River Trip Journal 10

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8/6?
Sunday Evening

Back on the river, finally. We had a good two weeks down on the Kenai and in Fairbanks, but it is good – really good – to have all of our really important possessions contained in the hull of this boat again.

We are in Back Yukon Slough now, on our way to the even narrower Cutoff Slough that leads to the Chandalar.

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We arrived in Fort Yukon yesterday afternoon. We had been unable to get reservations for that flight, but somehow both of us and the dog and all our excess baggage made it on the plane. “You’re on!” said the agent at Wright’s, and there was instant pandemonium. Everything had to come out of the truck and get packed up to be shipped out, the truck had to be parked across the way, the parking paid for, and friends called to cancel evening plans, all in about ten minutes. We had really thought we were stuck in Fairbanks for at least another day and so were totally unprepared. When we finally took our seats about fifteen minutes later in that hot metal canister of a plane with glare on its wings, the relief was huge. Geoff still got absolutely sticky; it was a boiling hot afternoon, and he hates flying, but I felt such a weight lift away that I probably could have floated on air to Fort Yukon even without the plane.

Even after visiting for a few hours at the district office, we were able to get Lyra in the water and ourselves to camp before midnight. I had my best night of sleep in weeks: no rain, no rain fly, no noisy RVs (Jimmy at the beach, he of no teeth, nearly suffocated us when he fired up his gnarly old diesel camper at six in the morning), no pressing worries.

Our freight, two action packers full of pots and pans and food, didn’t make it on the plane with us yesterday and didn’t make it today, so we called Wright’s and had them send it ahead of us to Venetie. We will meet it there tomorrow. For tonight, we have no pans, no stove, no potatoes, and, in Geoff’s case, no sandals or boots. He is wearing his work shoes or none at all.

We are making great time in this slough. It’s shallow and slow: what current there is is with us. The sun has fallen lower in the sky since we went south. It actually gets dark for a little while at night now. On one stretch of still, brown water the sun striped the surface with the shadows of tall black spruce. stripes

The water is much stiller and the channel much narrower here. It is not hard to navigate, but there is no way to cut corners. The long meanders dictate our path.wave curlWe hope to make it to the Chandalar tonight after we pass the mouths of the Christian River and Marten Creek.

I am crossing my fingers that Geoff doesn’t try to persuade me to cook dinner in the dog bowls tonight. I will report back on this matter later.


Later:

When we came onto the Chandalar, it felt like stepping into a walk-in freezer. The water is much colder and paler, though still grayish. We have started traveling upriver again.

As we were motoring along, we passed a few camps. At one, we were waved ashore. I was a little apprehensive. Some people are very opposed to our traveling on tribal land, and, although the river is public, there are some folks who resent our using it. I felt better as soon as we got close enough to make out faces. It was P and S, who had taken me for a dogsled ride in Venetie a few years ago, and they wanted us to come up and visit over tea.

They are incredibly nice guys. They made tea and gave us dry fish for the rest of our trip. Since our life jackets didn’t make it on the plane, they insisted that we take a couple of extra ones from them until we get ours back in Venetie. We ate cookies and they looked over our maps with us and gave us advice on the best route to take and where the tricky spots are. They are fishing for kings and silvers, and they have sixteen dogs in camp. They also have satellite TV.

We saw a flock of young geese right where S had said they would be. We saw cranes strutting on a sandbar and an enormous beaver. At last we settled on a beach a few miles up from camp after a golden sunset. We did not cook in the dog dish. I made a foil pack for some frozen (thawed) potstickers, and Geoff grilled a couple fillets of Kenai River red salmon.lower chandalar camp

Editor’s note on tribal land:

I wrote back and forth with the tribal government this summer, asking for approval to do this trip, which was eventually granted, so Geoff and I could have camped on tribal land if we had needed to. However, Alaska’s navigable waterways are public up to the normal high water mark. Since we always camped on beaches and sandbars, we never actually used that permission. The only times that we set foot on tribal land were when P. and S. invited us up to their camp, where we were made to feel very welcome, and in Venetie, where everyone was lovely to us, helping us to get gas and groceries, and asking me if I was coming back to teach, which was super flattering.

There have been a few people who have commented negatively about our trip since we got back to Arctic, but I don’t think they are the majority. I want to be respectful and have a good relationship with the community here, but I don’t want to let a couple of loud voices push me into giving up adventures on Alaska’s public lands.

I am trying to be honest and open-minded about the whole thing. I want someone to sit me down and really talk to me about it, but that hasn’t happened yet, and I’m not sure who to ask. If you are from Venetie or Arctic, are reading this post, and feel up to helping me understand, come find me or call me at school. I am ready to listen. It is a conversation I really want to have.

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River Trip Stats:

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  1. Freight Canoe Lyra traveled 800 miles on the Tanana, the Yukon and the Chandalar.
  2. Daazhraii, Geoff and I spent 26 days on the water and ran the engine for over 100 hours.
  3. Our fastest speed was 15 mph, and our slowest was 2 mph.
  4. We navigated class II rapids, carried, at most, 45 gallons of gas, and climbed 1500 feet in elevation, mostly in the last hundred miles.
  5. On Wednesday, I shot 2 different guns and cut down 1 tree.
  6. School starts in 2 days. We made it just in time.

When my computer arrives (it is currently stuck in Fort Yukon) I will post my journal entries and pictures from the Chandalar.

River Trip Journal 9

7/18/17

Everyone in Beaver was very helpful. We met friendly little girls named E and R whose grandma made calls so we could get gas on a Sunday. Paul Jr. was not around, so we gave up on our plan to stay and, after we got fuel, boogied on, none the richer in junk food, alas!

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As we were leaving, I drove over a barely-submerged log. It was completely undetectable, but rolling over it felt like hitting a whale or a manatee or a sea-monster! The deck buckled and warped, then sprang back into shape. I’d hate to do that in a fast skiff: it would rip the bottom right out.

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At this point, I want to mention that we have been eating with skewers for chopsticks this whole time. We have no silverware to our names. I am looking forward very, very much to eating a salad with a fork when we get back on the road system. The plan is to leave the boat in Fort Yukon and spend a few days fishing after all.DSC06509

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The night of the 16th we spent on an island with a clear slough and lots of bear tracks. We had a beautiful sunset. Last night, we camped on a dry slough sheltered behind a ridge of willows. It felt great to finally get out of the wind that had been taunting us all day, blowing spray over the engine onto the helmsman’s back.

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The river is really wide now. The Chandalar pours in just up from here. It’s shallow and seamless-looking. Very tricky.  We are running aground pretty regularly now in the flats. We step out into the ankle-deep water and Lyra floats free, for the most part. It’s hard to tell shoals in the wind, though.

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I was divebombed by an arctic tern this morning while availing myself of the facilities. Scary, but very cool. They are really beautiful, graceful birds. Audubon’s tern is not an exaggeration: the terns are every bit as swift and sharp and dramatic as he paints them.

I took a bath today off a steep bank. I had to hold the end of the bowline, which was staked to the shore, so that I wouldn’t slip and be swept away in the powerful eddy. When I dunked my head, I could hear the silty water whooshing by my ears.

The horseflies are as bad as ever.

Our dog food from Yukon Jeremy at the Bridge is still holding out.

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We are camping tonight on Inservice Island, just up from Fort Yukon. I just crept up on a couple of beavers swimming up our slough. When the first beaver finally caught sight of me, he slapped his tail and dived dramatically, then came up only a few feet farther away.

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We got to town around ten. Lance wasn’t in Fort Yukon and we passed Tony on the river. So far, we are not having much luck figuring out how to leave the boat. Better luck tomorrow.

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(editor’s note: we made it happen after a rough start with a flat tire and some plane troubles. The Kenai was great! We are heading back out in the next few days. Arctic Village, here we come.)

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River Trip Journal 8

7/15/17

I love the lessons in succession that are so evident in the flats. One bank is cut away and the other grows. Trees fall into the river, sandbars build, grasses take hold, then willows, then cottonwood and spruce.

Today, we weathered a nasty thunderstorm. Geoff built us a temporary shelter by sticking a log into a pileup of driftwood and staking a tarp over it. Before the storm, we had a strong tailwind and, for a while, a “following sea” on particularly long, straight stretches of river where there was fetch enough to build up white caps. We surfed a little and wallowed in the troughs between waves. The smoky haze from distant fires lent the dark clouds some camouflage, so the storm almost crept up on us. Lightning scares me, and the sound of thunder on the river (when we can hear it – usually the engine has to be off). This storm with its wind and heavy rain scared me. We built a fire under our tarp – there was plenty of wood – and watched the rain froth in the river and bounce off the beach. Our fire was just enough to make sure that we never felt the lightning was the brightest thing in the world.

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Now we are camping with a group of canoers. There are nine of them. They stopped in this slough to shelter from that same storm. We continued on from our temporary shelter and stopped here to chat after the storm. They are making a documentary and are currently one month into their two-month trip.

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!