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Shopping list almost as long as Yukon River itself

Ben Histand

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

The past couple weeks are a blur. I can get a pretty good reconstruction, though, by looking at my credit card statement.

Alaska Raft & Kayak, Fred Meyer, Costco, Sportsman's Warehouse, Value Village, Natural Pantry, Fred Meyer, REI, REI, REI, REI ...

It's enough for me to convince myself that Laura and I are prepared for a 1,900-mile trip.

This summer we are traversing Alaska, along with much of the Yukon Territory, by kayak on the Yukon River. The trip promises to be two to three months of stunning sights and adventure; the outfitting, though, seemed endless.

Call it packing creep. Somehow, despite all the good intentions and earnest plan-making, there were still a million things to do right up to the last minute.

So it went on the night before the trip was to start. Having waved off midnight and breezed through 1 a.m. cleaning out the last of the Tupperware and pickle jars from the fridge and double-checking packing lists, I stood over the kitchen table ready to take on one final task: rolling an extra length of duct tape around a piece of a ballpoint pen (it's harder to do than you might think).

You don't realize how complicated living is until you try to plan two months of it in advance.

Amazing quantities of gear begin to accumulate. The urge to bring two of everything must be fought. But just when you think it's been defeated, here comes something so critical that even two are not enough (matchbooks, for instance).

Then there are the more free-form items. Which book will I feel like reading two months from now? Which trail mix will I feel like eating? (Probable answer: none.)

The decisions are many, the permutations infinite. At some point, tired of deciding between this or that kind of spork, or between Uno and Uno Deluxe, one starts to think, just can it, this is crazy, I can't possibly need any more stuff. Isn't it better to simplify?

Then you remember that comfort depends in large part on planning, and a lot of things really do need to be taken into account. But by now you have forgotten what those important things were. Where is that list?

To take a break from packing, I looked up what happened to other people on the Yukon. Loussac Library in Anchorage has a lot of Yukon books, many of which showed how unforgiving the river could be, especially to early travelers.

I felt glad to be living in the modern age when I read how Russian explorers painstakingly poled and lined their way up the lower river, until their boats, made of skins, rotted away for lack of animal fat to grease them with. I read how Hudson Stuck, one of the first men to summit Denali, got lost and fell through the ice one winter north of Circle. "My moose-hide breeches froze solid the moment I scrambled out," he wrote.

Recent travelers recounted more positive experiences. Shortly before leaving Anchorage, I met with Megan Baldino, who canoed the river in 2001. She remembered vast, unfathomable landscapes and friendly people. Paddling the Yukon, she said, is sort of like getting a master's in Alaska.

Now that's a degree I'd like to have.


By BEN HISTAND
Daily News correspondent