“Have adventures. Just don’t die.” Nick’s advice. He said these words to me while we were leaving town. His 1966 flatbed dually pickup creaked and rumbled over the gravel. I had my life jacket stuffed behind my back, since the springs were gone in the truck seat. “I don’t want to fish your body out of the river later.”
“Thanks, I don’t want you to either,” I said. “Here we are, a park service employee, in uniform, and the head Law Enforcement ranger, and all I have is a bottle of water with me. No food, no safety gear, no fire-building stuff, no radio…”
“Yeah, we’re the people who should be the most prepared….”
“…and I’m not prepared at all.”
“Do you want to take a radio?”
“Nah. Let’s just go.”
We left Eagle and drove upriver, past Eagle Village, all the way to the end of the road – and by that I mean THE END. Over one hundred miles of gravel road behind us, an overgrown weedy cul-de-sac and spruce woods in front of us. The only way to go any farther is to get out and walk. Or get into a boat.
It was Wednesday evening, but it was Nick’s Friday, as he’d been in the park on patrol over the weekend. He had offered to lend me a kayak and drive me to the put-in. It was a spur of the moment idea, after work, which was why I was still wearing my park uniform.
We got out of the truck and carried the boat toward the river, the trail almost obscured by feathery horsetails. The forest ended abruptly in a thirty-foot drop to the water’s edge. A caribou carcass lay below, ribcage exposed, bits of fur flung along the steep slope. Nick began lowering the kayak on a rope while I scouted for a way to get down. A dog carcass wearing a blue collar lay along the trail. I scrambled down the scree slope in a spot where it wasn’t quite as steep, rocks and riverdust chattering toward the water. I reached the kayak and could see that the bank Nick was standing on was undercut beneath him, and there were cracks in it.
“Did you see the bear carcass?” he asked.
“No, but I saw a dead sled dog.”
“It’s Eagle,” he shrugged.
I managed to unwedge the kayak from some small trees, dodge the dead caribou, and lower the boat the rest of the way to the river. Nick threw me the rope and then stood and watched until I was launched. “Paddle a bit upstream, just to see what it’s like, in case you overshoot the boat landing.” I tried it, and was amazed at how easy it was to go upstream. Then the current caught the boat and spun it right around. I had been in the eddy that runs along the edge of the bank. Nick seemed satisfied, waved goodbye, and suddenly I was alone with the Yukon River.
Shoulders tensed and belly clenched when the current grabbed the boat and pulled us downstream. The surface broke into smooth domes, as vertical pulses of water rose to the top and bloomed. It was like riding on a cauldron of simmering soup, only it was all flowing in one direction. A glance at the bank showed that the boat and I were moving at about six miles an hour, maybe faster. Faster than I could walk. No matter how much you read about a thing, and understand it intellectually – the Yukon River is a highway through the interior, it was the main travel route for the gold rush miners – sometimes you only fully comprehend it when you experience it. My body knew, at that moment: this is the way to travel through the country.
The current pushed me and pulled me whichever way it wanted. Oddly, I didn’t feel afraid. In awe, yes. Respectful and careful, very much so. But not afraid. This water, like all the rest, leads to the sea. Drips ran down the paddle toward my hands. I tasted them: almost sweet, almost salty.
Visibility down into the water is nothing. Impossible. Burbot, grayling, pike, whitefish, and now king salmon swim the depths, but how do they navigate through the gray creamy-textured water? By feel. By smell. By fish-sense.
More domes broke the surface, sometimes spinning the boat around so that I’d face upstream. This happened most often if I was paddling hard, trying to exert my will and go a certain direction. If I relaxed and simply floated, occasionally dipping the paddle in to correct the steering, it was easier to get along with the river. Don’t fight it. Go with the flow. I embraced the spin-arounds, enjoying the view upstream, looking back to where I’d been, and beyond. The evening sun glowed on the mountains, lighting the riverside plants in electric vibrant green.
Bank Swallows’ cliff cities pock-marked the sand bluffs on the left, miniature Mesa Verdes. White-crowned Sparrows and Swainson’s Thrushes, Bohemian Waxwings and Robins chorused from the land. Spotted Sandpipers peeped, then flew out over the water with their twitchy wing-beats. The river’s fine grit caressed the hull of the kayak, a silty, silky sound. Ravens created a hullaballoo up in the cliffs.
But the silence is the main thing. Even amidst the pulse of the river, there is a deep quiet. Breathe slowly and fully. Let the silence soak in. Imagine floating for days or weeks on this river, what that would do to your soul.
Eagle Bluff came into view, the take-out point. Two river hours, eight river miles. Nick, who owns his own plane, flew over as I approached the landing. He tipped the wings at me, while I waved. Then he turned and flew north, off on his own adventure.