The quiet. It’s what I will remember most from my summer on the Yukon. The quiet, and the river, flowing through all the days and all the nights, no beginning, no end.
Like most memories, they will be sentimental and selective. I’ll leave out the parts about my constantly-running dysfunctional refrigerator, the thrum of Eagle’s generator going twenty-four hours a day, and the fighter jets from Eielson Air Force Base practicing barrel rolls over the Coal Creek drainage. But, other than those interruptions, this is the quietest place I’ve ever lived. Eagle is at the end of the Taylor Highway. Its closest neighbor by road is Chicken, a three-hour drive on rugged gravel. The nearest pavement is beyond that. And the last time I was on a paved road (or went faster than 35 miles an hour) was back in May, four months ago. In this place, the sound of traffic on paved highways is a vague notion; it might exist, but probably is something I read about in a futuristic science fiction novel.
For the last few weeks of my time in Eagle I’ve been living downtown, instead of two miles away out at the edge of the airstrip. The two-story house has a view of Eagle Bluff, and a little slice of the Yukon River visible, too. The bedroom is on the second floor, with a balcony right outside. Several nights I dragged my Thermarest mattress and sleeping bag out there, and allowed the light of the stars and aurora borealis to wash over me. A couple of sled dog teams up the hill, probably thirty dogs total, howl at the sky. The songs they sing to the dancing aurora sound different at night. They are just dogs in the daylight. But at night, their wolf blood pulses in time with the northern lights.
In August, I spent a week downriver, working in the preserve at Slaven’s Roadhouse and the Coal Creek Dredge. Both structures are owned by the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve, and help interpret the area’s gold mining history. One hundred miles downstream from Eagle, and sixty river miles from the next town (Circle), this place is even quieter than Eagle. But it wasn’t always so.
From 1895 to 1900, steam-driven stern-wheelers churned up and down the river. They burned wood to make their steam power, and barely a tree was left standing after the gold rush era. During the Circle City, Klondike, American Creek and Forty-Mile River gold rushes, thirty to forty steamboats traveled the Yukon. They burned between one and three cords of firewood per hour when going upstream. A single steamboat could eat up forty cords of wood a day.
If you didn’t strike it rich as a gold miner, you could make a living as a woodchopper, I guess. Or plant a big garden of “Yukon Gold” potatoes, carrots, and cabbages to feed all those folks who were traveling by.
Slaven’s Roadhouse was built in the early 1930s, well after the era of independent sourdough gold miners. Frank Slaven was a prize-fighter and Klondike gold miner, and occasionally would run off to do some mining when the gold fever got too bad. Frank had a big garden. Travelers could get a meal and a place to spend the night. It was a “road” house, but there was no road around. Just the river road.
These days, Slaven’s is a self-catering hostel/bunkhouse for recreational river travelers and is open year round. People arrive by raft, kayak, and canoe, or in motorized craft. Most of the motor boats on the river are flat-bottomed aluminum skiffs, with a shallow draft. When they “get up on step” (same thing as “planing”), they can travel upwards of 35 miles an hour. In the winter, snow machines and sled dog teams bring visitors. Including the rangers’ quarters, there are eleven bunks at Slaven’s, with a big barrel stove downstairs. It’s a place you can use as shelter from bad weather, unpack your gear and dry it out, warm up, cook a meal, get away from the bears. A big dining table with benches lends itself to shared meals and camaraderie among fellow travelers.
Every February, the Yukon Quest sled dog race passes through. Going from Fairbanks to Whitehorse one year, Whitehorse to Fairbanks the next, it’s billed as “The World’s Toughest Sled Dog Race.” National Park Service and Yukon Quest staff, a veterinarian, and a few volunteers work at Slaven’s, and truly resurrect its role as a roadhouse. They keep the woodstove going; serve up eggs, pancakes, burgers, and chili to the mushers; and top off your mug from the biggest coffee pot you’ve ever seen.
The roadhouse staff also provides water to the mushers and their dog teams – not a simple task. They haul gas-powered augers out onto the Yukon, and drill holes through the thick river ice to dip fresh water. Unlike the summer condition of the river, which is a creamy grey filled with glacial silt, the winter river is silt-free. No glaciers are melting in the heart of winter, so the river runs clear. The water is heated in giant pots on propane stoves, and “dog water” (used to prepare the dogs’ food) and “human water” are kept separate.
The race mushers come through over 3-day period when the race starts in Fairbanks, because the roadhouse is closer to that end of the course. When it starts in Whitehorse, the teams’ arrivals are spread out over a week. Because there’s an airstrip available nearby, Slaven’s is a dog drop for sick or injured dogs. Drivers may also pull dogs if they’re not having any fun. The mushers continue on, and their dogs are cared for until they can all be shipped out by air at the end of the event. They don’t travel in pet carriers. They go in drawstring bags, with just their heads sticking out. They’re used to it.
The river, it’s always changing. Although it’s the fourth largest river in North America, there are no navigational markers, no charts. Islands appear and disappear overnight. Your little canoe, and you yourself, are dwarfed by its scale. Some winters the ice is smooth, some years it’s jagged and rough. The river is a highway, but to travel it successfully you have to read it. Read the surface, feel the invisible depths, read the wind, read the ice. Bear, wolf, and moose tracks trace the shoulders. Fish camps are in the median. And the roar of tires on pavement is replaced by the steady hiss of riverdust, suspended in the water and forever caressing the hull.