Words by alum Molly Schouweiler
In the late 1970s my grandparents, Irving and Marie Olsen, moved from their farm in western Wisconsin for a teaching job that Marie had taken in Fort Yukon, Alaska. Fort Yukon is an Athabaskan village in the interior of the state located just inside the Arctic Circle at the northernmost bend of the Yukon River. Like so many others who have been drawn to Alaska, my grandparents came for the adventure, and they stayed for the people. Marie and Irving would spend summers on the farm, then return to Fort Yukon for the winters. While my grandmother was teaching, my grandfather stayed busy hunting, hauling water, baking bread for the community, and milling wood for local housing projects. In 1986, my grandmother retired and her and my grandfather left Fort Yukon and retired to the Kenai Peninsula.
A year later another couple, Howard and Debbie Golden, arrived in Fort Yukon for a wildlife job Howard had just taken with the state. Like my grandparents, they were also looking for a new adventure—one they would share with their two-month old son Trevor. Living in Fort Yukon they explored the area’s rivers, picked berries, and got to know the community over cups of coffee, all while toting Trevor around in a backpack or a sled, depending on the season. After two years another job opportunity took them south to Anchorage where they have lived since.
Fast forward to 2012. It was the middle of September and a group of grungy APU students had just landed their canoes at Fort Yukon and were hauling their boats up the riverbank. One of these students was me. Another was Trevor. I had just moved from Wisconsin to Alaska as a transfer student. Trevor, having grown up in Anchorage, had started at APU two years earlier. The course we were enrolled in was the Outdoor Studies class Expedition Leadership. Originally a backpacking course through the Talkeetnas, plans changed at the last minute, I exchanged my hiking boots for rubber boots, and here I was, in the town my grandparents once called home.
At this point we were about halfway through our 500-mile journey down the Yukon from Eagle, Alaska to the Dalton Highway. Wandering around town, we were greeted by the village chief who kindly invited our group—silty and stinky as we were—to join a potlatch that was taking place to honor a community member who had passed away. During that potlatch I sat next to Trevor and we pondered our unlikely connection to this place between spoonfuls of moose head soup and macaroni salad. In such a remote town, in such a remote state, my grandparents and his parents were nearly neighbors.
A few days prior to landing our boats in Fort Yukon, Trevor and I, arguably two of the quietest students in the class, found ourselves partnered together to lead the group through the braided sloughs of the Yukon Flats. As part of the course, each pair was expected to lead the class in navigation, campsite selection, and general group management for three days. During our time as leaders I slowly got to know Trevor. He was patient when I unexpectedly lost my contacts to the silt and was unable to help determine which braid of the river was least likely catch us in a log jam or ground us in the gravel. He was generous in teaching me about Alaska and how to navigate and triangulate a position using a compass—all new to me as a rookie flatlander from the Midwest. He laughed at my corny jokes and sang along with my renditions of Wagon Wheel. We connected over our mutual interests in biking and baking as well as the family history that had brought us both to this place, and after three weeks and 500 miles we were friends.
The Yukon is full of history that lays its mark on the land through thriving indigenous communities scattered along the river, old half-standing trapper’s cabins, and gold dredges hidden in the aspens. As we paddled through some of that history, we were making memories that would become a part of our own history. Our budding friendship on the river turned into a marriage five years later. We celebrated our wedding this past June and engraved the course of the Yukon into our rings as a tribute to the place where it all began.