The Flats: rain, whirlpool, a defunct cafe

Ben Histand

The Yukon River flows its first 700 miles through one mountain range or another. Around where it passes the town of Circle, though, the mountains run out and for the next 250 miles the river is free to spill itself across the huge basin of the Yukon Flats.

And spill itself it does, as it has for eons. If you look up satellite imagery of the land on either side of the river in this section, what you get looks like abstract painting. Old oxbows and former channels are everywhere -- in fact, the entire landscape is nothing but old oxbows and former channels.

Because the river changes constantly in the Flats, maps and imagery of the current channel are only slightly less abstract, making navigation a trick.

What follows are notes from a week of finding our way through this rarely traveled corner of Alaska:

SATURDAY: Camped on a very buggy bar with Circle in sight. Fell asleep while trying to decide which was louder, the sounds of a live band coming from town a couple miles off, or the collective hum of the untold number of insects in the woods all around.

SUNDAY: Bought Apple Jacks, bananas and toilet paper at the Circle store. Then walked into a building with a "Cafe" sign, dreaming of a hot meal. Inside, people were eating at a counter but they said the cafe was defunct and the building was now the tribe headquarters. But would we like some macaroni salad? It was left over from the big meeting and dance the night before (they said the band was great and played until 4 a.m.). We joined them for salad, then packed the Apple Jacks in the kayaks and paddled through a labyrinth of islands until we believed we were close to Twenty-Two Mile Village.

MONDAY: The Flats supposedly have a desert climate but today we awoke to steady rain. Passed something on the map called "Halfway Whirlpool" without seeing any whirlpool. We gave Halfway Whirlpool a wide berth. A whirlpool is probably not something it pays to be very curious about.

TUESDAY: More rain, more labyrinth. Crossed Arctic Circle.

WEDNESDAY: More rain, river feeling sluggish, plus a steady headwind. Stopped for a break, made black tea and a big pot of oatmeal. Laura singing a John Prine lyric: "Bowl of oatmeal tried to stare me down/and won." She ate hers, though.

Nowhere to get clear water, so last night I set Yukon water to settle in a plastic tub. In the morning there was silt on the bottom but the water was still pretty cloudy. Poured it through a bandana, which didn't seem to do much. Used it in the oatmeal and it tasted fine.

Heading southwest now after going northwest for 800 miles. Already back below the Arctic Circle. Headwind very strong in the evening, so we pulled over and set up camp on a low sand dune somewhere near the mouth of the Hadweenzic River. Hoping it calms down by morning.

THURSDAY: Rain all night. Laura wonders if we'll see the Flats' entire allotment of rain for the year. Now it's blowing 15-20 mph out of the west. No hope of making any headway. Hunkered in the tent, we discover two-handed Uno games are hard to end.

Meanwhile waves stirred up by the wind eat away at the dune. Our boats, which we'd fully beached, will soon be afloat again, along with the big driftwood log we tied them to. There's not much else around, so we drag the boats 20 yards and tie them to the tent.

FRIDAY: Blessedly calm in the morning. We paddle by endless islands and bars until we think we've gone 70 miles. Starting to see mountains now in the distance. No rain today. Picked up a couple of horseflies somewhere; like noisy, biting moons, they orbit us as we paddle. Laura, swinging her paddle, managed to hit one squarely on the head, but it seemed undeterred.

SATURDAY: The horseflies woke up feeling well-rested and eager for another day on the water. Laura, after hours of honing her reflexes with the paddle, was finally able to bash one that had landed on her bow. It still tried to get away but did not escape a second blow. In the evening, it's hard not to feel relieved as we turn one last corner and pass out of the Flats and into the Fort Hamlin hills.

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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