It has been real great to visit old friends in Alaska. A couple days on the Kasilof River with hosts Jeanne and Steve Maltby at the Kasilof River Lodge and a couple nights with Sluggo and Beth at Scenic Place Peony Farm in Homer. It has been a long and wonderful trip, now it is time to get home to Laura and Eva in the Green Mountain State and that makes me happy. Thanks to all who followed along with us, you know who you are. Happy Travels, farewell Alaska!
when you meet someone who has your same name. Never did I expect to find a doppleganger here in the town of Emmonak at the end of the Yukon River delta. But sure enough here I was introducing myself to my other self. Meet Patrick Kelly III, age 22, born and raised in Emo. Small world, us Irish are everywhere.
They fell in love with each other instantly, love at first sight you might want to say. A young couple bought a tub of extra food from us for $25 and also took Turd home with big smiles all around. The deal was clenched when Jeff asked Clarissa where the little buddy would be sleeping and she said in her bed alongside her. Perfect. For a small adoption fee they got the dog, some food, a couple bags of treats, and a kennel. I kinda miss her, I bet Jeff does too. She looked real happy though leaving with Clarissa and her husband, hard to know what adventures she has in front of her but I know she will be glad to be off this damn cold boat and curled up in a warm bed with someone to love. I sure will be.
Sunday morning in Emo. The tide is high and our boat is about 50 feet from shore, we set a stern anchor for the first time so we don't bash into the rocks piled up on shore as the boats are out and passing close by at full speed all night. The rocks were brought in from Nome because this place is basically a marsh in the tundra alongside a muddy river and like other villages there is a problem with erosion. Louie has made an announcement on channel 68 of the VHF that everyone monitors that there are some travelers selling their extra gear. Everyone calls us travelers, I like it. Anyway, in half an hour even before we can sort out what we want to keep and what we are selling we have a crowd on board, it is like the early birds at a yard sale, in an hour we are pretty much sold out. Old and young they come by on boat and on foot. The older guys are speaking the native Central Yupik language and the kids want to see and touch everything. It was a frenzy of activity that left us amazed and thrilled to have gotten rid of almost all of our gear. The only thing left is the tent and frame which we will be sleeping in tonight and hopefully selling tomorrow. I called the airline to check out flights and times to get to Anchorage and the local agent couldn't say exactly when the flight was leaving tomorrow, better call back tomorrow. The kids keep coming around but are nice and respectful so we don't mind. Except when it is naptime.
Things have worked out perfectly, just as planned, and with any luck we will be in Anchorage tomorrow night. Fingers crossed.
50 miles to go and the trees practically disappear from sight. Early in the morning the river seems to vanish into the grey sky miles ahead and the hills above Mountain Village are all you can see behind us. We are running almost due north and almost in a straight line and even though the river is over a mile wide here we are hemmed in by sandbars on either side for much of the day. On the shore is mostly a flat grassy plain and at one point we stop the boat to climb up the 25 foot bank to look over endless flat tundra with swans nesting in pools in the distance and blueberry bushes everywhere on the mossy spongy ground. There are arctic terns and long tailed jaegers, we see tundra geese and black turnstones. By five we have past through the Head of Passes and have arrived at the bustling village of Emmonak (or Emo as it is called), our last village of the trip but we are not done until we make the final ten mile run to the Bering Sea and back. Past all the fishing shacks along the beach, past the salmon drying on racks under tin roofing and blue tarps and past the guys pulled up on the shore just chilling out on the bank, the river makes a last turn and opens to the sea. The grassy banks turn to tidal flats, a navigation marker stands on posts facing the open sea and we throw out an anchor.
After a long time in preparing and work (mostly by Jeff I have to say) and a lot of organizing and work along the way (also mostly by Jeff) we have made it. Our tent boat with it's vintage motor have gone close to 2000 miles along the entire watercourse of the Yukon and we have seen a country so vast it is impossible to convey. We have put aside a couple beers to celebrate with out here where fresh water meets the salt and take the time to congratulate ourselves in a journey completed. Now it is the ten miles back upstream to Emo and try to sell all our things so that we can hop a flight to Anchorage.
Twenty minutes ago it turned midnight, we just stopped but had been running since 7:30 this morning through Pilot Station, St. Mary's, and Mountain Village bouncing back and forth from shore to shore in these giant P-trap bends in the river. We are reduced to making about 5 miles an hour without the current helping us out very much anymore and with the regular wind we are facing in the afternoons. It has been cold but windy and sunny for a several long days in a row and I am getting burnt.
We had just come up a 15 mile slough back channel shortcut and had located what looked like a perfect camping spot on the map when we rounded the corner and found an older couple at their fish camp directly across from where we were planning to spend the night. It was Pete Andrews and his wife. They come out here to spend the entire summer until freeze up on the bank of the Patsy Slough partly because Pete's wife was born in the derelict log cabin just up the mud bank from where we are tied up. She is a Patsy you know.
Pete was just getting his chainsaw out of the boat to cut up some firewood so that he and the wife could come across the slough in their boat and fire up a steambath in the old bathhouse. He is 69 and his wife is 72 and they love it here because they can smoke all their fish for the year here and then shoot geese and ducks in the fall and also really to get away from all the hustle and bustle of life in Mountain Village now that the road has been put in from St. Mary's. We pulled up and asked if it was OK to camp across the slough and he told us exactly where to put the boat so that our little dog would not have to get her feet muddy when she jumped out. When they came to this side to get the steambath ready, Pete brought up a bag of fresh king salmon for us to cook up on the grill and we passed him a couple of bags of our food that we had extra. The salmon turned out phenomenal grilled in a fish basket seasoned with a special blend of herbs and spices and served with brown rice with soy sauce.
The interaction with Pete was so wonderfully typical of so many of the people that we have met on the river. Time and again we have been treated and greeted wonderfully by so many folks here on the Yukon, more that I had imagined, kids waving and shouting, grown men walking down to the boat to introduce themselves and shake hands, young guys giving a ride on their four wheeler, especially along this lower stretch of river, the interactions with all of the people that we have encountered have been exceptional.
It's one o'clock now and I think it is time for bed even though Pete is back in his boat coming across the slough for his bath. We have nearly traveled the entire watercourse of this giant river by now and are slowly becoming accustomed to the ways of life here, most remarkable are the people that live here that have been so generous to us.
All the villages for the last 500 miles of the river are dry villages, it is illegal to buy or sell or have any alcohol within the village. If you have an extra $150 you can buy a jug of whiskey or vodka or for $35 a bottle of homebrew, native moonshine, from some folks that are easy to meet but there is no beer anywhere, too bulky to smuggle, and we soon ran out of our stash and went without. There is only 75 miles between Pilot Station and St. Mary's and Mountain Village and all three of them are the biggest towns than we have seen since Dawson City, over 600 people in each village. The big villages are harder to get around on foot, the people dress nicer and do not stop and stare when you walk through town. I went into the Alaska Commercial Company store in Saint Mary's and they had avocados for sale and ice cream in the freezer. They also had a four wheeler in the ketchup aisle for sale.
In Pilot Station we had a lot of visitors on the boat, including Charles Heckman III who is 13 and just got a chainsaw for his birthday. I asked him what his favorite foods are and he said pumpkin pie and moose soup. He is a wood carver and I bought a small wooden boat he had carved. Another guy stood talking with us about the hunting in the area which was great except that the snow geese used to come by every spring by the millions but now they must go another way because they have only seen a few each season for the last 4-5 years. It was the same story we had been told downriver by a couple guys.
We drifted by a group of kids swimming down by Mountain Village and lots of people out on their boats getting ready for the commercial fishing period to start. They have a 6 hour fishing opening from 9 PM to 3 AM and are drift net fishing for Chum Salmon. This is the first area where we have seen commercial fishing, before it was only for subsistence use.
Late in the evening we take a back channel north paralleling the river. On the map it is called Patsy Slough but we later find out that the name is Refrigerator Slough and that another slough up about 15 miles is the real Patsy Slough.
Russian Mission is pretty a pretty big village but still has a small town feel like you could walk anywhere you needed to get to. The folks up at the ITC office were really nice and let me log on to the internet and hang out for half an hour, I stopped by the Native Store and walked through the aisles and bought a Coca Cola. People were busy in town, dogs were barking, it was sunny and calm so we rolled out after an hour or so and headed another 45 miles away to the village of Marshall.
In the stretches closer to the villages you see fish camps along the river, some abandoned and some occupied and actively fishing, drying, and smoking salmon.
We passed slowly by four kids swimming and playing on the beach. Just down a ways their parents were in a canoe pushing driftwood firewood up to the camp. Another camp we passed had kids waving from shore, with a wave from the adults up tending the smokehouse we pulled ashore to visit for a while. Soon all the kids were on board and five minutes later their parents, when we offered candy to the kids they offered a king salmon to us. In a moment a young girl arrived with a 35 pound salmon, holding it behind the gill plate she passed it to me. We ended up only taking a small portion, enough for dinner and left after multiple handshakes, it was about nine at night and we wanted to stop by Marshall still.
The river here starts to look flatter and the spruce trees thin out, the now distant mountains have a low treeline and seem to have grassy slopes. Still along the bank are thousands of driftwood logs piled up along the shore. Now and then you can see where people have cut firewood from the trees washed ashore, they stack them on the bank and use them for winter firewood. Almost nobody passes us on a boat all day, the views are still stunningly beautiful, we are generally following alongside the edge of the mountains riding up the right bank of the river to stay out of the wind. The river takes large bends here with plenty of sandbars, we are noticing that the maps we have of this area do not always match up with islands and sandbars in the river.
By eleven or so we stop in the lee of a small outcrop of rock, the shore is muddy but not too soft, I could still go ashore in my hiking shoes. Jeff eases to shore and I tie up to the root of a driftwood tree and walk up the hill to where the tall grass and the cemetery and the mosquitoes are. The charcoal has been started and we cook up our first king salmon feast on the river. All three of us eat until we can't eat anthing else. It is a cold night and I am wearing an extra layer to bed. We are only about two days from arriving at the sea.
Holy Cross is the first Yupik Eskimo village we come to and was named by the Catholic missionaries that set up a church there. On the bank I met David Whitley an elder on the tribal council who gave me a tour of the village from the back of his four wheeler. Apparently Wyatt Earp came through town here on his way through to opening a casino in Nome. We stopped by the Deloycheet Tribal Center for a coffee and I watched as a woman made spaghetti and meat sauce lunches for the elders in the nice big kitchen there. The week before they had the big Ganakanaga (sp?) in town where over 100 leaders from all the villages come by boat so that they almost ran out of fuel in town and had to ration. David said that his grandfather was adopted out of the village years ago to a family in San Francisco but had moved back to the village as a young man and he told me of the first time that he saw a ghost. He was ten and they were staying in a room beside the post office when he climbed up on some boxes and saw over the wall a smoky figure standing in front of the postal boxes. Just like a puff of smoke he dissipated into the air. Spooky.
When I got back to the boat Jeff was trying to sell the whole rig to Ronny Dimentoff and though he didn't buy it, we have our For Sale sign taped to the front now.
The afternoon was sunny and beautiful and we slowed to talk to a family at a fish camp, drifting by and having a quick chat and a laugh. Twenty minutes later the man, Bergen I think he said his name was, or Virgil, came up from behind and pulled alongside so that he could give us a bag of his smoked salmon. We drifted side by side and traded him some hard salami along with some chocolate and candy for the fish. Soon we were in the mud along the shore and pushed off to go our separate ways.
"Good trade, good trade!", he said a couple times, he was a crack up.
Two miles outside of Russian Mission we found a creek that lead off the main channel and into a small clear and deep lake. We motored in slowly not knowing the depth and in the narrow channel passed two small camps with fish drying on wooded racks, smoke coming from old tin covered smokers, and kids playing in the evening light. Right now we are tied to a cottonwood tree that sits on the shore of the lake and a beaver is swimming in circles behind us. Another nice place for the night.
In the morning we did Grayling, in the afternoon we visited in Anvik, and Holy Cross was the next village along the river. It was summer solstice and we decided to run all night to celebrate. By 9 that night we had entered a side channel of the river. At 9:30 the channel split, by 10 it had split again and soon we were in a 20 mile long channel that was no more than 100 feet wide. This area of the river is totally different than the maps show it, new islands have formed and old islands have disappeared, we were off the map but going the right direction though we didn't know where we were. The water was calm and the seeds of the cottonwood trees coated the water turning the surface white where small eddies and wind lines formed. Large flocks of ducks took off as we came down the river, beavers were out and song birds were in the trees. It was like the sloughs in Florida Bay with absolutely no one around, just a magical run on the night of solstice. By 11 we popped out into the main channel of the river and the waters surface was as glassy as ice, soon we passed a rocky point and a fish camp with some people sitting outside. Shouting hello and waving we crossed to the next point and entered the hidden approach to the village of Holy Cross. About a mile outside of town we tucked into a small river mouth for the night. It was 12:15. The sun was still up.
We got pulled over by the cops the other day. In the over 1,500 miles we have traveled so far, this was the first sign of law enforcement that we have ever seen. Unless you count the phone call to Homeland Security we made to clear customs when we came through Canada. These guys were United States Fish and Wildlife officers with pistols on their belts but were just interested in checking out our boat set-up and wanted to talk for a while. They told us where to catch some good pike, Jeff replied that we were not fishing because we didn't have a license, and they said not to worry about that, just catch what you want, no problem. Close call there.
In 1984 I worked for a summer along with Dave Scheer for Jan and Beverly Masek up at Stuckagain Heights, a nice restaurant overlooking Anchorage. Jan was an Iditarod dog musher, race car driver, and restaurant owner who had escaped from communist Czechoslovakia years earlier, Beverly was his wife, a Native woman from Anvik who would later go on to be an Alaska State Representive. Jan had a bad temper but was crazy and fun and told great stories, word is that after he gave Steve Martin a ride in a sleigh behind a team of 6 horses in Colorado that he wrote his "Wild and crazy guys" routine. I believe it.
By day we worked keeping up the the team of 75 sled dogs that were there on the property and at night we showered up and were waiters in the restaurant. Jan let us renovate some old shed on the property and we lived there. For a month or more we were joined by Carl Jerue, Beverly's brother.
I haven't seen or heard from Carl for over 33 years but I thought I would pull into Anvik and ask around to see if he was around. As we turned the corner to pull into Anvik Creek a float plane landed right behind us, Jeff waved him by and he passed us in the small channel. After we were tied up I walked up the hill to look around the small village of 90 people. I couldn't see any town anywhere and when a man passed by in a pickup I asked him if he knew Carl. It was his cousin Wilson who said he would give him a call for me when he got home and ask him to come down to the river to talk.
Carl came down in his truck and we stood talking, he is my age, married with two girls at home and an adopted 17 year old son that is doing good. We talked about the time we capsized in a canoe in the Kenai River Canyon and were lucky to have made it and talked about our current trip along the Yukon and talked about growing up and becoming different people than who we were in our twenties. He told us how to cook a pike by peeling a willow stalk and poking it through the fish from the mouth, wrapping it around with the willow bark. Set it over a fire and slow cook it, all we need is the pike. Carl told how the village was getting a new biomass boiler heater so that they could start getting local people to cut wood for heat instead of fuel oil. He also told us that he was hopeful that the village could get a heated greenhouse built so that they could grow winter vegetables.
It was a nice visit, we gave him some small gifts that we had with us and pushed off to get out in front of the barge that was waiting to head down to the next village downstream. It was about 8 at night on the night of June 20th, the weather turned sunny and calm and not too cold so we decided to make a midnight run into the solstice.
Special thanks to Alonzo from Nulato. He was the one working on the new school in town that when I walked in and asked him if there was a store that was open on Sunday he said that it was three miles up and the road and so then we both got into his truck and he drove me there. Store was closed, I guess the owners were up at the boat race in Galena and didn't want to open that day. But on the way back I asked about internet and he took me to his house and gave me his password and went back to work, leaving me to do some work for an hour at his kitchen table, and listen to his roomate Mike, a painter. I never saw Alonzo again as I walked back to the boat through town. I love this town.
We battled our way up here today through a fierce headwind and waves that were washing the deck and found a great place to tie up inside a side channel out of the wind and waves next to about 15 other boats. The wind never let up that evening so we spent the night tied up in town and slept restlessly as we both hoped for an early start the next day to try to get ahead of the wind that has been killing us and that always builds in the afternoon.
The morning was cold, about 40, and calm. While I made coffee Jeff untied us and we backed into the channel. Running steady with our backs to the northern sun, bundled against the cold, we passed a great morning through the stunning Onoko National Wildlife Refuge. We were in Kaltag before noon, spotting the first fish processor we had seen on the river so far as well as a couple new fishwheels being built. The guys here fish commercially with fishwheels, a giant rotating log and wire set of baskets that spin with the current of the river and dump the catch into a pen alongside. They are floated on large log rafts and brought out every summer and tied to trees on shore. A nice couple, Morris and Marlene from Shageluk walked over to talk. They saw us the night before and wanted to have a closer look at the boat, walking through and checking out the whole set-up. They also don't mind getting unto a small boat and going seven hours upriver to visit relatives and visit.
After lunch we ran steady again through fantastically calm stretches still alongside big mountains, not too much wildlife though we did see some giant bear prints on the bank, and did not see any people all day outside of our town stop for lunch. The rest of the afternoon we made great time and traveled over 100 miles, camping at the tail end of a beautiful small island, pulled up close on one of those hard mud cutbanks walking the mud in the twighlight and looking at the animal tracks.
Riding the river right up close against the mountain range that defines one bank, through a calm and cold day we made for the village of Grayling for fuel and a look around. While Jeff changed the spark plugs on the motor and cleaned out the cottonwood seeds from the water intake (the cottonwoods are in full bloom and in places the river is white with cotton) I walked to town pulling the cart with the empty gas jug behind me. The people in the store were very friendly, everyone is, and called up to the guys at the gas store to let them know that I was coming. It really isn't a gas station, just a single pump locked in a small building right beside a couple guys who were fixing their four wheelers. I waited for a while for an attendant then walked the block long path through tall grass to the gas station office. I paid inside then walked back to the pump a block away, with the attendant, to fill up. Down the road I walked into the village tribal center and asked about internet. There were some elders there sitting and some kids playing, the place had some big couches and large folding tables and a kitchen on one end.
On the way back to the boat with my gas and internet done, I ran into 79 year old Fred Howard who wanted to have a closer look at our boat. He was especially impressed with the 1978 Evinrude motor that we have as everyone here runs new Honda 4 stroke engines. By 2 o'clock we were running downstream to Anvik, 15 miles away hoping to look up the only person that we know who lives along the river.
Desperately trying to find an internet connection I tried the grocery/liquor store but it was Saturday night in this large village and it was not a place that I wanted to hang around. I asked a guy who was filming the boat race and he said that I should try the Yukon Inn, a bar not too far away. No thanks I thought, I don't need to sit in the corner with a laptop in what turns out to be the only bar on the Yukon River in Alaska on this Saturday boat race night. But after ten minutes of pacing I thought what the hell, and walked with my backpack past log houses and a sawmill and giant tanks of fuel toward the neon open sign. After the first beer I asked the bartender about a wifi password and she said no, no way. I had another and ordered a pizza, beer makes me hungry for pizza, and after 30 minutes the shift changed and Cory started up as night shift bartender. He is a nice guy, very good at his job, and said that the bar was a family place and began pointing around the bar to his cousin, cousin, aunt, second cousin, uncle, other uncle on the other side, another cousin, and grandfather. Just as I was leaving he asked me where I was from and when I told him about our trip he said. "Are you Pat Kelly?"
"Why yes, how did you know?"
"You have a couple beers coming to you already bought by Dave"
I had no idea what he was talking about and no idea who Dave was.
Turns out it was Super Dave Peck from Fort White, Florida had used his skills and properly predicted that we would somehow end up at this place and he called the bar and talked to Cory and set the whole thing up. Cory let me use his phone, mine apparently useless in the bush in Alaska, and I gave a quick call back to Fort White to say thanks. I brought the other half of pizza back to Jeff on the boat and in a couple minutes we were both bellied up at the bar, they close at 5 you know, having our beers and celebrating, again.
Well played my man.
We heard about it in Tanana and when we got to the finish line in Galena the first boat had already arrived from Fairbanks. "Second place!" someone shouted as we passed the crowd. A man that I talked to on the bank said that Galena was on the map because it hosts three of the longest races in America. The Iditarod sled dog race, the Iron Dog snowmachine race, and the Yukon 800 power boat race. On the Yukon 800, three man teams leave Fairbanks down the Chena River to the Tanana River then into the Yukon down to the village of Galena where they spend the night and return upriver the same 400 miles back. The boats are 24 feet long and about 6 feet wide and only 1 foot off the water and reach speeds over 75 miles an hour. Navigating the multiple channels and shallow spots as well as all the floating logs in the river, the first place boat arrived 6 hours after it had left. It was a big deal in town and we watched the last 4 boats fly by after popping out from a small slough that is not even on my map, obviously a shallow water short cut. A crowd of about 100 was there cheering on the teams, I talked to a man who had come up from Anvik, 300 miles away in his boat just to see the racers come in. The race is an endurance test of crew and machine, 15 boats had entered and as of the halfway point only 6 were still in the running.
It has been blowing for the last three days and it always seems to be coming from downstream no matter how many twists and turns the river makes. Though the wind is from the south it is not a warm wind, I have been under five layers (yes, the same ones) for the last three days and still cold. The sun has come out for a while everyday, some days all day and it combined with the windburn is burning my face and hands. We have slowed down because of the hard going, the boat is not happy in the chop and wind swells that hit us from behind every little point and we are not able to get the miles as easily as before. It is exhausting, every other boat that we see here has either an enclosed cabin or at least a soft top to get out of the weather but we stand out in front of our proud craft and soak in every bit of this place that we can. Right now we are taking a late nap with the hope of finding some calm weather later tonight or early in the AM. On the bright side the water that washes over the deck is rinsing away the mud that we track in with our boots.
Ruby. Along with Rampart the only two villages on the left side of the river. Same look, a dozen or so boats tied up helter skelter in the mud and gravel, a couple beat up pickups either up on the dusty road in town or down on the beach near the boats, a fish net stretched out near the alders, some old log buildings, and a picnic table. Up the hill I walk and run into a man on a four wheeler who calls his cousin to come open up the gas pumps, the store up the hill opens at 10 (or 10:30, whenever the gal gets there) so I walk the town, population 175, and then wait on the wooded steps with Thomas Fischer the half hour for the woman to drive up on a four wheeler and open the padlock on the Ruby Commercial Company.
Thomas is from Augsburg Germany and is a nuclear power plant steam vessel inspector on the second of three legs of a complete kayak paddle of the Yukon. He will store his kayak downriver in Galena in a few weeks and return for it in two years to finish the trip. We enter the small store together, I buy a microwave hamburger to eat on the walk back to the boat and reach in the drink cooler to get a Coca Cola only to find that the cooler is unplugged and the drinks are warm. No thanks. On the way out the door an older guy that had walked in said to me, "Leave the Indian girls alone." I think he was joking around.
We pass by slowly along the riverbank just past the stunning sand cliffs where the village of Rampart is, not seeing anyone nor stopping. There is a gravel airstrip visible and of course half a dozen boats tied up on the gravel shore, a couple pickup trucks on shore, a skidsteer hauling construction materials up the hill, log houses, satellite dishes and power lines. All the villages along the river have their own electricity generation system and the houses are connected by a local grid. Lots of fish camps on this stretch of river and we are starting to see fishwheels in the water and short gill nets tied to shore, many fish camps look run down and possibly unused, many also are just shacks built with used tin and blue tarps and driftwood and logs.
A boat with three people pass us going the other way and smile and wave, half an hour later they come up from behind slowly and we talk for a while. They are working for the tribe in Tanana fixing up a village owned fish camp so that the local kids can learn some traditional skills. They invite us to stop at the camp and we do.
Fourteen people were working clearing brush, building tent frames, digging a new outhouse, and making a couple new cabins. Spirit Camp sits on the tail end of the narrow Sixteen Mile Island with views off both sides. Nirvana was playing on the sound system that sat on the roots of a driftwood log. Mostly young guys, they showed us around the smokehouse, the cabins for the elders, the cookhouse, the cold hole which served as a fridge, and the tents that were going to be put up so that kids from all up and down the river could come and spend a few weeks. They offered us some fish they had caught earlier and some coffee. They give the dog a hot dog. It was a great stop and good to see the work and energy being put into reviving the old fishcamp.
Talk has been lately of a road being built to the pretty large village of Tanana. It is built, but stops 6 miles away from the village on the opposite side of the river. Still it is a big deal to be able to drive the three hours from Fairbanks, get into a boat to go six miles across the river and be in Tanana. We stopped in for fuel and to pick up a little beer. Fuel was just up the riverbank, pay for it in the store across the street in the store. A sign in the store window says if you are drinking and driving we will not sell you any gas. Beer was sold only by the village owned liquor store that was open from 5 PM to 7 PM and saw a brisk two hour sales window. The thunder storms that we had outrun up until then caught up to us so we closed up the tent and had an early dinner there tied up in town. A nutty older German man in a kayak was staying in some sort of guesthouse in town but mostly we were surrounded by the boats of choice in these villages, 16-20 long light aluminum "sleds" they call them. Flat bottomed, usually 75-150 horsepower outboards, and all with either a homemade plywood house built aft of center or the same look in either aluminum or a sunbrella-type of cloth. Gone were the oversized fuel tanks that we saw upriver as gas is readily available every 100 miles or so in this area. Everyone is super friendly if not outgoing, people are more surprised now of where we have come from than where we are going. We get advice on which bank of the river to travel on and where to watch out for the wind and lots of folks saying that the river starts to get real big soon and to be careful of the waves. Around here the river is about 1/2 to 3/4 mile wide but just below us the Tanana River joins from the south and by tomorrow the river will be a mile wide.
The rain lets up after 8 and we run until 10:30 in the sun passing a solo canoer on a treed point and finally finding our own sandy island to tie up to for the night. We both roll out our sleeping pads and bags, clip up the mosquito nets and lay down on the parallel plywood bunks for the night.
Slowly the mountains that were in the distance become close. The river straightens, a little. The current quickens the sky turns bluer and you catch sight of a river otter playing on shore. The river has left the flats and entered a canyon, we've come over the top on the map and crossed the halfway point of the trip. Three hours later we see the Haul Road bridge and the Alyeska Pipeline crossing the river and pass underneath them between the second and third bridge supports, pulling into an eddy beside where Gerald James has tied up his barge.
I talked to Gerald back in April when I called the phone number on the website for his Native owned family barge business. I asked him about navigation in the Yukon Flats and GPS information and water depth. He happened to be on his cell phone in Fairbanks when I called but said that he would enter the GPS coordinates into his GPS unit and leave it for me at his friend's place in Circle. When I meet him in person he is just as nice and after a few minutes asks his grandson to bring us over a box of buttermilk doughnuts. We show his eighty year old friend around our boat and end up spending the night there tied up under the bridge beside the barge down an access road marked "Barge traffic only".
Jeff and I both get a shower at the Yukon River Camp there, $15 each, and I catch an hour of slow internet and then stop by Dorothy's homemade jewelry stand on the dusty side of the road. Dorothy lives down the river, has a canoe up on the bank. Tonight she will sleep in her curio shack beside the small woodstove and furs and bear claws and porcupine quills. She is waiting for her son to come by in the boat, it might be a couple days, who knows.
In the morning Gerald is sweeping up a bag of food that a raven tore apart overnight, I head up the hill for a tasty country breakfast in the cafe and we are off by 10. Gerald passes us a few hours later as we are tied up at a beautiful sandbar below a rock wall having lunch and blasts his horn. He is hauling a house building package down to someone in the village of Rampart, 60 miles away, and he unloads there and passes us again as we putt putt toward a campsite halfway to the next village of Tanana.
Population 84. Ask if they have a store, answer? No. No gas either or post office or police or any need to register your car or boat. Everybody is out on the river today searching for the couple who have been missing for two weeks. They found the boat and put a blue tarp on the shore where they did. Husband and wife were duck hunting, black ducks they said, probably white-winged scoters, we've seen a lot of them. The guy liked to drive fast and they were not wearing life vests. I was greeted when I climbed the bank by a couple kids who showed me where their grandfather used to have a store and then we went into the village council building, a community center that is the hub of town. There were three guys carving up a moose hindquarter on a plastic folding table in the middle of the room. The older kid gave me one of those frozen popcicles that are shaped like a tube and you squeeze up from the bottom, it was cherry. I saw one pickup truck, about twenty 4 wheelers, a few ski-do's laying in the grass, a lot of old boats in various states, and a picnic table on the bank set up so that you can watch people come and go. Not much goes on here and without a store or a road anywhere not many people come into town. I need to find out more about the curious history of this place because it combines coastal Innuit culture, gold mining, and Japanese explorers. I saw some cool birds, lots of wild roses, huge moose antlers nailed to log house walls, a couple of smoldering stinky trash barrels, and walked every street in town. We only stayed a little there a little while, the little kid asked me if that meant we would leave in 3 days and I said no, later today. He also asked me if I wanted to play baseball with him.