Not even a blue tarp can deny Yukon silt

Ben Histand

Packing for a two-month camping trip is a bit like planting a garden. You make your plans and choose what to include and what to leave out, but once the seeds are in the ground or the gear in the boats, you're pretty well stuck with what you have. And there's plenty of time to evaluate if you planned well or poorly.

On this trip, one of the pieces of gear that has most endeared itself by its usefulness is a humble blue tarp. The same tarp that spent the winter thanklessly collecting ski-wax shavings now offers its services as a makeshift rain shelter or, more often, as the place mat for the nightly explosion of gear out of our kayaks and onto the riverbank.

It's thanks to this tarp that the colors of stuff sacks and dry bags are still recognizable and have not all been replaced by Yukon silt-brown.

As it is, it's hard if not impossible to leave any campsite without taking a little piece of it with you. Burrs and seed pods work their way into cuffs and boots and a few of the insects that come each night to loiter on the tent are inevitably squashed in place during pack-up. And always there is the silt.

About once a day, Laura or I will say, "Well, when we get a clear day we'll be able to clean the grime off of everything." But time goes by, precious few clear days have materialized, and the grime remains.

A layover in Dawson gave us a chance to at least clean ourselves. Six minutes -- one token worth -- under the shower at the (predictably named) Gold Rush Campground felt like just enough time to wash away dirt that took one week -- that's 10,080 minutes -- to accumulate.

At one time gold was everywhere in Dawson. Now it seems there's less actual gold, but the word "gold" is everywhere. "Yukon Gold" is the name of both the most popular beer at the bars and the most popular potato at the grocery store. The town feels sort of like a theme park based on its original self. There can't be many towns in the world providing 7-day-a-week information desks staffed by women in period dress. An ad for a sled dog kennel tour promised -- as if no one would come just to see the dogs -- that participants would "eat gold at the gold bar (yes, EAT gold)!"

After 470-odd miles on the river though, we had less interest in eating gold than, say, pizza. Happily, Dawson provided this as well.

Wandering in Dawson, another ad stood out to a couple sore paddlers: "Free Yoga Class and Vegetarian Potluck." The time given was 10 a.m. the following morning. And so despite having little to offer for the potluck, we found ourselves welcomed inside the school gym to do something resembling sun salutations alongside 20 Dawsonites. I recognized one of the women from the info center, though she'd changed out of her ball gown.

Back on the river, stretched, scrubbed, sated and bound for Alaska, hopes were high that clear weather would finally find us, but instead we were met almost immediately with our first thunderstorm. For days we watched as storms careened across the sky, now tracking up the river, now down it.

We made a hasty camp one evening on a rocky island as behind us a whole quadrant of the sky turned black. With thunder booming I fumbled with the tent stakes, trying to get them to hold in the coarse gravel; finally I put the stakes on the ground and stacked the biggest rocks I could find on top of them. Within minutes the wind was blowing the sides of the tent in. Inside, we pushed back with our arms and watched the stakes which, against the odds, looked like they just might hold.

Daily News correspondent