September Block: The Yukon

The Yukon

September 1 – September 20

This September Outdoor Studies at Alaska Pacific University did something different. Sixteen of us, twelve students and four instructors, paddled 500 miles of the Yukon River. We were on the river for 20 days. Consumed more than 700 lbs of food, presented more than fifty classes, and read aloud each morning from Dan O’Neil and Velma Wallis. As Brian Doyle’s photographs take shape, imagine the trip in two parts: First the Yukon Charlie National Preserve, where the river flows through the mountains and where the histories of the gold rush are preserved by the National Park Service. And the Yukon flats, where the river spreads out and where Alaska Natives still live a subsistence life style.

Paddling through the preserve was an exceptional experience. The River flows 8 mph. Some days we didn’t put in until 3 pm and still traveled 20 miles. About half way through the park we stopped at Slaven’s Roadhouse, where Ranger Matt Helt wowed us with his interpretive presentation at the abandoned gold dredge and convinced everyone that a career with the NPS was the best work on the planet. We didn‘t intend to camp there, but the ranger hospitality was too genuine to refuse. I don’t remember what the students ate for dinner that evening, but in the instructor kitchen, on the bluff overlooking the river, we cooked a pot of macaroni with smoked salmon, home dried broccoli, sundried tomatoes, and parmesan cheese. As I ate, with my parka wrapped around me, I thought how could my life possible get any better than this?

And then we paddled out of the Park and into the Yukon flats. For the next three hundred miles we paddled through country that was as remote and wild as any place in the world. Gone were the mountains, the ridgelines, and side creeks that drained into the Yukon. The river slowed and braded, a mix of cut banks, spruce forest and dead end channels. Miscalculate and you might be lining your canoe up stream for miles. We crossed the Arctic Circle at Fort Yukon, the site of Velma Wallis’s book. When we walked up to the AC store everyone we met asked us where we were from and then they invited us to a potlatch. At first we thought we’re too dirty, too smelly, too many. But one elder made it clear, we want to meet you, and we want you to meet us. In the serving line was every cut of moose imaginable. And at the end of the table a pot of moose head soup. After we helped clean up, after the goodbyes and thank yous, we made our way back to the river where our canoes were beached. We carefully packed our gifts, the fresh moose roast and smoked salmon, on the bottom of a canoe where they would stay cool, and paddled down the river looking for a gravel bar to camp on.

The curriculum was finished. Ahead of us were long days, cold days, fifty mile days. When the end came, when the bridge was in view, we rafted up, drifted together, leaning back over packs and stern plates, our boots on the gunnels, the evening sun in our eyes.

David McGivern