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!

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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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Early (metaphorical) Frost and Pictures from Tustumena Lake

I went for a hike with Geoff last night out to the east of the village. There’s a gravel road that runs that way for a few miles, past countless little ponds and a caribou fence and through clouds of mosquitos. I am enchanted by this inviting, velvety-beautiful landscape. I didn’t want to turn around and come back to town, so I dreamed up a short backpacking trip in that direction for labor day weekend to explore the ridge that shelters the valley and to try to reach Old John Lake. That might be one of the last nice weekends before it gets truly cold. The leaves are already red on the blueberries, and the fireweed is hazing sunny hillsides with its rich fall mahogany and white.

I’m in Arctic Village right now because my boat is not finished.

All summer, I dreamed about those long, honey-slow August days meandering in unfamiliar sloughs, the late mornings breaking camp on sunny sandbars, and the long twilit evenings by a pinprick fire in the vast, dark blanket of the wilderness. It’s too late now to make the trip at all, and I find my summer gone unexpectedly in an early killing frost.

When the builder called as we were driving the trailer down to Delta to pick up the boat last week, I felt my heart split and I cried, off and on, for the better part of several hours.

I think I have a name for her, this freight canoe, but I haven’t said it aloud yet. It’s astronomical and arctic, musical and literary and brave. We’ll see. Hopefully, she’ll be completed for fall hunting before the river closes in October.

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A few weeks ago, back on the Kenai, we spent a weekend on Caribou Island. We loaded Geoff’s boat and made two trips up the river and then across milky Tustumena Lake to the cabin.

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The cabin was windswept and sunlit and cozy, just right.

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That first night, we pulled the boat ashore at the narrow channel between the island and the mainland, and while we stood there, picking up loose driftwood for the fire, a bull moose crossed from the island right behind the boat and came ashore not two-hundred feet from us, belly dripping.

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Geoff reenacted the spectacle.

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For the first few days, it was windy. The boat dragged anchor and washed up on the rocky beach in front of the cabin multiple times before we got the hook set far enough from shore. We stayed on the island until Saturday, when the wind laid itself down enough for us to get out in the boat to explore the east end of the lake, where the glacier feeds it.

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That end of the lake is chilled by a glacial breeze and fed by multiple clear creeks where sockeye salmon spawn. We poled up into these creeks, wary in case of bears, whose wide trails split the green grass banks. They were sunlit and sparkling, fish-smelling and dank, rich and green and electric with living things feasting and breeding in the bacchanalian excess of the salmon run.

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I found an enormous eagle feather on the beach at the mouth of one such creek, which I left on the wildlife camera some other visitor had strapped to a driftwood limb.

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We were sorry to leave that place. I hope to go back someday, maybe next time to stay a little longer.

Did you know

Did you know that salmon hearts, sizzled with butter and garlic, taste just like mussels? I learned to clean fish yesterday, and we set aside the hearts for a treat.

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Feeeeeeesh!

I’m in Soldotna right now, recovering from long nights of dipnetting. Geoff and I got a hotel room for tonight, and tonight will mark the second or third time I’ve slept in a real bed since the beginning of July, the first time since leaving Maine. I’m looking forward to sleep, but this might be my last chance to use the internet for a while, so I’d better make the most of it.

I arrived in Fairbanks two weeks ago after visiting friends in Washington. Geoff was still working, so I had some time to relax. Those days were hot and sweaty, and I spent one whole day in the Museum of the North (where they have some awesome Alaskan art, air conditioning, and some truly weird furniture made of taxidermied animal parts) and another whole day alternating between sizzling on a towel with a good book and plunging into the icy Chena River while ducks laughed at me.

Friday came. The plan was to drive down the Richardson Highway and head for the Kenai to go fishing, which is more or less what we did, though there were some snags. In absolutely typical fashion, Geoff was a little late out of the starting gate. My stuff accounts for about a tenth of the mess, and it still looked like this when I crawled into my sleeping bag at midnight.

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See Geoff. See Geoff pack. See Geoff still packing. Take a nap.

In the morning we finished packing the truck and loading the boat and stopped for the four Fs: Food (breakfast/brunch), Fuel (for the truck), Freddy’s (Fred Meyer for camp groceries) and Fill (water containers, because running water isn’t an everywhere kind of thing) and finally left Fairbanks around two in the afternoon, bound for a good camp spot south of Delta where we would meet friends bound for Dawson on a motorcycle.

I always forget until I’m in it how vast and magnificent Alaska can be.  The Richardson Highway is beautiful. It traces the pipeline from Fairbanks to Valdez, running beside the broad and braided mud of the Tanana and through wide valleys furred with spruce trees, set with jewel-blue lakes. It’s big enough to get comfortably lost on purpose, to build a campfire so far from anyone else that no one sees the smoke. We camped with friends in a quarry that first night. Their dog dragged a whole caribou leg out of the woods while we cooked a midnight dinner.

Geoff and I spent the next night camped in the rain at Quartz lake, then visited Michael, the guy who’s building the canoe, in the morning. He had the hull ready for us to look at, a flexible, lightweight form, ragged at the top. He’s making something wonderful, there. It felt good, pressing my hands to what will be my boat. August seventh is our tentative pickup date. Soon after, we’ll head for the Yukon.

After a stop for showers and laundry (it’s common, here, to see places advertising the two. Since lots of folks are traveling through and many do without running water, these are useful services), we drove out of the rain and slept at Paxson Lake under a clear sky. I walked to the shore in the blue and gold morning and sat on a bench overlooking the water. There is so little summer, here, but everything in summer so so lush and lively. I watched the clouds, the minnows, the waving fireweed. I could almost hear the blueberries bulging, the spruce needles spooling out. I speculated about what percent of Alaska is, at any given time, covered with moose poop. I thought about the coming school year. I felt guilty for sitting still in the middle of so much activity and walked back to camp to get ready to head out, singing Beatles tunes to ward off bears (I’d forgotten my bear spray like a dodo and you never know).

Farther south, we took the Glenn highway through the mountains to Wasilla, stopping so that I could get my first long look at a glacier. Matanuska Glacier impressed me profoundly. It has a presence, something very grand and stately and dangerous and fragile that got a grip on me as I perched on the ice chests in the truck, staring from an overlook. I didn’t expect to be moved so deeply, but what should one expect of a glacier? I dried a tear or two and climbed back into the cab, Wasilla-bound.

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The confluence of a blue creek with the muddy Matanuska.

“Hey Geoff, if you got the chance would you go to the moon?”
“Nope. I don’t think I would.”
“Why not?”
“It’s a wasteland! All cold and dark. And the food would be terrible.”
“Kinda like living in the arctic, huh? So isolated…”
“It’s completely different!”

It’s hard to believe we made that whole trip in a day, but we did. We picked up fishing licenses in Wasilla and learned that a fire was burning right beside the Seward highway, south of Anchorage, and that the road could close at any minute. It was nine at night but we decided to press on south.

We drove through the burning area and watched a helicopter dip water out of the ocean. Flames were visible on the cliffs above the road and smoke nearly obscured the rising moon. Still, we stopped for water at a pullout where a pipe pours clean water directly out of a rock face. “You watch for fireballs falling down the cliff while I fill the jugs, Keely.”

DSC04931We were both tired and cranky by the time we made it to the campground at nearly two in the morning, but we found a campsite and got the tent up in the end.

After that, it was a waiting game. Gillnetters fish all day at the mouth of the river, essentially blocking it off. It’s not worth the launch fee to go out when no fish are getting through, so we had to wait for the dipnet fishery to be opened for twenty-four hour access.  Our moment came and we set our alarms for 1:30 am. By 3:30 we were fishing an incoming tide in the not-quite dark of a drizzly night.

There are two ways to dipnet: some folks stand in the water up to their ribs holding long-handled nets.

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Here’s the crowd at the river’s mouth, dipnetting from shore.

Others putt along holding nets out beside their boats. When a fish hits the net, you feel a bang and haul it in. We fished from Geoff’s boat, cruising down the banks of the river all night and into the morning.

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Some very well-fed seals at dawn

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On a good day, in a good year, I hear the boats are shoulder to shoulder.

We pulled the boat out at eleven the next morning and went back to camp to sleep. That night, we put in again, this time in more serious rain. As the extra hands, I had lots of downtime through that night. I figured out I can sleep in the rain and cold tucked in among the ice chests and actionpackers if I’m in full foulies with handwarmers in my boots and a ball cap to shed the water. It was a rough night, but the morning was beautiful.

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DSC04957In all, we put the boat in four times and came home with not nearly enough fish. The run peaked early this year and the dipnetters never had a good opening. Still, I’m amazed that there’s a place in the world where you can just stick a net like that in the water, wait, and pull out a fish. We don’t do that in Maine – there just aren’t fish anymore. Anyone I know at home would be over the moon to come home with just one of the fish we brought in, even a flounder we’d have casually thrown back.

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Good company.

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Pee break.

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Camp

We’re off to Tustumena Lake for a long weekend, well-deserved. I’ll try to remember to take breaks from relaxing and soaking up the wonderful to take a few pictures.