Rising river steals sleep

RESTLESS NIGHT: Yesterday's nice gravel-bar camp can easily become the riverbed by the next morning.

July 18, 2011 

On the Yukon I've found I sleep well in torrential rain. I can also sleep fine in heavy wind, and 24-hour daylight is no problem. Once, for lack of a better option, we camped right on top of a bear track; I slept like a log. After 8 to 10 hours of paddling, which has been our daily average, it apparently takes more than a bear track to keep me up at night.

The other night, though, under clear skies, with no wind and no tracks to be seen, I found myself unable to sleep at all.

It was the river itself that kept me awake.

Around when we left the Yukon Flats, the river, which had been dropping an inch or two per day for a couple weeks, started to rise about a foot per day.

Out on the water, it was impossible to tell anything was happening. But on land, it was pretty clear, because I found myself saying things like, "Didn't we leave the boats over there last night? What are they doing over here?"

We'd been warned this might happen; I don't think it's uncommon in the course of a summer. But to see it happening was a bit like seeing the tide come in for the first time, except that there was no way to know how high this tide would rise.

That's what made it hard to sleep that night. We'd stopped at an island with a nice, gently sloping beach-like gravel bar. With the river rising, we put up the tent way, way back from the water.

But because the bar was so flat, the tent was only about a foot and a half above the water. Still, I thought, it had to be enough; the river might be going up, but we'd be gone in 10 hours. It wasn't going up that fast.

I got in my sleeping bag and spent the night watching the water rise.

In the morning, we didn't have to carry our gear to the boats, because the water had come right up to the tent.

Over the next few days we rode the high water through the Rampart canyon while watching thunderstorms pummel the mountains to the west. More water for the Yukon.

Somewhere in this section, our downstream migration met the upstream migration of the first salmon. The drying racks of fish camps along the banks, a regular sight since we passed Fort Yukon, were all suddenly full of bright red flesh. People in motorboats zoomed to and from the camps, or parked in an eddy to pick a set-net.

One afternoon, having paddled in rain for several hours, we hauled up on a mud bank to warm up and cook a pot of oatmeal. As we were watching the stove, a woman appeared down the bank. It was the first time on the trip we'd seen a person outside of a town who wasn't in a motorboat. She was surprised to see us too --I was wearing a brown jacket, and she mistook me for a bear.

After we'd cleared up that confusion, we shook hands. Her name was Barbara, she worked in the Post Office in Tanana, and she had a fish camp right around the corner from where we'd stopped. We said we were hoping to pick up a package in Tanana, addressed to general delivery; she said, "Oh, are you Ben and Laura? I remember seeing your package. We were wondering when you would come."

She showed us around her fish camp. A smokehouse the size of a two-story building sat above the bank. Inside, the spruce-pole frame glistened with the accumulated glaze of years of smoking fatty Yukon fish, while beams of sunlight shone through gaps in the corrugated tin walls.

"I think of this place as my cathedral," said Barbara. It was certainly a step up from a Little Chief.

She'd caught a dozen or so kings and one chum that day and insisted on sending us off with a fillet, cut into camp-pot sized chunks.

When we cooked some later that day, it was hard to say which felt more satisfying, the hot, rich salmon or the warm welcome.

Yukon journal Ben Histand is spending the summer kayaking the length of the Yukon River, 1,900 miles through Canada and Alaska, with Laura Chartier. He will file occasional dispatches from the field. Originally from Soldotna, he now lives in Anchorage.

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