Revelations are part of remote river journey

Ben Histand
Photo by 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 Teslin River is so empty of people that the driftwood can start to seem companionable.

Our first morning in camp, we watched a large tree go by. When we caught up to it in the early afternoon, it was like running into a friend. Elsewhere, we looked on in envy as despite our paddling efforts, another tree managed to beat us around a bend in the river.

We've spent a lot of time in the past week trying to find the fast current, as the Teslin starts sluggishly and our paddling skills are elementary at best. Either by ignorance, bad luck or some trick of perspective, there usually seems to be faster water on the other side from where we are.

So far the Teslin, which runs 124 miles before merging with the Yukon, is calm, green and freezing cold. One of the strangest things about being on the river has been the way the air can change, at a moment's notice, from warm to cool and back again. Pockets of snow along the banks fly in the face of the June sun, refrigerated by so much frigid water.

We paddled down narrow channels between mountains, where rock slides bore crops of lupine. We paddled below crumbling cliffs into which swallows had built their dwellings, like something out of the southwest. We paddled through shallow braids, passing stuck trees we would never see a second time. Always to the left or right was water that looked faster.

Our vocabularies shifted as most conversation turned on cut-banks, eddy-lines, sweepers, sloughs and bars. We paddled by bars and we ate bars -- Clif bars, Snickers bars, Lära bars. We found that our bag of Triscuits had gone stale. We had rationed our food by the week, though, and it was early in the trip and discipline was still running strong. We ate the stale Triscuits and paddled on.

Always on a backcountry trip, evening time to relax seems to be the premium which small inefficiencies during the day eat away at. Being new to months-long kayak tripping, the packing and unpacking of the boats is a significant time sink (though the more Triscuits we get through, the easier it becomes). So is the striking of camp. Trying to make things faster, one sets up little challenges for oneself. The other day, huffing and puffing as I rolled this pad and stuffed that bag, I found myself humming the theme song from the 1996 Olympics.

The fourth day was cool and rainy and I put on my spray skirt as I pulled away from shore. A while later, I felt mosquitoes biting my ankles. I pulled the skirt open and they flew off, looking satisfied.

One morning in the tent, looking for something to do, I counted 168 mosquitoes waiting to get in.

Besides the mosquitoes, most of the wildlife has been skittish, even by Alaska standards, with birds evacuating at 100 yards. A cadre of 15 mergansers, though, took off as we floated by, only to wheel about and reappear around the next bend. Then they did it again. It became unclear who was watching whom.

One day we paddled long into the evening to reach a campsite that was marked beside a stream on our maps. We finally arrived to find the camp had burned, along with all the country for miles around. The stream was stagnant, the bugs were thick and it was hard to get over how much the dead branches falling in the wind sounded like approaching bears. We ate a meal and paddled on, looking for the fast water.

Daily News correspondent