River Trip Journal 6

7/10

I’m dealing with hideous, debilitating rashes. I’ve always had eczema outbreaks from time to time, and I have a good ointment that clears it up quickly, but I left it in the door of Geoff’s truck, thinking there’s no way I would need it. I rarely have to use it in Alaska because the air is so dry, but I guess bathing in a silty river and wearing the same clothes every day is taking its toll.

Rainy morning. We are having a hard time keeping the dog’s fish dry. We should reach the Yukon River Bridge tomorrow. We’re talking about trying to make a run to town from the Bridge to pick up groceries and my itchy cream. It’s several hours’ drive, and one of us would have to hitch in, take care of everything, and hitch back the next day while the other waited with the dog. What a pain. We’ll see.

7/13

We are currently being buzzed by a couple of daredevil seagulls. They swoop low to the water, then up at the last second to just clear the boat. We left the bridge today and are now in the flats.

Earlier I saw hundreds of dragonflies in the air over a patch of willows so thick, straight, and uniform that they might have been bamboo.

The air is full of smoke from fires upriver. Hopefully the plane came to Stevens Village with my itchy cream (sent by a wonderful friend in Fairbanks) in spite of the poor visibility.

The Bridge was pretty lame. No liquor store, not even a convenience store, just an overpriced roadhouse with barracks out back. We stayed two nights in the barracks. The construction crew that was working there was really nice, and it was good to get showers, but I’m very, very glad to be back on the river.

We didn’t end up going to town for supplies. I packed for ten days, and it looks like we’ll be going a little longer, but we have canned fish from the rapids and Geoff scored some supplies (though nothing worth mentioning really) from a dude called Yukon Jeremy at the bridge. The food box still has rice and pasta, a little jar of pesto, curry paste, coconut milk from Tanana (!?), spices galore, dehydrated veggies, peanut butter and jelly, and a few potatoes. We’re doing fine.

The day we got to the Bridge, we started late, as usual. We picked the fish off of Daazhraii’s king backs, burned the bones, and then took off at four in the afternoon or something.

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Geoff napped while I drove for the first few hours. I saw a magnificent young eagle, brown splashed with white, which kept pace with us for a while. I rocked out at the top of my lungs in the canyon as evening came on. Between the nap and the engine and the hearing protection, Geoff couldn’t hear me. I sang to the moose and the eagle. Badly, probably. I couldn’t hear either.

I watched mist drift in from a distant bend and skirted a jewel of an island, mounted in the middle of the rippling silver Yukon.

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The water is predictable in the canyon. If we hug shore and stay in the shallows, we can find still water and boost our speed and fuel efficiency. We make five miles per hour in the current and seven miles per hour in good upriver conditions (shallow water, lucky back-eddies). We’re still burning a gallon an hour, so we are carrying a lot of gas. I bought thirty-six gallons today for $199.10 at the Bridge. We’re not sure whether we’ll be able to fill up in Beaver, but if not, we may not make it to Fort Yukon. We’ll try to be careful with our fuel as we navigate the maze of the flats.

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On to Stevens Village in hopes of itchy cream. Hurrah!

River Trip Journal 5

7/9

It’s beautiful here in the mountainous section of the Yukon. We’re in sort of a canyon, and the walls tell an impressive geological story.

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We stopped last night to see a friend of Geoff’s from years back when Geoff worked a summer kids’ camp with him at his fish camp. We were going to stay, but it didn’t feel quite right. We pushed on up the rapids at an impressive five miles per hour. The rapids weren’t all that rapid or rocky. I had been nervous, expecting something more formidable, but it was no sweat. There were lots of fish wheels, but I still have not actually seen one catch a fish.

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Just at the end of the rapids, we were greeted by a really lovely family. Geoff was acquainted with the older man from his time working that camp in the rapids. There were two smart, funny, personable middle-school-age boys and their parents, whom I liked a lot. He was happy-natured and friendly, and she was a badass musher and homeschool mom. She had three seven month old pups and let Daazhraii play with the pack. They were lanky sled-dogs, and they made him look short, stocky and clumsy.

We ate dinner with this wonderful family last night, and they fed us breakfast this morning and sent us on our way with king backs for the dog and canned king for ourselves. This is the first year in a while that kings have been open for subsistence. Folks are pleased, but it sounds like they’re not getting the numbers they were hoping for.

I like the way drying fish looks, hanging on racks in long evening light, all pink and translucent. I like the smell of smoke and smoking fish. It’s a lovely thing. People talk about greasy hands and hair and joke about the endless work, but that’s nothing I couldn’t handle. I can see spending a summer or summers on fish someday, if I’m lucky enough to have the chance. The snack breaks are pretty great, and the view beats any corner office I’ve ever heard of.

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River Trip Journal 4

7/8/17

The sign hanging above the post office in Tanana says “Tanana, Alas.” The “ka” must have fallen off. It’s a misrepresentation, though. Tanana is pretty, lively, and welcoming. The washateria has great showers, and the water is good. The library at the school opens a few times a week in the summer so that folks can read and use the internet.

We met a Norwegian family that had rafted downriver from the bridge and a French couple in a canoe. Geoff met some folks he knew from the old days, and everyone I talked to was curious about our trip. The girl who was working the counter at the store let us bring Daazhraii in while we shopped and chatted with me about where we were heading. Tanana is accustomed to floaters, so strangers are kind of commonplace and come with a ready-made explanation. It’s a different vibe from villages that I’ve visited before.

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Shade for people

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Shade for dogs. Daazhraii had dug this nice, cool hole to chill in. Smart boy.

The weather was screaming hot and clear when we were in Tanana, and Geoff and I were both getting sunburned in our shadeless sandbar camp. The sand got so hot around midday that you couldn’t walk across it barefoot. We stayed an extra day at the confluence to go through all of our gear and sorted out a good amount to mail back to Fairbanks to make a little more room in the boat. It was sweaty, miserable work, and we spent most of the afternoon after we finished it sitting half-in the river, arguing and burning, making ourselves miserable and knocking chunks off of the bank to hear the splash and see the splatter and vent a little frustration. We buried our feet in a stratum of icy mud beneath the surface and glared at the shivering hot air rippling above the white sand of our island. Ice cream sandwiches back in Tanana took the edge off the heat a little.

We got to town and mailed out our extra gear. The store-owner was chatting with me about our plans and Arctic Village. “Well, make sure you’re putting on sunblock, girl!” she warned.

“I don’t have any,” I exclaimed. “You always forget something on these trips…”

“Say no more,” she said, “I think I’ve got some upstairs.” She returned with sunscreen from her own cupboard and insisted that I take it. What a kindness.

At the library, I visited for a while with the librarian while my next Harry Potter audiobook downloaded. It’s always interesting to talk with folks who are connected with schools in different villages to compare and contrast.

We decided in Tanana that, to hell with fishing on the Kenai, we’ll just take the rest of the summer for this trip. We were supposed to be in Fort Yukon on the tenth and that just isn’t happening, so we’ll set ourselves up to take our time.

We left Tanana in the rain last night (I counted forty-six dogs in a dog yard on the shore. Whoah!) and cruised until we found a flat spot on the south shore of the river. It was a late night, so we slept in and had a great swim this morning. The water got deep enough quick enough that I could dive off the transom with the boat tied to the shore. Daazhraii came in with us and romped and played in the shallows and chased sticks. It was a rare true break from packing or driving or setting up or breaking down camp. We didn’t motor out until mid-afternoon. There’s nothing new about this, but we were able to relax without worrying about making our deadline in Fort Yukon because we’ve decided that we don’t have one.

Wahoo!

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(editors note: we wound up in Fort Yukon on 7/19 and took off 7/20 for the Kenai where we had a super-successful weekend dipnetting. We’ll be eating reds all winter! Now we just have to make it to Arctic before the school year starts.)

River Trip Journal 3

7/5/17

Camera broken! Disaster! (editor’s note: the camera was later de-broken)

It is just past midnight at confluence camp. I made cookies in the collapsible stove-top oven to celebrate our first sight of the Yukon.

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Manley Hot Springs was adorable. A crew of celebrants was playing bocce after the 4th of July events in the center of town. Someone offered us drinks, so we sat a while and let the dog romp. Everyone we met was friendly and personable. Daazhraii made tons of friends.

After a while, we went and got a pizza at The Roadhouse, and talked about spending the night. It was getting late, but the night was beautiful and I felt more comfortable with the routine of camping than with the risk of leaving our gear in the boat overnight, even in Manley. We got a ride down to the slough at go-time, beer and ice and dog and gas cans and all.

We are realizing that we need more fuel than we thought. We filled up two gas cans in Nenana, and Geoff is worried we’ll have trouble getting a few more in Tanana. We just aren’t getting the fuel efficiency we were hoping for, which I guess isn’t surprising, given the amount of gear we are carrying.

I drove us out of Manley at just about the dewpoint of the evening, maybe near midnight, when the sun was down but the sky was still pink and silver. We camped on an island just downriver. I spotted a mama moose with her baby in the swamp in the elbow of the slough on our way out, and it turns out they were good wildlife-luck. Today, we saw a moose swimming across the Tanana – Daazhraii was wired once he finally spotted it – saw a big black bear (brown of coat) munching at the top of a tall cutbank, and saw a beaver rocketing downstream beside us. We did not, however, see any mammoth tusks protruding from the cutbanks, though I made sure to look carefully, just in case. Lame.

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All this time I’ve been carefully moving a little watermelon around in the boat, trying to protect it from doggy claws and careless bumps. Today, there was room for it in the twelve-volt cooler, so we chilled it all morning and when the sun got hot, hot, hot, we cut the engine and feasted on cold, sweet, sticky, drippy, pink watermelon while we floated downriver, listening to Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. I’m going to have to get the next book downloaded when we reach Tanana.

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The bank here at confluence camp keeps crashing into the river. I think we’re going to lose a few feet by morning.

It was a fireweed day, full summer, hot and bright and lush. There was an old burn along the bank for miles, and the fireweed frothed electric pink around the ankles of the standing dead tree trunks. We cut the engine and floated, watching the wilderness roll by and listening to the silty swish of the river against the hull. Swallows were nesting in the cutbank under the fireweed, and they rose and whipped around in daring gyres against the blue sky. It’s enough to take your breath away, sometimes.

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A barge came by camp this evening. Tooted at us. Way cool. Good night.

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River Trip Journal 2

7/4/17

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We are in Manley Slough and the sun is beating down gold and gorgeous on my neck and shoulders. We are gliding in a flurry of interrupted water through the reflections of the blue sky and the vivid green banks. Geoff is driving and Daazhraii and I are napping and writing, respectively. The water in the slough is still and translucently brown, like black tea with a little summer sunshine lemon zest. It has its own smell, swampier and thicker than the dusty-smelling Tanana.

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I had the very best bath of my life this morning. Daazhraii and I went for a run on our sandbar-island, dodging the wet, thick sand around the puddles and aiming for dry ridges and crusty flats. When I got back to camp, I waded into the Tanana to rinse the sweat off my face and found myself grinning and wading deeper. The water was refreshingly cool, but not cold. Lemonade with mint. Gin and tonic.

Geoff was sitting in the boat with the camp stove, making coffee. He passed me the soap and put an extra pot of clean water on to heat. When it came time to rinse my hair, I held onto the gunwale and he poured clean, warm water through my hair where I stood, waist deep in the river with the sun on my back.

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We dodged thunderstorms all the way from skeeter camp yesterday. My favorite part of rain and near-rain is the smells: waves of spruce or ginger-sticky cottonwood that pass low and startling over the water in the thick, humid air. We felt so lucky, dodging all those storms yesterday. We kept an eye on the dark clouds. They billowed up from behind the mountains and swept down on us time after time. We put on our rain gear again and again when a direct hit felt inevitable, and again and again we floated on, untouched, in a bubble of sunlight.

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