River's edge: Modern comforts to a prehistoric boneyard

TWO EXTREMES: Stay in a B-and-B is followed by rotting mammoths.

July 25, 2011 

Ben's tenet of traveling: any long trip will have, proportional to the inevitable mishaps and tedium, incredible moments of serendipity.

One of these moments came when, in the span of about 15 minutes, we went from slogging through wind and torrential rain -- we even switched boats at one point to see if progress would be any faster -- to eating a care package of homemade brownies under a roof in front of the Tanana grocery store (this moment of serendipity was made possible by the U.S. Postal Service).

With the rain continuing, it was hard to dispute the benefits of a roof. Our luck continued as we discovered a bed and breakfast above the grocery store.

It was a bed and breakfast, but dinner was offered, too, and we gladly accepted. That evening we were awash in the greatest of luxuries: we ate enchiladas with real forks, drank fruit punch out of real cups, even watched TV. A movie was on: Susan Sarandon was at the beach, wearing an enormous hat and looking perturbed. It was hard to make out the plot. Television was confusing. We watched with the volume low, partly so as not to disturb the other guests and partly to lessen the attack on our senses.

That night, brushing my teeth by an open window, I listened to rhythmic clanging as ravens the size of cats pranced in a metal dumpster behind the store. But as I got into bed (a real bed), this sound, along with all other sounds, was lost under the wonderful and relentless beating of rain on the roof.

We waited out the rain in Tanana for two days and left well-fed and grateful. Getting back on the river after this vacation was a bit of a jolt. Only once we'd packed up the boats and started to paddle did we realize we'd made the decision to leave according to the logic of town (business hours, checkout times, etc.) rather than that of the river. In fact the conditions were pretty awful, with a strong headwind, heavy chop, and nowhere to get out along the bank. Laura looked almost as perturbed as Susan Sarandon.

After an hour's effort, having made little headway (Tanana was still in sight) but feeling we had no choice, we pulled off and clambered through thick willows to a spot partway up a steep dirt slope. There was just enough room to sit down, and we braced our feet against willows to keep from sliding down the slope. We ate crackers with warm cheese and dried mangoes, and tried to find comfortable positions to relax in. Eventually we gave up and got back in the boats. Later that night the wind died and we paddled on glassy water until 4 a.m.

The next day was sunny and calm. Around midday we came to a place where the Yukon was steadily eating away at a dirt bank, creating a tall cliff. Thawing soil near the top of the cliff could be seen dripping, and here and there a dirt clod tumbled into the river. This was all unremarkable in itself, but soon a powerful stench made it clear that this was no ordinary cliff -- we had arrived at the Boneyard.

Early in our research for the trip we'd read about a place where erosion regularly exposes frozen mammoth carcasses. It seemed like almost too much to believe. But now, paddling closer, Laura spotted a pair of tusks embedded in the cliff. They were as big around as a tree trunk, and their broken ends showed rings like a tree's. They were also incredibly dense -- a two-foot segment lying at the waterline was too heavy to lift.

On this vast river, one can lose one's usual sense of distance. Drifting along, smelling the creatures of another era, my sense of time escaped me as well.

Yukon dispatch 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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