Yukon River journey has unplanned end

Ben Histand
Photo courtesy BEN HISTAND

In the course of what was to be our last day of paddling on the Yukon, we rounded two bends in the river. The first bend was to the right, and after that the river came back around to the left. The Yukon valley in interior Alaska, and especially below Tanana, exists on a grand and at times astonishing scale: together these bends took up over 30 river miles. Our speed was 3 to 4 hours per bend.

Three days earlier, we'd had a productive day and completed three bends (one to the right, two to the left), which was good enough to get us to the town of Ruby.

We arrived just in time to catch the end of a half-marathon. A crowd of people had gathered near the boat launch (10 or more people feels like a crowd on the Yukon, at least to me), and as we tied up our boats they cheered for the last runner. A couple children held the ends of a piece of string, which stretched across the dirt road. When the runner crossed the piece of string he bent over and put his hands on his knees. It was a solid effort: he came in fifth.

Just up from the river was a man in coveralls standing on a porch. He asked us where we'd come from and we got to talking Yukon -- he told us he used to trap on the Nowitna River with dogs. While he talked he was scraping an old cast-iron skillet, which he said he'd gotten at a yard sale. He held the skillet up on the porch railing with one hand and scraped at it with a metal spatula in the other hand. When he raised the skillet to examine his progress, he looked displeased. The bottom was smeared with blue paint.

Fifteen miles downstream of Ruby we came across a small, unmapped island that had been recently exposed as the river subsided. It was treeless and its highest point was about two feet above the river. To the untrained eye it might not have looked like much, but by now we were connoisseurs of the gravel bar, and we paddled like crazy to cross the current and get to the island -- we knew what that barren agglomeration of sand and mud might mean.

When we reached the island, it satisfied our wildest hopes. We spent two nights there, took in the views, strolled on the sand, squeezed the mud between our toes, and, for the first time in hundreds of miles, didn't see a single mosquito.

The day we left the island was our last day of paddling. After the two bends, we came to the town of Galena, where we were catching a flight to Fairbanks and then on to Anchorage.

Galena has the friendliest drivers of any town I've ever seen. Everyone waves to everyone else. The town is divided into New Galena and Old Galena, and compared to other towns along the Yukon it feels sprawling. There are lots of roads. After we'd walked a while and waved at many drivers, we were lost, and a guy from Eagle River who was working near the airport offered to drive us around in his truck. When we passed somebody in a car he said, "Everybody waves here -- it's so annoying."

We camped near the riverbank and got up the next morning and packed a final time. It was difficult to leave the river. Flying out of Galena had not been the plan, and up until the end there was a lot of temptation to stick to the plan. It seemed a shame to have to leave behind the things we liked about the trip as well as the things we didn't like. But in many ways we'd had the trip we'd wanted to have, and there were good reasons to go home.

A moving van came to pick up our kayaks and we rode in back with them to the airport. We left them, stuffed with most of our gear, at the cargo bay to await a back haul. The guy running the scale said they weighed 212 pounds.

There were still a couple hours before the flight to Fairbanks, so we walked down the road beside the runway to where there was a baseball diamond. No one was playing. It was a beautiful sunny day. We sat up in the bleachers and talked about dogs.

Dailiy News correspondent