of them. Unfortunately this was going to be the last time we would see the white topped mountains so vividly.
We went back to our chores and the mosquitoes attached with vigour. I instantly went for the repellent whilst Ed donned his mosquito veil. By the time we had our tents erected it was still very warm at around 30˚. Ed decided to take a dip but he avoided taking the full plunge, saying it was too cold. I didn’t realise he was such a sook; he water skied, scuba dived, paddled white water and the surf, how could he not like cold water? I followed him in and very quickly realised what he meant, but I pretended to be braver. I walked up to my waist and boy was it cold! I yelled loudly before diving under water like a torpedo. As I skimmed along I felt as if I was forming into a huge icicle, so I quickly retreated and had a good wash on shore.
The mosquitos continued their frenzied attack on us, so dinner was cooked quickly on the stove. Ed was almost beside himself, he hated mozzies but he wouldn’t spray on any repellent. As soon as dinner was cooked he retreated to his tent to eat it. Not a wise thing to do in this part of the world as the smell of food could encourage bears to enter tents in search of a feed. But at this point Ed would rather have faced the bears than the mosquitoes.
As soon as I had eaten, I also retreated to the tent to write my diary. It was 11.00pm and the sun was still shining, the view was stunning, but the mosquitoes made being outside a nightmare. Our distance for the day was 50kms, 10kms further than I had planned. That was quite a long distance with so much weight in the boat and no current to assist. To think that only two days ago we were only able to paddle 12kms a day against the strong wind.
Friday 18th June. Day 5
Even in the morning the mosquitoes were unrelenting which encouraged us to waste no time getting on the water. The lake was as flat as a pancake, so we had no worries about capsizing as we crossed it. We aimed for a point in the far, far distance and just kept paddling. Three different power boats criss-crossed the lake, seemingly on a trip to nowhere.
On the north-east shores a small community scarred the pristine hillside with their houses and large blocks. Further on we could see the road, a busy highway which was the main highway north. I kept looking, seeing trucks and big RVs (recreational vehicles) fly by. Although I was out on a beautiful lake the road had me spellbound. I couldn’t help but wonder where all the vehicles were heading to.
A little further we passed the very small community of Marsh Lake, with few houses visible. Eventually we reached the far distant point that we had made our goal and rounded it. As the lake changed direction I knew that even if the heaviest winds challenged us now, it would have little effect on our progress. With the river entrance so close, the dangerous waters of the lakes were now behind us. At the next point we pulled in for lunch on a mosquito free, breezy, stony beach and cooked noodles.
Several houses lined the shores on the other side of the river, some big enough to be mansions. As the lake narrowed, and the eagles sat majestically in the nearby trees I could feel another beginning; we were getting close to the real start of the Yukon River. The canoe started to pick up speed without us even paddling as the shores closed in and a current developed. It was just fantastic, having the feeling of being dragged along and the knowledge that we should have the current with us all the way to the sea.
Entering the first part of the Yukon River
Soon after we moved into a wide swampy area where a noisy power boat came speeding up the river. To our delight, its engine died and it suddenly came to an abrupt halt. We were quite grateful for the peace again and not at all sorry for the driver who would have a long paddle home. We passed a beautiful white sandbar, which was being used by dozens of birds, but despite its inviting appearance it was just too early in the day to stop.
A flock of waterbirds flew overhead as the river narrowed and we moved under the first bridge over the Yukon River, which carried the Alaskan Highway across it. The highway was busy with trucks and big RVs; there must be a lot of rich retirees on the road. As we moved under the bridge we heard the movement of white water. It came from a small barrage a little further downstream where swift water was filtering through its many open gates. There was a warning sign on the barrage structure but by the time we could read what it said we would have been swept through the barrage gates by the swift current. We ferry glided across to the left side, secured the canoe and then read the sign. ‘Danger go to the right side and use boat lock’.
Ed held the canoe in position whilst I jumped out and checked downstream of the barrage for dangers; there were none that I could see. However, the pylons separating the gates were fairly close together, probably two and a half boat widths. The flow through the gates looked manageable, although a little swirly, so we decided to forget the boat lock and give the whitewater a go. We moved the boat further up the eddy, turned and headed for the second gap on the left hand side. We passed through it without problems and zipped across some boiling water, passing a fisherman.
We were now ready to stop, the area looked great for fishing and with this in mind we needed to find a camp so Ed could cast a line to catch our dinner. At the next corner a high sand cliff came into view. We drifted by it admiring the beauty. It was riddled with intriguing holes much like the work of swallows but we saw no birds.
A little further, on the right bank just beyond another cliff we spotted a good camp site on the top of a small rise. High and exposed to the wind we thought it would reduce the chances of mosquitoes. Excitedly we jumped out, started unloading and erected our tents high up overlooking the river.
Great campsite high above the river
Ed, the keen experienced fisherman soon produced his fishing rod, but on his first cast the lure landed on shore, I couldn’t help but laugh. His second cast managed to reach the water. A little embarrassed he continued casting and he quickly got it down to perfection. I watched from our high camp, waiting for the line to become taut and a fish to wriggle on the hook. Nothing appeared except a beaver which looked like a giant rat. It surfaced a couple of metres from Ed and then swam against the current, dived to the bottom and surfaced again some time later. The beaver continued to do this for a good 15 minutes. It disappeared, but soon after popped up on the other side of the river to continue its strange antics over there.
Meanwhile Ed wasn’t catching anything except sticks and weeds from the floating debris in the eddy. Here we were with a beautiful clear running river, a great fisherman who’s appeared on the front cover of the ‘Western Angler’ magazine, but sadly nothing for tea. What a disappointment! What do we tell people back home! Instead of finger licking fish, we had finger licking packet pasta for dinner. It was a bit of a disappointment not to be eating something fresh but looking on the bright side we still had a long way to go and a lot of water to cast in.
After our meal we sat down and discussed the race, which was drawing ever closer. At this point we hadn’t thought of how we were going to tackle it or worked out any strategies or times. Ed was now a little concerned and a little nervous as he hadn’t paddled for 24 hours without stopping before and he didn’t know how he would go. And then to have to paddle on for another 30 hours or more before reaching the race finish was quite daunting. He began to wonder why the hell we had entered the race.
Saturday 19th June. Day 6
It was 9.00am when I awoke. The sun was already scorching the tent and flies were buzzing and flapping between the inner and the tent fly and making one hell of a racket. I got up and started packing slowly, allowing Ed the chance of a sleep in. We were now ahead of schedule and with only a few kilometres to paddle that day, we were in no hurry.
Ed did eventually rise and we were packed and ready to leave around 11.00 am just after two other canoes had floated by. It didn’t take us too long to catch up with them. There were two couples, one younger and one older; the younger couple lived in Whitehorse and the older couple were their parents and lived down south. We spoke for a while and then zipped off with a steady current pushing us along the meandering river.
Dominating the river were high sand cliffs which appeared and disappeared all along the way. A few houses stood prominently on top of the big cliffs and so close to the cliff edge that I could envisage erosion would have them falling into the river in a few years time.
Sand cliffs line the river
Just before lunch we came across some people mingling on a jetty belonging to a huge mansion. It had an immaculate green lawn right down to the water’s edge creating a great camp site. We passed them slowly in the hope of an invitation but nothing was forthcoming. We passed another mansion and were told a little later that the owner of one of the mansions was a Whitehorse councillor and the other, a local tycoon.
About 300 metres further along in a small cove, a guy was leaving a jetty in an old looking boat/raft with the words ‘Gold Rush Tours’ on the side. Two dogs followed it by running along the bank and through the woods. They just kept running, an Alsatian in the front with a black Heinz 57 trailing behind. I was just hoping that they weren’t going to follow the raft too far down stream as the black dog looked as though it was tiring.
Tourists gather for a trip down the river
Within 2kms the raft stopped next to a road and the dogs caught up. It looked a great spot for lunch so we stopped too. We had a chat with the guy about his tours; he was trying to replicate the gold rush days, when prospectors would drift down the river on rafts. And as in Australia, he too was faced with spiralling insurance costs, which were making his tours uneconomical. Every few minutes the guy would dive into the freezing water, get back on the raft and dive in again. We weren’t sure if he was warm or just liked showing off!
As we cooked our noodles, his dogs were sniffing around our pots and nearly had our noodles for their lunch. The black one had white eyes like the devil and a pretty scary face. As we were trying to save our lunch a bus arrived with the tour clients and two leaders. The leaders took control of the gold miners raft and started talking to the group about the history of the area.
A few metres downstream a young couple arrived and stripped off to their bathers and started swimming in the freezing water. The young lady had a very nice body and knew it, she paraded along the shores before jumping in and screaming. I suggested to Ed that we extend our lunch hour!
Whitehorse was now only a few kilometres away and we wanted to make camp before reaching the town limits. We were told that the best camp spot before Whitehorse was at a place called Canyon City. It had once been a thriving town but it has been abandoned for so many years that now there are no buildings standing. Canyon City was built because of the Canyon Rapids just downstream of it. When the miners floated down the river on their rafts they had to stop at Canyon City or run the risk of being capsized by the rapids downstream. The rapids were too dangerous to run with loaded rafts or boats and inexperienced skippers. Instead, most miners would unload the gear from their boats onto trams at Canyon City and experienced river guides would float the boats down to a safe area below the rapids. The trams would then take the gear to a loading dock below the rapids; from there it would be reloaded into the boats again.
When we arrived at the site of Canyon City the tour leaders on the raft were taking their clients around the site, showing them piles of old cans and telling them stories about the old days. Apparently the White Pass Railway bought all the historic buildings with the intent of making a museum piece out of them, but after they were dismantled they were never erected again. Many members of the community were upset that an important part of history had been lost forever.
It was early, too early to camp and because it was a public place we lifted the canoe from the water and sat in the shade watching the river traffic, a tour boat and a few walkers go by. The canoeists that we had passed earlier came floating down. Throughout the remainder of the day several others canoeists passed by, the last at about 9.30pm. How great it is to have daylight for so many hours.
Two families water skied and picnicked with their children. One guy attempted to get up on his skis many times, but failed every time and spent at least half an hour in the freezing water. I could only imagine how cold he must have been. When his wife tried, she got up straight away and flew down the river like a true professional.
We sat around and started working on our race plan again and what gear we would actually take with us in the boat. It was difficult to estimate how we were going to cope with such a long race and Ed seemed overwhelmed with the 740km distance that we had to do. For our first stretch of 304kms we estimated taking about twenty four hours which would get us to the 7 hour compulsory stop. Then we would be left with 436kms and a three hour compulsory break in between, but we couldn’t even guess how long it would take us to do that stretch.
At 11.00pm as I was sitting on the canoe overlooking the river and writing my diary there were still boaters and walkers passing by. Don’t these people sleep? I finished my diary in the tent away from the mozzies. At midnight I could still hear a few people out and about.
Sunday 20th June. Day 7
We were up at 7.30am. My wonderful night’s sleep had been full of dreams, but it was hard to remember a complete one; over breakfast I was trying to piece them together. Once on the water we reached the Canyon within minutes. Due to a dam having been built downstream the rapids had disappeared, though the river still had a good flow. The vertical canyon walls made it an impressive sight. We drifted and took photos and tried to imagine what it would have been like in the good old days before the dam was built. Within minutes the current had pushed us under a walk-bridge that gave pedestrians fantastic views of the narrow canyon, and then out into a small lake, which was home to several float planes.
Paddling through Miles Canyon
As we paddled by the planes I told Ed the story of the two German aviators Bertram and Klausmann. These guys flew from Europe to Australia in 1932 and were blown off course in a storm and forced to land in the Kimberley Region of North West Australia because they run out of fuel. They survived for seven weeks before being rescued. Apparently Klausmann had gone mad by the time the Aborigines had found them but Bertram had lived a long life and only died a few years earlier. Their survival epic was an incredible story and one that I had retraced on one of my own expeditions in the Kimberley Region. They had used one of the floats off the plane and turned it into a canoe and had tried to paddle for help without success. They finally gave up all hope of canoeing to safety. On my expedition we found part of that float which had been abandoned a few kilometres from a cave overhang where Bertram and Klausmann eventually took refuge and waited to be rescued. The tale of their survival epic is in a book called ‘The Fight into Hell’.
We moved across to the right side of the lake to land close to the dam wall where we would have to portage about six hundred metres. I walked down the road for about three hundred and fifty metres, past the Fish Ladder Information Centre and Viewing Building and after another two hundred and fifty metres I found a spot where we could launch again. On my return I asked the guy at the information centre if we could leave our gear in the building for safe keeping for a few minutes so we could do the portage in two parts. Thankfully he was happy to oblige. The Fish Ladder and Information Centre was a popular tourist attraction. It gave tourists an insight into how the fish, which swim up river to spawn, swim up the fish ladder to get upstream beyond the dam. Some salmon swim over 3000kms, from as far away as the Bering Sea to spawn.
Back at the canoe we saw a pick-up truck coming towards us. We thought it might be an employee from the dam about to offer us a lift, but unfortunately it turned around and motored away. Disappointed, I put on my day pack, tied some rope onto my big drum and large dry bag and hoisted the rope across my shoulder. Ed did a similar thing. It was quite a load and with the rope cutting into my flesh, it wasn’t a pleasant walk. We returned for another load and on our third trip we carried the canoe. We had left some gear in the boat, which made it even heavier, and by the time we reached the kiosk our backs were hurting. Once everything was at the kiosk we then had to do it all over again, to get the gear down to the river. The portage was long, hot and hard work, but there was no point in complaining. It had to be done.
Before launching we visited the Fish Ladder Information Centre, thanked the man for allowing us to leave our gear there, had a quick look around and took photos of a full length map of the Yukon River that was on the wall. Seeing the map made us realise how far it was and here we were only near the very start!
Our track across Canada and Alaska
There were some good rapids below the dam and wires spanning the river to carry poles for a canoe/kayak white water slalom course. We put our canoe into the water just before the last rapid. Ed was a little concerned about entering the current in our heavy boat, and capsizing. With this in mind we lowered our boat just below the rocks and positioned the canoe in the eddy facing upstream for a breakout. We paused for a few moments and then paddled into the kick of the current at an angle, allowing the speed of the water, our boat position and our own skills to turn the canoe and head downstream like true professionals. Phew! We hadn’t forgotten our white water skills after all and we were still upright!
The river was flowing at a good speed and further down we could see rapids approaching. Here the river widened. I steered us on a safe route, a little anxious of the rapids waiting downstream. We approached the rapid where the fast water was sweeping through a few rock bars and raced down a twisted tongue of water trying to avoid the rocks and big eddies that could easily throw us into a spin. It was great fun, the water was splashing into our laps and pooling onto our spray-deck but we didn’t care, we were having a great ride and it was cooling us down. For a few minutes we were in a frenzy, but suddenly all the excitement stopped as we rounded a corner and into calmer waters. Ahead we could see an old paddle steamer located on the left shore and a little further, a bridge. We were nearing the heart of Whitehorse and a new phase in our journey.
Portaging the Whitehorse Hydro Dam
With steadying heart beats we cruised towards the town centre taking photos along the way and landed on the riverbank next to the ‘Kanoe People’ store. Three locals drinking the afternoon away sat close by. We left our canoe nearby and walked a few hundred metres to the ‘Up North Adventures store’, hoping the gear was going to be there when we returned. We grabbed a cart and wheeled it back to the river. It was really warm with temperatures well over 30˚. We put all our gear on the cart and pushed it back to the ‘Up North Store’ where we had organised temporary storage.
Once the gear was stored, we walked around town looking for Bed & Breakfast places listed in our brochure. Most were full, others weren’t there and some looked more like the ‘Adams Family’ House. In the end we found a motel room, with air conditioning, a fridge, a good shower and a bath for $50.00 per person per night. It was also close to the ‘Up North’ store and the town centre. Although it cost a little more than we wanted to pay we couldn’t resist the comfort.
We settled in and later at 6.15pm I rang Jenny. It was so hot standing out in the sun I had to change phones and get one in the shade. I then rang Alaine at the shop; she’d sold eight boats already that week, which was the good news! The bad news was that our pubic liability insurance bill to run kayak courses was $10,000.
Ed and I splashed out and had tea at Subway before returning to the motel to check over our maps and place dots on them at 10km intervals. Ed turned in for the night at 8.50pm. I wrote in my diary until 11.15pm. It was still light outside.
The following day we shopped for groceries for our long journey after the race and stored it all with our Old Town expedition canoe, which was being transported to Dawson City where the race finished. We were hiring a lighter canoe for the race. Later that evening we attended a Yukon River Quest briefing session for competitors. To cap the evening off we were all treated to a free meal.
RACE DAY: Wed 23rd June. WHITEHORSE – The Yukon River Quest. Day 8
It was while researching on the internet for my Yukon River Expedition, that I happened to read about the ‘Yukon River Quest Race’ and immediately I was captivated. I just knew that Ed and I had to take part in this fantastic event and with Ed needing no convincing we sent in our $300.00 entry fee. It did mean however, that our whole journey had to be structured around race day.
The article read, ‘The Yukon River Quest, at a distance of 740kms is the longest endurance marathon canoe & kayak race in the world’!! Now that’s impressive! This race was five and half times longer than Western Australia’s Avon Descent and with only two compulsory stops, one of 7 hours and another of 3 hours. It was truly an endurance race. Here was a place that didn’t get dark, here was a river that could be paddled for 24 hours, and here was a river, apart from a 50km long lake, that was running at 5 to 10kms an hour through some stunning wilderness areas.
As I lay in bed it was hard to believe that the race, that Ed and I had been talking about and planning for a number of months was about to start in just a few hours. But getting up that morning was difficult as I believed that this would be our last night in a comfortable bed for quite some time. However having to get our boat scrutineered between 8.00am – 10.00am, I had no choice but to jump out of bed, have a quick shower to compliment the hot bath that I had soaked in the night before, eat breakfast and get to ‘Up North’ Outfitters where our hired canoe for the race was being stored.
We arrived there at 8.30am, but no one was around when we arrived. ‘Up North Adventures’ was a sponsor of the event and they were storing several other competitors’ canoes. As we waited for Mark to arrive I took the opportunity to write kilometre marks in large print onto our race maps, this would allow us to glance at them and instantly see how many kilometres we had done. Ed, meanwhile, walked to the supermarket to buy some fruit for the great race. The day was already very warm and like us, other paddlers hung around the store anxious to get their canoe to scrutineering.
There seemed no point in waiting around any longer so we decided to go to the start and wait for the boat there instead. An English couple, who were also waiting, gave us a lift, for which we were very thankful as we had a lot of gear to carry. By 9.30am the canoes finally arrived at the start so we and other competitors were able to check them out and start loading. Our Wenonah 18′ Kevlar canoe was light, it felt great, but by the time we loaded it with our tent, sleeping bags, clothes, food and water, it became heavy to lift. Amongst all this gear, I also carried two cameras and a satellite phone.
Unlike most of the other competitors, we didn’t have a support team so we had to be prepared to get through the 740km race self-supported. As this was our first time in the event we really didn’t know what to expect, but we had to make sure that we had all the relevant gear to survive the journey whilst keeping it to a minimum too. All canoes had to be fitted with spray decks due to the potential rough crossing of Lake Laberge.
Voyageur canoes getting ready
Every other team was actively sorting their gear. The big Voyageur canoes that held 6 – 8 paddlers were the most impressive and the most difficult to organise. Many of the canoe teams looked like serious racers, so we really felt like the underdogs. You could see from the gear they had and the way they packed, everything in the right place, they had done this all before and they were not planning to stop! The biggest majority of craft were canoes and this is how the race organisers liked it, so as to keep the canoeing tradition going. However, single and double kayaks were slowly becoming popular but there was a length and width rule put in place to ensure that the kayaks didn’t become too narrow, long and fast. If they did, the kayakers would blitz the field or become a danger when crossing the lake in rough conditions. So single and double kayaks had to be sea kayaks; no sleek racing kayaks were allowed.
By 10.30am we had everything in the canoe and the spray deck strapped down. We were now ready and had time to return to the motel to collect our water bottles and cooked rice for our journey. Unfortunately we had packed away the milk and sugar to add to the rice and without those essential ingredients my rice wouldn’t taste as good, so I threw it away. Sweet rice has always played a big part in my long races. It has always kept me going, now we would have to do this race without it! We finally closed the door of the motel room leaving all the creature comforts of home. No more TV, no more showers, no more comfortable bed and no more toilets for some time. Our home for the next forty two days at least, would be on the river.
Back at the race start we sat in the hot sun eating our sandwiches and watched the other competitors prepare for the race of a lifetime. A German competitor just sat on a chair quietly waiting; he had competed in this race four times before as well as completing in the Australian Murray Marathon about six times. What an impressive record and he wasn’t a young chap. In fact he was a lot older than I was!
Just as we had finished our last sandwich, staff from a local pizza parlour came around giving away slices of pizza, but we declined. Sadly it didn’t occur to us to take a few slices for later. About midday an organiser shouted “Please walk to the start “. Race start was at 12.30pm in the town centre on Main Street, a good 600 metres away. It was going to be a ‘Le Mans’ start, which meant that we had to run (that’s if we had the energy) from the town centre to our boat, jump in and paddle away. Ed was raring to go, but I was still fiddling around strapping my hands.
By 12.06pm I was ready and as we walked to the start the sun was beating down and the heat was stifling. Wearing all our racing gear, including our PFD and gloves, it felt as though our bodies couldn’t breathe. When we reached the start line we sweated and searched for a toilet to enjoy our last relaxed pee for the next 24 hours.
A large ‘Start’ banner spanned the wide street. All competitors were sheltering in the shade of a hotel. Their clothing and footwear varied. One competitor told me, he didn’t need to wear gloves as it was too hot. I suspect he didn’t realise that they also prevented blisters!
At 12.15pm the organisers asked competitors to step out onto the road and under the banner. As the heat intensified all the team members were called out one by one. There were cheers for some and bigger cheers for others. We received a pretty big cheer for being the competitors who had travelled the furthest to get there. We knew little about the other competitors, although we had heard that the record holders were there, as well as many other good teams who had done it several times before. The mayor gave a speech and then it was time to go, thank God!
10, 9, 8, the countdown began 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, GO. We were off and running along the main street, across a railway line and along a gravel path that ran parallel to the river. The competitors started to spread just a little. I knew that I wasn’t fit, and my rapid heart beat was telling me so, but I couldn’t slow down. The intense heat burnt relentlessly and my breathing quickened. Ed was 15 metres in front and looking like a true athlete. I was clipping at other runners heels and feeling far from comfortable, but I kept running hoping that I wouldn’t collapse before reaching the canoe.
Fifty metres from our canoe, some of the front runners darted down the bank and jumped into their boat. That didn’t seem fair. The boats were laid out from one to fifty five, so if you were number one it meant that you didn’t have to run or paddle as far as the higher numbers and therefore had a distinct advantage. We were number thirty, I suspect that competitors knowing the system probably entered early to get low numbers.
At the time I wasn’t concerned about others leaving the shore before us, I could feel my chest drumming and my breathing labouring and I wasn’t expecting to be up with the leaders anyway. I was probably the least running fittest that I had ever been in my life. Would I reach the canoe? I had to, I couldn’t let Ed down. He was now at the canoe waiting. When I arrived we lifted the heavy canoe off the stones and into the water.
When we dropped the canoe into the shallows we hopped in and I was happy that my lungs had a chance to rest. As we took the first strokes, it dawned on us that we hadn’t paddled the canoe before and didn’t know how stable it was going to be; almost instantaneously we got used to it. There was no time to reflect on the frenzied start or to figure out how we were going to catch the competitors who didn’t have to run or paddle as far as we did and who were now well in out front.
We paddled out of the eddy and into the moving water being careful to avoid capsizing and making a spectacle of ourselves. Within two hundred metres we were amongst a group of six canoes. After a few kilometres there were only four boats in front. We were holding the others at bay. Minutes later a single kayak raced by. He didn’t seem to have much control of his boat, although he had a rudder. Ed and I were hanging in there and stroking well, and then another canoe raced by. We let it go; they were too fast to chase at this early stage.
Voyageur Canoe taking off
Quite quickly we got into a rhythm and no other boats passed us and at the 30km mark we still had the leaders in sight. We were pretty proud of ourselves, to think they were the professionals and the record holders up ahead. The second and third place getters were jostling for second position; we could see them duelling all the time. We now wished we had done more training and we might have been closer to our rivals to join in with the duel.
Where the Takhini River entered the Yukon we saw people waving and cheering and then again just before we entered Lake Laberge at the 38km mark. We moved over to the right side following another boat around an island and across some shallows. As we sat in seventh position we were hoping they knew where they were going. A kayaker was creeping up behind but stopped for a rest as we approached the lake. The lake was regarded as the most dangerous section on the course. Winds can soon whip a calm lake into one with large waves and whitecaps and any capsize in the freezing water could be deadly. It was amazing to think that only a couple of weeks earlier the lake was iced over.
We were feeling good at the 39km mark as we paddled deeper into the 50km long lake and even though it wasn’t rough, 50km across a calm lake was still a long way. Our first checkpoint was on the right side of the lake, so although competitors were now fanned out, ultimately that’s where the paddlers were headed. We seemed to paddle forever before sighting the checkpoint and as we saw the paddlers in front of us pass it one by one, it gave us some indication as to how far they were in front. As the front runners closed formation at the check point, we saw the British pair in the double kayak go over to the shore and get out. We were exceedingly happy to pick up a place and cross the checkpoint in 6th position where race marshals were sitting high on a cliff. We shouted our number and the replied “Yea, got you”.
As the flat lake stretched before us seemingly forever we couldn’t wait to get across it. The scenery along the shores however, was absolutely beautiful and it reminded me of Yosemite National Park in California, so another part of me wanted more time to take it all in.
Ed was beginning to tire and his PFD was chafing his skin as he was only wearing a sleeveless T shirt underneath it. I knew that if he didn’t change, the chafing would affect his overall performance and we couldn’t have that. I didn’t really want to stop though and go to shore, but as Ed’s clothes were packed away under the spray deck we had no choice. The lake’s shore was indented so I steered the canoe to a point several kilometres ahead so we didn’t have to divert too far. When we finally touched the rocky point I took the opportunity to have a pee whilst Ed changed.
We were off again but the stop had cost us dearly. One single kayak had caught up and the British mixed double kayak (K2) was level with us, but further over. I silently cursed our luck. Apparently the British pair was being filmed for a TV series. The series was about a top athlete teaming up with a non athlete; the pair would then take on an adventure or challenge and see how things panned out. The paddlers were Jason Merron, who was the non athlete, and Charmain Gradwell, who was a top marathon paddler. Jason was given about eight weeks to train up. Now here they were paddling beside us!
Some minutes later our paths came together. We said a polite ‘hello’ and paddled on. We had heard them talking for miles. I remember thinking that if they concentrated on paddling instead of talking they would be much further ahead. Every few minutes we would hear Jason say ‘come again’. He obviously couldn’t hear what Charmaine was saying. Holding a conversation in a double canoe can be frustrating. When the person in the front talks they are usually facing forward so it is hard for the back person to hear. Often one guesses what the other person is saying, so it’s sometimes better not to talk at all!
We powered on and they moved over and sat on our wash. By doing so they got an easier ride as we dragged them along. We weren’t that concerned at the time as they were in a different class of boat, but when we later realised that the prize money was for the first 10 boats across the line, we took them more seriously. For the next few hours the British pair sat quietly behind us with the film crew taking copious amount of footage of them and us, which was later reduced to a few seconds when the film was released. Ed and I paddled on with vigour, dragging the pair towards the end of the lake and beyond the exquisite lake side scenery.
It was a joyous sight when the hills converged; the river was back at last. When the British pair saw the river approach they paddled off our wash and pulled away from us. I had thoughts of giving chase but they were more rested than we were and we still had a long way to go.
Two float planes that flew over us earlier had landed at the river entrance only a short distance around the first corner. They were tied up to the bank next to the ‘Up North Adventures’ boat, which was ferrying the film crew down the river. As the banks squeezed together we could feel the river give us a lift. What a brilliant feeling! We had now paddled 90kms and taken less than six hours to cross a 50km lake, so were pretty happy with our performance so far.
My neck had tightened with stiffness but as the hours passed by it began to loosen up. As midnight drew close, a chill began to set in. We turned a corner and to our great delight, passed the British pair who were on shore putting on more clothing. As we slipped by we put on the power to put some distance between us, we didn’t want them passing us again. Now any boat in front was a boat too many.
Ed began to tire. He wanted a pee so we pulled over to the side. It was then that we realised how fast the current had been pushing us. As we jumped out, a cloud of mosquitoes circled and dived for our bodies. It was hard to stay still to pee. I quickly donned a thermal top and cag, but Ed didn’t bother, I think he was too pre-occupied trying to get away from the mozzies. We moved off from the shore with haste being chased by a cloud of insects and thoughts of never going to shore ever again.
As the night got cooler I couldn’t understand how Ed was keeping warm wearing only a cotton T shirt. He said he was okay, but not long afterward exhaustion began to set in and he started to feel sleepy. He kept stopping trying to fight fatigue. Eventually he couldn’t take it any longer and said he wanted to stop. We paddled on trying to find the right place. As we turned a corner two tents were erected on a flat gravel area. It looked the perfect place. Our first thoughts were to pass it by so we didn’t invade the campers, but on second thoughts we decided to pull over. The current was swift, so it took some effort to ferry to shore. We landed next to the campers’ food drums left 120 metres from their tents as a precautionary measure against bears.
Ed taking a rest
Once on dry land Ed instantly hit the pebbly ground. He lay with his hands and arms by his side, dead to the world, totally exhausted. I walked around the gravel bar, which was part of an island, filling in time and trying to keep warm in the chilled air. The hills on shore were steep and high and a landslide was taking place opposite us. Every few minutes rocks would tumble and splash into the water. The valley was silent except for the rumbling and tumbling of the landslide and with the dim light, it felt an eerie place. I soon became tired of standing there getting chillier with every passing moment and watching Ed turn into an icicle perhaps never to wake up again, so I prodded him with my foot. He gave a moan, moved a limb or two and then mumbled the words, “I’m freezing”. Not surprising given that he was still in his T shirt. He stood up and shivered as he put on more clothes and to my relief he was willing to get back in the canoe and paddle on.
We hadn’t been resting for too long, but long enough for the British pair to pass by. I was raring to go to catch up with them. However Ed was so shattered he had to keep lying back in the canoe for a short sleep. Mostly it was only a couple of minutes at a time, but I was getting a little concerned especially after he said, that it was the hardest thing he had ever done in his life, and he didn’t want to do another marathon race ever again! He was tired, stiff and exhausted. I could feel his pain; this was the first time he had paddled for 14 hours straight. Though I encouraged Ed to rest, I continued to paddle to keep the boat moving with my competitive nature urging me on.
Ed started paddling again and then stopped. He just couldn’t keep his eyes open and began hallucinating. Once more I encouraged him to rest, and although he didn’t want to let me down, he had no choice, his body needed rest, so he lay back with his paddle across his body and under his arm. He woke a few minutes later and continued paddling but soon lay back again and slipped into sleep. This routine went on for a while. He urged me to have a turn at resting, but I just couldn’t and strangely enough my body didn’t need it.
Between 1.00am and 4.00am it was a very lonely river, no one passed us and we passed no one. By early morning the air was full of smoke. It felt weird. It never occurred to me that the north of Canada could be a fire risk. We started to paddle through the smoke, which crept in from both sides of the river. We were in the middle of the wilderness and hadn’t seen anyone for a number of hours and now we were headed into a thick blanket of smoke. I had reservations about paddling on; how bad was it going to get, and if we stopped what would we do? We certainly couldn’t paddle back upstream against the current. With the paddlers before us still forging forward it meant that they were either getting through or heading into a fire trap! The urge to get to our first rest spot was too strong so we kept paddling. I kept a close eye on the smoke, moving from one side of the river to the other, trying to avoid the thickest parts but it was almost impossible.
By 7.00am the sun was just a round glow trying to penetrate through the thick smoke. As the morning progressed we spotted Campbell Highway and a touch of civilisation. The river began to divide occasionally, creating islands. We were trying to take the fastest routes, which generally meant following the bigger volume of water. However, at one sweeping corner we followed the main stream, but a kayak competitor took a short cut channel and passed us. Our lack of local knowledge was becoming evident as when both channels converged he was well ahead of us. I didn’t ask Ed how he was feeling, but I was pretty cut up, knowing that we’d picked the wrong channel. This feeling however only gave me more determination to power on.
Further along, we had another difficult decision to make. There was a short cut channel marked on our map that looked as if it would save us time. Having made the wrong decision earlier we decided to take the short cut. When the kayaker in front took the same channel, we were pretty confident we had made the right choice. The short cut was narrow and scenic, a nice change from the wider river, but the current was much slower. We made good time and we thought that we were on a winner. We tried desperately to keep the paddler in front of us in sight as he seemed to know where he was going. We turned a left hand corner and soon after met up with the main river. To our dismay another kayaker who had taken the main longer route was only 100 metres away and paddling in the centre of the river in the swift current. Within moments he passed us by as we struggled in a much slower body of water on the left hand side of the river. To catch him we needed to get across to the main current, which was well over to our right, but the speed of the current was too fast and any attempt would have pushed us onto an island of trees.
I cursed. We had taken the slowest route again and now we were forced to follow the other kayak paddler in the longer, slower outside channel. We watched the kayaker who had passed disappear into the distance. The mistake had cost us dearly, but just when we had thought we had no chance of catching the kayaker, he pulled over to the shore and got out. We later learnt that he’d intended to have a few minutes rest but had overslept, allowing a few other competitors to beat him into the first stopover.
We continued. Ed’s shoulder wasn’t getting any better or his fatigue easing, but we were getting closer to our first stop. We turned a corner and saw the Carmacks check point and camp on the right side of the river. What an unbelievable feeling! There were banners, campers and supporters waving to us on the opposite side of the river about 500 metres downstream. I didn’t expect it to come so soon; in fact it was a total surprise. The river was extremely wide at this point and the current was travelling at a great speed. With the canoe angled, we powered on taking full advantage of the swift current. Supporters and organisers were shouting and cheering from the jetty giving us terrific support.
We docked at the jetty with precision and were whipped out of our canoe by volunteers. They thought that we would have problems walking so they almost carried us ashore. I felt strong, as though we had only been paddling for an hour or two, but in fact we had been on the water for twenty three hours and had paddled 304kms.
Check point and rest stop
I checked the leader board and to my surprise we were in 8th position overall and 6th in the canoe section. Although we had lost a position in those last few kilometres we were stoked. We’d done little training, had minimal knowledge of the river but still we were doing okay. I instantly had thoughts of bettering our position. However Ed had other thoughts; he had a sore arm, a sore bum, blisters and his immediate plans were to rest. We erected the tent under the shade of a tree and he crawled in, but nothing could have prepared him for the near 38° Celsius temperatures that made sleeping in the middle of the day virtually impossible.
I returned to the canoe to drain the water, to clean our equipment and to prepare our gear for the next leg of our journey. A guy from one of the other support teams had bought us a 10 litre bottle of water and offered to carry some of our gear to the end. We only accepted the water. Many of the leaders were camped in mobile homes, apparently with air conditioning. For some mad reason I wasn’t at all jealous; I didn’t mind roughing it!
We had a seven hour break to enjoy on the outskirts of the town of Carmacks. Most paddlers tried sleeping; I worked around my canoe and watched other paddlers arrive. I always knew when competitors had rounded the last corner as a big cheer was given by both supporters and organisers. Many of the crews were inexperienced in moving water and misjudged the speed of the current and ended up further downstream of the jetty than they should. Most wobbled as they got out of the boats and walked up to the camping area.
I took the opportunity to have a shower; it was refreshing and absolute bliss, but that refreshed feeling was quickly lost once back in the baking sun. A food van in the car park was doing a roaring trade, so I, too, thought that a hamburger and chips would do me no harm. Waiting for the food however was quite distressing as the sun beat down scorching my head and frying my body. Standing there in the extreme heat for so long was the most difficult part of the race so far.
With all the activity around camp and my desire to miss nothing, I made no attempt to sleep and in fact I didn’t really feel tired. Organisers however kept encouraging me to sleep but it was impossible with all the cheering and the scorching temperature. Eventually about three hours after arriving I decided to try to get some rest. The lady at the leader board promised to wake me up if I overslept.
70 year old Ed Jager and his son Jim arriving at Carmacks rest stop
The hot sun had made my tent even hotter than before and when I crawled in Ed crawled out, he said he hadn’t yet slept so he would try sleeping in one of the big communal tents, he thought they might be cooler. I stripped off and bedded down. It was like a sauna inside. I used my clothes as a pillow which wasn’t at all comfortable. As it was day light I covered my face with my T shirt, but instead of blocking out the sun I almost smothered myself and made me sweat even more. The camp was filling, the noise increasing and the probability of sleep was nil.
Sweat continued to run down the entire length of my body, God it was hot! Here I was in the far north of Canada and sweating like a pig. I thought it was supposed to be cold up here? So with no chance of having a nap, let alone rest in the unbearably hot tent, I decided to dismantle it and forget about sleep.
Feeling hungry I wandered over the food van again and almost suffered heat exhaustion whilst waiting in line. The seven hour break had slipped by pretty quickly. With no sleep and another 275kms to paddle before our next rest, I could sense that the next leg wasn’t going to be fun!
Other competitors were getting ready and it was time to wake Ed. Ed was resting in the communal tent but it seemed that he didn’t get much rest in there either, due to all the noise. His shoulder was worse and giving him pain. The British team had their support crew and film crew running around. Joe, in the kayak, who came in just before us had his beautiful partner fill his water bottles and tape his hands, it seemed that everyone had some sort of support except Ed and I. We were orphans! Never mind, success is greater when you have achieved it by yourself. Mind you, on second thoughts, having a beautiful looking woman to make life easier wouldn’t be bad!
Readying to go
We were ready. I was a little concerned about Ed’s condition, but youth is strong and he gave no indication of giving up. Joe paddled off a few minutes before us and after the count down, 3-2-1 we took off after him. The water pushed us quickly towards the Carmack’s Township and under the first road bridge in 304kms. It felt good.
As we powered by the swirling currents of the bridge pylons and around a number of sweeping corners at a swift speed, our thoughts were of our next obstacle, the Five Finger Rapids some 38kms away. These rapids were the only real hazard along our route apart from the lake. Five Finger Rapid apparently splits into several channels, the safest being the right one. I had seen pictures of it on the internet, a wide river with several high cliffy islands across the river. As we closed in on the rapids the adrenalin began to pump, and although very confident with our skills we were not going to take any unnecessary chances to get an extra thrill. The water was too swift and far too cold.
We turned a corner and there it was. We could hear the roar and see the water funnel down the channels between the high cliffs. We couldn’t capsize, we couldn’t capsize. We just couldn’t capsize!!! Two towering cliffs, one from an island the other from the right shore, channelled the water into a funnel. We looked beyond it to see the water join together and create large standing waves to bound downstream and then swirl and bounce into a frenzy. The power in the water looked awesome.
Five Fingers Rapid
I focussed beyond Ed’s shoulders and suggested that we keep the boat straight, didn’t change paddling sides, follow the tongue and try to miss the highest waves. We suddenly slipped down the drop at a great speed following the large volume of water to the base of the large V. The rapid was actually bigger than it looked from the top and when we hit the collection of big waves I just concentrated in getting through. No fancy tricks. Ed’s end of the canoe sky rocketed as it bounced off the first big wave. I could tell from the yell he gave that he loved the thrill and the experience. Wow! “This rapid is not to be messed with, just keep the canoe straight Terry”, I said to myself. What a ride! Although the rapid wasn’t technical, the waves were big. One slip up and we could capsize. How would I live it down if we did?
Jason Merron and Charmain Gradwell tackling Five Finger Rapid
We were on a roll when we conquered the worst of it and nothing could trip us up now we thought. We moved between the shoreline and an island where a rescue crew boat was based. The water was still fast as it funnelled further but without the roller coaster of rapids. We moved around a right hand corner and away from the main danger, the current still pushing us on. I thought about all the poor inexperienced souls behind us who would have to paddle it in the middle of a cool dim lit night. We heard later that some competitors had capsized and had difficulties getting ashore, and that the rescue boat failed to start and got swept downstream whilst attending to a rescue.
Relieved not to be swimming we pushed on a few kilometres further towards the Rink Rapids. Apparently if the correct route was taken, this rapid was not classed as difficult. As we closed in we could see Joe well ahead of us taking the correct line without incident. When it was our turn it was tempting to take the left and more exciting side of the river, but we chickened out and paddled the safe way. What a boring pair we were!
Our excitement heightened as the British pair, who had beaten us to Carmack’s by fifteen minutes, were now ahead, drifting with the current and nibbling on food. We crept up on them like mischievous kids and excitedly powered past them with cheeky grins on our faces. It was a fantastic feeling and now, we were in 7th place.
The British pair seemed to be tiring which gave us a good chance to stay in front and put a few hundred metres between us. With a big bend and short cut coming up it was an ideal opportunity for us to widen the gap. We were really eager to leave them behind so after a quick debate and the fact that we were feeling cocky and confident we decided to take the short cut. It was a risky option but one worth trying.
At first the channel seemed to have a good current, so I thought the gamble was working, but the further we went the more we were being sucked into a slower channel. Our triumph soon changed to concern. Shit! Damn! We were now in trouble. With butterflies in my stomach and a frantic feeling of despair, I just hoped that Ed would keep powering on to get us back on track.
Then when we saw Joe far across the other side of the river accelerate around the sweeping corner at a swift speed, we thought “oh bugger, what have we done?” No matter how hard we paddled our speed was slow and getting slower as we moved into shallower water. The route we had taken looked quite short on the map but in reality it meandered for kilometres. When we saw the British team, way over to our right, catch the sweeping fast current as well and start to overtake us it was enough to make a grown man cry!
We kept up a solid pace but our spirits were very much dampened. The British team were flying with the swift water leaving us trailing. It was disheartening but the race was not yet over, and I was sure that they were looking much more tired than us. At last, but well behind, we joined the main channel where our speed increased considerably and we were a much happier pair. There would be no more short cuts for us!
As the kilometres rolled on we could see another canoe ahead. It was just the tonic we needed to lift our spirits. They were stroking quickly, and changing sides every few strokes, which caused them to wander back and forth across the river like a snake. We started to gain on them and although their paddles were the super light tear drop carbon fibre ones, they didn’t seem to be of particular benefit to them at this time. It was time to overtake. God it was a good feeling passing Team 42. We powered by, stroking long and strong, pretending that we were actually relaxed and that we weren’t putting in any effort at all. We were now back in 7th place.
We distanced ourselves fairly quickly and I hoped that we had destroyed their confidence as we left them in our wake. I looked behind to see them zig zag and then slow. Ed and I were able to keep the canoe relatively straight because we paddled on opposite sides and I only changed over in the rear when it was needed. I usually did a steering stroke called the ‘J’ stroke but in our rented canoe it was difficult to do it efficiently due to the expensive spray deck. When I do a ‘J’ stroke I pull the paddle against the gunwales, but if I did it in this canoe I would damage the spray deck.
We rounded a corner and entered a straight and there way ahead was the British pair. My heart almost burst with excitement as the adrenalin pulsed through my body. Every so often the pair would slow, which was brilliant, – it gave us another opportunity to catch up. I asked Ed to pick up the pace. Stroking in time and feeling strong and powerful, we quickly gained on them and the beauty was, they didn’t even notice. By the time they could hear us breathing it was too late, we were on a roll and nothing could stop us passing. We just kept up the pressure long enough to appear not to be hurting. However, when we were out of sight we eased a little.
It was such an amazing feeling as we paddled by as if they were standing still. We were so quick that they couldn’t climb onto our wash and take a ride. They looked too tired to get by us again, unless of course, we took another wrong channel! I looked behind a few minutes later to see them slowing even more. Yes, we were now back in the race and in 6th place!
Ed was stroking well and we felt confident and in control, all we needed now was to get past Joe. That would certainly lift our spirits. He was always several hundred metres in front. We would get closer to him and then he would surge away to be lost in the haze. We thought that if we kept him in sight we could follow him down the right channel but that rarely happened. He would lose us at the critical time. Joe was our leader, our judge of speed, our inspiration to power on. Joe actually became our friend, though he didn’t know it and at that particular time we didn’t even know his name, – he was just the kayaker in front.
At one point, probably at Minto, we saw campers and support crew on the right hand shore. It was late in the night yet cheers from the bank echoed across the water to give us a lift. The hours passed and Joe was still up ahead fading in and out of the smoke haze. If we didn’t see him for a while we fretted.
The night was now cool, the river wide and we just kept paddling stroke after stroke, hour after hour. On the left side of the river we could see a settlement of small houses. A handful of people were cheering from the bank, one shouted out for our number. My reply echoed across the vast river plain, it was a shame to make a noise in such a peaceful place. At the time we didn’t really know where we were but later it dawned on us that it was the checkpoint at Fort Selkirk. The time was 2.50am. We found out at the end of the race that Joe had passed by at 2.47am only 3 minutes ahead. Team 42 crossed the checkpoint at 2.58am and the British team went through at 3.02am, so the two teams that we had passed hadn’t been that far behind us.
Fort Selkirt checkpoint
It had been a long night and in the early hours of the morning I turned to see Team 42 creeping up from behind. Oh shit! Ed was feeling the strain and resting, lying back dead to the world. I was hoping that he wouldn’t rest for too long. There was no way I wanted to let them pass. I drove the paddle in the water powering even harder than before, surging the boat forward in leaps and bounds and watching Team 42 slowly catch up. It was agony to see the gap closing as our canoe just didn’t skim along with one person paddling. Fortunately the erratic motion of the canoe stirred Ed and he came back to life giving us the boost we needed to draw away from them once more. I was much happier, but later that hour Ed slept for a few minutes again. I let him be, knowing that he had to run his own race. If I pushed him on and he injured himself, it could ruin our chances of completing the entire Yukon River as planned.
Throughout the night Joe had been in and out of our distant vision and because of this I hadn’t kept track of where we were on the map. Now the hours had passed by and Joe was lost from sight and the kilometres and the landscape had all but blended into one another. I didn’t want to waste time stopping and without my glasses I had little hope of finding our position on the small A4 map sheets. To make matters worse the smoke haze had been fairly thick and I started having niggling thoughts that we may have passed the check point without knowing it. I was pretty sure we hadn’t, but the niggling doubts persisted. We had used a GPS at the beginning of our journey to track our distance but the batteries hadn’t lasted long. We didn’t bother to change them and instead put it away.
Although the smoke haze blanketed most of the defining features on shore, I looked up at some hazy hills, glanced at my basic river maps and thought I had found our position. Although not admitting to not knowing exactly where we were, I told Ed that we must be getting close to our rest stop. This woke him up and spurred him on. He fired on all six cylinders and just powered along showing no signs of giving up. It was great, life had returned to the young dog and we were back out of the doldrums. I looked behind to see our opposition fade in the distance. Yes, oh yes, I loved it!
Ed Jager in the smoke haze
The right bank was full of rock bluffs and cliffs, but the beauty of it all was spoiled by the smoke. I just wished our river maps had contours that indicated the mountains, – I might have been able to pin point our position, but the maps were only pen drawings and didn’t show the terrain. We paddled on and on becoming more and more concerned that we hadn’t reached our destination. Just the fact that I told Ed that we were close had kept him alive, but as the kilometres dragged on our spirits began to wane.
Just when I thought all was lost, I saw a kayaker in the haze ahead paddling very slowly. I imagined it was an official paddling out to meet us so we didn’t pass the checkpoint. But as we got closer the kayaker started to pull away. Then Ed filled me in, it was actually Joe who had stopped and we had caught him up. It was then I realised I wasn’t quite as alert as I had thought.
Joe slowed considerably and when we were next to him we asked him if he knew where we were, “Not exactly” he said checking his map. Was he just saying that as a ploy or did he really not know! By now I accepted that if we had passed our checkpoint, due to the smoke, we just had to keep going. Somehow that made me feel better but I don’t think Ed had the same thoughts, he just wanted to rest.
We passed Joe and a little further on I could see two male canoeists camped on an island. I just had to know if we had passed the check point so I steered the canoe across the current, jumped out of the canoe and then ran 50 metres across the island to where they were sitting. “Have you seen any canoeists come this way”, I asked. “Yes we’ve seen a few go by,” they replied. With no time to explain I ran back to the boat jumped in and sped off once again chasing Joe. I was now a happy chappie, at least I knew that we hadn’t missed the checkpoint but the campers must have thought I was a real idiot.
With the checkpoint being close and the thick smoke haze cutting visibility we stayed to the right of the islands to ensure we didn’t miss it. At last we saw a sign on the end of an island saying Kirkman Creek, yes our checkpoint. I can’t begin to describe how happy we were. It wasn’t far now.
It seemed that in this wild land where smoke had engulfed the sky and penetrated the forests, that the world was void of life. Would there be life at the checkpoint, we wondered! Only Joe, just ahead of us, was experiencing the same world as us. Although we had only spoken a few words to Joe, he was becoming an important person in our challenge.
We finally saw Joe paddle to shore and be greeted by a figure. Great the check point was just ahead! At 11.16am we pulled in at Kirkman Creek ready for our 3 hour stopover and very pleased to be there. Joe had pulled in 2 minutes earlier but we were 12 minutes ahead of the other canoe team of Curt Kelly and Tammy Green (Team 42), who had been chasing us, and 62 minutes ahead of the British team. We were now in 6th place overall.
About four officials were on the river bank to greet us at this isolated place. The only way here was either by boat or float plane, so there were no support crews waiting. The muddy banks with long grass and sloping shores allowed little room for us to drag our canoe away from the water. However space wasn’t an issue as the field was so spread we would be gone before many other paddlers arrived. I walked over the bank to see an old cabin, a rotunda and two large canvas tents that the locals had erected. The tents were held up by tree branches cut down from the forest, a practice that would be frowned upon in Australia but very useful out here. With no tent poles to carry, it was certainly one way to cut down the weight when transporting the huge tents.
Kirkman Creek checkpoint & a 3 hour rest period
Ed was soon at the rotunda devouring sandwiches, soup, cake and coffee supplied by the organisers. As I entered the cabin, a lady gave me a bag full of goodies; it was like Christmas. I then joined Ed in the mosquito proofed rotunda. The soup was only luke warm but it was one of the most delicious and appreciated snacks that I have ever eaten. Just shows you what a bit of paddling can do for your appetite! As Ed left to go for a lie down in one of the big tents, the guys in the canoe behind us had arrived, so I sat talking to them for a while. It was then time to find the outside loo to have a good sit. Once that was done I went on to empty our canoe of water and get things ready to go again. After completing these jobs, there was nothing more to do except stand around getting bitten by mosquitos so I retreated to one of the tents to attempt a sleep. Although it was the middle of the day and the heat was quite intense, I found a camp bed to lie on and eventually I drifted off to sleep.
I think I managed to grab an hour of disturbed sleep before getting back on my feet to prepare for the next part of the race. The smoke hadn’t lifted at all. Visibility was only 300 metres and it seemed as though the world had come to an end. There was little happening, the camp was quiet, apart from a few murmurs from the people in the cabin giving out snacks, and the officials clocking competitors in and out. The few competitors who had arrived were either trying to sleep or quietly getting ready to move off.
We stood on the shores preparing our boat when an incoming canoe was seen on the far side of the river, the canoeists paddling awkwardly out of the smoke haze. They were obviously confused as to where they were. Shouts from the officials managed to grab their attention and they frantically paddled across the wide current to cast ashore. They were totally shattered.
Ready to leave for the last leg
The expressions on people’s faces of anguish, distress and suffering, showed the immense physical challenge that they had taken on. When we reached Kirkman Creek we had been paddling for nearly 40 hours, with a 7 hour rest period where it had been impossible to sleep. I wasn’t physically fit when we arrived in Canada but all my previous challenges held me in good stead for this event. Now I was in my element and I loved it. Seeing paddlers struggle, when I felt relatively good was testament to my own physical and mental well-being. At 53 I was still feeling that life was just beginning.
We had well over two thirds of the race completed so I was eager to get back on the water. The next stage was just like an encore. Well ahead of our departure time, Ed and I were readying ourselves for the homeward journey. Our hands were strapped, our water bottles filled, our spray deck secured, it was time to go. We lined up with Joe whose start time was two minutes ahead of ours. Up to that point we had barely spoken to each other; in fact we hadn’t spoken much to any of our competitors.
At 2.14pm on Friday afternoon Joe sped off, fading into the haze and at 2.16pm we were right behind him stroking hard in the hope of catching up and passing him. The river was still full of islands, although the main route was quite obvious. There were few shortcuts, which actually pleased us after our several failed attempts to take one that benefited us.
After only a few kilometres we were 100 metres behind Joe and reeling him in. As he moved to the left of an island, we saw a moose grazing on it. Suddenly it lifted its head and then charged into the water after Joe. We were stunned, – I mean a moose chasing a kayaker, is that normal? Is that what moose do for fun in Canada? We had no idea! But very soon we realised that this moose was pretty serious in his venture to get Joe. The large head was now the only visible part of the moose. Although it was swimming at a great pace, much faster than Australian swimming superstar Ian Thorpe, he was still no match for our Joe who was slipping away from it pretty quickly.
A moose takes to the water
I had seen crocodiles chase kayakers, I had seen sharks chase kayakers but this was the first time I had seen a moose chase a kayaker. Although potentially dangerous, it was amazing and I thrived on watching the experience, but for Joe it must have been frightening. That’s the fantastic thing about life, – you never know what encounters lie ahead!
We were caught up in all the excitement when to our surprise the moose gave up the chase and turned to face us. Oops! The current was swift but it seemed to have little effect on the moose’s upstream swimming ability. This moose looked a serious contender for the Yukon Upstream Swimming Championships. The formidable head with eyes now focused on us looked decidedly threatening, – this powerful animal was like a battleship powering off to war. The water was piling up around its head and neck as the current came into conflict with the opposing forces of its body.
For a moment danger was stalking us and Ed and I quickly discussed tactics. We would head straight towards it and when we got close we’d veer way over to the left quickly and pass it by, well that was the theory anyway! We closed in but then to my disappointment it turned and started swimming towards shore allowing us to pass without a fight. We were safe and the encounter was over. I wanted to take a photo but hesitated and by the time I fumbled to get a camera the current had swept us well beyond it. I then realized I had missed an opportunity of a lifetime as I watched the moose rise from the water and walk back onto the island.
The disappointment of not taking a photo ate away at me. Joe paddled on, probably oblivious to what had happened. A little further on, we saw another moose standing in the water. I thought another chase would be on but it was not to be – the moose walked to shore and then hurried into the trees.
With the wildlife encounters now behind us, we heard the sound of the rota blades of a helicopter echoing throughout the river valley. Something about the sound of the chopper excited me and my adrenalin started to pump, I became strong and powerful and my paddle rating lifted as I just wanted to charge down the river. The noise came closer and suddenly a helicopter appeared out of the smoke haze.
The haze had lifted enough to allow us to see smoke and flames rising from several places along the river and to our south on the Dawson Range. The chopper, which was probably monitoring the fire, was a welcome visitor as we had seen little of civilisation along the way. We were now about sixty kilometres from the nearest road but to get there, there were several mountains to cross. In an emergency the river was still the quickest and safest way out.
As we headed straight north we caught up to Joe again. He looked pretty uncomfortable in his kayak. He would stop and stretch, which helped us to pull away from him. He would then come alive, make a break, catch up and pass us again before fading out once more. He was surely hurting and did we mind? No way, we’d love to leave him behind!
A large break in the mountains on our southern side let the mighty White River enter the Yukon. The river mouth was wide and intersected by several islands that had noticeable amounts of debris of fallen trees stacked on them. The erosion and flood devastation was an astonishing and somewhat disturbing sight. Many channels looked shallow and it wasn’t until after the two rivers merged that we realised that the White River had an enormous amount of water flowing from it. Fed by glacial rivers and streams the colour of the water suddenly changed to a milky appearance.
Cliffs before the White River
A few minutes later Joe headed across to a left-hand channel but we could see no reason why he headed over there for our route on the right looked okay. Within minutes he was lost behind islands as the two channels moved hundreds of metres apart. Later, as both channels bled into one, we could see Joe way over to our left flying with a swift current. We could also see a canoe ahead of us, and at first I thought it was one of our competitors, which brought glee to my heart but as we closed in we realised it was just social paddlers. What a pity! I would have loved to have passed another team!
I could see that our paths would join again where a vertical cliff dropped into the river, however Joe seemed to be accelerating even faster than before and we were hoping that he wouldn’t beat us there. It was extremely frustrating pushing hard and seeing Joe fly. What we didn’t realise though, was that from Joe’s perspective, we too were travelling at great speed.
Joe managed to be 100 metres in front when our paths crossed near the cliff, so in effect the routes were even in time. Our paths then spread again as we took a more direct route and Joe took a longer route following the fastest current way over to the right. Joe’s route looked quick, but proved no faster. Over the next few kilometres his performance waxed and waned as he fought fatigue. Then as we pulled away from him, he disappeared from the main channel into another on the right side. What’s he up to now we wondered? Joe was hidden by islands for a while, but at the first opportunity we took the next channel and crossed over and joined him. When we met, he was just in front of us again but we soon caught him when his energy ran out. Our battle with Joe was becoming a game – instead of ‘Where’s Wally’ it was a fascinating game of ‘Where’s Joe’.
For the next 15kms we followed cliffs on the right side of the river with imposing scenery. Joe’s paddling was erratic; he would slow, stop and then take off again. We stopped paddling when we took the lead so we could take photos of the cliffs. As I bent over to retrieve my camera from inside the spray deck, I heard a strange sizzling sound coming from the hull of our canoe. It was such a strange phenomenon, apparently caused by glacial silt particles brushing against the canoe.
As we levelled with the north end of Dead Man Island Joe took off again, this time moving across to the left side of the wide river. We kept our course and let him go. Small channels on our right were full of stranded trees so we naturally moved over to the main channel. Joe was way over to the far left flying with the current but we didn’t give chase, instead we took a more direct route in a slightly less speedy current.
I could see a short cut on our map and Joe was in a very good position to take it, but would he? It looked much quicker, however I was hoping the current would be slow. From afar we saw Joe hesitate but then take the channel.
We were now racing to stay in touch. The main route was long but swift and it was an agonising wait to see if he would come out on top. We just kept powering on, sweeping around the long corner going hell for leather. I checked ahead and could see nothing of Joe. He was gone with the wind. “Shit he’s done it, he got away from us” were the words that echoed through my head. I was pretty annoyed, he knows the river and we should have followed. Now, I began to think about the team behind, they may also know all the short cuts and catch us.
When all seemed lost, God must have been on our side, I saw Joe exit the short cut channel and join the channel that we were in. Although a few hundred metres apart we were about level. A new chapter had begun; it meant that our competitors behind us would gain nothing if they took the same short cut. I was happy again.
Since the junction of White River, the river had widened significantly, making our route choice a lot more difficult. Should we iron out our line and take the more direct but slower route or follow the long sweeping corners where there is a faster current. For most, we chose to take the line between the more direct line and the sweeping corners, and judging from Joe’s wide line in the faster current we generally ended up taking the same time.
With only 70kms to go, I was feeling exceptionally fit, focused and ready to fly. I felt that it was now time to step it up a gear. The river was wide with sweeping corners and currents that accelerated at great speeds around them. Islands of all sizes divided the flow into several channels challenging our decisions. The country was forested, isolated and a wilderness of great beauty. Steep rocky cliffs, some which were several kilometres long, intermingled with the wooded shores.
Our extra speed had left Joe languishing but he’d probably be back, he was proving resilient. I turned to see him on the other side of the river taking it wide again. My hope though was that he wouldn’t rebound and that we would power away leaving him to follow our tail. My competitive instinct was at the fore and my enthusiasm running high. We were now in 5th place.
A low island stood before us. I guessed the shortest route was to the right and followed my instinct. A canoeist was camping on the island and as we passed him by the canoe suddenly started dragging deeper into shallow water. We had paddled too far into the shallows to turn back, so we continued on, the canoe slowing with every paddle stroke forward. I quietly cursed, we were losing time and were virtually at a halt, damn, damn, damn, and wondered where the heck was Joe?
Fortunately Joe was still well behind but as we crawled out of the shallows he had taken another route and was catching up. Our speed increased as the water deepened and we were soon back to full power. Though Ed was still suffering from aches and pains on this leg of the race, he was paddling particularly well. No rests, no quick naps. This was the biggest challenge that he had ever taken in his young life and he had now grasped it with heart and soul.
In the meantime I had lifted my own pace and with about 25kms to go I felt that I could ask Ed to lift his pace even higher. Ed responded and at that instant I could feel the canoe lift and take off. It was such an amazing feeling, to experience the speed of our canoe rapidly accelerate down the river. No one would pass us now. But to our alarm Joe somehow found the strength to catch us, keep up and ride our wash. He knew though that if he stopped paddling we would get away from him forever, so he just hung on.
We powered and powered, it was absolutely magical to be paddling like the wind. We were on fire and I was enjoying the wild ride. We checked the time and realised that if we increased our pace even further we could make it to Dawson before midnight. We dug in deep. It was as if I was floating, the adrenalin must have been pumping as no matter how hard I paddled I felt no pain, just a desire to paddle even harder. If there was any time in my canoeing career that I felt that I could go on forever, this was the time. To think that we have only had one hour of disturbed sleep in 60 hours, we had been paddling for 49 hours and were nearing our 740km goal.
Joe was now struggling to keep up, but to our dismay he did. I was sure that we were going to run him into the ground but we couldn’t. Time was getting on, would we reach the finish before him and before the stroke of midnight? It would be close but we weren’t going to give in.
There was still a dense smoke haze in the valley, it was silent and the light was dim as we pushed on. Towards 11.45pm we approached the outskirts of Dawson and civilisation, although there was no one to be seen. One last burst and we would be there. Feeling proud of our achievement we approached the last corner with such speed and energy it was alarming. Our enthusiasm was beyond belief and Ed, who was carrying an injury, was beating an incredible rhythm. I thought of the song, “We are one, we are Australian” and nearly burst into tears with pride and happiness. It was a moving moment and one that I will never forget.
Joe was still on our wash and had managed to wash ride us for kilometres, but as we gave it one last surge, he peeled off and moved over towards the right side of the river. Somehow he had found his own power surge and started to pull away from us. I must be dreaming, – it’s a nightmare, this can’t be happening. He had been behind us for so long, now he has taken off and I really thought that we had sapped him dry. Instead he had rested and was about to have the last laugh. Sugar but I really meant Shit! Shit! Shit!
We turned a corner and all of a sudden we entered a section of incredibly clean water. It had drained from the Klondike River into the silty waters of the Yukon River. A perfect separating line down the middle between the two waters had been created. The amazing sight momentarily slowed us, but cheering from people on the bank spurred us on, this encouragement gave us the inspiration to power over the line.
Crossing the finish line
Just before midnight and in 49 hours 27 minutes and 15 seconds we crossed the finish line. Joe crossed the line 20 seconds before us, how close was that! We paddled further to a pull out point next to a jetty where a tourist boat was tied up. With the realisation that this adventure was at an end an overwhelming and deep sense of melancholy overcame me. I found it hard to stop, I had loved every single minute, every emotion, the sense of power, the enjoyment and an unwavering enthusiasm and now it had all come to an end. With that moment of realisation I began to lose a feeling so grand, so magnificent that my mood began to slide.
I thought back to when I finished my 24,000km paddle, cycle and walk around Australia, taking a year to complete, I had felt so fit and the activity had become such a part of my life, that at that time too, I didn’t want to stop, I just wanted to keep going.
Despite it being late at night the local ferry was still carrying cars across the river. There were no bridges here. A few people were waiting on shore. Joe’s partner Tracy helped him from his kayak. At least being in a canoe we could wiggle around and keep the circulation going. We lifted our canoe from the water and the scrutineers immediately wanted to check our safety gear. “Did it really matter now I thought,” We were safe, let us enjoy the moment.
In the final results, we had crossed the line in 6th place overall (collecting $700.00 for our effort) and 4th in the canoe section, only 20 seconds behind Joe in 5th place and 33 minutes behind Francois Latour & Roy Jean in overall 4th place.
To our surprise we ended up being the second fastest canoe team on that last leg. We were only 41 minutes behind the record holders and super team of Bruce Barton and Steve Landick from the USA. Considering that we carried our tent, sleeping bags and other necessary gear to camp out, and the fact that we trained together for only two hours back in Perth, and five days in Canada before the race, we didn’t do too badly. And when we found out what legends Steve and Bruce were, we felt even prouder.
We milled around at the finish wondering where we would sleep that night. The night was light and the smoke haze added to the surreal nature of the scene. People were cheering from the bank and every shout echoed across town. The camp site was on the other side of the river but we had no transport to get there. It was 1.30am and a grassed area opposite the main line of shops was looking good, but we were told camping wasn’t allowed on it. Joe’s partner Tracy came to the rescue by suggesting that they would drive to find some accommodation and come back for us. Being so late or should I say so early in the morning I wasn’t at all confident that anyone would be up at this time of night.
A big part of me didn’t want to sleep but stay up and watch the other competitors arrive, though I knew I had to go to bed sometime. When Tracy returned she’d found some accommodation 1.5kms down the road. We jammed all our gear into the back of her car and sped away.
The room had a double bed and two singles, a shower and toilet. Joe handed us a beer to celebrate our achievement and even Ed, who is a non drinker, swilled it down. What a beautiful taste it was at 2.00am in the morning. With all the excitement over we could now sleep and dream, we had only slept for one hour in last sixty hours. I laid my head on the pillow and floated away……
Saturday 26th June. Day 11
We were up at 8.00am feeling refreshed and ready to start a day without paddling. As the accommodation was booked up we had to move out. Tracey kindly drove us to the Bunkhouse in the town centre where we were able to secure a very small room just big enough to get us both in. As soon as we dropped our packs we walked to Klondike Kate’s, which was famous for good food. We had a huge but cheap fried breakfast with some of the other competitors. It was great to catch up with the other paddlers and talk about the race; there was a lot to talk about, especially with Joe who had nearly become our blood brother. The British team were eating at another table with all their film crew. We had been duelling with them at the early stages, so I couldn’t resist having a chat to them when breakfast was over. With all the talk, time had slipped by and by the time we left Klondike Kate’s in an over excited mood, it was nearly lunch time.
We walked around town and then to the finish line where paddlers, looking like death warmed up, were still getting off the water. One crew had rigged up speakers in their canoe and were playing music on the way down, which must have been a blast.
Discussing the paddle
The day was warm and the air hazy with smoke. Although Dawson was very touristy it was a unique town as it had retained the character and charm of all its buildings. If it wasn’t for the cars you could mistake it for a Hollywood cowboy movie set. I loved the atmosphere.
By 7.30pm exhausted paddlers were still finishing the race twenty hours after we had arrived. We had almost forgotten the pain of paddling and were relaxing at a restaurant close to the finish line with beer in hand, eating the best fish, chips and salad that I had tasted for a long time. As a crew stumbled by us, their hands covered in blisters, their bodies bent like bananas I felt their anguish, suffering and pain. So, not to get too sentimental I ordered another beer, Ed a coke, and we tucked into our meal, just relishing our own few hours of rest.
At 11.15pm after taking 72 hours and 45 minutes, 70 year old Ed Jager, paddling a double kayak with his son Jim, arrived at the finish line. It was quite an emotional scene as I watched Ed, his two sons and friends greet each other. I thought to myself I just hope that I am as fit as he is when I reach that age. His other son, Jeff, and partner had capsized at Five Finger Rapid and decided to pull out. Many crews including two British teams got no further than the first stop at Carmacks and even one of the best kayakers pulled out long before that. I was in bed and sound asleep when the last canoe team of John Little and Bill Butler arrived at 5.47am Sunday morning taking 79 hours 17 minutes. They were in 35th position, and although they were the last team to paddle over the line, 16 other teams never made it.
70 year old Ed Jager and his son Jim finish the race taking 72 hours and 45 minutes
Sunday 27th June. Day 12
By Sunday morning most of the weary paddlers who had finished the race were now relaxing or dead to the world. A barbeque presentation was held around the finish line just before lunch. It was good to see the record holders and winners, Bruce Barton and Steve Landick, still there for the presentation and receive their winner’s cheque of three thousand dollars.
Bruce has been in canoe and kayak racing for thirty five years and in 1976 and 1980 was in the US Olympic Team. He is also a kayak winner of Le Classique race in Quebec. Steven paddled 28,000 miles in a canoe in 1980-3, what a feat! He is also the Unlimited and Solo record holder of Texas Water Safari. They are both the record holders of the Yukon River Quest. Until they stepped forward to receive the cheque I had no idea who they were, they looked too normal. I regret not taking the opportunity to talk with them but being a little shy, the opportunity was lost.
Winners Bruce Barton and Steve Landick receive their trophy
The prizes were given out in an overall position – canoe, kayak or double kayak, it didn’t matter what class you were in. Our fourth canoe position didn’t receive a prize but for our sixth overall position we received $700.00 between us which just paid for our entry fee. It was good to have been the second fastest canoe on the last leg, which meant that we were either getting better the further we went or the other crews were tiring.
Ed & I collecting our $700.00 prize. 4th place in canoe and 6th overall
Prize or no prize it was such an amazing event, one that I will never forget and one that I will probably return to one day! If you’re looking for a challenge this is a great one to consider.
Soon after presentation most of the competitors were headed home, our race canoe was put on a trailer and gone and our sturdy expedition canoe had been transported from Whitehorse and stored outside our accommodation waiting to continue its trip. Seeing everyone leave was quite a sad moment; the race had been such an extraordinary experience, and one I didn’t really want to let go of so soon.
On their way home- Jeff Jager, John Knorr and Ed Jager
The day was hot, the smoke haze was still around and tourists were flitting in and out of the tourist shops, so we joined them looking for those last bits and pieces that we might want to take on our adventure downstream. By afternoon’s end we were sitting by the river eating ice creams and writing on postcards. The reality was, tomorrow we would be moving on back into the wilderness.
Monday 28th June. Dawson. Day 13
This time it was really our last night in a bed. The night started off a bit stuffy and a mosquito kept buzzing around my head, I kept trying to frighten it away with my underpants, which were being used to block out the light but somehow this repellent didn’t work!
As soon as I was awake I got up to shower and then walked to the public phone to ring Jenny. I then met Ed at Klondike Kate’s café for another cheap breakfast. The specials board said, two eggs, bacon, home made fries and toast for $4.99. You couldn’t beat that price in this tourist town. We didn’t hang around after we had eaten though as all the competitors we’d befriended had left. Their journey had finished and our real journey was about to begin. Besides, I also needed to send an email at an internet café and be out of our accommodation by 11.00am. It took me over an hour to type my article and when I tried to hurry, my concentration slipped. This was only the second time that I had used an internet café and I really wasn’t confident with what I was doing.
I was late back to the bunkhouse but it didn’t matter, Ed had moved all my gear out of our room. He was on the grass outside, sorting things next to our canoe. Behind him was an old large traditional canoe, big enough for ten paddlers, just waiting for someone to give it some attention. It was an inspiring sight, and I would have loved to have known and been part of its history.
Ed leaving the Bunkhouse
We had bought the majority of our food from Whitehorse but we needed to top it up in Dawson, especially fruit, vegetables and bread. We thought Dawson would have little choice and be a lot more expensive. It was more expensive but surprisingly the selection was good. Fortunately the supermarket was only a short distance away. We left our gear spread around our canoe and for the last time searched the shelves of the supermarket for more food, knowing that if we didn’t buy it here it would be hard to get it on our remote journey. We had our list but we just couldn’t resist adding a few more goodies. By the time we got to the counter we had several bags full of groceries, much more than we expected to buy.
I wrote a few postcards and posted them before carrying our gear across the road to the river, a distance of 150 metres. It wasn’t an easy task, especially when we climbed down a steep, slippery gravel embankment that intersected our route. Apart from the bears this was probably the most dangerous part of our journey!!
Our drums, crates and dry bags, full of five weeks supply of food, personal items and camping gear, were laid out on the ground next to the canoe. With so much gear and food we didn’t know whether it would all fit in; it had when we paddled from the lakes on the first part of our journey, but then we only carried one week’s supply, now we had five weeks. Luckily with a little bit of pushing and shoving it all squeezed in.
Packing for the rest of the journey
About 3.00pm we dragged and pushed our extremely heavy canoe into the Yukon River. It sat low in the water but it was well balanced. The clear water, which was coming from the Klondike River, a little up-stream from this point, was extremely cold. It was so perfect it would have been great to paddle in it for the entire length of the Yukon. But it wasn’t to be, within a few hundred metres this 15 metre wide channel of crystal clear water that ran along the edge of the mighty milky glacial Yukon River, blended into one and became murky.
The gold mining town of Dawson had been an interesting and very pleasant town and I could have easily stayed there another day to relax and explore, but we were eager to get going. With a few dozen paddle strokes we were in the main current, heading downstream at a fast pace, passing the ferry, the campground and an old boat left abandoned and rotting on the river bank. We turned and took photos, the shore was deserted and the town was engulfed by a smoke haze. As we were whisked away by the current we soon passed the Mossehide Indian Village on the town outskirts. Now there was no turning back. This was the real start of our exciting wilderness journey. Over the next 2500kms of river we would only pass through native villages and paddle under one Road Bridge.
We paddled on with the current, feeling pretty good, moving fast without working hard. At this pace it wouldn’t take us long to reach the end. Just as we were getting into the swing of it, we noticed a canoe further downstream with paddlers in red life jackets. There was no movement in the canoe, the paddlers looked dead or at least paralysed. I said to Ed, it might be two girls, a 19 year old and a 29 year old needing our help! It’s amazing what fantasies you have when you are out in the wilderness. We paddled on with vigour trying to get to these maidens in distress. Ed didn’t quite share the same spirit as me, he probably thought that I was a dirty old man!
As we closed in we finally saw movement from the person in the back, it was a guy tying a spinner to his fishing line. The girl in the front, still sitting like a statue, was reading. Ed and I were so looking forward to rescuing a couple of girls. Now we couldn’t be heroes!
We pulled up beside the couple who turned out to be Germans paddling a collapsible Norwegian canoe on their way to the small town of Circle. They were taking about two weeks to get there, which meant that at the speed they were drifting they wouldn’t have to paddle at all. The current was moving a good 10km an hour. They had little luggage, only two medium sized backpacks. We drifted along with them for a while, passed beautiful cliffs, talking and listening to the sound of the water breaking over rocks near the shore. We then said our goodbyes and powered on to leave them to drift and relax. For a moment I felt envious of the slow relaxed journey they had planned.
By 5.30pm Ed suggested we camp. We had only been paddling for two and a half hours sharing vistas of both mountains and cliffs and it felt too early to stop but we had already done 32kms so why not relax. We wanted to average 80kms a day, and at this rate we would have no problem.
We found a good spot on an island. The water had gone down a few metres over the last few days leaving the slightly sloping banks wet and slippery. It didn’t matter as there was still a good patch of fine dry sand to camp on. We erected our tents in the evening sun, sat, talked and read the paper. Life was good.
Camp time looking over the river
I had brought the local Dawson newspaper with me, it read that the fires throughout the Yukon were getting out of hand. The hot weather had now become an official heat wave, the hottest 30 day spell in decades. The hot weather had also caused a frenzied buying spree of cooling fans, all the big stores had sold out and hundreds were being shipped in urgently. How perfect it was for us to be relaxing on the riverbank with a hillside of beautiful mauve wildflowers behind us.
From out of the quiet evening we heard a drumming, humming noise in the distance getting closer and closer. It could only be a plane we thought, but then a big tourist boat, the ‘Yukon Queen’, came into sight. It was travelling at one hell of a speed causing a huge amount of water spray to shoot from the stern and rear sides. It would have been a great wave to surf. The skipper blew the boat’s horn when he spotted us sitting like royalty on the sandbar. We waved and as quick as it had come, it was gone.
Tuesday 29th June. Day 14
We woke up on our wilderness island knowing that the crowds and civilisation were well behind us and if yesterday was anything to go by, we were in for some more magnificent scenery. Sometime later we slipped around a corner to find scenic cliffs on our left and the huge vertical cliff of Mt Carmacks at the end of the straight. It was like being in heaven. We stopped paddling and let the boat drift and swirl towards it, whilst we gazed and took photos. The mountain was steep and rugged, and intersected with gullies and ravines that were dotted with struggling vegetation and trees.
The current was so fast we could just drift passed the vertical cliffs
As we moved on totally alone, dwarfed by the huge cliffs and hillsides of trees, it was hard not to feel extremely lucky. By lunch we approached the Forty Mile River, 83kms from Dawson, and noticed a few rickety buildings on shore. Forty Mile was named for its distance from Fort Reliance, another abandoned settlement 9kms downstream of Dawson. Many of the rivers were named by the distance from forts or towns. In 1886, after gold was discovered 20 miles up the Forty Mile River this site became a thriving community. Only a few abandoned buildings have survived the years.
It was time to explore, so we beached and climbed the riverbank. There was a track that ran parallel to the river in both directions with grass edging it, the odd thing was that the grass had recently been mowed. We walked to the right towards the Forty Mile River and Yukon River intersection, passing a large derelict barn on the way. An ageing large white tent stood in a corner near the shores of both rivers. It had a chimney poking out of one side. It looked particularly strange and it must have created a very real fire hazard, but I suppose the early inhabitants had to keep warm in a tent somehow. It looked old so we weren’t quite sure if it was still being used. We carried on exploring for a little while longer before returning to the canoe.
Though it was lunchtime we left the shores in the hope of finding a better lunch spot somewhere downstream. After crossing the junction of Forty Mile River we floated by the abandoned site of Fort Constantine and Fort Cudahy, seeing nothing at all to indicate communities had once been there.
We found a lunch spot on an island just downstream, opposite a near vertical cliff face, and pulled the canoe up the muddy beach. Our surrounds were absolutely stunning; the white cliff face was riddled with crevasses and near horizontal rock folds and topped with grass and scattered pine trees. The sky was blue with wispy clouds on the horizon. We could ask for no better place to have lunch.
Lunch time downstream of the Forty Mile River
With lunch over and stomachs bulging we moved on knowing that the river was riddled with history and historic sites, but it was impossible to stop at every one. The Yukon is said to be the world’s longest museum. With mining, fishing, hunting and woodcutting once being important industries many small communities had been created along the river but unfortunately very few have survived. Coal Creek was another deserted but important landmark that we passed. Coal was located here in 1887. In the 1900s coal was hauled twelve miles by horse teams from the mine to the river. Later a 36″ narrow gauge rail line was built. By 1904, sixty men were working the mine producing approximately 10,000 tons of coal. But the construction of a hydroelectric power station on the North Klondike River soon put an end to the coal heat generated electricity and the mine closed in 1914. A history buff would have a field day calling in on all the abandoned settlements along the river but we were here on a different mission.
The scenery along the way was much more impressive than our guidebook indicated. It showed cliffs in line form along the river, and historical sites, but it didn’t show the stunning mountain ranges in the background. As we approached two lofty isolated rock pillars called ‘Old Man’ and ‘Old Women’, which stood on opposite sides of the river like buttresses guarding a castle, we made time to sit back and relax and allowed the current to take us downstream. Standing high and proud, hundreds of metres apart, these two striking pillars were awe-inspiring.
We began to paddle again and as we started to turn a left hand bend, the majestic cliffs of St Paul’s Dome and Castle Rock loomed before us. Way across the river beneath the cliffs a fish wheel was slowly turning. We moved on heading for Fanning Creek further downstream, which was situated next to the old abandoned Fanning Wood Yard. (Woodyards like this, for fuelling the steam ships, dot the entire route of the Yukon. At one time over two hundred steam ships served the isolated communities along the Yukon River.) A green boat lay at rest nearby, but as we closed in no one could be seen on the boat or on shore. The creek was crystal clear, cold and lined with lush vegetation. We took time to fill some water containers but the mosquitoes rattled us and hurried us along. We backed out of the creek and were once again awestruck at the beautiful mountain ranges in the distance. The weather was quite unbelievable, it was the end of the day in the far north and we were still wearing t-shirts and hats.
More stunning scenery between Dawson & Eagle
Fanning Creek – collecting fresh water
The day’s paddle ended on an island opposite Nester Creek about 10kms from the Alaskan border. A working fish wheel was anchored and spinning next to white rock outcrops on the west side of the river. As we erected our tents the peace was shattered by a powerboat that sped up to the wheel, stopped and within minutes two men were hauling several good sized fish from it. Many of the fish though were thrown back into the river, probably undersized but what a feast we could have had!
Wednesday 30th June. White rock outcrops. Day 15
After the previous clear day, I was surprised to wake up to a smoke haze. There was a little dampness in the air and it had been chilly during the night. From my sleeping bag I could hear the fish wheel across on the opposite shore circulating and making a splashing noise each time the arm hit the water.
As soon as I crept out of the tent I could feel looseness in my bowels, and immediately grabbed the trowel and went running into the bushes to go to the toilet. Phew, only just made it! The mosquitoes buzzed around my backside like little spitfires trying desperately to hit a target. I waved my hand like a windscreen wiper trying to scare them away but it was a risky manoeuvre!
The mozzies were also annoying at breakfast time and Ed couldn’t stand it, so he ran along the island shores waving his arms trying to get them away from him. At the same time a boat pulled up to the fish trap and checked it; this time though they didn’t throw any fish back into the river.
As usual, Ed was ready to get on the water first. Today was going to be a memorable day as we were going to cross the Canadian/Alaskan border. There seemed something special about crossing a country border by canoe, so we were quite excited. Our steady paddle through the smoke haze to the border didn’t take long. As we got close we watched with captivated eyes for any sign that marked the joining of two countries. Then suddenly we saw the Canadian and American flags flying high on the left bank. We paddled to shore, beached the canoe on the rocks and clambered up the bank. There was a border marker post just beyond the flags in the centre of a three metre wide clearing. The clearing was cut through the forest in an absolute straight line. As we looked at it Canada was on the left, Alaska on the right. It was quite an ingenious way to mark the border, and if you became lost at least you would know if you came to the clearing that you were either entering or leaving Alaska or Canada.
Hundreds of frenzied mosquitoes came out of hiding in the thick grass and trees as we walked to the post. We could do nothing to protect ourselves from these hostile insects. We took photos of each other at the post trying to lift one leg in Canada and leaving the other in Alaska. This must have been one of the most isolated border crossings and we expected that very few people would land and jump from one country to another like little kids. It was fun messing around but short lived as the mosquitoes were over us like vampires, so we soon high tailed it back to the canoe. We leapt into the canoe just happy to escape the bites, still taking photos as we were being pushed downstream into Alaska by the current and into American waters.
Due to the smoky conditions, only outlines of the rugged high mountains could be seen along our route. Just before Clark Island a number of shacks became visible, a sign that we were getting closer to the community of Eagle. The low visibility, however, had us guessing our position and so we hugged the bank in the hope of not missing the village. At last we saw a jetty where a customs officer stood. We pointed our bow towards him, but as we got closer he shouted at us to keep going and meet him at the store further along. Our pace had slowed considerably as we were now paddling in a large eddy. Not much further on and through the smoke haze we could see a number of buildings and a high wall that created a vertical riverbank. We pulled in just before the wall next to an unusual looking boat with outriggers which had http://www.longadventures.de along its side.
We docked on shore and jumped straight into soft mud. As we tried dragging the canoe out of the water our feet became super-glued. We pried them out leaving our sandals still stuck in the deep mud but we eventually dug them out too. It took a little time to free ourselves from the mud and be clean enough to visit the town. We retrieved our passports from our bags, climbed the track to the top of the wall and walked towards the buildings, one of which was the store and the other a café.
I bought some bread, cheese and muffins for lunch, two more rolls of film, a tube of sun screen and two cokes and we sat on the bench outside the store to eat them. When we finished Ed accidentally threw out the new sun screen with the rubbish!
A notice board on the outside wall of the store had maps and locations of the fires that were burning out of control. It was a distressing image; the fires were breaking out on several fronts all over Alaska. A woman came to the public phone box and called her friend, I overheard her saying that she was stranded in the village and wasn’t able to leave. She said that the closest fire was coming toward the town from all directions and that all roads were closed and flights cancelled. The only way to leave Eagle was by the river. It was later reported that these were the worst fires here since 1953.
The town folk were busily trying to reduce the risk of fire to their properties by clearing branches and fire fuel from around their houses. The timber collected was being driven to the high wall by anything that could carry it and then thrown over the wall into the river. Although to me it seemed as if they were rubbishing the river, it was the only option that they had to ensure the litter didn’t catch alight. Everyone but the odd tourist seemed to be busy doing something to protect themselves against the fires.
Two guys came to the store packing pistols on one side of their belts and machetes on the other. One was telling the other that his house was right in line of the fire front and it would be a miracle if it survived the night. A woman then jumped out of her car, pinned a poster to the notice board and away she went. The notice read; free meals for all involved in fighting the fire.
The customs officer was taking a long time to come and see us and we were becoming a little impatient, but when he arrived we were invited to his house/office near the store, which looked right over the river. We gave him our passports and because we had entered the US a few weeks earlier it seemed to be a simple process. A stamp in the passport and that was it, our easiest border crossing yet. He talked about the ‘Yukon Queen’, which had earlier arrived from Dawson with a load of older tourists on board. He was a little annoyed that after expressing concern to the tour operator about the heavy smoke problem in town, and the fact that many of the older tourists could have respiratory problems, they took no notice and brought them to Eagle anyway. It appeared money was more important than people’s health.
The customs officer was pleasant, which made for a nice change! When all the formalities were done he wished us luck. I walked a couple of streets to the post office to post some letters and was welcomed by a chirpy lady. After posting the letters I returned to the canoe. Ed was lying on his back stretched out on the canoe looking very comfy. I scrambled down to him and started packing up. When we were ready to leave we tried pulling the boat off the mud, but it wouldn’t budge an inch. The suction that the mud had created was amazing and the only way we succeeded in getting it in the water was by dragging the canoe sideways.
Smoke at Eagle
As we paddled away along the side of the high wall we watched people throw their tree cuttings over the wall edge. Piles of greenery were building up along the riverbank. I felt a little sick to see it, but at least it was only branches and not real rubbish.
Although it was still hazy with smoke we got a good view of Eagle Bluff, a high vertical cliff just downstream of the town. I had seen an overview photo of it and the surrounding area on the Internet so I had carried this beautiful picture in my mind for several weeks. Now I was here looking at it from another perspective. Though still majestic the haze did detract somewhat from the real beauty.
The smoke soon engulfed us giving me the feeling that we would never see the outside world again, but by some miracle it cleared 10kms downstream giving us great views of the high cliffs and the rugged mountains behind them. I was in awe of the mountain range that looked as if you could walk the ridge top for miles without having to dip down into the valleys. What a great walk it would be. I soon slipped into day dream mode. I do a lot of day dreaming and planning on long trips; it’s a great feeling to be able to dream about things that you want to do when you get home, or dream about things you have done. Although when I get home and back into normal life, due to reality, many of those dreams just fade away.
We spotted a few shacks on a long corner before the beautiful, high, steep Calico Bluff. The Bluff was craggy from landslides. Rocks had tumbled from a great height scattering a varied selection of rocks down the crevasses. High Bluffs were common at most corners where the vegetation was varied and the rock formations layered. To fossick here would be a geologist’s dream.
We stopped paddling every few minutes to drift and to take in the magnificent scenery. Ed then decided to lie back leaving me to paddle on, and as we approached the Seventy Five Mile River Ed had nodded off. I needed a pee so I headed to shore and beached the canoe.
We cast off again and this time I joined Ed by lying back and putting my legs across the gunwales to have ‘a quiet moment’. We drifted with the current passing some stunning scenery. Ed talked about the girl he liked. She didn’t want to get serious, so they’d both agreed to be friends until after the trip. I could sense he was missing her. He went on to talk about his Mum and how she used to look after him. He was close to his mum, but his father left when he was young. His mum was overseas and she was returning to Australia on Thursday and he seemed to be missing her as well, in fact I think he was missing all his friends. At 20 years old and away from home for the first time it was to be expected.
We continued to lie back and let the boat drift, dangling our feet over the side to get some sun on them. It was so relaxing. A big landslide had occurred on the left bank just after a high bluff and before Miller’s Camp. It was quite a spectacle but luckily it was in the wilderness as it had taken out hundreds of trees that were now mangled like matchsticks
Drifting and having a quiet time
The boat was gently spun by the swirls. We were really enjoying the tranquillity of our ‘quiet moment’. With eyes closed and hats over our faces, all we could hear was the noise of the water rushing over rocks. It felt as if we were going to slide down a rapid, but we lay back resisting the temptation to check where we were headed. It was difficult not to look up but instead to drift out of control and let the river take us where ever it pleased, but these were daring times, – well not really, we were just so comfy and too lazy to look up!
At the 220.5km mark from Dawson it was time to end our ‘quiet moment’ and start paddling again but it was hard to get back into a rhythm. It reminded me of my 24 hour kayaking record that I set when I paddled 220.8kms in 24 hours on totally flat water in a 4.5 metre down-river kayak. I did that in 1979 and I have done a lot of things since then. Soon after, we noticed new fires in the distance and we had to decide whether to stop at that point or try to paddle through the smoke to find a camp. We paddled on.
On rounding a left hand corner we could see a valley carved between two mountains. We needed water and as it looked a promising site we started to paddle across the wide Yukon River. The swift current made us battle and we had to pick up the pace to avoid being swept downstream beyond it. Upon arriving we were greeted by a stream of beautiful water cascading down the gully, a far cry from the milky glacier fed Yukon that we were paddling in. We soon topped up our water supply and took off towards the smoke.
Montauk Bluff was hidden behind a haze. It would have been a magnificent sight on a clear day, but the fires had hidden it from us. At the 238km mark we decided to stop. We saw a thin island just down from Trout Creek and worked hard to get over to it. It wasn’t a good camping site so we made another ferry glide to an island over to the right side of the river.
The best camping spots were usually on the upstream end of the islands but on this occasion we had to go to the far end to find a decent spot. We were excited to see a collection of moose prints dotted all over the shore. The banks were steep but not high, which meant that we didn’t have to carry the gear very far.
As we erected our tents a moose on a nearby island entered the water up to his belly, had a good look around, a good soak and after a while retreated to the trees. The moose was a symbol of the Alaskan wilderness and it was so perfect to be here watching its day unfold. Seeing it brought back more memories, this time it was in Norway. I had worked on a farm there in 1970 and I remember cycling down a road after a mid summers night’s party in the very early morning. It was misty, really misty and a little magical and it was one of those times when I didn’t want the day to end. Then out of the mist a moose stood in a middle of a grassy clearing, only metres away. There was nothing in the world more beautiful than the scene in front of me. I stopped, stood on the side of the road and just watched. The moose wasn’t fazed by my presence at all and continued eating…….. The smoke haze and the sun on the Yukon brought a mystical look to a truly beautiful scene.
Erecting my tent – moose in the background
Thursday 1st July. Day 16
Peeking out of the tent I could see the smoke hadn’t cleared during the night. As soon as I was on my feet and out of the door I immediately grabbed the trowel, walked swiftly into the vegetation and dug a hole. However the mosquitoes swarmed and forced me to run back to my tent to put my trousers on and to dab some mozzie repellent on my bum. I felt a little more secure when I returned but the mozzies were not finished, they loved my other tender spots!
I returned to find Ed wrapped up in his mozzie net. Ed refused to put repellent on, so he tried to hide from them under his net that covered him from head to feet. He was thinking about lighting the stove with the net draped over him, which wasn’t a good idea, so I lit it instead. It was quite funny watching him eat his breakfast under the net!
We filtered some water before moving away at 10.00am. The smoke was still heavy giving us only faint glimpses of the nearby cliffs. We passed the Nation River and a little further down stream the Old Coal Mine Headquarter Site. A few cabins were on the left a little further up. The smoke was oppressive and burning our throats. To help reduce inhalation Ed wrapped his bandana and I wrapped my Uveto Hat over our mouths to block it out. Although we were not suffering at all with throat or breathing problems we were wondering how long we could go on breathing in the smoke if it didn’t clear.
Several ducks floated in a straight line ahead of us as we began to gather speed. They soon took off, wings and legs accelerating across the water in the hope of becoming airborne, finally succeeding with us powering off after them. We fought on km after km in the hope of getting out of the smoke zone but the fires continued to smoulder in the hills along our route. We were missing so much beauty, and high bluffs were just towering shadows through the haze.
Ahead of us a gully appeared wedged between two near vertical mountains. From a distance we couldn’t see any water but we had a good idea that a stream was going to be there. We paddled and ferry glided from the left side of the wide river to the right side as if our life depended on it. The current was swift but we reached the stream before being washed beyond it. At first inspection the gully appeared dry, but after a closer look a tiny amount of water was cascading through a log jam and down between the rocks, more than enough to fill our water containers.
The fresh water was too good to waste so I decided to have a strip wash. Ed wasn’t game, he said it was too cold. I got my cup and started pouring water all over my body starting from feet up. Ed was right, it was really, really cold and it took my breath away. I poured a couple of cups over my head and the intense cold was excruciating painful. It felt as icy cold as melting snow! I paused and stood waiting to give my head a chance to recover before pouring the final cup over me. My head was so numb that I thought I might have a brain haemorrhage. It took several minutes for it to feel normal again.
We moved on and somewhere near the 310km mark a figure appeared on the shore. We instantly started to paddle towards the recently dried out sandbar on which the figure stood. To our surprise it was another canoeist, a Japanese guy called Rio. He had been on the river for two months and was heading to the village of Beaver to work; drying fish and moose hunting. He had been there before and had been invited back. Before the trip Rio had been working in Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories as a guide and he said he would return there after his time in Beaver. We started talking about fish or really the lack of them. He said he had caught a good sized one in the Kandik River and told Ed how and where to catch them. Rio was boiling a pot on an open fire, his very basic camping gear was scattered and his double ended paddle nearby was not much better than a piece of plywood nailed to the ends of a broomstick. He used an old plastic chair back as his canoe seat. His gear looked a little rough and ready but he didn’t seem to mind.
Rio told us that he was concerned when we pulled up with our faces covered, as he thought we were pirates. We chatted and he told us that he knew of a German and a Japanese man paddling to the Bering Sea. We said our goodbyes and paddled on for about 10km where we stopped paddling, laid back, floated and had a quiet moment.
Ed said he loved scuba diving and going over to Rottnest Island in his boat to dive, fish and spear fish in the waters around the island. He told me that the fish were plentiful there. Rottnest Island is roughly 20kms off the Western Australian coast opposite Perth. It’s famous for its clear waters, beautiful beaches, stunning bays and small marsupial animals called quokkas.
I dozed off and was woken by my own snoring. I could hear the sound of moving water running over the shallows or rocks, and although keen to see where we were headed I refrained from looking and went back into a day dream. By the time we decided to awake and paddle again, I had lost my bearings. The smoke blanketed all features on shore until we reached Robber Mountain, and a cabin at Wood Chopper Roadhouse.
We began to look for a good camp and checked out two islands near Yellow Mountain, but they were wet and muddy. The mountains around us were smouldering and the ones opposite Webber Creek were actually on fire. The smoke was a lot thicker here. We passed a cabin, which looked as if it was being renovated and later found a camp spot on an island opposite ‘Thanksgiving Creek’. We cooked on an open fire, warmed and wrapped up against the windy chilly evening.
Friday 2nd July. Circle. Day 17
The wind never let up during the night, it was unrelenting and in the early hours of the morning the tent flapped and sleep was hard to muster. There was a distinct chill in the air and as I considered getting up I heard Ed open his door and complain. His words were certainly warranted; it was ‘bloody cold’ outside, the coldest that we had yet experienced since leaving the mountains.
The wind sent a horrendous chill through the air. What a morning! How could it be so cold? Was it because we had risen an hour earlier or the fact that the smoke had blocked out the sun? On the bright side there were certainly no mosquitoes, – nothing in its right mind would be out in these low temperatures. We had decided to get up earlier so we could get to the shop in the town of Circle to top up our supplies before it closed.
Like true adventurers we leapt out of our sleeping bags with great enthusiasm and ate breakfast whilst waiting for the water to boil. Unfortunately, the stove needed a good clean, the water took so long to boil that Ed retired to his tent and didn’t reappear until it was time to leave, preferring the warmth of his tent to the promise of a hot drink outside. I finished my coffee, dismantled my tent and shouted to Ed that it was time for him to come out and brave the weather. We just couldn’t believe that it could be so cold after experiencing days of extreme heat, and left our camp dressed in thermals and paddling jackets.
As we paddled in the haze again, I was wondering how much longer we would have to paddle Alaska with limited visibility. The smoke ruined the grandeur of our passage and our journey would lose a lot of its impact if it didn’t clear. Surely there can’t be fires everywhere in Alaska? We later learnt that there were fifty three different fires burning, the worst season that Alaska had experienced for many years.
We moved through a smouldering section where the smoke haze was particularly thick. Little could be seen of any cabins along the wide river but we did spot a tall cross on the hillside, known as Fourteen Mile Grave. When two power boats sped around a corner, I knew that we must be getting close to the community of Circle.
The river widened creating several channels and we had to make our way from the right hand shores, across several intersecting channels to the left hand shores to where Circle stood. The haze considerably reduced visibility and made it more difficult to navigate.
We spotted Circle across the vast river system. A huge new building (apparently a hotel) was perched on the river bank with several much smaller dwellings on either side, looking insignificant in comparison. We moved closer to the huge building only to see it was far from finished, just a giant outer shell of a hotel waiting for the insides to be fitted out. This building didn’t really fit in with the rest of the community housing, apparently it was a pipe dream that after several years the hotel still hasn’t come to fruition.
Several boats were pulled up on shore and tied off, including a raft that reminded me of a colourful hippy van. We pulled in to the right of the boat ramp, unleashed our spray cover and started unloading. Getting the stove fixed was a priority, I was convinced that a good clean would restore it, but to do that I needed a pair of pliers to pull out the fuel line. I was hoping the store would have some tools so we checked it out, but they had very minimal supplies. We bought bread, cheese and corned beef for lunch and then returned to the boat to eat.
Luckily two Japanese paddlers were camped nearby. One of them walked over and introduced himself as Jiao. He didn’t have pliers but his friend Da turned out to be a godsend. He had the same stove and repair kit to strip it down and clean it. Da insisted on doing the job himself and then gave me a spare tool for future use. I felt embarrassed at leaving my stove repair kit at home. I had only expected to use the stove in emergencies but due to a fire ban we used it quite a lot. When we returned to the boat I tried the stove and it boiled our pot of water in no time, it was just like new again. Thanks Da!
The Japanese guys had told us about showers and washing machines in the next street, so we made a beeline for them. Once our clothes were thrown into the washing machines, I walked to the second store to check out the goodies. I tried the phone box near by and rang Jenny. An echo on the line made it difficult to talk. I called the shop and Alaine said she was too busy to talk at that time. Nice to know business was doing well. Later Ed tried ringing his Mum but she wasn’t in. He hadn’t spoken to her for weeks.
I headed back to the laundry and watched the drier whilst Ed walked back to the canoe to check our supplies. He thought more noodles wouldn’t go astray so I bought more. The store had a good range of groceries but apart from some noodles and a tin of potatoes nothing else really appealed to me.
We decided to stay in Circle that night and erected our tents on some long grass on top of the bank overlooking the canoe. By doing so we stirred up a swarm of small flies and mosquitoes which very soon became extremely annoying.
After supper we went over to talk to Da and Jiao. They too were heading to Beaver, as was the Japanese man we’d met earlier. Apparently a Japanese man had helped to establish Beaver in the early days so there was much written about the place in Japan, which was why so many Japanese head there. Da and Jiao were both married; one of the wives was in Afghanistan and the other at home in Tokyo. They had been paddling for two months, both in Feathercraft folding kayaks, one a single and the other a double. Folding kayaks are popular in Japan due to the cramped living quarters. Once at Beaver the kayak could easily be packed up, put on the plane, and taken home.
After we had left, a drunken local man walked across to their camp. It seemed that they had met previously but before long he was making a nuisance of himself and the conversation became heated. We watched as a scuffle broke out between him and Da. Da lashed out with a kick. I was surprised to see him become violent but within moments they were talking and were friends again.
Then just as the scuffle was over and the man had walked away, a local First Nation woman walked towards our camp and asked me in a loud voice if I would take her out on the river in my boat. I told her that I only had a canoe and it would be impossible. She too appeared a little drunk and said “Well, I’ll just go and walk in the river then”.
She took off her shoes, pulled up her trousers and waded in. “You see, I told you I would go in”, she said with slurred speech. She walked out again did a couple of turns, as if it was some sort of fashion parade, talked loudly about what she was doing and started walking back in the water. She waddled in further this time and suddenly fell over in waist deep water, bum down and legs up. She picked herself up and then promptly fell back down, like a beetle lying on its back and struggling to get up. This time she had fallen further into the current and I was just hoping that she would get herself up before being swept away. She was one hell of a big lady and I wasn’t confident that I had the strength to drag her out.
When she picked herself up I was relieved, and by the look on her face she had got one hell of a scare. When she finally struggled out of the water, dripping wet, she told me that she’d won medals swimming underwater! “You see, I told you I would do it”, she said. She continued to talk and shout as Ed, hidden away in his tent metres away, listened with interest! She finally put on her shoes and started walking towards town mumbling about wanting to cool down! Her feet squelched and her trousers dripped leaving puddles of water along the track. I was pleased to see her leave. Soon after I had retreated inside my tent, I heard Rio, the other Japanese paddler, arrive.
To the YUKON FLATS: Saturday 3rd July. Day 18
There wasn’t a soul around when we got up at 7.30am, in fact there wasn’t anyone around at 9.00am and by 10.00am there were only two local drunks; it was a ghost town. This was a town of work late, play late and get up late. While we were having breakfast Ed sat on a brick with his mozzie net draped over him in the hope of keeping the insects at bay whilst eating.
Ed eating breakfast and sheltering from the mosquitoes
Circle has a population of about 100 people, of whom 85 percent are native, predominantly Athabascan. Circle was established in 1893 as a supply point for goods shipped up and down the Yukon River which were then taken overland to gold mining camps around the area. Early miners had believed the town was located on the Arctic Circle and so named it Circle.
As we were about to leave the deserted town, the Japanese pair had just risen. They waved us goodbye. It was an eerie start to the day with the smoke haze giving us little chance of seeing into the distance. A squeaking sound downstream near the shore, which we had continually heard since arriving in Circle, was now no mystery; it was a fish wheel turning slowly with the current.
Heading downstream into an area called the Yukon Flats we had to work off maps rather than the guidebooks that we had been using. The river down-stream wasn’t popular with canoeists. We needed thirteen maps to get us to the Bering Sea all of which had to be laminated. To save about $30.00 we hadn’t bothered buying the first one as it only had about 10 kilometres on it. However this did create some problems when paddling away from Circle, as we had no idea of the correct route.
The area of the Yukon Flats was about 340kms long, varied from 3 – 5 kilometres in width and was riddled with islands and dozens of different channels. Picking the right channel was very important; pick the wrong one and we might have to paddle much further on a slower current. With nearly 2000kms to go, we really didn’t want to paddle further than we had to.
It appeared, after looking at the maps that the entire country for hundreds of kilometres was under water. The Brooks Range lay to the north of the basin and the White Mountains to the south. While researching for this trip, I had read that the basin is underlain by permafrost and included a complex network of lakes, streams, and rivers. Its eleven million acres of untouched wetlands provided a home for thousands of birds and a huge variety of wildlife. Mammals on the refuge included moose, caribou, wolves, black bears and grizzly bears. I couldn’t wait to see them all.
The Yukon Flats are characterised by mixed forests but dominated by spruce, birch, and aspen. It has a continental sub arctic climate, with huge seasonal extremes in temperature and daylight. Summer temperatures can reach 100°F (37.7°C), which we were experiencing and winter temperatures can drop to minus 70°F (-21.1°C).
It seemed that we were moving into a fascinating and exciting area. Our concern wasn’t for the dangerous animals, but the slower current that would make our paddling harder. We moved into the flats, winding our way along an array of channels trying to choose the quickest and shortest route deeper into the Yukon heartland. It was often a mystery as to where we were, due to the smoke haze and multitude of islands. In the afternoon just as Ed was laid back having a ‘quiet time’ we heard our first motorboat. I stopped paddling and watched the boat come into sight. It was actually carrying a car and it looked so funny. The driver of the boat had a raised console about two metres high so that he could see over the car to drive without obstructing his view.
A car goes floating by
During our afternoon quiet time Ed decided to fish whilst we drifted, but sadly he caught nothing! The current was still pushing us along despite the river breaking up into several channels, so life on the river wasn’t yet as bad as we had feared.
We found an island to camp, with not a tree or bear to be seen. It had recently been under water, but fortunately there were a couple of small dry patches to erect our tents and a slight rise where a few terns were circling. I walked over to the rise and had come across some eggs when suddenly the terns dive-bombed me. When I moved away they then chased a large gull instead. The gull had a chick, so they then turned on it. The chick then took refuge in the river to get away from them, but as soon at it tried flying again they continually harassed it.
It was a good campsite; it wasn’t far to walk to the canoe, had a flat area for our tents and no risk of bears. I couldn’t help but think it would have been nice to have seen a bear tho’! I made a clothesline with several pieces of driftwood that I tied together into a frame and then started a fire to dry our clothes and keep warm.
Sunday 4TH July. Day 19
Throughout the night, when the gull took flight, the terns would dive-bomb it to keep it at bay. The noise made sleeping difficult, and to make matters worse the sound of the nearby bank eroding away and falling into the river, resulted in an even more disturbed night’s sleep.
In the morning the wind was blowing and there was a definite chill in the air, encouraging us to wear several layers of clothes. We could hear thunder, but with the smoke haze it was difficult to know exactly where the storm was coming from. It then started spitting with rain just before we left at 9.50am but it hardly wet the ground.
When we were ready to go we paddled against the current for 100 metres to reach the tip of the island where we moved into a quicker channel. From this point we had about 25kms to go before reaching Fort Yukon. What a fantastic name! My imagination cut loose and I had images of David Crocket in a log fort with high walls trying to keep the Indians out.
Thirty minutes later the thunder increased and as invisible clouds moved over head the visibility dropped even further, plunging us into a hazy cocoon. A sprinkling of rain fell, seemingly the first of a good rainstorm. Boom…Boom, the thunder was louder and clearer and it became darker, but within minutes the sky began to lighten up and the thunder faded away into the distance taking the shower of rain towards the east.
I steered us to the right side of the river in the hope of finding Fort Yukon as it would be easy to miss it in the smoke haze. It was hard to know which part of land was the mainland and which part were islands. As we changed direction into another channel we came across a fish wheel. We had seen them earlier but not at such close quarters. This one was completely made of the local timber, the bark stripped and simply tied together. It looked as if it had nothing mechanical on it, all the materials were from the local trees. It was placed in a fast current and tied to the shore with long tree poles. Two catching wheels spun around and fed under the water, scooping out the fish into a wooded tilted slide that slid them into a holding pen. These two big scoops were driven by the current and were catching fish that were headed upstream to spawn. It was an amazing type of fish trap, simple but effective. We marvelled at its ingenuity, took photos, and then got on our way crossing the ‘Arctic Circle’ to find Fort Yukon.
I had read that Alexander Murray founded Fort Yukon in 1847, it was a Canadian outpost in Russian territory. Fort Yukon became an important trade centre for the Gwich’in Indians, who inhabited the vast lowlands of the Yukon Flats and River Valleys. Alaska was purchased from Russia by the United States in 1867, and two years later it was determined that Fort Yukon was on American soil. Doesn’t it seem strange that you can buy a country!
Even when we knew that we were getting close to the village there was no real indication that Fort Yukon existed. There was nothing to be seen, no houses, no boats, no sky scrapers or fast food outlets and definitely no high walled log fort!! But when we fully rounded a corner we caught glimpses of a large fuel tank hidden behind an island. Pretty pleased to have arrived, we followed a shallow channel towards a few cabins that were lining the bank. It didn’t look very big and I was surprised to only see three boats tethered to the shore.
We pulled up at one of the groynes 100 metres from the large fuel tank, dragged the canoe up the bank and started taking off the canoe’s spray deck. A lady shouted from a small boat docked nearby and signalled for us to go over. Ed walked around to see and to his delight she handed him a freshly caught salmon that her husband had just gutted.
Moments like these are what dreams are made of! Fish for lunch, and best of all we didn’t have to eat noodles! From a distance I could hear Ed’s excited voice quizzing the couple about fishing. Apparently he was being told that salmon don’t go for lures at this time of year, and they can only be trapped. I think Ed was relieved to have a valid reason for not having caught us a fish yet!!!
Ed was now in his element, he could fillet the fish and fry it up in our small pan. But just before he started, police sirens, car horns and music filtered along the road. For a moment I wondered what it was all about but then I realised it was the Fourth of July, America’s Independence Day. A parade streamed along the narrow lane with an excited crowd. It took me back to my last American Independence Day. I had been paddling the Mississippi River and I had paddled all day and well into the night. I was tired and had planned to set up camp on an island a few kilometres from a town. When I reached it, hundreds of boats had anchored near the island and right across the river. They were waiting for a fireworks display to start and although I was tired, cold and damp I managed to stay awake to watch. After the display, I camped on the crowded beach with a mass of noisy drunken revellers, not knowing whether I was going to be safe. Too tired to cook myself a hot meal, I just went to bed and slept like a baby whilst loud celebrations continued all around me.
Whilst Ed filleted the fish I went out looking for water. I walked down the track and asked a guy, who was cleaning his gun in his back yard, whether he could spare some. He said, “Yep, just come and get it from the tap.” I walked back to the canoe, picked up the water bladders and returned to fill them at his kitchen sink. His partner arrived as I was filling up and we started talking. As I was leaving the guy gave me a cranberry loaf which he said his wife had made and it was delicious. They were preparing to go to Beaver by boat, so I left them to get ready.
By the time I returned Ed had sliced the fish into fillets and was about to start cooking. Our improvised frying pan was the lid of our cooking pot. Although a little small and inadequate for this purpose, it did the job. The fish was beautiful and a welcome change from noodles and pasta. We cooked several pieces and finished off our meal with the cranberry bread, it was equally as delicious as the fish.
Ed cooking salmon
When our delightful lunch was finished I asked Ed if he wanted to walk around the village and though he wasn’t enthusiastic to do so, he came with me anyway. I sensed that he just wanted to get back onto the water.
It was only fitting to thank Paul, the guy who gave us the fish, so we walked along the track to his house passing one very unattractive backyard in which there were six dogs tied up. We met Paul next to his drying shed. He had hundreds of fish fillets hanging and dangling in the small shed waiting to be smoked. He also had several long fish fillets drying outside, although there was little sun at that time to assist in the process. He told us that the fish wheel that we had seen earlier was his and that he had caught seventeen good fish that morning. He would also check it again that evening. The fish they were drying were to feed them through the winter.
As we took a photo and thanked him once more, his partner arrived and said she wanted to give us something else. We were both excited and wondering what it could be. Was it something special, the suspense was killing me! She went into the house and minutes later returned with a jar of pickled salmon. Not quite what I was expecting, but still we were thrilled.
Drying fish in a smoke house
We continued on our walk and met a man who told us there was a 4th July party near the school. “Don’t be shy, there are drinks and food”, he said. We walked on passing more yards containing at least six dogs in each yard. There were even dogs tied up in amongst the bushes on vacant blocks. The barking must have been very annoying for people trying to sleep at night.
The noise was getting louder as we approached the main community consisting of two churches, a school and several other buildings. Everyone had gathered near the school. We stopped just shy of the action and sat on a building boardwalk to watch.
All the kids were lined up across the road having bike races, running races and three-legged races. It reminded me of my Sunday School harvest festivals that I took part in as a child. Copious amounts of food was being cooked on the side of the road with queues of people flocked around them. As outsiders we looked on and then left the action and returned to our boat via a different route. Although the man assured us that we would be welcome it was hard to gate crash the festivities. If I was on my own I would have stayed longer, but with Ed eager to cover more kilometres I was happy with our short but interesting stay. We had also been told in Circle that camping at Fort Yukon was risky as some canoeists before us had their belongings stolen from their tents, so it was probably a wise choice to move on.
4th July America’s Independence Day in Fort Yukon
What a day it had been; thunder, rain, the thick smoke haze, the amazing fish trap, the crossing of the Arctic Circle, the gift of a freshly caught fish, cranberry loaf, pickled salmon and the Independence Day parade, – what more could we have wished for?
We pushed off from the groyne, passed a bunch of fuel tanks that had ‘Out of Operation’ painted on them and moved along the shore away from the main village. It wasn’t long before we soon found out why there were no boats close to the village where we had stopped, they were all anchored a couple of kilometres further along the shore. There were about twenty of them, including the car carrier we had seen the previous day. A tent was erected under a tree, a few people were tending their boats and there was a couple readying their boat to move off. The area was a little exposed and isolated so I could see how a tent could be raided if the occupants had walked into the village.
Our whole journey so far had been moving in a north-westerly direction, now the river direction changed and we were headed south-west following a current that spanned several hundred metres in width. The Porcupine River entered the Yukon to the north of us and according to the map it was an important winding waterway that headed further into the Arctic Circle and up into the mountains. Another River to explore, I thought. There were so many places to go and not enough time in life to see them all. Also to the north of us was the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, an important wilderness frontier for wildlife such as herds of Porcupine caribou which gather in their thousands. When the caribou move from the mountains to the wildlife refuge the massive herd have to attempt a dangerous crossing of the Porcupine River. The Refuge is in high demand as oil companies and governments want to go in and harvest the oil, but the local indigenous people and other conservationists are trying to stop the move. The area to the west of it is already flooded with oil exploration companies, refineries and huge machinery, which has driven away much of the wildlife in that area.
Just as we thought the day couldn’t get any better, the sun came out and our last wish came true. Having been under a cloud of smoke haze for four days, it’s hard to imagine how good it felt to see the sun again. Without the sun it had been like living in a futuristic time where the sun played no part in living. But now the haze had gone and we could feel the warmth, see the blue sky and all the beautiful scenery with clarity. Life was good.
After three power boats had zipped by I thought the day was going to be busy, but they were the last ones we saw. Ahead of us were more islands and more channels to negotiate. Taking the correct channel was always beneficial for body and soul. To paddle further than we needed was very disheartening. To achieve 80kms a day was hard enough but to lose the current and paddle further than we needed to, was disastrous.
We tried to follow the main route but we were dragged down another channel shooting off at right angles. The current was swift, it must go somewhere, but we didn’t really want to find out where as it looked as if it detoured the long way round. We fought hard to prevent ourselves from being washed along the channel, and with increased effort we just managed to get across to where a fallen tree created an eddy. This gave us some respite before we powered against the current back into the main channel.
I was quite surprised with the Yukon Flats. I had imagined the countryside would lack tall vegetation and be swampy, but in fact most of the islands had a large number of trees which grew so high that the land didn’t look low at all. Most of the islands were about three metres above the highest water level. I also expected the flats to be teeming with bird life, but all we had seen were three dozen ducks at the most. There were more terns and gulls around than waterfowl. We hadn’t seen any animals except for one or two beavers and a few moose since leaving Dawson. My expectations of seeing a bear and lots of moose in the Yukon Flats had been shattered. Perhaps they were drinking from water holes away from the river.
Luckily for us the flats had islands that in turn had sandbars at the end of them where we could camp. Ed didn’t like camping near any vegetation where the mozzies were prolific, so we always picked islands with sandbars to sleep on. Although we camped on some great sandbars some of them were covered with stone pebbles, others were just mud and, due to the water receding every day, the edges were often water logged and muddy.
As we moved further into the Yukon flats, the channels widened and the current slowed. When those channels split into several more channels the current became even slower. We paddled around hundreds of wide sweeping bends that varied from 100 metres to 600 metres in length. The water was slower on the inside of the bends and faster on the outside of the bends, but because of their huge size it was difficult to estimate whether we should paddle further and try to catch the outside current or paddle shorter distance on the inside with the slower current. We mainly stuck to the middle road!
Pine trees dominated the islands. With no hills behind them, I noticed the different heights of the trees more than ever. There were always certain trees that stood higher than the rest. With the sun shining and the smoke haze gone, it was easy to pick up the finer details. The eroded banks, the fallen trees and the huge build up of floating trees on sand bars were all the result of this year’s high water, and it had proved quite devastating.
Our 1-25000 maps lacked the detail that we needed to work out exactly where we were amongst all the islands. Occasionally, though, one island was big enough to be recognised, otherwise they all looked the same, – just islands of trees will little elevation. As we moved from one channel into another, then into another, we were often left wondering where the hell we were. The maps, again, on this occasion, were of minimal help. By late afternoon we were in a slow moving current trying desperately to push on to find a swifter one, still wondering where we were.
As we paddled down a long straight, all of the country to the right was smouldering and blackened by recent fires. Pine trees were stripped of their greenery and were like blackened matchsticks. We came across a beach, – well I should say a mud beach, – on the opposite side of the channel and decided to camp. Although it stretched for a few hundred metres, it only had a small dry patch for us to pitch our tents on the highest part, but we had to slop through 80 metres of mud to get to it. As soon as out tents were erected we dragged the canoe across the mud so we could have easy access to all our gear and food.
It was 10.00pm when we landed, a little later than I had thought, due to it being daylight for-ever, but we were happy little chappies because we could see two other channels up ahead with swifter currents joining ours. Hopefully tomorrow we would have a speedier passage.
Monday 5TH July. Day 20
We were eager to get away early so we could reach the village of Beaver before nightfall. To our delight the current did liven, but with so many turns en-route our speed was still slower than we had hoped. To make matters worse, the wind increased throughout the day, chopping up the water and making our passage slower and wetter.
We stopped briefly on a sandbar to check out some tents that were 600 metres away in a large bay. I thought it might be a 4th of July holiday camp, but somehow the tents looked more permanent. We looked through the binoculars, checking for any movement on shore but saw nothing.
A little further, as the river narrowed, we stopped for lunch on a stony sand bar away from the shelter of the trees in order to keep away from the mosquitoes. There was a strong, chilly wind blowing and we shivered as we ate our lunch.
We fished out the jar of pickled salmon that we had been given at Fort Yukon, and they were simply delicious. Ed loved them so much I had to remind him that I liked the delicacies as well!! Once Ed starts eating he just keeps going. He’s a growing lad but we had to be careful with our food stocks and to make sure we didn’t eat it all before the end. We also ate some tasty baby carrots that we had bought in Dawson 23 days previously; amazingly they had lasted that long. After slurping down a bowl of noodles we ate the last part of the beautiful cranberry loaf. What a mixed up lunch, and one that we might never have again in our entire life.
By the time we paddled the last straight into Beaver, it was blowing a gale. The chop and wind speed was pretty overwhelming. We could see some big new buildings on the shore but frustratingly a whopping big island in front of the village made it impossible to get to. Our map gave no indication that the island was there so it took us by surprise. A channel that we had passed earlier apparently led to the community, so we had paddled further than we needed. A bay directly in front of the village looked promising to cut through so we paddled into it, but it soon shallowed, leaving us to wallow then retreat back to the main river to find deeper water. We continued moving further away from the village, but we eventually found a channel that led back towards it. With a kilometre to paddle in extremely windy conditions, our balance was truly tested as large waves chased our tail.
As we headed towards the big buildings we could see a yellow canoe and two people under a pergola on shore. The wind soon pushed us beyond them, but luckily we reached our landing point without being swamped by the lumpy water conditions. Just ahead of us was the channel entrance, which we would have taken had we known it was the channel into Beaver!
Unfortunately we were too late to check out the tiny food shop, but at least the ‘Washteria’ was open and it had a phone. I tried ringing Jenny but the line was busy for at least forty minutes so I gave up in the end. I then rang the shop and Guy answered the phone and he informed me that Alaine was having the morning off to do some shopping. How slack was that!
Beaver was 100 kilometres south west of Fort Yukon. It had about ninety residents living in the community, with 95 per cent of the population being Native, predominantly mixed Athabascan Indian and Yup’ik Eskimo. Almost all Beaver residents are involved in subsistence activities: they hunt or catch moose, salmon, freshwater fish, bear and waterfowl to live off. Most of the employment, as with many villages along the river, comes from the school, post office, clinic and village council. Seasonal work comes from fire fighting and construction jobs. Whenever we asked people along the way what they did, most said they were involved in fire fighting, and what a year it was for fires.
A notice board near the Washteria revealed the history and wildlife around Beaver. Apparently gold discoveries in the Chandalar region, north of the village, led to its founding in 1907 as miners fled down the river to Beaver to start their journey overland to the mines. The Japanese connection was established in 1911 about the time the gold rush was over, when Frank Yasuda, a trader and prospector, arrived with a group of Eskimos from Point Barrow and became a partner in the trading post. The store served the remaining mines in the region, supplied riverboats with firewood and traded with Eskimo and Indian fur traders.
We asked a local where we could camp and were told of a site 700 metres west. Ed decided to paddle the canoe there whilst I was on the phone. When I had finished I went to check to see if he had left. A man nearby said Ed was pulling the canoe along the shore because he couldn’t paddle it against the wind. He also told me that he was waiting for Rio, the Japanese canoeist who we had passed near Circle. Rio had stayed with him on four previous occasions.
I walked along the gravel track, passing small houses and sheds that were used to smoke fish. There were several forty four gallon drums scattered along the track that were used as rubbish bins. Everything was placed in the bins; paper, cans and plastics. When they were full they were fired. A few were burning when I passed and the smell and smoke from the plastics was awful and exceptionally unhealthy.
Despite having spent time on the phone I arrived at the camp first, as Ed was having heaps of trouble getting the boat back against the wind. He tried towing it along the shore without success and then started paddling. He couldn’t steer it from the back seat as the wind continually caught the raised bow, so he decided to paddle it from the front, and was having much more success. I looked on laughing to myself, he looked so funny paddling alone against a strong wind, in the front of the canoe. His paddle was going from side to side as he tried to keep the boat straight and make headway.
At the campsite we met two other canoeists, Thomas and Sandra from East Germany. They were also going to the end of the river but at a much slower rate then us, and were planning to take about a month longer. The campsite was a generous gesture from the community, however the gravel base bent our tent pegs and there was no toilet; the nearest one was 700 metres away and it closed early and was open late in the morning. The lack of a toilet was the reason why so much loose toilet paper littered the nearby trees. The shelter was great: it had no sides but it did have a good roof and a table. There were two fireplaces nearby to cook on and best of all it was a place where canoeists could hang out.
I talked to Thomas and Sandra whilst Ed made a fire and prepared the salmon that we still had left. They had bought their new canoe in Whitehorse for $1850.00. We paid $850.00 for our second hand one and it didn’t look much different. Like us they expected to leave the canoe at the end of the river. Ed cooked the fish to perfection, but it wasn’t enough to fill our stomachs so we finished off with good old noodles. Two local Indian girls on a four-wheeled bike stopped to talk. For the last few days their father had been giving Thomas and Sandra fish. The girls were very talkative and they wanted to know where we were from and what we were doing. They took a real fancy to Ed and wanted to know if he was taken. They became excited when I told them that he was available and left us, giggling.
It was time to walk the 700m to the phone to ring Jenny but when I got there she wasn’t in. I also rang Alaine to see how she was coping with running the shop on her own and she seemed to be doing okay. I knew that she would be very busy as it was Avon Descent time and every one would be wanting to buy accessories. Alaine said that the Avon River was still very low, which wasn’t very encouraging for the paddlers entering the race. After my calls I decided to have a wash in the Washeteria but before I had the chance a cleaner came in, cleaned up and then locked up.
By the time I had got back to camp everyone had gone to bed. This gave me the opportunity to write at the table, which was a luxury as I could write without feeling cramped and write legibly; it was like heaven. My third pen ran out of ink, so I only had one left. At 12.15am, feeling tired and chilled, I retreated to the tent as the wind howled and the rain began to fall.
Tuesday 6TH July. Day 21
We had a good drop of rain during the night but it hadn’t stopped the wind from blowing hard. After breakfast I walked to the toilet block to have a wash and to collect some water. There were showers but they required tokens to use them and with the store closed I had to make do with a cold-water wash to the top half of my body. The water was so cold that my head throbbed when I washed my hair, but at least I felt clean again.
Thomas and Sandra had been at Beaver for three days and were hoping to leave that day but they hated paddling in the wind so they were still deciding what to do. When we were leaving I could see that Thomas was not happy with the weather; nevertheless he began loading the canoe. It was his mum’s birthday the next day and he’d wanted to ring her from the next village, but there was no way they would get there on the day of her birthday; it was just too far.
When we pushed off the wind was coming from all directions but within 4kms we were heading directly into it. With the current opposing the wind, it became one hell of a choppy river. The boat was tossing and turning in all directions; the bow of the canoe would spear into one wave only to drop down and collide with another. The impact sprayed and splashed the water everywhere including Ed’s lap. He was getting wet, really wet. We pounded through the waves being thrown around as if we were riding a bull. It was an amazing experience and tough going, but when the river turned in a different direction the water calmed; and we were thankfully to be given a short reprieve.
As we battled away we thought of Thomas and Sandra. They wouldn’t like these conditions and they didn’t have a spray deck for their canoe to keep the water out. If they had left Beaver they would now be wishing they hadn’t, and I could imagine their discomfort and distress.
At Whirlpool Island our maps indicated that the river flowed around it for miles, but in fact the river went right through the centre of the island saving us a long paddle. So much for our maps, but on this occasion we were really happy that they weren’t correct, it saved us several kilometres! Floods must have changed the river’s path and with the maps not being updated, no wonder we were having a hard job tracking our route.
The head wind struck again, creating large waves that thrust the canoe into a roller coaster, and when we dared to stop paddling the wind blew us back to where we had come. Ed was right in the firing line: every time we hit a wave, water exploded over the bow and he got drenched again and again. I felt sorry for him; I only got wet when the waves hit the sides of the canoe, which wasn’t very often.
As the day progressed it consisted of particularly rough waters, but when the river changed direction and the wind was in our favour the conditions were absolutely like a millpond; such a stark contrast. It was a beautiful clear day and we now had the privilege of seeing two mountain ranges, one from the North and one from the South. The southern range reminded me of the Porongurup small mountain range in Western Australia, when viewed from the town of Albany. The river meandered north and then south so often, like a huge curly snake, that we had the pleasure of seeing the picturesque ranges over and over again. We had fantastic views and I loved it.
From the north we could see a mountain called Lone Mountain and as the name implies, the mountain was well out on its own. Dall Mount, another mountain range, could also be seen in the distance. As the river headed north and south it was calmer and more pleasant with the distant mountains to look at, but when it flowed in a west or south-westerly directions all hell broke loose giving us a wild ride.
We stopped for lunch on a bend with a stony shore. It was fairly steep so each time we pulled the canoe up it would slip back down into the water again. As I started to turn on the stove I noticed fuel leaking from the pipe that was connected to the fuel bottle. It was fortunate that I noticed it before I lit it, as on closer inspection I could see that we had lost a tiny rubber seal and if lit I’m sure the stove would have gone up in flames.
Although it was easy to light a fire, we were a little peeved that from now on we would have to light one at every meal. Lighting the stove was so much more convenient than lighting a fire especially when camped in a village. I was now left with thinking of ways to get a 20¢ rubber seal from an outdoor store to us in the wilderness!
It had been a hard day, the current was slow, the wind was strong and in general the conditions were very testing, but it was the sight of the hills that gave me the inspiration to turn the day into a number of beautiful memories. By the 70km mark Ed was ready to stop. We were halfway to Steven’s Village so we found a camp spot on an island opposite the abandoned King Slough Village. We were now only 100 metres above sea level.
The island was bare and exposed to the wind, which kept the mozzies away and gave us a good view of the surrounding area. Although we were happy with our camp spot we could see smoke creeping in from the southwest and cutting visibility. It was a disheartening sight. I wrote until 11.30pm.
Wednesday 7th July. Day 22
We were up by 6.30am. We wanted to get into Steven’s Village 70kms away before the store closed and to find a telephone so that we could ring an outdoor store in Fairbanks to get a new stove or ‘O” ring. It was cold but we braved it. By the looks of the smoke haze ahead it wasn’t going to be a good day; however it wasn’t too thick and cleared as the day went by. I was a little sad that my mountains in the south were now only shadows and outlines and the ones in the north were completely lost in the haze. The day livened up when we hit the wind coming from the West to South West. It was fun having the canoe lunge up and down but Ed wasn’t laughing – he was getting wet. I offered to change ends but he didn’t want to.
At an island north of Jokinaugh Island, Ed was dying for a pee. We hit the shallows some 60 metres from it, so he jumped out to push us along. When it got a little deeper I said, “I’ll paddle the canoe over to the shore and you can walk the shallows.” As the current and wind took me away, Ed waded towards shore and into deeper water until it was above his waist. With his arms crossed the front of his chest to keep warm, he stopped and contemplated what to do. I couldn’t help but laugh at his predicament and as I was about to paddle back and retrieve him, he plunged in the water up to his neck and was forced to swim. I shivered at the thought. With Ed being a good swimmer he soon crossed the deep channel, found his footing and walked to shore. Ed used to be one of the leading swimmers at school – in fact Ed seemed to be good at everything: he was a good water skier, a scuba diver, paddler and swimmer.
It was probably the coldest day that we have had since leaving Lake Bennett and Ed had been up to his neck in water, and now soaking and shivering, he stood having a pee. It was a funny moment, though I must admit I was glad it wasn’t me.
A little further we took a short cut between an island and the mainland to get out of the wind. The current accelerated, lifting our spirits. The floods had badly eroded the banks and a great number of trees had fallen into the river. It was a distressing sight. I took photos of the undercut banks, which were extremely unstable. As I took photos of the natural disaster we became too complacent and nearly collided with a tree that was lying across the water well out from the bank. Ed pushed us away from it just in the nick of time. A capsize with my new camera wrapped around my head would not have been funny. The current soon slowed and the river shallowed, but it was a nice change to be in a narrow channel with the riverbanks so close.
We soon joined the main river, which was hundreds of metres wide, and stopped for lunch further around the next long sweeping bend, opposite Long Point, just down from Rodgers Creek. We made a fire close to the boat to cook and to keep warm, but the smoke continually drifted into our eyes, despite frequently changing positions.
As we continued our paddle around Long Point it seemed never ending. We rejoiced when the river turned left around Windy Bend. The current was still poor but the closer we got to Steven’s Village the happier we were. We were counting every bend. We spotted a house with a load of tools, timber and general boat rubbish on shore. It looked as if the owners were building a fish wheel. After missing the entrance to Beaver, due to the island that wasn’t marked on our map, we didn’t want to do the same and paddle past Steven’s Village, so we thought that we’d better ask someone for directions.
I walked up the rickety steps to the top of the riverbank and across to a house. A dog started barking; nevertheless I kept walking, looking at the rubbish that surrounded the building. I reached the door, feeling somewhat hesitant. Inside were three or four guys, one holding onto a dog that was growling viciously. It looked a hillbilly shack with hillbilly men inside. I didn’t feel at all comfortable. I asked them how far it was to town and after they told me, I didn’t allow them to say anything else, I thanked them and high tailed it back across the garden, down the steps and returned to the canoe. I was happy to be paddling away. Unfair of me I know – I just couldn’t help thinking of the film ‘Deliverance’!
The village was a mile down a channel that we were approaching. We soon reached it, diverted from the main river and paddled along the channel to where we soon sighted the village. We bypassed the first boat ramp and pulled up at the second where there was more activity. I jumped out and walked up along the track to where I came across an indigenous man near a small house. I asked him where I could get water and whether there was a public phone in the village. He said there was no public phone and the water was back along the track, which was running parallel to the river in the direction we had come. I followed the track and asked a lady in a fairly new house where I could get water. I was hoping she would offer her tap but she directed me further. The ground under and around the wooden balcony of her home was littered with rubbish and cigarette butts. The occupants obviously finished a smoke and flicked the butts over the balcony rails. I was still finding it hard to get used to the lack of respect that some owners had for their homes. The hostile winters however and short summers in this region made it difficult for people to establish gardens around their homes, so they were very sparse.
It was too far to walk to the Washeteria with a full load of water so I suggested to Ed that we paddle back to it instead, but he wanted to walk: or – he was fed up of paddling. I eventually managed to convince him that paddling was going to be easier than walking, so we jumped in the canoe. We soon reached the first ramp where the Washeteria was close by, had a shower and collected water. With fresh clean bodies we returned to the canoe where the shore was stony and littered with rubbish. Although it was time to camp this wasn’t the place, so we paddled to the other side of the channel to an island and camped on a beach there.
Camping opposite Stevens Village
The beach mud was quite firm and clean and because there was enough wind to keep the mozzies away it was a good camp. Black clouds raced across the sky, spots of rain fell but then the clouds cleared and the sun shone through. It wasn’t long though before the dark clouds began to roll back in again.
We had tea; it was noodles again with the last of our fresh carrots, followed by a few nuts and a food bar that one of the Yukon River Quest racers had given us. I asked Ed if he wanted to try some porridge, which we had hidden for a treat. Ed hadn’t had porridge before. When it was cooked I turned to get my portion, but he was eating the lot – he thought that I didn’t want any! Like I said, Ed loves eating and he loves sugar: he takes two big spoons of sugar in his tea.
Ed was tired so he went to bed at 8.30pm. He was having problems with a sore backside. Apparently it was red raw so I gave him some chafing cream to help soothe it. Ed used a blow-up seat to stop his bones from hurting but although it helped to take the pain away, the seat made him sweat.
Thursday 8TH July. Day 23
Ed was up as usual about 7.30am. There was a chill in the air and the wind was blowing already. We had breakfast, packed and paddled over to the village Washteria to top up our water bottles and wash our pots and pans in hot water, but unfortunately when we got there the filter plant had broken down overnight and we were unable to get water.
Back on the river we moved down the channel, passing all the houses. The town wasn’t at all inspiring so we had no hesitation about moving on. Another channel joined the one that we were in. It separated the island that we camped on from another. Here we had two choices: to follow our current track around a long bend, or paddle up the narrow channel to join up with another big part of the river that was a shorter route. We took the short cut, but unfortunately for us the current was coming down the channel nearly as fast as we could paddle up. Ed suggested turning back and paddling around the long way but I never like to retreat so I persuaded him to push on. We fought the current for 15 minutes and gained little and although I now knew that the other way, although longer, would have been the better route, I still didn’t want to give up. As we neared the main river we ferry glided across the 150 metre channel which put us back in the main current, and only then could we make headway. Once we hit this spot we were back into the pull of the current of the main river and were away.
Within a few kilometres all the channels that were spread across the Yukon Flats would converge into one. We were excited to get there, as we expected the current to run faster, as it did before reaching the flats. With this in mind we would once again be able to enjoy our quiet times with the current pushing us along.
At last we reached the point where all the channels came together and we felt a sense of relief and joy. We paddled in from the left channel and ahead we could see at least two other big channels meet up with ours. Just at that point a flock of ducks flew over. We couldn’t believe we had seen very little wild life on our journey, as Alaska was supposed to be full of it!
It was great to be leaving the flats and take pictures of a new beginning where the river became one as it cut through a small mountain range. We looked behind to see the last sandbar. Now there was no stopping us!
Small spot fires were smoking on the hill and continued to burn for the next 20kms. Much of the hillside along the way was blackened and a cabin over on our right had been narrowly missed. There were no fire fighters way out here to help, and even if there were the mountains were so riddled with gullies and rocky outcrops there was no chance of vehicles getting in.
It was with anticipation and excitement that we headed into the gorge. We were joining the faster current and it was what we had been dreaming of for days. As we were savouring the moment we noticed a black object moving way over on shore. We quickly changed direction and headed towards it. The current was sweeping us downstream but as soon as we paddled across into a large eddy we quickly made headway.
The black object turned out to be a bear. We took photos of it from the distance just in case it ran away. Within 25 metres we noticed another black object move a few hundred metres up river, it was another bear with three cubs in tow. We waited in the eddy next to the shore and let them walk closer; father bear continued walking along the shore away from us. Mother bear (I presume) walked down the beach, but the cubs were more cautious and stayed nearer the undergrowth. Mother bear walked straight towards us oblivious to us being there and it wasn’t until she was about 10 metres away that she realised we were watching. When she spotted us she was startled and quickly ran back up the beach towards the undergrowth, then steadied herself and then walked back along the beach to her cubs that were still at a safe distance. We could see her nose sniffing and twitching as she kept raising her head to watch us. She tentatively walked back towards us again and came within a few metres. We were so close, it was just amazing. I had hoped that we would see a bear but I never dreamt of one being a few arm lengths away. If it had been a grizzly we may have not been so brave.
She then sprang up, ran back and climbed a vertical sandbar to get back into the woods. At the same time one of the cubs darted away and climbed up a tree with ease. After watching the cub we knew that there was no point in us trying to escape a bear by climbing a tree!
The rest of the family
We were getting ready to push on when the bear came back down to the beach again. It walked straight towards the water, this time intent on getting a drink, and we simply drifted downriver ending up less than 10 metres away from it. We sat silently and very still trying to squeeze out every last moment of its presence. Within a metre of the water it was spooked again and immediately made haste to return to the woods. This time we decided to let it have its space and moved on looking back every few minutes. What a buzz! We had been waiting for this moment for so long and now we’d seen five bears at one time. We couldn’t ask for better than that.
We filtered into the gorge still feeling pretty exhilarated. A small community had once been located in the gorge but now all was gone. The river swept around a right hand bend flanked by steep mountains, which were intersected by small streams. Two cabins had taken up prestigious positions on the left bank next to two of those streams. It was a beautiful location and I felt that we had entered a new world and a new chapter in our journey.
Three powerboats sped across the water on our right side as we moved around the picturesque corner. Everything was looking good except that the current wasn’t quite as fast as we had expected or hoped. It was certainly a lot slower than when we entered the flats. So although we were overjoyed at being out of the flats, we were really disappointed with the reduced flow of the current. It meant that we would have to continue to work hard to cover our 80kms per day.
Leaving the Yukon Flats
We paddled on enjoying the scenery trying not to dwell on our disappointment, but as we rounded another corner we hit a windy straight leaving us with a hard slog ahead. Our mood suddenly changed for the worse. We knew the bridge and a hamburger place was only 15kms away so our thoughts were focussed on getting there. Then with about 10kms to go, the river changed direction again and the wind howled up it generating huge waves, which were made worse by the opposing current. We tackled the river more like rodeo riders than canoeists and rode the waves like bucking broncos. It was particularly hard work and Ed was getting soaked as the canoe pounded up, down and through the waves that were rolling close together.
Although we were moving it seemed as if we were getting no where, then suddenly the high sloping bridge came into view. Since leaving Whitehorse we had only paddled under one bridge so it was fantastic to see another. When we were about half a km from the bridge, we stopped so that I could take a photo of Ed and the bridge. Ed’s grim face said it all, he wasn’t a happy chappie! The wind and the lack of current had sapped all the fire out of him. He had a sore backside, he had sore muscles, he was homesick and with 1,500kms still to paddle, we had only just passed the half way mark. It was really going to be a much tougher challenge for him from now on. I just didn’t know if he would be able to take it on.
As we got closer to the bridge I was preparing myself for the fact that Ed might throw in the towel right there. He seemed so despondent and fed up that I had decided that if he did give up, I would still go on solo. Nothing was going to stop me from completing the journey.
Choppy conditions as we approach the Dalton Highway Bridge
Vehicles of all sorts were crossing the elevated bridge that sloped from the high cliffs on the left (south side) to a much lower bank on the right side. The highway crossing ran north and was one of the very few highways that crossed the Arctic Circle. As it was the summer season it was very popular with tourists all eager to get as far north as possible.
We were back in civilisation but the rough conditions made it far from enjoyable. A few boats were parked beyond the bridge and pulled up on the rocky sloping shore that posed as a boat ramp. We hit the shore with our bow, pulled up the canoe and I dashed to the bushes for a pee. Feeling a little more comfortable I left Ed with the canoe and walked along a gravel track to see what was there, I came across a service station, a motel and restaurant.
Excited about finding a restaurant, we soon changed out of our wet clothes into something more respectable and made our move to the restaurant. Although there were only a few people inside, the waiter taking the orders was flat out as he was behind the counter on his own. Eventually we got served. I ordered a hamburger and chips with a coffee and Ed had similar. The food was expensive but I didn’t care, I looked forward in anticipation to a scrumptious meal. When the hamburger arrived it was huge, complemented with a big serving of chips, but with so much on my plate I knew I was going to struggle. Although delicious I wasn’t enjoying it as much as I had thought and the sudden change in diet just wasn’t agreeing with my stomach. Having spent the last few weeks eating noodles and pasta I expected to have bigger cravings for fast food but really it was a bit of a let down.
The waitress who served us was from Utah and she had taken a job here because she wanted to work in Alaska. I didn’t think this was the best or prettiest place to start but it certainly would be an experience for her. I asked one of the locals in the restaurant about the weather and he told us that the windy conditions were quite usual, and that we could expect it to remain. As you can imagine, his reply didn’t boost our morale.
One room in the restaurant was dedicated to souvenirs and tea towels with moose heads and other items related to the Arctic Circle. I had a quick look in it but there was nothing particularly inspiring. There was only one phone line in and out of the restaurant so calls on the pay phone by tourists had to be quick because the restaurant had priority. I waited for the chef to finish his call and rang Beaver Sports in Fairbanks. I called the sports store to buy a new stove and arranged to have it sent to Galena, a village further downstream. I rang Jenny and then Alaine. Alaine said that she’d been talking to ‘The Australian’ newspaper and had managed to set up an interview. The journalist wanted to call us on Monday evening at 6.00pm Perth time. That was in the middle of the night here. In between each call I made, I had to let someone else have a turn, so by the time I had finished all my calls forty five minutes had passed by.
When I got back to the canoe Ed was lying across it waiting patiently. A Toyota troop carrier with the Australian, NZ and Canadian flags on it was parked nearby. I walked over to find out the story behind the stickers, and it turned out that the people were from Holland and on a three year world tour. They had travelled around Australia for a year and lived in Fremantle for a time, which they had really enjoyed. The Toyota four wheel drive had been bought in Holland and they were just shipping it from country to country. They were eating their lunch, a large plate of delicious meats and salad. They offered us some and although it was hard to refuse we had to decline as we had just eaten. Ed’s mum is Dutch so he had something in common with them. I was still expecting Ed to say that he was going to pull out here as this was the perfect opportunity for him to get a lift out, but he didn’t.
It was time for us to leave. Ed was quiet when we started packing but he still hadn’t given any indication that he wanted to go home and I was proud of him. At twenty years old he was doing something physically and mentally tough. He was physically hurting, he was missing home, his Mum, his girlfriend and his friends. But he had the toughness to paddle on to beyond the point of no return and from here it would only get tougher.
The Dutch couple took our photo before we slid the canoe into the water. We paddled away waving goodbye. The wind had not eased so our crossing to the next corner was very choppy. This was it, no more roads, no more cafés and very few people ahead. As we rounded the corner, we watched the bridge slowly disappear. Like children we kept looking back each wanting to be the last one to see it. It was an important structure and our last easy opportunity to get off the river. I just wondered what Ed was thinking at that moment? Then all of a sudden it was gone – it was good-bye bridge.
As we moved around the corner, the river changed direction and became dead calm and what a relief! There was a slight current, which assisted our passage, but greedily we wanted more. Looking back up on the ridge behind, we could see a structure, which was probably part of the oil pipeline heading to the Arctic Oilfields. It turned out to be the last commercial structure on the river before reaching the end.
As small mountains closed in, the scenery changed for the better and so did our moods. It felt great to be penned in by mountains again and be able to look on at a spectacular vista of the Loafing Mountain Range at the end of the straight. The mountain peaks superimposed each other for miles and held me spellbound. It was like paddling into Never-Never Land. The view was both stunning and calming and I just wanted to paddle this stretch forever.
The Ray Mountain Range
We passed a few cabins and a couple of anchored boats and eventually reached the end of the straight where the river turned. The stunning view and my fanciful thoughts suddenly came to an abrupt end. We were now heading towards a smoke haze that was snaking its way up the valley and about to engulf us, and it was not a pretty sight.
At the 85km mark we landed on an island with a power dingy lying abandoned on the shore. We camped on a mud / sand flat that was dotted with stones, with the nearest vegetation and mosquitos some 125 metres away and just how Ed liked his campsites. The tidemark on the island showed us that the water was receding every day at an alarming rate, and to our despair, it meant that the current was slowing daily as well.
It was 9.30pm by the time we had pitched our tents and collected wood. We had a collapsible saw tucked away in our box, which we had bought from Mark at ‘Up North Adventures’ in Whitehorse, but up to now we hadn’t used it, as it was too fiddly to put together, and it seemed easier to snap tree branches with our feet. But tonight, due to the fire risk, we needed to dig a hole and cut the wood into small pieces to contain the fire, so we decided to bring it out. Although we felt a little guilty about lighting an open fire when Alaska was literally on fire, we had no choice as our stove was out of action. We were camped hundreds of metres from the forest edge and by containing the fire in the hole, there would be no chance of a spark reaching it. Ed soon had the saw pieced together, and he sliced through the timber that we had collected like a knife through butter. We were amazed at how sharp it was. Ed soon had a neat pile of wood stacked next to the hole.
Ed sawing wood with the collapsible saw
Friday 9TH July. Day 24
The morning was chilly and the sun was hidden by smoke – beautiful one day, smoky the next. Although the smoke wasn’t particularly thick, it did manage to ruin the wonderful scenery, and we could only see the cliff faces but no backdrop.
After four hours of paddling and a few of kilometres short of the village of Rampart, we moved beneath magnificent sandstone cliffs. Beyond them the river straightened and the strong wind whipped up big waves. A passing powerboat slowed and the two people on board waved. It then stopped on the shores of Rampart, where we berthed shortly afterward.
The powerboat was anchoring when we arrived with Trevor and Cheri on board. They were visiting Rampart and all the villages along the river to vaccinate dogs against rabies. It wasn’t compulsory, so dog owners only participated if they wanted to. We chatted for a while and then walked to the Washeteria following Trevor’s directions, which we discovered were not particularly good when we ended up a little off track. The Washetaria proved to be an impressive building once we’d found it, but sadly it was locked. We waited and waited in the hope that someone would walk by so that we could find out when it would be open, but no one came. We eventually had to go looking and after a big search we were told that the power house had broken down, resulting in no power to generate the appliances, so unfortunately that meant no wonderful hot shower or water to drink.
As we walked back to the boat, we quizzed a local who told us that he had a lovely clear stream running by his house and that it was the best water in town. This time we really needed fresh water so we checked it out walking about 800 metres along the road. At one home, where we asked directions, the family were busily drying fish. After finding the stream, we headed a little further upstream to find a suitable spot to fill our containers away from the swampy area. It was sweet clean water but because it ran between houses, we made sure we purified it!
Back at the canoe Trevor and Cherri had just left and were motoring downstream. Minutes later they turned and came back to ask if we had managed to get water. If we hadn’t, they had some to spare. We appreciated their offer but we were now okay.
The wind hadn’t abated at all and the straight wide river was bouncing with waves as we boarded the canoe and paddled across the choppy water to where the river made a slight right turn. We landed before the corner and lit a fire at the waters’ edge, sat and had lunch on a mass of rocks and looked on towards Rampart, which was virtually lost in the smoke haze.
The wind chop on the long straights was really giving us a beating. It was heart breaking to think that much of our way to the sea ran west, exactly in the direction that the wind was blowing from. As we moved by the 12 Mile Island we spotted a kayak on the left shore so we pulled along side and spoke to a lone male. He looked pretty old and his English was virtually non-existent so our communication was limited, but we managed to understand that he too, didn’t like the wind. We left him to his camp, which was sheltered by the trees and most likely the home for a thousand mosquitoes, and paddled on for another 10kms to Garnet Island.
The wind was tortuous. Ed wanted to camp on the right side of the island directly in the face of the wind but I managed to persuade him to move around to the left side, about 150 metres from the point, to where it was more sheltered. The river had receded at an enormous rate so we had a long walk from the boat to find a dry campsite. The evening was chilly and we both wanted some warmth, so with our amazing little saw we cut up some wood and sat happily around the fire.
Saturday 10TH July. Day 25
Not long after we crawled from our sleeping bags, we saw the kayaker paddling by our island. We were a little taken back – he shouldn’t be passing us. We were younger and fitter than him or so we thought! We didn’t know his name so we named him Klaus; that way we would both know whom we were referring to when we talked about him later. The morning was relatively calm, so Klaus would have been a happy man and it was probably the reason why he had started paddling early.
Ed walked across the sand flat to the toilet wrapped in his white mosquito net, and disappeared into the vegetation. He looked comical and so out of place. Here we were in a tough land where the locals have had to put up with a lot of discomfort and Ed was walking around with a mosquito net completely over his body. Although it was perhaps the most sensible thing to do, I saw it as more a burden so I chose to put mosquito repellent on. He returned to camp with the small trowel in his hand and a mob of mosquitoes clinging to the outside of the net. Our camp had been free of mosquitoes, but not any longer!
After breaking camp, we paddled and pulled our canoe through the shallows back up to the upstream point of the island and then continued our journey on the right side of it as it was a shorter route. The wind hadn’t yet picked up so our paddle to the narrower part of the river, some kilometres away, was made easier. The unravelling scenery was exceptional but the haze caused by the forest fires spoilt it somewhat. As the mountains moved in, the current became swifter and we were on a roll. Soon after, we passed two cabins situated on the right side of the river and both had floatplanes anchored outside.
According to our map, we were getting closer to a place called ‘The Rapids’. The Germans, whom we’d met at Beaver, had told us to stay on the left side (or was it the right side of the river?) to avoid the worst of the rapids. I had forgotten. We turned a right hand corner and immediately heard the sound of the rapids. There was a very large rock bar strewn across the centre of the river with the water being diverted into channels on either side. We couldn’t see anything serious on the left channel so we took it. The water was swift though but there was nothing to worry about providing we stayed in the main stream. As we drifted I clicked a few photos of three fish wheels tied to the left bank. Only one of them was working. These fish wheels were slightly different to the ones we had seen upstream, where the current was stronger; these had three small catch arms instead of two larger ones.
We beached for a pee just after the fish wheels and then drifted down with the current, passing a cabin on the left side. Our presence had stirred up a large number of dogs and the barking and howling echoed all the way down the valley, it was an incredible chorus. No chance of burgling that cabin! Leashes, just long enough not to reach the next dog, tied each dog to a stake and at least thirty dogs were staked along the shores.
There were four cabins on the other side of the river, situated in a delightful and peaceful place below the Senatis Mountain Range. What a magic place to live. As the current slowed we started paddling again along a stretch of river that looked very much like a Scandinavian fiord. We took photos of fish strips drying in the sun in front of a cabin which also had numerous dogs lining the shores. Several people were going about their business when we passed and I felt both rude and intrusive as I pointed my camera towards their camp. A few hundred metres further Ed spotted a fresh water stream flowing out of the hills so we pulled over to fill our water bottles.
Cabins and fish camps in the Senatis Mountain
As I was straddling the stream three teenagers, one girl and two boys about 15 years old, had walked along the rocky shores from the cabin and started talking to us. They told us that they went to school in the town of Tanana, which apparently still had enough students to fill a classroom, so they didn’t have to move away from home. They came here in summer to stable their dogs and catch enough fish to feed themselves and their dogs through winter. When winter arrives, they move back to Tanana and this is when they use their dogs to pull sleds to take tourists out. Although the government allows some shacks along the river, the land belongs to the government, so they could be bulldozed at any time. The teenagers were very friendly and as we were about to take off they asked us if we wanted to go back to their camp and take photos. Deep down I wanted to, but I had a feeling that Ed was eager to get on and complete our daily 80kms. As soon as we left, I became very angry with myself for not taking up the opportunity to visit their home and see how they lived. It was probably a once in a lifetime invitation and we didn’t accept it. Damn!
We stopped for lunch at a scenic spot just before a corner at a place on our map called Moosehead Rack. It seemed such a strange name I wondered how it got it. A few minutes before we landed a speeding powerboat stopped and the skipper told us to paddle across to the other side of the river to avoid 6ft waves around the next corner. ”You’ll get swamped”, he said. As we moved on we weren’t keen to paddle across the wide river and do extra kilometres if we didn’t have to, so we disregarded his advice wanting to check it out for ourselves. Fortunately for us the river had either calmed when we got there or he had exaggerated – a lot!
We paddled two long sweeping turns that seemed to take forever to get around. Then, to our delight, Mission Hill stood before us and behind it was the town of Tanana. We didn’t expect a good camp spot in the village so we decided to stop on Mission Island, which lay across from the cemetery. Ed was really buggered, and our island camp had just come in the nick of time. The Tanana River entered the Yukon just beyond the end of the island and with it being a substantial river we hoped it would have a good flow so as to strengthen the existing current of the Yukon and help push us along even quicker.
We soon ferried our gear across the mud and sand in bare feet to establish a camp. About 10.00pm just as Ed bedded down, the noise of a boat’s engine echoed across the water. It was Trevor and Cherri. As I walked towards them they pulled up to our sand bar, taking care not to get stranded in the shallows. “We saw your tents from across the river when we were injecting dogs over there” Trevor said. “It’s great to see you again”.
A chap called Kyle had joined Trevor and Cherri in Tanana. He was from the Public Health Service and was joining them on their trip down stream. All three jumped out onto the muddy sand flat with a few beers in their hands. Trevor tossed me a bottle, I caught it and incredibly, it was icy cold! It was just what I needed to finish off the day. I sipped at my first Alaskan beer as I led them across to our camp dodging pools of water that had gathered in the depressions in the sand.
Ed was in his tent and after they called him he was soon out to join us. We all sat and talked. I was thrilled that they had made the effort to call on us after their own long, tiring day. They were the only friends that we had on the river and the only people that we had seen more than once. It was fascinating to share their experiences. We sipped on our beers and by the time Ed had finished his, he was quite tipsy.
Cherri’s clothes were grubby and her face was smudged with dirt; she was in desperate need of a shower. You could see the pleasure on her face when they talked about stopping in at Tanana to have showers and do their washing the next morning.
I told them about our dilemma with the stove, Trevor said, “don’t worry, we may have the ‘O’ ring you need”. We walked back to their boat where Trevor searched his stove repair kit for an ‘O’ ring. To our delight he found the one we needed. We hadn’t been able to use our stove because of a 50¢ ‘O’ ring, now it would be back to normal. Brilliant – it now meant less open fires.
By the time they had left it was past 11.00pm and they still had their dinner to cook and find a camp for the night. It was great to see them again and I felt a little lonely when they motored away. I retreated to my tent to write, trying to block out the howling and barking from the dogs across the river. Once asleep I didn’t hear a thing.
Sunday 11TH July. Day 26
By 9.00am we were leaving Mission Island heading off across the still waters to Tanana and eager to have a shower, although we knew the Washeteria didn’t open until 10.00am. We parked next to Trevor’s powerboat, grabbed our gear and walked 600 metres to the Washeteria hoping that the attendant would have some change so we could wash. We needed 25¢ coins, $3.00 worth to wash our clothes and another $2.00 worth if we wanted to take a shower. Some of the machines that we used in the early stages of our trip took tokens but at this point in our journey most of them only took 25¢ coins. The U.S. is so advanced in some things but so backward in others; it’s a mystery why they haven’t converted machines to dollar coins to make things easier. Even the public phone boxes still take 25¢ coins so when you make a long distance call you need a bucket full of them.
Trevor, Kyle and Cherri were already in the Washeteria when we arrived. The attendant didn’t have any coins and the shop didn’t open until noon, but luckily for us Trevor and Cherri had enough change to share and allow us to freshen up, too.
I talked to Kyle, who worked with the Public Health, about the burning of rubbish. All types of rubbish, plastic, cans, bottles, paper – you name it – it is put into forty-four gallon drums and when they’re full, they’re set alight. There’s an enormous amount of plastic in the drums and when this is burnt the fumes can be smelt a mile away. He acknowledged that it was a big problem in the Alaskan outback and the villagers needed educating but it wasn’t as easy to tackle as in warmer climates. He went on to explain about the ground being one mass of permafrost which made it impossible to dig big holes and dump the rubbish underground.
When the guys had finished washing they said goodbye again; they had to get on with work, as there were more dogs to vaccinate in town. By 1.00pm, when all our clothes were sparkling clean, we went straight down to the store to do some shopping. They had the biggest selection of food that we had seen in a village since leaving Dawson.
We walked along the aisles discussing what foods we needed. There was dust lining many of the packets which seemed to indicate that they had been there for some time. There wasn’t any fresh food at all. It would have been nice to have some fresh carrots or an apple or two but there was nothing. At this time though, toilet rolls were of more importance than vegetables. A wilderness trip without toilet paper can be very uncomfortable, as there are no blades of grass on the sandbars that we camped on! We left with coffee, sugar, drinking chocolate, bread, a tin of spam and cheese for lunch and half a dozen toilet rolls. Interestingly, considering all the days that we had been on the river, I still didn’t have a craving for anything in particular.
Sitting back at the boat we loaded our sandwiches with spam and cheese and washed it down with a coke. I hadn’t eaten spam for years but it was amazing how tasty it was, probably due to having few other delicacies on hand. As we were strapping down our spray deck, Klaus paddled towards the shore in his Russian-made folding kayak. He tried talking to us in English but it was nearly impossible to understand what he was saying. I grasped that he wanted to camp right there on the grass opposite the church and I think he was asking our approval. I told him that he should ask a local. There was a campground in town but it was too far from the river for his liking.
I took the opportunity to give Jenny a quick call on the public phone outside the store; we then bid farewell to the town of Tanana and of course, to Klaus. We paddled away with little wind resistance and a faster current. We were overjoyed; we thought the joining of the Tanana and Yukon Rivers would increase the water volume but we hadn’t expected such an increase in speed. It was great!
There were a few islands a little downstream of the town creating several channels to choose from which reminded us of the Yukon Flats. We chose to take the centre route, which resulted in us having to dodge a number of sandbars. A few kilometres from Tozitna Island, we could see the powerboat of Trevor, Kyle and Cherri on the other side of the river zipping across the water on their way to Ruby. They were too far away and travelling too fast to see us, and I felt a little sad as they soon faded in the distance. I hoped we would see them on their return back up the river.
We pushed on around a long corner and later caught a current that took us by another fish camp where drying fish strips were hanging under the cover of a wooden shade. We soon began noticing that fish camps / cabins were becoming scarcer. Pity really – I was enjoying looking on and trying to learn more about the local way of life.
In Tanana Trevor told us about a set of very important sand cliffs called the Palisades, which were along our route. They contained many fossils of mammoth, bison and horse which had been frozen solid by the permafrost. The cliff was constantly receding and he said that we might see the skull of an important fossil as we passed. It sounded an important place to visit so when I noticed the cliffs marked on our map I knew we had to visit them.
Unfortunately to visit the Palisades, which were on a long sweeping bend, it meant that we had to paddle a little further than was necessary. There was a short cut to the right of Clay Island which Ed preferred to take. I just couldn’t bypass the Palisades, I would never live it down, so I steered us towards them. I accepted that this could cause friction between us but when you get a once in a lifetime chance to see something unique, you just have to take it. We moved over into the longer left channel, glancing ahead at the grey, sandy eroded cliffs. Avalanches of shedding dirt created dust clouds before us. The unstable cliffs were intersected by deep ‘V’ channels, with streams of water cascading down some of them. It seemed strange to see water falling from the top of the cliffs, and I assumed that it was melting permafrost. There was an ooze of steam and a particular odour, the smell you would expect around geysers.
Trees were ready to fall from the top of the eroded banks with some having recently taken a tumble. The cliffs swept around a long turn, and I strained my eyes trying to pinpoint a fossil or two amongst the sand as we followed them. I saw nothing, although I knew my chances of seeing such a specimen were extremely slim. Ed wasn’t showing much interest in the site and I suppose I was searching for something special to validate my decision to take the longer route. Despite seeing no creature’s head or mammoth bones, the cliffs were still a special place.
As we moved further around the long bend, dust storms created by the sand slipping silently from the cliff sides and into the water, continued. Steam, like the breath of a dragon, burst from watery points along the cliff tops. It was quite an eerie scene. At the rate the sand was eroding away, the cliffs would disappear in a few hundred years. Perhaps in a few years time Ed will appreciate the fact that we took time to look at the Palisades. We paddled on leaving them behind and entered a wide straight, trying to bleed a little more speed from the current.
Ed was ready to camp and he had his sights on the south-west end of Weir Island, but I suggested pushing on a little further to Liner Island which was directly in our path of travel. Liner Island was very flat and exposed and thankfully we had enough wind to keep the invading gnats away. We didn’t hit the island until 10.00pm. At midnight the journalist from the Australian Newspaper was due to interview me, but somehow I miscalculated the time difference and when I turned the phone on at midnight there was no response. It turned out that the journalist had tried ringing me at 11.00pm I took the opportunity to write in my diary and finally at 1.00am I went to bed
Monday 12TH July. Day 27
We slept in an hour longer than normal. When Ed went for his morning constitutional, he walked for about four hundred metres, realised that there were mozzies in the bushes and then walked back for his mozzie net. He then set off once again, this time draped in his net and better prepared for the mossies. Good thing it wasn’t an urgent call of nature! I had to smile though – he only needed to walk about 50 metres to the other side of a rise to be out of sight but instead he went much further.
The gnats were in plague proportions, making it impossible to eat or drink without them committing suicide by flying up my nose, in my ears and digging in. They drove us both crazy and as we were readying to leave, I even resorted to wearing a tightly woven head-net whilst eating breakfast but it was an almost impossible mission. Visualize putting the spoon into the bowl, lifting it towards your mouth whilst at the same time trying to move the net aside to get the spoon into your mouth and not let a dozen gnats in, it really wasn’t an easy task to accomplish. This is where Ed’s full mosquito veil would have been useful, that’s if the holes in the net were smaller. The net kept the mosquitoes out, but the tiny gnats were able to get through the holes.
We were glad to leave the island just to get away from the gnats, but some of them followed us on the water and managed to make our life a misery. Opposite the mainland there was a rugged shore with steep sided gullies, and in the hope of finding water we paddled across to one of the gullies. We were in luck, a stream of freshwater was cascading over the rocks.
We parked the canoe up a creek bed and walked a little upstream to where the water cascaded over a large boulder. It continued its descent moving across a path of rocks creating a miniature white water course. The water was absolutely freezing and I do mean freezing, we couldn’t leave our hands under the small waterfall for very long and it was much too cold to even attempt to have a wash. By the time we filled all our water containers we couldn’t feel our hands; fortunately the heat from the sun soon warmed them up again. We entered the canoe and floated along the clear stream checking below for fish. The clear water from the stream edged along the side of the shores for a few hundred metres before it eventually mixed with the murky glacial waters of the Yukon and was gone.
The day was hot and calm and with the sun beating down and the little sleep that I had the night before, I kept dozing off. We made good progress but it was hard work. The gnats were persistent in following our every move, which was very annoying. At lunch when we stopped on an island they were even worse. When we finished lunch Ed walked into the river to wash his plate and suddenly fell up to his chest in the water. I broke out in laughter but for some daft reason I walked to the river’s edge to check it for myself and when it gave way, I too went for a swim. Dripping like sodden rats on the sand, it took us both a while to stop laughing and to dry off. Obviously, there were no shallows at this water’s edge!!
There was little variation in our paddling, so we really needed some rough conditions to wake us up and break the monotony. Reaching Mickey Island we decided to have some quiet time, so we lay back, rested and drifted. The gnats however were still very persistent, making our quiet time a misery. I placed my T-shirt over my face for some relief but they still managed to get under it and into my ears and in my mouth. We drifted for about 4kms to the end of Emerald Island where three channels joined and the current became faster.
As we rounded a big sweeping corner at Kokrines, we could see a cabin and some people way over to our right. They shouted pleasantries to us, we shouted back. They were several hundred metres away but we could still hear them clearly. Our shouts echoed for miles. They invited us over for a cup of tea, but unfortunately with the wide river and the increased current it was too difficult to get across to them in time so they soon faded from sight. We paddled on to find our own camp.
Fox Island divided our route and my map indicated that a place called ‘Horner Hot Springs’ was to the right side of the island. It sounded great to me, like an up-market holiday resort, but Ed thought it would be mozzie country so he wasn’t keen to head that way. Instead we headed to the left of the island and soon found a glorious sand bar that made a perfect camp. Behind us, to the north, were the peaceful Kokrine Hills giving us magical views to savour once again. Although it was the most perfect of campsites, the gnats were relentless and annoying the hell out of us. We washed in the river, which was wonderfully refreshing but it was also the only way to get away from those infuriating insects.
Back on shore the gnats were so bad that I had to retreat to my tent to get away from them. It was unusual for me to be driven inside but it was the only refuge. To my annoyance several got inside as I opened the tent door, so for the next ten minutes I squashed them against the inner tent which left blood marks all over it!
As I settled in to do my diary it was about 25°c outside and about 40°c inside, despite the fact that it was 10.00pm. It was the day I had rescheduled the interview with the journalist from the Australian newspaper. I switched the satellite phone on and waited for the phone to ring. When I didn’t receive a call by 11.15pm I rang Alaine at the shop to see what the situation was, and she confirmed they would be ringing soon. The journalist eventually rang but the line dropped out three times and the interview was a little disjointed. (Although I was interviewed again when I returned home the article never did get into the paper. Disappointingly it was a lot of time and effort for nothing!)
Tuesday 13TH July. Day 28
It was such a beautiful morning but the nightmare of gnats continued; they kept us company all the way to the village of Ruby. Ruby was situated between two hills and it was the most scenic location for a village that we had seen so far on our journey down the Yukon. Some of the houses were like palaces and, perched high on the summit of the surrounding hills. What an awe inspiring view they must have had.
We bypassed the first bunch of anchored boats and stopped next to a large barge loading at the main ramp. We jumped out into thick mud and pulled the canoe as high up the shore as we could manage; the mud was like a huge suction pad. There were three guys on the shore talking so we walked across to them. One was the captain of the barge and the other two appeared to be the local drunks. The big barge was carrying boats, gas cylinders and a variety of stores for the villages along the Yukon. The barge was based near the city of Fairbanks which is the second largest city in Alaska and is situated on the Tanana River. So far, this was the only barge that we had seen on our journey.
A barge at Ruby Village
We walked up the hill to the store to buy some special treats to celebrate. There were now less than 1,000kms to go and the feeling of elation that it brought was fantastic. Coke, bread, cheese, spam spread, snickers bars, pop tarts and muffins were grabbed. What a feast! Lunch was eaten in a timber picnic shelter overlooking the river accompanied by none other than the ever present gnats!
After lunch I fetched water from the Washeteria and took the opportunity to have a relaxing and utterly enjoyable sit on the toilet. No mossies or gnats and the bonus of a seat, it was so perfect! Oddly, I think, some of my most relaxing times have been sitting on the loo. This was the first Washeteria that I had seen with a change machine and a machine where you could buy washing powder. Pity we didn’t need to take advantage of it. I noticed that this Washeteria closed at 5.30pm and it was also closed on Sundays.
As we were packing, a float plane landed on the river outside the village and motored to the shore close by, its propeller stirring the water. On board was a female police officer from the town of Galena. She had a quick conversation with us and then walked off towards the village. The wind had now picked up and the pilot of the plane informed us that the weather was going to be windy for the next few days. It was somewhat depressing to hear such news.
We paddled away, loving the fact that we only had twelve more days to go, if we could keep averaging 80km a day. Twelve days was nothing and we both knew it would be easy to keep paddling that long. Our journey was almost complete and although I was still enjoying it, it was a great feeling to know that we will complete it.
Leaving Ruby Village
The river beyond Ruby was rough, but at least the wind got rid of the gnats, and the cold water spray splashing on our bodies kept us alert. We could see several streams running down gullies from a set of hills, but all our water containers were full so we didn’t need to top up. In the late afternoon we had our quiet time and drifted for forty minutes whilst the wind continued blowing the gnats away. What a relief! With nothing to ruin our quiet time Ed laid back and told me that he would love to get a job with the Police and be in the Water Police section which patrolled the waterways. He had a passion for every water based activity and he saw himself getting a lot of satisfaction from being with the Water Police. Ed had hoped to get work experience with them once he’d finished his working experience with me, but nothing had eventuated. Before coming on this trip Ed had installed radios and cassettes in trucks and cars for a couple of years, and in the last few months worked as a barman at a pub. I was a little surprised when he told me he worked in a pub, as he didn’t drink or smoke, but he just wanted a change.
A few kilometres before Fish Island, and a few hundred metres passed a cabin on the mainland, we came across a fantastic sand bar that was totally bare and with a dry spot to erect our tents only metres from the waters edge. We loved to find elevated sandbars where we could camp close to the river’s edge, with minimal walking distance from the canoe to camp. Our tents were erected about 1.5 metres from the water close to a crumbling vertical sand edge, which was actually eroding in front of our eyes. We were hoping though, that it wouldn’t erode too much in the night. Couldn’t imagine anything worse than being trapped in a tent floating down a cold river!
The view wasn’t as spectacular as the previous night’s camp but we still had a line of hills, and with fewer gnats to bother us, life on the sand island was a lot more tolerable. We both jumped in the river for a refreshing wash. The current was swift but the river was shallow. I started to lather my body with biodegradable soap, but it slipped from my hand and was washed away with the current. Believe it or not it was a tremendous loss, as I only had a tiny bar left and I still had several washes to go!! As I washed my hair, it was like being tortured as the freezing cold water flowed down my back.
Back on the sand we had dinner and watched a wave of smoke drift slowly through the hills towards our camp. Ed soon succumbed to sleep but I wrote in my diary until my eyes could no longer stay open.
Wednesday 14TH July. Day 29
When I heard Ed’s tent zip open I was hoping that he was only popping out for a pee, but unfortunately it was time to get up. Again I’d had a night full of dreams; it’s bizarre how I dream a lot when camping.
The smoke had infiltrated our camp overnight and blocked out the sun, leaving us to wake to another chilly morning. During the night our sand bar had eroded away by a metre, leaving little room between our tents and the water. Another night camped here and Ed and his tent would be the first to be floating in the river. I could imagine the headlines: Aussies escape bears, but lose their lives trapped in a tent after being swept off a sandbar into the Yukon River.
The smoke was so thick by the time we reached Fish Island that we couldn’t see more than 150 metres ahead. Ed wrapped his bandana around his mouth and I used my Le Hood hat to keep the smoke from my nostrils and mouth.
As we turned the next bend, visibility was around 50 metres. Everything to our left was entirely blanked out and it was all just thick smoke. I steered the canoe close to the right bank, which meant less current but at least I could see the edge of the river. Ed didn’t like me steering where there was less current, but I wasn’t going to risk being out in the middle of the river surrounded by a thick blanket of smoke and in the firing line of oncoming powerboats.
The smoke was becoming almost unbearable and by far the worst that we had experienced. Ed needed a pee so we paddled to shore. He stepped out into soft mud and the mud engulfed him above his knees. He tried walking but was unable to do so, his sandals were stuck fast. He reached down and took them off and attempted to walk a few more steps before giving up. What a palaver to go through to have a pee. It would have been easier to pee in a bottle like I do but that’s right, I forgot, he’s young and bashful! When he jumped back in the canoe the mud was caked onto his legs right up to his groin, so he draped one leg at a time over the side of the canoe and washed them.
By steering on the outside of the last long sweeping bend before Galena, it seemed to take forever to reach the town but at least I felt safe. Ed still didn’t appreciate the extra paddling that we were doing though. Through the smoke we could hear noises from the town, which sounded close but it was still miles away. High sand cliffs lined the right side of the river and where the dirt had been eroded away, trees had fallen in.
Suddenly we heard a loud sound that for a brief moment seemed as if it was coming straight for us. Our hearts skipped a few beats until we realised it was a car on a road running close to the water’s edge. When the noise faded we narrowly missed several fallen trees that were poking well out into the river. My eyes strained through the thick smoke looking for the shore, fallen trees and powerboats.
We finally reached Galena and immediately saw two kayaks on shore. I climbed some steps ascending the riverbank to find a National Parks office with two tents erected on some lush grass in front of it. I walked into the office and asked the receptionist where the store was. One of the ladies asked me how long I was staying. She then went on to tell me that it would be better to keep moving. It was as if we were not welcome in town. I responded with, “Are you trying to get rid of me?” She then replied with a laugh, “No, it’s the smoke, the fire is directly across from the town and visibility will not get any better for days, but it should be clear further downstream”
We walked to the post office to see if my new stove that I ordered a week earlier had arrived, but with the old one fixed, we didn’t really need it any more. Thanks to Beaver Sports from Fairbanks, it was there waiting. There were two stores in town but they didn’t have nearly as much choice as we’d found in Tanana. One store sold beer, probably the reason why it was busier than the other. We needed minimal food other than bread and cheese but we felt cheated somehow when we walked out with so little.
Our need for water was far greater than groceries, so we walked over to the laundry to check it out. Inside we found the two kayakers, a German and a Japanese man, watching their clothes spin around and around. It was as if they were watching a TV. We introduced ourselves and the Japanese chap asked us if we wanted a beer. We declined but he was insistent and put two beers in my carrier bag for later. They had started paddling from Whitehorse on June 6th and were also going to the end of the river.
We returned to the boat for lunch. Ed didn’t want his beer so I had two, and by the time I had eaten spam paste and cheese spread sandwiches and an apple I was feeling pretty happy with life!! After lunch we moved 200 metres downstream and docked again, this time closer to the laundry so we could top up all of our water containers. There was a huge overflowing rubbish bin nearby that must have been used by the whole town. It wasn’t the most beautiful sight or smell and to have it near the town centre seemed a little ridiculous.
By the time we reached the laundry for the second time the smoke had cleared a little and we were able to see an airfield across from it, complete with a control tower and numerous other buildings. There was once a US military airbase nearby but it had closed down some years ago and I think there is only a small military presence there now.
Like most communities in Western Alaska, Galena is a fly-in village: there are no highways, roads, or power lines linking it to the state’s larger centres. Large diesel generators are used to produce electricity, using fuel that is delivered during the summer months by a river barge when the Yukon is ice-free. The resulting electricity costs for local residents here are nearly three times the national average, even with assistance from a state-funded subsidy program. We were told that the Japanese have offered to supply free of charge a small commercial nuclear power plant, which apparently was a bit controversial.
There was nothing to keep us in town (although we were later told that there were important fossils on display at the council offices), the smoke had put paid to that, so we pushed off again to find clearer air further down the river. With the smoke dissipating, a large cargo plane screamed along the runway and took off right over us giving us quite a scare.
As the smoke thinned our breathing became easier and we no longer needed our mouths covered to filter the smoke. Things seemed to be looking up. At the next corner we had thoughts of taking a short cut through the Jimmy Slough but we didn’t know how much flow was going down it, so we followed the longer main river moving between the Jimmy, Cook, Hen and Cat Islands instead. When all the channels met up it appeared that we had taken the longest route, so we once again kicked ourselves. Our spirits lifted later when a faster current assisted us around a ‘U’ turn in the river and accelerated us past the tiny village of Yistletaw and the Bishop Rock site, where a large white cross stood on the hill.
We paddled on hoping to find the perfect campsite, without success. Eventually we had no choice but to camp on the end of Bishop Rock Island on a tiny clearing right at the point. It really didn’t look a pleasant site but we could see no better camp spot downstream. When we landed there were hardly any mozzies or gnats around, despite being only metres from the forest edge. However the huge bear tracks imprinted in the mud were more disturbing as we didn’t have a lot of room to run! A narrow channel on the north side of the island separated us from the mainland, an easy swim for a bear. If we were going to have visitors it could be tonight. We made camp and ate dinner with a large number of beautiful dragonflies flying around us, which had us thinking that maybe our camp wasn’t so bad after all.
Thursday 15TH July. Day 30
I woke somewhat disappointed that bears hadn’t visited us during the night. I really wanted to take a photo of one scoffing our food or poking its head into my tent. After all, this was Alaska and weren’t bear encounters meant to happen here?
There was little room to go to the toilet unless we wanted to squat down in a thick forest full of mozzies. Instead I walked along the vegetated shores to bare my bum. Immediately a swarm of mozzies flitted around my backside probing my delicate skin. The mozzie repellent that I’d squirted on my bum had no effect. I have to say, it was one of the quickest toilet breaks that I have had. Ed was a little smarter than me, he used his big mozzie net to cover himself completely. I was beginning to think that his mozzie net idea wasn’t such a bad thing after all.
Two big trees floated by our island camp at a good speed, one from each channel, and the thought of giving chase after them gave us something different to do in our day. But by the time our paddles were beating the water they were well gone and completely out of sight, and had disappeared into thin air.
We often spoke about staying on the water throughout the night and sleeping in the canoe and just letting the current carry us downstream to see how far we could get. That way we would cover a few kilometres without exerting any energy. If we were going to do it though, it had to be very soon, there weren’t too many days left of our journey. Paddling hour after hour gave us lots of time to think and dream and by now we both had plans that we wanted to put in place when we returned home.
About 10kms from our camp, cranes and earth moving equipment could be seen along the north shores close to the village of Koyukuk. We had no idea what they were doing there and we didn’t stop to find out. At this point we were at a major turning point in our journey, it was here that the river changed direction and headed directly south. With less than 850kms to go it really felt as if we were heading home. Nothing, not even the strongest wind could stop us now from reaching our goal. Even if we cut our days paddling distance to 60kms we would still make it on schedule.
We were so excited at the thought of the end of the river, we felt as if we could walk on water. The ecstatic feeling lifted our spirits and gave us a warm glow inside. It was one of those days when we didn’t mind paddling at all – in fact it was enjoyable and the sight of a few deserted cabins scattered along the sloping cliffs and hills on the right side of the river gave us points of interest. The day was still and with no wind to slow us down we made good time to Nulato. By 12.15pm we floated by the hillside cemetery and were captivated by the sight of several small shrines lining the slopes that led towards the hillside cemetery.
As we headed for shore there were two old double-storey houses leaning in opposite directions, looking like something out of a children’s story book. They instantly gave the village charm and character. It was like arriving in an old western goldmine town instead of a small Alaskan village.
There were several boats lining the shores but the place was deserted, just like a ghost town. We walked along a track to our left in search of a Washeteria and found it hiding behind the school. As we were filling our water containers a lone student came in to use the phone. She said nothing and then walked down to the baseball oval with a ball and played by herself.
In the village we passed a church, a hostel and a hall where we saw a few children. There were gardens with cabbage, carrots, potatoes, lettuce and rhubarb, all of which looked pretty healthy. I just felt like jumping the low fence and having a feast; we hadn’t eaten any fresh vegetables for so long.
A sign on one of the old buildings said, ‘Welcome to Nulato’. I thought it might be a store and it may once have been but it wasn’t any more, it was now empty. We had lunch and one or two cars motored up and down the road, but other than that, there was little activity.
We left Nulato heading south. Looking back at the village we could see many more houses set back, bigger than we had thought, and probably that was where all the people were. The haze from seemingly distant fires slowly began to engulf Nulato and before long we were under a smoke siege, again cutting our visibility to 500 metres.
It was warm and still and about 12kms from the village we decided to have our quiet time. Legs up, lean back, close our eyes and doze and let the canoe float with the current. It would have been perfect if it wasn’t for those pesky gnats again.
We had drifted about 4kms by the time we sat up and the smoke had become thicker. It was hard to get motivated again, but once we were back in the swing of it we were away. About 10kms from our proposed camp we heard a motor. We knew that Trevor, Cherri and Kyle were along this way and Ed thought that this might be them. We were really longing to see a familiar face, and then from out of the haze they appeared. They were all smiles and so were we. We pulled aside, started talking and then passed my camera to Trevor. He took a couple of pictures and then we paddled over to their boat and held on and drifted whilst we talked. It was pretty bizarre, we had only met up with them three times and yet they felt like long lost friends. We eventually said our final goodbyes knowing that we would never see them again as they were on their way home, taking their boat out of the river back at the bridge. As we moved off we heard the sound of their motor struggling to start. We drifted and watched them take off the motor cover and twiddle around with the engine. Moments later the boat started.
Paddling in the smoke haze
Thunder was echoing over to the south but we couldn’t see anything through the haze. As we paddled on, the thunder became more frequent and a few drops of rain fell. We found a good sand bar at the higher end of the Seven Mile Island and decided to stop there. It began to rain heavily as we began erecting our tents, and it became quite dark as the thunder storm crossed over.
Once the storm had passed the sun struggled to get through the smoke, and at times it succeeded. It was always great to see the sun, it brought joy to the heart and soul. I had a quick wash in the river then cooked pasta and noodles and made a rice pudding for afters. We quickly devoured the rice pudding and then retreated to our tents before the next storm came over.
Friday 16TH July. Day 31
Somehow three mosquitoes got into my tent, more than likely when I had gone out for a pee! They were buzzing around and annoying me, so I kept swatting at them blindly until the sound stopped and I had blood on my hands, obviously the little pests had bitten me somewhere!
Ed was like clockwork, as soon as his alarm went off he was up and out of his tent. Some days I’d just wish that he’d sleep in. It was a cold morning but as it had rained heavily during the night it had swept away the smoke haze and we could now see the clouds.
There were about 12kms to go before we reached Kaltag, the next opportunity to replenish our water supplies. We were constantly looking for moose and bears, and when I saw something black about 600 metres away I hoped it was a bear; sure enough it was. The bear walked up the beach, broke into a trot, danced a little, stopped, then broke back into a trot again before changing to a walk in our direction. It seemed that it had either just eaten a hearty breakfast or was just in a very happy mood. We paddled within 15-20 metres of it and at the same time the bear turned and looked straight at us, stepped forward as if he was going to charge, but instead continued to walk. Then without warning it suddenly ran up the bank and into the forest making a loud hissing and grunting sound as he ran. In no time the bear was lost in the forest. It was amazing to watch and it made for a wonderful start to our day!
From the water Kaltag looked like a small town although it was only a village. We pulled in next to several boats, retrieved our water bottles and went walking. I asked two local ladies where the Washeteria was and they pointed us in the right direction. One of the ladies slapped at her neck. “I think you have brought the mosquitoes”, she said with laughter in her voice.
As we walked, hundreds of mosquitoes began attacking. Although we were doused with environmentally friendly repellent it obviously wasn’t working. We then sprayed on some un-environmentally friendly repellent with Deet in it, and it actually did work a little better. Even Ed resorted to putting some on and that’s something he had never done so far!!
We found the Washeteria on the other side of the baseball ground. A large, half completed jigsaw puzzle lay on the table waiting for the next person to add a few pieces. The Washeteria wall had about twenty framed puzzles that had been completed by people waiting for their washing to be done. I thought it was a great idea, and that they looked pretty good on the walls too. I was impressed.
Collecting water from a washeteria – jigsaw puzzles on the walls
After filling our water bottles we found a tiny store and bought some instant potato mash, bread, sandwich spread and apples. The mash was supposed to serve five people, but between Ed and I, we managed to finish the lot in one meal. We had brought rations for the entire trip but when ever we found a shop we usually ate more on that day.
The morning was hot and still as we moved off. The sweat trickled down my legs, which felt as if insects were crawling all over them. It was a relief when the clouds came over and created a bit of wind to cool us down. We received more relief when at lunch time on a sand bar of the Big Eight Mile Island there were two showers of rain and despite the heavy black clouds hanging around it didn’t rain again.
The wind had stirred up the river giving more life to it. Ed was suffering with back problems and an aching right arm, I could see he was dying to get to camp. We paddled on a little further before camping on a sand bar on Quail Island. The clouds had moved away leaving it a clear but cold night. We now only had 690kms to go. Each night we counted down the kilometres, first what we had done that day and then what we had left to do. It was an exciting part of the day and as the kilometres got fewer our spirits lifted. I had an early night due to my right eye being bloodshot and sore; perhaps it was from straining whilst trying to see through the smoke haze.
Saturday 17th July. Day 32
I woke early, dying to get up for a pee but I didn’t want to get out of bed just in case Ed thought I was getting up to start a new day, so I held on. I noticed that my eye felt a lot better; the early night plus a good night’s sleep and a few eye washes must have done the trick. There were dozens of mosquitoes waiting outside and several inside lining the tent walls and as there were too many to kill, I just covered up and went back to sleep. I awoke again a short time later, damn, I just had to get up to have a pee.
Taking to the water we forged along the first straight where Ed thought he saw a bear move in the far distance. With anticipation we paddled on in its direction only to find a large tree stump. We needed water so we stopped at Eagle Creek. It was a low area so we were forced to paddle along the creek to find a small drop that was higher than the river height. However, before we could reach the cascade of water a million mosquitoes began their attack. We quickly retreated in desperation, no amount of water at that time was worth being eaten alive. Back out on the river we drifted and killed what mosquitoes we could find on us.
The day was cloudy, but there was no rain. We paddled to the right and narrower side of Eagle Island for better scenery and a greater chance of finding water flowing from the mountain gullies. It wasn’t long before we had found a freshwater creek just before a marking on our map that said ‘Mine’.
Large bear tracks could be seen imprinted in the mud next to our landing spot and they were at least 18cms in diameter. We followed them to the freshwater creek which didn’t look inviting with its steep mud banks and fallen trees. Nevertheless I climbed down the banks, wary of slipping and hanging onto tree branches to stop myself falling. I reached the cascading water, which was falling over a 2 metre high thick layer of decaying wood and mud sandwiched together. Obviously this was years of material that had built up. Further upstream the green vegetation was dense and a haven for mosquitoes and hiding bears. I kept a close eye out for any movement and slapped the mosquitoes as I filled the water containers. I was pretty penned in with no quick way of escaping. When my containers were full I climbed carefully back up the slope to where Ed was waiting and returned to the canoe for lunch. It was another delicious lunch, stale bread with cheese spread, followed by noodles, what more could you want? Just before loading I returned to the creepy creek to top up the rest of our water bottles. I was pretty pleased to have returned safely to the canoe without slipping down the embankment, getting stuck in the mud or being chased by bears. As we were about to leave a fox trotted to the water’s edge to drink. It stayed for a few minutes, had a look towards us and fled into the woods with its bushy tail following.
Within minutes of leaving, a cabin came into view. A man was walking down to the water’s edge so we paddled closer to shore to have a few words with him. The man, Ralph, immediately offered us a coffee. We graciously accepted. His cabin was surrounded by high grasses that needed cutting. Beside it was a smaller abandoned cabin which had been pushed, turned around and made unstable by moving ice when the winter river was high. He had built his new house about seven years ago.
In front of his cabin there was a pipe that had a continuous flow of water fed from the nearby stream. He assured us that it was the most beautiful tasting water in the whole valley. We moved inside his cabin and away from the mossies. He had all the mod cons, satellite dish, TV, a stack of videos, vacuum cleaner, tape player, reclining chair, sofa, etc. To think that we were miles from nowhere and he could watch TV and keep up with all the soaps and current affairs programmes. He also had a big wood fire to keep him warm in winter.
Ralph gave us a photo album to look at whilst the coffee was on the boil. They were interesting photos of bygone days and the surrounding area. He flies his own plane and lands it on an uneven sand bar on the other side of the river or on the ice when the river is frozen. It looked a risky venture. On this visit to his cabin he had come by boat. Ralph, had been living at the cabin on and off for 29 years. His son lives in Fairbanks and Ralph joins him there when he’s not here at the cabin.
A rifle and a pistol were hanging from a wall. As I looked at them, he said he needed guns out here in the wilds for protection from the wildlife. He said he wasn’t impressed with anti gun movement and commenced telling us a story of a close call he had had with a bear. “A man has a right to own a gun”, he said. And even if we didn’t agree with him we were not about to argue the point!
Ralph also mentioned that his cabin was used as a checkpoint for the famous Iditorod Dog Sled Race, which is the longest sled race in the world. It starts in Anchorage and finishes in Nome. Ralph visited Sydney, Australia, after the war in 1949. He continued with other stories as we drank some of the strongest coffee that I had ever tasted in my life. Being a weak coffee drinker it was hard to force it down, but at that time I was happy to drink what ever I was given.
It was time to go and leave the creature comforts of the cabin. As Ed and I paddled off we spoke about Ralph and the stories he’d told us. We were looking at the steep hills along the river when I noticed in the distance a black object. I thought it had moved but as we focussed on it, it was still. Was it a log or a big stump? No it moved again, it was a bear. We hurried towards it and when we got closer we drifted. It was only 15 metres away just sitting there in the dirt like a dog. I took a photo but I was too late to take another; the bear looked up then started trotting along the shore before darting off towards the grass. It ate grass as it trotted on and then suddenly grunted and ran off into the forest. Then it was gone.
Ed was dying for a pee, it must have been the coffee. We moved towards the bank but it was too steep to land so we used a fallen log to stand on instead. Ed’s end of the log was dry and my end was wet and slippery. I joked with Ed, saying it would be funny if he slipped.
Ed stood on the log, finished his business and jumped back in the canoe. The canoe however became stuck on the log, so he stepped out to push it off. Unfortunately for him he trod on the slippery part of the log, slipped and over he went. I couldn’t help but laugh but then I saw a couple of short sharp branches sticking up beneath his bum. Ouch!! I could envisage him being stabbed so I quelled my laughter and when Ed picked himself up and wasn’t harmed I carried on laughing. But really, he was lucky not to have been impaled.
On the straight approaching the north end of Alice Island, the river was well chopped up by the wind causing us to bounce down, hitting several big waves head on. We decided to camp on the south end of the island on a sandbar. Many of the sand bars were very soft and muddy on one side and firmer on the other. We always tried to find firm ground before going ashore, as sinking knee deep in mud whilst unloading or washing our cooking pots wasn’t much fun.
The sky was laden with clouds creating a dark and chilly atmosphere. Before us were a moose’s footprints which left deep indentations in the sand right across the island. The moose must have swum about 400 metres from the mainland to get to the island. It would have been a wonderful sight to see. Filled with curiosity I followed the moose tracks. They continued over a slight rise to the other side of the island, where they went back into the water, crossed a narrower body of water and reappeared on another island, which was heavily vegetated. As I returned to camp, my footsteps were breaking through the corrugated crusty sand, which rippled like a desert across the island.
Moose tracks and the Blackburn Hills
The tents were erected right at the tip of the sandy island with the two channels meeting only metres away. Our camp looked good but only a few days before the large sand bar would have been under water. As the water was receding at a rapid rate, campsites were becoming more plentiful as sand bars became exposed.
The rolling Blackburn Hills were over the river to the west. It was a serene view yet still inspiring. As I scuttled around camp unpacking I couldn’t help but pause occasionally to have a look at the hills, the moose’s footprints, and in general the whole scene around me. I was feeling a sense of calm, a sense of peacefulness and a very real sense of enjoyment. The entire experience was uplifting and it was yet another time when I understood the reason for being here. The sun came out briefly and sneaked through the clouds lighting up the hills like a long horizontal beacon. Unfortunately it soon disappeared leaving us to our chilly evening dip. We noticed that the river temperature was warming as we got further from the mountains and the summer days heated the water.
Ed reminisced about when he used to be a football line umpire and showed me one of his umpire moves; running backwards at a great speed. We both tried it, running backwards across the sand as fast as we could imagining that we were following a ball. It was great fun and we laughed a lot. I thought I was pretty good at it; maybe I should have been an umpire myself!!
When we had finished our meal Ed settled in his tent with his head phones blasting out. I walked across the island again following the tracks where the moose had crossed the channel. With the clouds hovering over the mountains and the wonderful view I took the opportunity to take some photos. The evening was stunning and I didn’t really want to go to bed.
I eventually succumbed to sleep but soon after settling in I woke with a sudden and very strong urge to go to the toilet. I needed to leave the tent in a real hurry to dig a hole. I fiddled with the tent zip and literally crawled out with cheeks tightly clenched. I had no chance of getting too far away before I had to stop, dig and squat. Feeling very relieved that I had got out of the tent in time, I tried to think of a reason for the sudden attack of diarrhoea, did I eat too many prunes and dried fruit, was it the water, or was it Ralph’s strong coffee? I didn’t know but what I do know is that I dug three holes that night and lost a lot of weight!
Sunday 18th July. Day 33
My diarrhoea was short lived as my morning ‘constitutional’ was back to normal, thank god! Ed was still shy about going to the toilet, so he walked at least 350 metres away before he squatted.
We left Alice Island on a cool and cloudy morning with little wind to give us trouble down the first long straight. Nearing Fox Island we had two choices, I assumed the left and straightest channel would be deeper and faster so we followed it. It soon shallowed however, with sandbars popping up to slow the water and our progress. After we’d committed ourselves, we could see that the other channel had a lot more water flowing down it, but we had no hope of changing direction. We kept to the left bank chasing a current that for a short time was fairly fast.
A flock of fifteen ducks floated in front of us. They soon scattered flying forward and then landing again. Some fled by walking on water. We followed them for some time before they were finally tired of having to keep fleeing, we never saw them again.
The experience reminded us of lunch time a few days earlier. As we were paddling towards a sand bar we watched a duck scoot across the water at super sonic speed as if it couldn’t fly, reminding me of the Road Runner cartoon. As we paddled away from the sandbar it kept scooting after us as if we were its mum.
The current slowed considerably and it was hard to push around the long eroded bend. It had been my decision to take the channel but I wished now that we had taken the other one as I was feeling guilty. The canoe dragged along the shallows for kilometres, until at last the two channels joined and formed deeper water just before the Graylin straight. It was great to feel the pull of the current again even if it was only slow. On the right side of the river the hills were steep with a few cabins located next to streams. We usually stopped for lunch at the 40km mark, but we could see the village of Graylin in the far distance so we kept going.
When we arrived in Graylin we met some summer school students, who were walking to the river. We asked the whereabouts of the store and Washeteria, but as it was Sunday nothing was open! One of the student leaders had lived in Tasmania for six weeks. She was from New Jersey in the US and her co-worker was from Anchorage. They were there to run a summer camp activities for the local students.
Two guys came over, one looked a real redneck, scruffy with no front teeth. He wasn’t the sort of guy that you would want to meet on a dark night or in the middle of the wilderness by yourself. After talking for a few minutes they left us and soon after a native Alaskan drove over on his four wheeled motor bike. He told us that we were the first boaters through this season. He also told us how the locals once used rowing boats and dogs to pull boats upstream, now they had big motors on their boats. He also said there wasn’t much work in the village, although some of the men went fire fighting in the summer. He then said, “You should be careful when you pass Anvik, they have the worst mosquito population in the world, it’s called Mosquitoville, and don’t drink the water there, it is foul”.
He finished off by saying, “As you move downstream you will see more people and the villages are bigger due to the population being Catholic”. He then started his bike and shot off whilst we were having a meal of noodles and breakfast cereal and later returned with a clip seal bag full of dried fish. We thanked him – they tasted a little oily, but still delicious. We now had dried fish for another two lunches.
Heading towards Anvik the right shores were hilly and we managed to find both water and lots of mosquitoes in a stream near Point Hill. Anvik was somehow eluding us. We should have been able to see it several kilometres away, but somehow it was hidden; only a lone house on a hill could be seen. We were puzzled as to its whereabouts, we knew it had to be close, but somehow it wasn’t there. Just as we were about to think that we were going crazy or our map reading skills had gone to the dogs, we suddenly saw some houses down a channel behind a swampy island 200 metres away. Yes, we had now found the well camouflaged village.
We started paddling up the creek against a flow of the current, meeting an army of mosquitoes that swarmed around us like bees around a honey pot. I sprayed myself with insect repellent and Ed hid under his white mosquito net. Ed was ready to retreat back to the main river but I persuaded him to paddle up to the muddy boat ramp. I jumped out and sank right up to my knees in mud. As I explored part of the community Ed sat there in the canoe like a gnome wearing a mosquito net.
The village was surrounded by a channel, a big flood plain, a swamp and lots of greenery, one of the best breeding grounds for mosquitos ever to be seen. The old guy at Graylin was right, you just don’t stop here unless you love mosquitoes and have a passion for scratching.
It didn’t take me long to realise that the town didn’t have anything I needed, apart from a large can of insect repellent. Ed was sitting in the canoe protected by his mosquito net, patiently waiting for my return. Once back in the canoe we paddled hard to clear the swamp and get away from Mosquitoville. We wondered how anyone could live there but I suppose people get used to the mosquitoes. Once back in the main river we passed a high hill and drifted along trying to kill the mosquitoes that hung on our clothes or were biting our flesh. When we were happy that they had all been eradicated we lay back, put our feet over the gunwales and took in the sun. We drifted with the current, dozed and relaxed completely. Ed was soon well out of it listening to his music through his head phones and nothing could stir him.
We were dead to the world for some time. I awoke later to find we had began to drift down an inside channel of an island. I thought it wouldn’t be the best route to use due to the close vegetation so I quickly nudged Ed and we both quickly grabbed our paddles. However, it was too late, we had no chance of changing channels, the current was too fast and it had already taken us that way, so instead we paddled close to the shore taking advantage of a faster current there. The shores were swampy and the gnats and mozzies were soon giving us trouble. Within a few kilometres we met up with several channels flowing in from the left side, and by late afternoon all the channels joined into one. Black clouds swept across the sky from the west bringing a rain storm that soon passed over.
At the end of the day there were no suitable campsites, and no sandbars to land on. Ed was dying for a pee so we stopped on the end of an island. Ed jumped out and sank right up to his bum in mud; his legs were caked and it took some effort to get back into the boat. Definitely not a good place to camp!
There were no islands for twenty kilometres, so at the next clear spot on the mainland, a few hundred metres further, we decided that we had no choice but to stop. The banks were steep but there was a flat clearing once we had climbed up the high bank. Considering we had already paddled 97kms for the day, it just had to do. The mud was soft and thick. Ed tried to get ashore but sank deeply into the mud, his legs and crotch were black. Once on firm ground he collected a few pieces of driftwood to form a pathway so I could get to shore without suffering the same fate. It worked, I didn’t have a skerrick of mud on me when I walked on shore. Being in the back of the canoe certainly had its advantages!!
Once we were both ashore we collected more driftwood and placed it down in the mud to form a path for the canoe. This gave us enough support, so we were able to walk on the mud and drag the canoe up the slope. We struggled as the mud stuck to the canoe like suction pads, but once we had it on the timbers we were able to move it centimetre by centimetre up the steep bank. We felt like the ancient Egyptians transporting large pieces of rocks to build the pyramids.
We erected our tents high up on the flat area overlooking the river, on bear tracks imprinted in the sand. Thankfully, they were not fresh so we were hoping that we wouldn’t be visited in the night. If we were we had no long sand flats to run across to escape, only a thick forest only metres away. I suppose we could climb a tree but then again, so can bears!
Using driftwood to prevent the canoe from sinking in the mud
Our high perch gave us great views of the wide river and the forest on the other side of it. We were pretty tired after a long day but there was still food to be cooked and chores to be done before bedding down. Once these were finished and I was safely tucked away in my tent I had my diary to write. It was a constant chore, but if I wanted to write a book about the trip I had to have a record. The diary could easily take up to two hours of my time, but often my eyes would close and my thoughts would fade before completing the day’s events.
Monday 19th July. Day 34
I heard the zip on Ed’s tent door open. I waited a few minutes, asked him whether it was time, and what the weather was like, hoping it was the middle of the night and he was only out there for a pee. Having no watch and twenty four hours of day light does have its draw backs. Ed said it was cold and the tent was wet with moisture and yes, it was time to get up.
Although it was one of the most difficult campsites to get to and it was covered with bear tracks, I slept really well, so well that I forgot what I dreamt about. There were fewer gnats at breakfast than at dinner the night before; cool wind blew across our sand patch and kept them away. It also blew our tents dry.
Leaving was quite an operation. The mud hadn’t got any firmer over night so when we loaded the boat we placed new timber runners on the mud to help the canoe slide. Once we started to push it was important to keep the momentum going, so it wouldn’t bog down in the mud. If it did we wouldn’t have a chance of moving it again without unloading.
I was in my element having to solve such problems as I had done this type of thing many times before when launching my kayak in the mud, in the Kimberley. We placed the canoe on the timber runners and pushed it hard. It slid down them perfectly and landed in the water with Ed following and slipping into the mud up to his shorts. We had also placed a separate line of logs further downstream so we could walk across the mud on the timbers to reach the boat. With Ed now already muddy he didn’t need to use it, but it worked just fine for me. I was perfectly clean when I entered the canoe. Poor Ed, he left the campsite as he arrived at it….covered in mud.
We paddled on towards the scenic ‘Cement Hill’ and just beyond it, opposite a place called Paradise, a sand bar developed. It didn’t look too much like paradise to me. Ed suddenly spotted a bear on our left side, so we quickly ferry glided across to the island. Unfortunately the bear had also spotted us and it kept us in its sights. We drifted to within 50 metres before it was up and away galloping across the sand bar heading towards the trees. That was bear number eight, so we were pretty chuffed to see it even if we didn’t get close.
We paddled on and within a kilometre I saw something else at the waters edge. There was a dirt bank behind it so I couldn’t quite see what it was, however when it moved I saw four legs and the shape of a bear. We again ferried across the river and drifted slowly down to it. When we were within 20 metres it spotted us. It had a puzzled look on its face, but it didn’t seem to care. It allowed us get within 10 metres before it moved a few metres and then it fixed its eyes on us once more. By the time it moved again I could just about touch it with an out-stretched paddle. It wasn’t the biggest bear, but it was a bear and it was cute. With a twitching nose and a puzzled expression on its face, it was wondering who the hell we were and what to do next.
Then the bear, lets call it Yogi, decided that we were just too close, so it climbed the bank and walked up the shore a little and into some greenery. I whispered to Ed to paddle to shore so I could get out and have a closer look, but he wasn’t too keen to see me get attacked. Nevertheless he helped me paddle to shore. I jumped out and walked through the greenery about 15 metres from where Yogi went in. There was a clearing on the other side of the 10 metre line of bushes but when I stepped out into it I couldn’t see Yogi. In the meantime Yogi had moved back towards the shore, and when I returned Ed shouted to me that it was close by. I stepped out of the bushes to look Yogi straight in the eyes. We looked at each other for a moment but I could see that he was more frightened and timid than me. Yogi suddenly turned and bolted back through the greenery and across the sand flat and into the forest fifty metres away. Wow! What an experience, I wonder if the bear was thinking the same!
By this time the mosquitoes had latched onto me, as I had spent too much time around the vegetation, so I jumped back in the canoe, killing them all one by one. As we drifted away, Yogi Bear returned to the same spot on Carlo Island or was it Bear Island! We waved and said our goodbyes. Seeing two bears on an island gave us food for thought. Were we really that safe camping on islands?
We pushed on towards the Holy Cross hills, and as the river widened again the current slowed, taking us a lot longer to paddle 10kms. At one point an island, which was located on our map, had been eroded away so much it was hardly noticeable. It just shows you what time and flood waters can do to change a river’s path. The day was now calm and hot. To ensure that we didn’t miss Holy Cross we had to turn off at Walkers Slough. We kept a close eye on the map to make sure that we didn’t overshoot it. As we turned into the slough a cabin stood on the left bank a few hundred metres up. It was circled by a low fence which was quite unusual in these parts, but it was probably there to keep the children and the barking dog from straying. A fish drying rack was also inside the fence with a big toy cart lying on the river shore outside it. We passed between the cabin and a fish trap that was on the opposite bank.
There was virtually no current in the slough but we had to take it to reach the village. A few more cabins were dotted along its shores, most unattended. It seemed to take forever to reach the boat landing where the road led into town. Several boats were pulled up on the muddy shores, and as we landed a guy from an arriving boat said two other canoes had arrived in Graylin a few hours after us. We were quite shocked. It didn’t seem possible that two canoes could be making better time and catching up with us. We had never heard of them before and we heard nothing more of them later.
The town ended up being about 600 metres down the gravel track, much further away than most other settlements that we had stopped at. The gnats were absolutely infuriating with millions of them hanging around, and the mosquitoes were no better. It was really hot and as I walked along the gravel track in my sandals, grains of gravel got under my feet and between my toes. We met two men near a burnt out house and they told us where to find the Washeteria. It was a lot smaller than most others we had seen, possibly because most of the houses had their own showers and washing machines.
I took the opportunity to have a shower but Ed had decided that he now enjoyed washing in the river so he didn’t bother. The hot soft water was just beautiful, the shampoo lathered in my hair, and the soap washed parts of my body that in the river often got neglected. It was nice to get in all those nooks and crannies. The feeling of being super clean was indescribable and it was a mystery why Ed didn’t want to enjoy the experience.
The store was only 50 metres up the hill, so it gave us a chance to gather a few more supplies for our lunches. Within minutes of walking in the hot sun my lovely cleansed body was all sweaty again, but it was still worth having the shower. The shop didn’t have any bread so I walked further up the hill to very small store in someone’s house on the newer housing development and managed to get some bread there. The development was set on a hill side with stunning views of the surrounding countryside. However, the gnats and mosquitoes were still bad so it didn’t encourage me to stay.
I slipped and slid my way back to the canoe in my sweaty sandals with the stones under my feet annoying the hell out of me. Ed was wearing his trusty head net when I arrived but the gnats were still driving him mad. He said that the mossies were so bad as he returned from the village that he had to run back to the canoe to escape them, but when he arrived millions of gnats descended on him. It was absolutely impossible to do anything without wearing a head net to keep them at bay. We both tried eating lunch with the head nets on, but it was too difficult to eat because every time we put something in our mouths the gnats would swoop in as well. Most of the gnats were so small, they got through the net anyway!
As we were finishing lunch a local, who had spotted us walking around town, came and talked to us. It was pretty difficult to engage in a conversation due to the gnats slithering in our ears, eyes and mouth. He stayed for a while, then as he was leaving, he gave us several packets of egg powder which he thought we would appreciate.
He got into his car, which was a bit of a wreck, took the hand brake off and let it roll down the slope, engaging the gears. It jumped a bit but it failed to start. He was now on a gentler slope, so we went over to give him a push. It failed again. With each attempt the car got closer to the extremely muddy water’s edge. We tried for the third time and within metres of the mud it started. He was relieved and so were we, as we were dying to get back on the river to get away from the gnats!
We paddled along the slough, still accompanied by a bunch of gnats that just didn’t want to go away, and joined the main river again. We were beginning to realise that our time on the river with the plague of gnats was going to make our life a misery. How could we get away from them without committing suicide? We gained a little speed and talked about paddling places free of insects and how lovely it would be to be there. As we dreamed on, we paddled 35kms to the Great Paimuit Island dreading the thought of setting up camp. We landed on a sandbar readying ourselves for the onslaught of gnats, but to our delight there were very few around. We couldn’t believe it, life had suddenly become much better. Committing suicide was not an option anymore.
Five shacks were tucked away in a mountain cove just before we stopped, but it was the beautiful rainbow arching right across the north-east sky that caught our attention. We said all those things you say when you’re a kid. “Let’s go and find the pot of gold.” “Let’s make a wish.” The rainbow must have brightened up Ed’s day. He couldn’t wait to go for his swim and he thoroughly enjoyed it. He was like a kid that had just been on the big dipper, he shouted and jumped when he hit the cold water and cupped his hands and splashed water all over himself. It was good to see Ed enjoying himself – he was having a hard time with the paddling. His most enjoyable part of the day was counting the kilometres after each day’s paddle in fact it was now becoming the highlight for both of us. With only 430 kilometres to go, I rang Jenny and Alaine and turned into bed at 12.30am.
Tuesday 20th July. Day 35
It was a chilly morning but by the time we had left the shores it was T-shirt time. In the last few days my feet were beginning to show signs of wear and tear. Spots, blisters and rashes were appearing where my sandal straps criss-crossed my feet. With the deterioration of my feet I knew I had to keep them dry, but that was almost impossible. I did however start to dry them and rub some fungal cream into them each time I entered the boat, in the hope that they would heal. There was nothing more I could do, no doctors out here. I suspected that the blisters developed because I had been wearing the same sandals in a wet, muddy environment for so long and bacteria had formed. Ed had suffered with a similar rash at an earlier time, but it had disappeared; now he only had chapped heels and cracks between his toes.
We nipped down the Summer Slough to save 4kms, instead of going right around the island. We followed the Paimuit Hills and found a stream, but as we paddled up into it we were immediately savaged by mosquitoes. We soon backed out, slapping ourselves, hoping to kill them all before their probes managed to delve too deep into our skin.
When the river joined we soon passed a few cabins which made up the very small settlement of Paimuit. There was no one around, only the ragged U.S. flag which was flying high in the small grave yard. According to Ed’s GPS we were doing 11kms an hour down the Paimuit Straight, but we slowed considerably when sandbars and shallows broke our rhythm. Breaking 10kms an hour on this lower stretch was very pleasing, the more assistance we had from the current the less paddling we had to do. Without the current we paddled about 6kms an hour.
I spotted a bear 400 metres ahead but I also spotted a stream, and water was more important than chasing a bear. Because of my blistered feet I let Ed collect the water, so I didn’t have to get them wet and muddy. It was a small creek so he took a cup to catch the water, but when he got there, there was a hose poking out of the bank and an old cabin hiding in the trees. He filled the bottles with water from the hose and came back telling me it had a bit of dirt in it. It didn’t seem too much of a problem at the time but when we checked it that night, it had so much dirt that we had to filter it through several coffee filters before we could attempt to filter it properly. By the time Ed had collected the water the bear had disappeared.
We decided to take the left channel at Base and Pearl Islands as it was more direct, but we slowed down to 7kms an hour. Half way down the channel we stopped for lunch on a muddy sand bar. There was no wind, it was warm, the sky was clear and we had the mountains of Dogfish and Baldhead to gaze at. There was no way I could keep my feet dry here as the mud just sucked through my toes every time I made a step.
We moved on and as we passed Tuckers Fish Camp the river widened so we stopped paddling. We had ‘quiet time’ and drifted, and talked whilst lying back. For some reason I thought about the Thunderbirds and I said, “I’m Captain Virgil from the Thunderbirds”, Ed just cracked up and couldn’t stop laughing. Although there’s a thirty-three year age difference, we could both relate to the Thunderbirds.
We started off drifting 4kms per hour, but thirty minutes later this had slowed to 2kms per hour. The conditions were just perfect for relaxing, a lovely breeze, sunshine and no insects. Yes, that’s right, no insects! Mt Chiniklik was the main focal point. It was a solitary yet quite majestic mountain, bare on the summit like many of the other mountains around these parts. Although the dramatic scenery was behind us there were still smaller ranges, distant hills and lonely mountains such as Mt Chiniklik. I hadn’t expected the river to have this much beauty for so long as it wound its way to sea.
We cut between an island and the mainland to take a more direct route. The wind had started to pick up, but the day was still perfect. We were getting closer to Russian Mission, but we were undecided whether to paddle to it that night or camp before it and get water the following day. After finding a sandbar a few kilometres upstream of the village we decided to camp.
Ed washing pots
The wind increased as we were erecting our tents and it was a little like being in the Sahara Desert with the sand blowing and wind howling around camp. Ed had a wash in the river but it was far too cold for me, I had a strip wash on the bank instead. Our evening meal was a bit of a mixture: we had two drinks, pasta, fish, dried fruit, egg powder, pop tart and a banana sweet. Doesn’t sound so good now, but it tasted great that night!
Wednesday 21st July. Day 36
Ed woke me up a little earlier than usual so that we could go into Russian Mission to get water, and be on our way without losing too much time. I had a disturbed night’s sleep, water was lapping against the beach close by, the tent was flapping and the blisters on my feet were somewhat tender and swollen. Maybe our evening meal had some effect as well!
Russian Mission was about 1km away so it didn’t take us long to get there. We arrived about 8.30am to a deserted community. I put my sandshoes on to help give my feet some more comfort instead of the infected sandals that chafed me. We walked quietly through the village hoping not to start the numerous dogs barking. One creamy coloured mangy dog tried barking but its mouth opened and nothing came out. Like most of the villages along the way tidiness was not a strong point. We carried the mosquito repellent and blasted ourselves several times but the mosquitoes still ravaged us. They seemed to be immune to the spray.
We found a building that looked like a Washeteria but it was closed. Ed waited whilst I walked, with some discomfort, further up the hill. I stopped a pick-up truck that had three canoes loaded sideways on it to enquire about water. One guy, who turned out to be the school’s principal on his way to take kids canoeing, said we could get some water from the school. I returned for Ed and walked to the school kitchen, and by that time the principal had arrived too. The three of us chatted whilst the water bottles were being filled. I enquired about flights out of Emmonock, the last village on the river, and the principal said there were several flights out so we didn’t really need to book our flight to Anchorage too far in advance. That was good news, as we didn’t exactly know when we would finish the river. He also said that we might even be able sell our canoe to the school in Emmonock.
We walked back to the canoe still being savagely attacked by mosquitoes. They were just unbelievable and there was no let up despite all the spray we had on. Hard as it might be to believe, it was actually nice to get back to the canoe and paddle off and be free of insects. As we got further out in the river I turned to have a last look at the town and was surprised at the many newer houses higher up the hill. It was yet another village that was bigger than it initially appeared.
It was a hot, cloudless and windless day. I stopped to sponge the drips out of the boat to protect my feet from getting wet whilst Ed kept paddling. I then needed a pee, so I stood up and tried peeing in my cut off coke bottle. Despite the extra drag it caused when I stopped paddling Ed seemed to be in a real hurry and paddled harder. There I was, standing up in the canoe, penis in hand and stuffed into a makeshift pee bottle, trying hard to get the water to flow. Not only did I have to keep balanced, as the canoe rocked from side to side, but we zigzagged down the river too. Ed paddled on one side for a few strokes and then paddled on the other trying to keep the boat straight. Instead of stopping and letting me finish the task, he powered on and with every change of paddle strokes the canoe continued to wobble. I felt a little vulnerable, to say the least, but I finally emptied my bladder, sat down and paddled away. Ed seemed oblivious to what had gone on, but if anyone had witnessed it, it would have been a very funny sight.
We paddled past hills on our northern bank and stopped on a sand bar near Elsie Island. By now we were familiar with chicken paste and cheese on our bread. We also ate extremely spicy noodles, bought at a village, which were so hot they set our mouths on fire.
Some time later we saw a stream running out of the hills and took the opportunity to fill our water containers. The weather was hot and the little wind that blew was blowing on our backs. The hot weather encouraged me to doze whilst paddling, a technique I’ve perfected and which I am well used to doing on my long endurance trips! We took a shortcut after Roundabout Mountain, which saved us several kilometres, and drifted past Round Point where we proceeded to have our quiet time. It was just so blissful lying back.
Thirty minutes or so later, as we were still relaxing and lying back, a power boat motored down the channel slowed and came over to us. Our first reaction was to say that we were okay and were just drifting with the current. They had heard about us up river, and they couldn’t resist a chat. The man and boy were from Nanana, a village upstream, and the women and girl were visiting from Wyoming in the U.S. They were on their way to the sea and then to the town of Nome.
After our talk we said our goodbyes and took off leaving them to drift. They attempted to start their engines but failed, they tried again and failed. We felt a little guilty as they had turned off their engines to talk to us. Within minutes, black clouds had built up on the horizon and headed our way. We could see that this storm was going to be a big one. When the rain came, the drops hit the water so hard they splashed upwards at least two to three centimetres, creating miniature volcanoes which surrounded us as far as the eye could see. It was an awesome sight, the trouble was we were in it and getting very wet. The other rainstorms that we had experienced had passed over within minutes, but this one just kept going.
An approaching black cloud turned into a monster sphere, like a spaceship directly above us, plunging us into semi-darkness and then the rain turned to hail. Our bodies were suddenly subjected to a barrage of ice stones catapulted from the heavens at a rapid rate. As the hail pelted us it was both painful and intense, almost like being caned. The sky was dark and violent but yet the wind was calm.
As the eye of the storm passed over, the wind began to gust and strengthen. Our concerns were now heightened, as the wind gained in intensity and dictated our fate. Our canoe became more difficult to control as the wind whipped us across the large expanse of water in a crablike fashion and the waves slapped against the canoe. We had to keep our wits about us, as a capsize hundreds of metres from the shoreline would be perilous, and attempting to drag a heavy canoe to shore would be almost impossible.
The storm had cut visibility to almost nil, we had no idea where our power boat friends were, and we were in no position to find out. If their engines hadn’t started they would be drifting and getting wet but at least they would be in no danger of capsizing. The wind lashed us from the south-east and then it stopped for a brief time before swinging around to the south-south-west. The canoe was now even harder to control as the wind buffeted us broadside, we both resorted to paddling on one side but our steering still didn’t get any better.
The rain persisted but thankfully the hail stopped. Our canoe was filling up, water was running off the spray deck and pooling into my lap, which in turn seeped through the Velcro flap closing the deck around my waist. I had to stop the water from seeping in so I took the spare paddle and pushed it under the spray deck, which raised it up and took out the hollow. It worked a treat.
I was getting cold, the water had penetrated my cag and my cotton T shirt was soaked. I just don’t know how Ed was coping with only a thermal but he said he was okay. We weren’t dressed for a wet cold spell and were relieved when the storm passed over. The wind had shifted again and was now blowing us down the river, which in turn gave back our control. We looked behind again to see if we could see our boatie friends, but the storm was still lashing its fury in that direction so we could see nothing. We felt even guiltier when we thought that they might be stranded out there.
With the main thrust of the storm over we headed to a sandbar to bail out the water, change into warm clothes, and took the opportunity to have a pee. The rain had certainly freshened up the afternoon. We cruised on further, crossing the channel that led into the village of Marshall. We decided not to visit the village as it was well out of our way plus the fact that we would have to paddle down a long slough (a channel), with little current when leaving the town.
We found an island sandbar to camp on, across the channel and in sight of the village, and walked along the bar trying to find a dry spot to erect our tents. Marsh birds were flitting as the sky turned black and a new thunderstorm brewed on the horizon. We were readying for another pounding, but luckily the storm bypassed us leaving us to erect our tents in the dry.
The dying sun’s rays shone on Pitcher Mountain lighting it up like a giant beacon. The mountain, located behind the village, was like a huge stairway with a gradual incline leading to its summit. I was sorry that we were going to miss climbing it.
Sand flats near the village of Marshall
As we settled into our camp for the night we could see our friends in the boat limp down the channel into Marshall. We were both relieved and pleased to see them, although I imagine their hopes of reaching the ocean now were a lot more fragile than ours.
Thursday 22nd July. Day 37
The morning temperatures were now exceedingly cold compared with the day temperature, and it suddenly dawned on me why the Alaskans go to bed late, and get up late. It’s way too cold to get up early! Clouds were hanging around Pitcher Mountain, in fact the sky was full of them and the incredible surreal scene of the night before was long gone. Dogs had been barking during the night. They sounded close, but sound travels so I imagine that they were from the village over two kilometres away.
As we looked at the map we could see the day’s paddle was full of long sweeping corners, which meant we would paddle kilometres but we would travel little distance as the crow flies. I was feeling lethargic and had a slight headache. I wondered if it was due to another late night writing my diary. We hadn’t been paddling long before we decided to lie back, rest and drift awhile. I was all for it! Ed talked about his girlfriend, and how he was missing her. Then suddenly the canoe hit the bank, giving us a jolt and spinning the canoe around. We sat up with surprise and took up our paddling positions and paddled on. Damn! I’m sure Ed was getting to the juicy bits.
By lunch the cold and cloudy weather had me shivering. We stopped on another sweeping corner in light rain, the mist taking the beauty from the landscape. I immediately put on my rain coat for more warmth, I think it was the first time that I had used it since starting the trip. The rain continued to fall as we ate lunch making it a cold miserable affair. We shivered whilst eating our noodles and in an effort to try to keep warm we paced up and down the shore. It was such a pleasure to finish lunch and get back on the water and paddle again to get some warmth back into our bodies.
We continued rounding the long sweeping bend in cold cloudy weather, but by the time we finished rounding it, it was brilliant sunshine. A large shallowing sand bar at Dog Tooth Bend had us paddling a lot further than we would have liked and being a little fed up we decided to have another quiet moment and drift. It was great, there were no mozzies, no gnats and a warming sun and it felt like paradise again. It didn’t take much to make us happy.
Our quiet moment had to come to an end, so we paddled on hoping that the next left hand corner, which was a sharp ‘U’ bend before Pilot Station, wasn’t affected by sandbars. Thankfully when we approached the corner it was deep, so we cut it, no extra paddling this time. Some people in a fishing boat ahead had just thrown out a net. We paddled towards them and within minutes they were dragging the net back in. It seemed too short a time to catch any fish but as we got within earshot they shouted to us, “Would you like a fish?” What a question! We berthed beside them in no time!!
There were two men and a woman from the fishery department collecting stock data. The women told us that they put the net out for eight minutes, and in that time they hauled in fifteen good sized fish. She went on to say, “This is nothing. You should be here when the fish are really running”.
She handed over a good sized Chum Salmon. We thanked her and I popped it in a green garbage bag and put it between my legs. We were so excited about having a feast we paddled like Olympic paddlers towards the nearest beach to fillet it. As we jumped out of the canoe, the mud under our feet moved like a giant waterbed. If we stood still, it felt as though we would sink out of sight. We walked across the wobbling mud to the dry sand where a log was just waiting for Ed to use it as a filleting board. Ed was in his element, a keen fisherman and a lover of fine foods, and without question he was eager to accept his role as the expedition fish gutting and fillet specialist. With a big grin on his face he placed each fillet neatly in our cooking pot to cook later when we stopped for the night.
Fish for dinner – Pilot Station Village in the distance
After we left the shore, the river narrowed and the current quickened. The community of Pilot Station was a few hundred metres downstream across the other side of the river, perched between and spilling over onto the slopes of a hillside. It was yet another village that was a lot bigger than I had imagined. I thought it would only consist of a few houses but it was larger than most of the villages we had seen lately. It was too late to call in and as water was not required, we decided to hitch a lift with the current and cover some kilometres. The current was taking us for a great ride when I saw a man waving his heart out on shore. We thought it might be extremely important so we changed course and headed towards him. When we hit the shores he said he just wanted to say hello, and tell us that he had once paddled from a village upstream to Pilot Station, by himself. He was there visiting his family and whilst we talked several other locals came around. There were no invites to go ashore for the night so we moved on.
After 10kms of paddling, Ed asked me how far we had to go to reach our days target. “Another 10kms”, I replied. In a dejected voice he said, “Let’s go and camp over there, I’ve bloody had enough”. This was the first time that I had heard Ed being insistent about quitting well before reaching our goal. He must have been hurting or just pissed off at paddling. I didn’t challenge his request – I could see that he wasn’t a happy person, and it didn’t really matter that we hadn’t made our target. We moved over to the sand bar next to Hills Island and began making camp. We said nothing to each other until we had both erected our tents and the fish needed cooking, then we had to communicate.
Our camp was another pleasant spot, this time on a sandbar with the view of the Pilot Station Hill. We cooked our own large scrumptious portion of fish that was fit for a king and after we had finished just sat there in the evening sun licking our fingers and chatting about things that had happened during the day. The ice had been broken and Ed, now a bit chirpier, stood up and walked into the water for his evening dip. There was no screaming, laughing or jumping up and down, Ed was quiet. It was the first time he hadn’t made a song and dance whilst bathing; deep down he must have been really fed up and homesick for his family and friends. I trod carefully not wanting to make his mood any worse and joined him in the river taking advantage of the dying heat of the sun.
As the river gets lower bigger sand bars appear
Friday 23rd July. Day 38
Mountain Village, our second last village on the river, was 53kms away. We thought it might be too far to go without lunch so at breakfast we saved some cooked fish and put some noodle packets aside. We rounded Hills Island and began paddling down a stretch of the river that would take us to the village of Pitkas Point. As always we both had our own ideas as to which side of the river was going to give us the most assistance. Ed liked to zig-zag across the river in the hope of finding the fastest current with the aid of the GPS, but I liked to choose a side that looked the most obvious and keep on a more direct line, gradually changing over to the other side if needed.
Despite having little left of the river, Ed was still eager for us to zig-zag and use his GPS and the current to go faster: he was pretty buggered, his hands were giving him trouble and he had a sore shoulder and back. We paddled on and I didn’t say a word. As we rounded a sweeping bend we could see the buildings of St Mary’s along the Andreafsky River on a hill side. It looked an inviting community but it was too far a detour up the channel for us to visit.
A sandbar divided the river on the corner before the Pitkas Point village so we stopped on it for a pee. As I didn’t want to get my blistering feet wet I didn’t get out of the canoe, instead I stood up and peed in a bottle, a much easier task when the canoe wasn’t moving!
As we took off, the river narrowed and quickened. We were all enthused, there was movement in the water and the canoe was picking up the pace. We flew by the picturesque Pitkas Point village which was on the edge of a massive area of barren hills. The landscape on the right side of the river was so different, and as far as the eye could see there were rocky hills with little vegetation growing on them. The highest point that we could see was 868 feet, but most of the hills, which ran north for hundreds of kilometres, were between 200 to 400 feet high. They were similar to the barren hills in Scotland.
Pitkas Point Village
We soon floated beyond Pitkas Point and its airfield and made our way towards Mountain Village, which lay at the south westerly edge of the barren hills and at the end of the long straight that we were on. On our left side the land form was low, swampy and full of small lakes and channels, a stark contrast to the rocky hills on our right side. Although Ed was tired, I could see by his paddling rate that he really wanted to get to Mountain Village before having lunch. With only two more days of paddling the adrenalin and excitement helped us fly along. Within 5kms of Mountain Village we could see an immense thunderstorm racing towards us from behind. The clouds were heavy with rain, and I expected that we were going to get exceedingly wet and buffeted by the wind before reaching the village. Despite the danger rushing up behind us, Ed needed to land on a sand bar to have a pee so I took the opportunity to change into my warmer clothes to get ready for the onslaught. The storm looked black and violent as it started to bear down on us. I kept looking behind to see it gaining. A powerboat heading towards us was going straight into it, I didn’t envy them! Just as we were bracing for the storm, it blew across the river and into the hills a kilometre behind, sparing us a drenching.
When we pulled up at Mountain Village the mud was thick and uninviting, so we found a cluster of rocks to land on, but the rocks were too hard on my feet, so we were forced to move back to the mud. At this stage my feet were very tender and walking on them was really uncomfortable.
A local came over to have a chat. I asked him the whereabouts of a phone. Apparently there was no public phone or Washeteria in town, but he did say there were two stores. I asked about water, and he said there was a local spring at the end of the mountain range, which had a pipe coming out of the hill, and it was the best water around.
We were really hoping for a Washeteria and a tap so we could fill our water containers without having to filter it. We were also hoping to use a public phone to call the airline, but it was not to be. So far things weren’t looking too good. I had thought about asking about a medical centre to have my feet checked out, but then again it was probably best to utilise our time by getting to the end of the river.
A few young kids came around to check us out; they all looked a little podgy – too much food by the looks of it. When they left us we walked through the mud and onto the gravel road towards the store. I was wearing my sandals and with every step I cringed with pain. The shop had a good selection of foods, I think the best so far (could be the reason for the overweight kids). We topped up with milk and sugar and bought some extra treats, muesli bars and tinned potatoes as well as bread, cheese and ham paste. I walked the aisles feeling immensely uncomfortable. What a sook. I could almost hear an old timer saying, “Now, when I were a lad I had no shoes and I had to walk on sharp gravel; that’s what you call painful”.
The mud was oozing under our feet as we ate lunch back at the boat. Lunch over, we quickly got on our way, firstly to find the water and secondly, to find the end of the river. We hadn’t paddled far when we noticed an area with water trickling down the bank. Was this the spring? Then we noticed a pipe literally jutting out of the hill side with a good flow of water coming out of it. With containers in hand; we walked over to the pipe and filled everything we had with the icy cold water. For the next 50 metres the bank was riddled with springs and the locals were right, – it was beautiful water.
Within metres, the barren hills disappeared and there was nothing ahead of us but swamps, channels, flood plain and low-lying land. This type of country stretched for kilometres and kilometres until it finally reached the open sea. The map showed an amazing array of channels and waterways; the area is known as the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge.
By the day’s end we had paddled a further 23kms and landed on a sandbar slightly before and across from Tunupokap Channel. It was another good camp spot with views of the distant hills and due to a lagoon next to us, water was on both sides. We ate our dinner in the shelter of our large spray deck that Ed had tied up in the centre of the canoe to stop the cold wind from blowing on us. Just as we finished off the last of the fish, a boat stopped to find out whether we were okay. We had a quick chat and the guy said he’d never met any Aussies on the river before.
What – noodles again!
Saturday 24th July. Day 39
“It’s cold and misty,” Ed shouted. Somehow those words didn’t inspire me to want to jump out of bed, but I knew I had to. And just like Ed said, it was cold and the river did have mist rising from it but it was also a beautiful sight to see. I thought about getting a photo but the need to dig a hole was more important, it seemed my bowels couldn’t wait and by the time I had finished and located my camera, most of the mist had moved away. Our tents were soaking when we dismantled them, as well as being full of flying insects, and for days now we were finding them squashed between the inner and the tent fly.
The start of another beautiful morning
As the sun rose higher in the sky, the mist turned to fog and it was hard to see more than 100 metres ahead. We really didn’t need fog on today’s paddle as we‘d already heard plenty of doom and gloom stories about this section of river. For example it was so wide in places you couldn’t see land, if it became rough it was worse than paddling out at sea in a storm and there were so many different channels that we could become lost. It appeared that we were so close, yet so far away from being safely at the river’s end. Looking at the map though, it didn’t appear to be half as bad as what people were making out. If it was too rough however, we had the option of paddling down the Tunupokap Slough, which was on the opposite side of the river to us. The slough cut inland and then followed the river path and although it meandered, it would give us 30kms of calm conditions. With the current slower in the slough, we would only use it in an emergency. Luckily, apart from the fog, the weather was kind to us today and we didn’t need to use it.
As usual we pulled our boat off the sandbar, jumped in, paddled out into the current and drifted whilst we applied sunscreen and put our gloves on. Over the last few days, due to my sore feet, I washed, dried and applied cream on them, I also sponged water out of the canoe so my feet wouldn’t get wet. It was a bit of performance but I needed to try to keep my feet dry and allow them to heal.
We were now off to see the sea and what a fantastic feeling it was. The current was actually moving much better than we had anticipated reaching speeds of 3 to 4.5kms an hour depending on the channel, which helped us reach speeds of 10.5kms an hour. In several places though, sand bars had formed across the river slowing the current, and at times the channels virtually blocked our passage. The fog lifted and our progress was good and the river was not at all dangerous. It was a deserted place apart from two boats tied up on the right bank.
By lunch time we had reached a place they call the ‘Head of the Passes’. From here our journey was only one day’s paddle away. Unbelievable, – we were nearly there! With the excellent progress that we had been making we were several days ahead of schedule and apart from a disaster, nothing was going to stop us now. Knowing this also brought mixed emotions: on one hand we’d been waiting for this moment for so long and on the other hand we now had to accept that we were leaving our life on the river, our special bond with the river would end and our journey down it would fade and become just a memory.
We stopped on a mud bar at the end of an island. The mud wobbled and sank in a little like quick sand, if we stood too long in one place a depression would form and water would rise to the surface. My feet were not happy with the muddy environment and I didn’t really want to walk on it but I had no option. I could feel my feet crying out for relief as the mud squeezed between my toes and smothered my feet.
Lunch at the Head of the Passes
I walked across the mud to find a higher place in the vegetation and stretched my tent fly out to dry on some samphire (marsh vegetation) 20 metres away. Bear prints were embedded in the mud, sinking deeply in the softer areas. We cooked noodles, made a hot drink, and also took photos of our last lunch spot on the river. It was an historic occasion.
A boat headed down the channel and stopped before us. A couple with three children were on board. They were going berry picking, making a 120km trip just to pick them. A costly journey, but they must have been worth it. We mentioned the two boats that we’d seen tied up earlier and we were told the occupants would have been berry picking too.
By the time we were ready to leave, the canoe was stuck fast in the mud and the only way to get it into the water was to wobble it sideways, which turned to be a real struggle that almost exhausted us. Once afloat my feet tingled worse than ever. It seemed that the mud at lunch time had really stirred them up and when my feet touched water they tingled even more.
As we drifted away from the island another boat stopped, this time with only one guy on board, he was also going berry picking. He had picked up a long pine driftwood log and intended to use it on a new cabin that he was building. He hoped to find others at a later time so he could complete his project. “You might see it as you walk around town; it’s a tiny shack half built”, he said. The delta area for 200kms was low, marshy, waterlogged and bare of trees so timber was in short supply in the delta communities and when any decent piece of driftwood was found floating, it was quickly picked up.
The river was rather wide and interrupted by sandbars, so the water slowed where it became shallow. Within 15kms of Emmonak we looked for a beautiful campsite for our last night on the river but unfortunately none was found, so we had to make do with what was available. We landed on an island across from a tiny community marked on our map as Lamont (probably abandoned as we saw nothing). A shallow piece of water on the other side of the island, called ‘Sunshine Bay’, looked more like a boggy mud flat than a bay full of sun. Before arriving we had our own thoughts of what Sunshine Bay was going to be like. Images of beautiful sandy beaches with clear blue waters came to mind, so the muddy shallow water deflated our spirits. On the positive side there were flocks of marsh birds flying around and feeding. This was one of the rare times that we had seen them in such numbers.
We picked a place with no vegetation and with muddy shores still wet and soggy. We walked well away from the water’s edge in search of a dry spot but there were none that lasted: as soon as we placed our weight on a dry spot our weight caused water to rise and the mud to wobble. We literally sank if we stayed in one place too long. We had visions of our tents sinking out of sight by morning. Another pleasant way to die!
Although our campsite was a little disappointing for our last night on the river, at least there were no mozzies. Earlier that day after leaving our lunch spot mud bath, I had decided that when I reached camp that night I would wash my feet, put my socks and booties on and then retreat to my tent in the hope of helping them to heal. In doing this though, it meant that Ed had to be my servant for the night.
As soon as we had unloaded, I erected my tent and threw all my gear inside, boiled some of our good water, sat in my tent, washed my feet and put socks on to ease the pain of my blisters. I then sat back like a king in my backpacker’s chair writing in my diary and watched Ed prepare our evening meal. He went along with it and thought it a great joke, – here he was looking after the great adventurer Terry Bolland. Ed took immense pleasure in setting up his camera to get a self-timed shot of him handing over the finest dish of noodles he had ever cooked for someone!
Earlier on in the trip Ed had developed a similar rash on his feet as I had, but his rash disappeared before it developed into anything nasty. At the time he thought they were mosquito bites. Although Ed didn’t have painful blistered feet, he was suffering from arthritis in his hands and each morning it took him a while to ease his curled fingers open. He also had a sore right shoulder, cracked feet and a few blisters, but other than that he was fine.
Ed had always wanted to finish the trip at Emmonak, as apposed to the rivers end which was 18kms further and once we got there we would have to paddle back against the current another 18kms because there was nothing there but the river mouth. Today though, he gave the first indication that he would go on to the end. He talked about hiding our gear in the bush, as it would be safer than leaving it in town. It looked as if he had finally accepted that we both were going to finish the trip at the river’s end, rather than where we would fly out!
That night I was determined to get a good uninterrupted night’s sleep with no trips out onto the soggy sand so I readied my pee bottle outside the tent, took anti-inflammatory tablets to reduce my now swollen feet, settled into my cosy tent early and watched the evening go by and Ed having his last cold dip in the river. I was a little sad that I couldn’t join him for this ritual, but it just wasn’t worth the discomfort.
Sunday 25th July. Day 40
My feet felt much better when I woke after a good night’s sleep, – the swelling had eased a little and they were feeling pretty good. I packed up most of my gear in the tent before getting out. It was customary for me to race out of the tent, pick up the shovel and toilet paper and go for a swift walk to find an ideal squatting place. That morning I had to practise self control.
My dry booties were waiting in the tent vestibule so I slipped my feet into them complete with socks. My feet felt so snug and dry, – why hadn’t I done this before, I thought? It was easy to keep my feet dry around camp but it was virtually impossible to drag the canoe to the water’s edge, push it out into the river and get in without water filling my booties.
Once outside the tent I realised that it hadn’t sunk in the mud; in fact the spots that we had walked on, where the water had come to the surface, had dried out during the night. When it was time to leave our last camp spot, we loaded, then pushed and pulled the boat into the water keeping my end of the canoe in the shallows. With two big steps and a giant leap I was in the boat with dry feet.
With mixed feelings we left the shore for the last time. On one hand we were elated at being almost at the end of our journey, on the other hand we had a sense of sadness, our journey, our way of life for forty-one days was nearly at an end. And although Ed hadn’t caught those dozens of fish, and we hadn’t seen as much wild life as we had dreamed of, but what the heck, we still had an amazing experience, one that both of us will remember in different ways.
The wind was blowing from the south and hitting us broadside which made paddling difficult, but we didn’t care, we were nearly at Emmonak, which was situated a few hundred metres down a channel that forked off from the main river. From afar we guessed where the channel entrance should be, but on closer inspection we saw nothing. The river banks blended into one, making it difficult to distinguish a narrow waterway, but it just had to be there. Although confident that we were headed in the right direction I began to doubt my own navigation. Then with delight we saw a channel opening up before us, almost like the parting of the sea.
As we approached the entrance we could see cranes and boats ahead and we both gave out an enormous yell, YES we’re here! Our delight was soon overshadowed by the tremendously strong wind forcing itself down the channel towards us. It was like one big wind tunnel which played havoc with our progress. We were so close to home but the elements didn’t make it easy to reach. Ed was desperate to have a pee so we struggled towards shore where he jumped out onto a log, avoiding the soft mud that definitely wouldn’t support his weight. As Ed balanced on the slippery log, I decided to empty my bladder as well and stood up in the canoe and peed in my pee bottle, but just at that point the canoe broke loose. I was blown into the channel with the wind and waves rocking the boat so much that I thought I might fall into the water with my penis in one hand and pee bottle in the other! We were now both in delicate situations; Ed stranded on the log and me standing up trying to put my penis away whilst the canoe floated down the channel. What a laughable position to be in. As soon as I was sorted, I carefully sat down and took control of the craft and with difficulty paddled my way back to Ed to retrieve him.
Arriving at Emmonak
With Ed safely on board, we paddled on against the fierce wind and eventually moved past a crane and pulled in behind a groyne close to some parked power boats. We landed on the rocky shore and asked a boat skipper, who introduced himself as Mr Hover, if he could suggest where we could leave our gear whilst we paddled to the sea. He suggested leaving it next to a barn-shaped house close by. We found out later that it was a Bed and Breakfast place, Emmonak style.
At the same time a man raced over on his four-wheeled bike. He was in charge of the town water treatment plant and his name was Frederick. He was keen to find out all about us and more than happy to help out. “If you like, you can leave your gear at my place, my wife’s away and it’s near the water”, he said.
Well we thought that was a great idea. A guy in charge of the water treatment plant must surely live in the best house in town. We followed him on his four-wheeled bike as he rode along a track close to the foreshore. He ushered us along, eventually stopping in a slough a few hundred metres from the main river, next to a bunch of boats and a mud beach littered with rubbish. It wasn’t a pretty sight!
We beached the canoe and followed Frederick down a track and away from the river. The further away from the river we got the more disappointed we were, – our thoughts of a house with river views now shattered. After 100 metres we crossed a road and walked into some bushes. Timber pallets used as walkways were scattered along the muddy ground surrounding his house. The grass each side of the pallets was well above knee height and full of mosquitoes. Bits and pieces of scrap metal were littered amongst the bushes that hid the small house from the road. Our hearts sank, – this was not what we expected, in fact it was the worst camp site we’d experienced on our trip.
At this point in time we thought, well beggars can’t be choosers, and at least we had somewhere to leave our gear. It would be safe hidden behind the trees and tall grass and no one would attempt to steal our gear for fear of being eaten alive by the mosquitoes. We made three trips from the boat to the house leaving only the essentials in our canoe for the last part of our journey to the sea.
We had no time to lose, the river mouth was beckoning. We pushed off from the muddy landing and struggled against a current and strong wind to get back into the main channel heading out to the sea. I knew Ed wasn’t keen to do this last bit of river but when we turned and paddled with the current attaining 9kms an hour, he was a lot happier. The trouble was we had to go against it on the way back. We powered on trying to get to the ocean as quickly as possible but no matter how fast we paddled, how much strong wind and current we had helping us, those last few kilometres seemed to take forever.
When we came to our last major corner I was hoping that we could see the ocean at the bottom of the channel, which I hoped would give Ed a lift in spirits, but instead when we turned we saw a more exposed, wider, shallower section of river with a right turn at the end of it. I began to feel really anxious as I knew that Ed was not a happy paddler and the ocean still eluded us! I didn’t want an argument on this last section.
I paddled on as hard as I could trying to put in 150% so the boat would keep gliding along, but it was still hard to achieve 10kms an hour. We passed a narrow slough that we could have taken to get to the ocean at a different point but we kept with the wide river’s path. The wind was still howling, which was not a good sign for our return. Ahead, a shack stood on Kawokhawik Island on the left side of the river looking a little run down and lonely, and beyond it, just around the next slight corner the sea must surely be there but it was still out of sight. With 17kms behind us and a kilometre to go I felt a sense of relief as a strong wind and current pushed us closer towards the Bering Sea.
At the last corner we sighted the sea and a little joy came to our hearts, but the great expanse of ocean that we expected to see was blocked from our view by an island in the middle of the channel. It was both disappointing and frustrating, – we wanted to see nothing but the open ocean. At first there appeared to be a light-house on the island, but on closer inspection it turned out to be a small marker of some sorts. With 300 metres to go before reaching the open water, Ed suggested that we had achieved our goal, and we should turn, as it was going to be difficult to paddle back against the current if we kept going. I knew Ed was right, it was going to be extremely difficult to paddle back once we got to the open sea. The current and wind was getting stronger and stronger but I just knew in my heart no matter how difficult it would be, we just had to go that little bit further. If we didn’t, we would always look back wishing we had.
Ed made no attempt to disagree with me, he just kept paddling, which wasn’t that difficult at that point because the current was pushing us at an enormous rate. We could now clearly see the ocean but the colour as far as the eye could see, was as dirty as the river and far from impressive. We were disappointed, – it was just a flat mass of murky water stretching way out beyond the horizon. But that didn’t really matter, we hadn’t come here to see a brilliant blue tropical ocean; the Bering Sea was our goal and we had reached it and somewhere across the murky water was Russia. As we let the boat drift beyond the island we were both ecstatic and elated. We had done it! I’m sure Ed was thinking. Thank God. We can go home now. As we rejoiced and were carried further out to sea by the current our excitement soon fizzled; we now had to paddle back to Emmonak, and it felt a long, long way.
The Bering Sea – Russia only 420kms away. Our last break
I was just relieved to be at the turning point. The pressure of knowing that Ed wasn’t as keen as myself to get to the end had been pretty stressful, as I had visions of him refusing to go on, but he hadn’t and now he was so happy with himself and I could now relax.
Because I knew it was going to take us a long time to get back I nearly suggested that we didn’t stop for lunch but I came to my senses. An hours rest would make little difference to our return time but it could do a lot for our spirits. With no darkness it didn’t matter what time we got back; we could paddle all night if we had to. Then again would Frederick send out a search party!
Our thoughts were to have coffee and noodles on the furthest shores, but it was too low and marshy to land, so we paddled back against the current to where the shores were higher. We pulled in at a small indent in the shoreline next to a log, where a tiny eddy prevented us from being washed downstream. At that point the shore was low but it was backed with a two metre high bank. I immediately climbed it to find a perfectly flat landscape devoid of any tree or bush life. It really felt as if we were at the end of the world.
Ed soon found a flat spot at the river’s edge to start the stove and get the noodles on the boil. Although jubilant, a little despondency crept into my heart knowing that this was going to be our last lunch on the river. For 41 days the river had been our life and tomorrow it would be all over and our wonderful adventure at an end. To capture this remarkable moment we took photos of our last lunch with the Bering Sea in the background.
We chatted, bringing up a few memories of the last few days. It was so nice to be able to share them with Ed, who at only 20 years old had seen so much, experienced so much and learnt so much about himself on the journey. He had experienced some hard times, some emotional times, some lonely times but to his credit he never gave up. Within the hour we had enjoyed hot noodles and coffee and were ready to take on the hardest part of our journey. I climbed the bank for my last look of this flat, desolate and harsh country finding beauty in its barren appearance. It was like standing in an Australian desert looking at absolutely nothing but ground cover.
The tide was turning and on its way out, which meant we would now have the tide, the current and the wind against us on the way home. The joys of paddling! Over lunch I tried to work out in my mind how long it would take us to get back. If the current flowed against us at 3-4kms an hour and we paddled 6kms an hour, in theory we should still be able to make 3kms an hour. So with 18kms to paddle we should get back to town within 6 hours. It might not sound long but pushing against the wind, tide and current for 6 hours we knew it would be hell. I was hoping that Ed was eager to get home.
We took off and immediately came to a standstill as the wind gusted strongly. There was minimal forward motion! I steered the canoe close to the bank to use small eddies and for a few moments we actually made some progress. I rejoiced but then the wind gusted again stopping us in our tracks. It seemed that we had nothing better to do but to paddle and get nowhere. I felt like a mouse running around a circular wheel.
After 15 minutes of paddling we had gained about 300 metres, but we were nearly back inside the narrower river mouth. The boat lunged forward in spits and spats and as we passed the abandoned shack we could actually see the banks move. Life was looking up. As we crawled along the first straight our progress was soon shattered as we met an extremely shallow area which at times was so shallow we bottomed out and came to a grinding halt. “Shit, we will never get home”, I thought. We pushed on against the strong Arctic wind being reminded that if it was like this in summer, what would it be like in winter?
Just before the first right hand bend we turned and paddled down a slough to cut the corner and get out of the wind. It wasn’t easy going though; the current was stronger than I had anticipated. Once out of the slough it became the turning point of our homeward journey as we actually started to make progress as we hugged the left hand shores. Hugging the shores did have its drawbacks, – our paddles often dug into the shallow water hitting the muddy bottom.
After passing the half way mark we could now see that we were actually going to make it back. We hadn’t seen any one since leaving Emmonak earlier that day, and then out of the blue a power boat sped towards us. Ed’s fist flew into the air, – he stopped paddling, but for what reason? I was little confused. Yes they are coming to get us. We have a lift home, he said. After paddling over 3300 kilometres, why would you want a lift home? But for Ed his goal of getting to the sea was complete so why not accept a lift. Ed’s excitement grew but the power boat, with open throttle gave no indication of slowing and sped right past. I was happy to see it fly by but Ed’s heart sank, – he was sure that Frederick had sent out a search party to pick us up.
With the power boat being out of sight within minutes Ed now knew that the only thing he could do to get home was to paddle. We paddled close to the right bank, dodging tree branches and trying desperately to use the eddies and the slowest part of the river to keep up our speed. When we saw buildings at the end of our last straight our journey was all but over. Remarkably I didn’t have an aching muscle in my body, and at 53 years of age that can’t be bad. My feet weren’t so lucky, although having kept them dry for a whole day the swelling had decreased. In reality I wasn’t so concerned about them any more; I knew once on dry land for a few days they would soon recover.
This was one of the rare occasions that I finished a big trip with someone else being there, who had actually experienced the same highs and lows, the joy and the pain of undertaking a long expedition. This trip, although small in comparison to my one year Australian trip of 24,000kms and my seven month American trip of 14,600kms, was an incredible adventure that few people would ever attempt. And for Ed, only 20 years old, it was an enormous feat. At this point I don’t think it had sunk in, he was hurting too much and a little homesick for his friends and family in Australia. One day when the hurt has gone he will realise what he had undertaken and what he had achieved and how proud of himself he should be. I know that I for one, am certainly very proud of him.
We crossed the river one more time and ferry-glided into the slough to where we had taken off and where several dinghies were anchored or sitting amongst the mud and rubbish. We stopped in the middle of the slough and took photos again for the very last time on the river. Our photos captured our feelings as we both threw our clenched fists in the air. Ed’s clenched fist pose was full of determination, his smile was full of satisfaction and his shout, WE HAVE DONE IT was full of conviction! And we were well ahead of schedule.
We’ve done it
We pulled into shore as four kids were about to swim across the slough to the island. They were full of energy and mischief. We asked one of them to take a photo of Ed and I shaking hands and looking proud of ourselves. He fumbled with the camera, took a shot and then with all his mates jumped into the water and swam to the other side.
Yes – we did it
We dragged the canoe up the bank, looked back at the river and realised that it was really all over. No more paddling, no more exploring, no more being alone in the vast wilderness. We walked away from the river carrying our canoe to our camp, both of us silent and reflective.
Mission completed – final handshake
On those last few metres we walked the planks and boards into Frederick’s back garden, stirring the mosquitoes from the long grass. Again we couldn’t believe that we were camped in such an awful place after all those beautiful river beaches that we had been on.
Frederick was there with his small barbeque ready to be fired up. He had tons of meat that he was going to prepare, certainly too much for us to eat, but he did say he was going to save some for the following day. We both took a shower before tea and relaxed for a few minutes.
Though we were very grateful and appreciative of Frederick’s hospitality, we were a little concerned with the state of his dishes that we were about to eat off. All his dishes were stacked high in the sink with mould taking a hold on some of them. By the look of it he hadn’t washed up since his wife had gone off to visit her mother in another village. He rinsed a couple of plates under the tap and loaded a massive amount of meat and vegetables onto them. We tried to find knives and forks from under the pile of dirty dishes. Just the thought of eating with them, even after we had cleaned them had our stomachs churning a little. We sat in his small kitchen and started eating with the mess in front of us wondering how we were going to enjoy such a big feed.
The meal over, we sat down with bloated stomachs from the huge amount eaten and from the effects of reintroducing meat into our diets. When we had finished, the dishes were stacked up on the rest of the pile. It was just too big a task to offer to wash them all! We sat down with Frederick and talked and watched TV. I was surprised about his strong anti-Iraq opinions. Being an Alaskan native I didn’t expect him to be so patriotic, but even way out here the TV has a great influence on people’s lives and thinking. Frederick’s house was small and despite having four children it only had one bedroom. There was certainly no privacy. It was so refreshing to retire to my tent to sleep.
Monday 26th July. Day 41
The following day we tried finding the school teacher to see if the school would like our canoe and other gear that we couldn’t take home, but he was on holiday. In the end we gave it to Frederick, who didn’t canoe but I’m sure he could sell it for a few dollars. We walked around the muddy gravel streets of the small town of Emmonak for a while, finding little to attract us to stay another day. In the afternoon we took a taxi to the local airport and waited in the small airport for our flight to Anchorage.
As we took off I peered out of the small plane’s window desperately wanting to capture my last glimpses of the Yukon River before we disappeared into the clouds. Directly below our path were dozens of lakes that were dotted beyond the Yukon’s river banks. I was absolutely riveted, the stunning view from the sky gave me an insight of the land, inland of the river, which we hadn’t been able to see from the canoe. I was just experiencing a special moment that will stay with me for the rest of my life, when suddenly as we ascended higher, the scene was completely wiped out by the clouds. The view was lost and a part of me went with it. Our journey down the Yukon was over. It was truly a sad moment.
A small part of the Yukon Delta
The plane flew above the clouds much of our flight but when it eventually came across a cloudless sky we could see mountains, rivers and absolute wilderness. I was soon in higher spirits and I couldn’t help but think about my next big adventure. I accepted that good things have to come to an end but there are always others ready to take their place. I couldn’t wait.
We stayed in a motel in Anchorage for 2 nights before Ed decided to fly home early via Hong Kong. He wanted to spend a few more days there. I however took a bus to Seaward and went sea kayaking amongst the glaciers and magnificent bays for 4 days before flying back to Vancouver and then home. It was a perfect end to yet another incredible journey.