The Journey Begins

Two Bill's Bags and the boat, ready to go
Two Bill's Bags and the boat, ready to go.
It has taken a long time to get to the next part of my Yukon River tale; not because of another trip, not because of work (I am retired), but because of something that I did not expect to happen to me. When I first got back home I slept, then I ate. Then I slept, then I ate. It took about three days to catch up on sleep and get used to the different time zone. Food was more of a problem and lasted longer as a problem. It seemed that I was eating all the time. Not great quantities but constantly hunting and gathering. I did not quite reach the stage of hoarding food in secret caches about the house.

Those were minor problems compared to the mental letdown that seemed to sweep over me after being home for a few days. I just did not seem to want to do anything at all. I think that the change was too abrupt coming from the wilderness of Alaska to being planted back in Arizona in a matter of two days. Even though I live in the White Mountains of Arizona, the scenery was much different from that along the Yukon River. The daily routine was even more different between the two. I had to readjust my day-to-day activities upon my return which was hard because I did not want to do that. I had become so much a part of the kayak trip down the river that I did not want to relinquish it. I wanted to keep paddling. I wanted to keep experiencing the wilderness, the river, the people and the weather.

As time stretched on and I got on with my life in Arizona, the experience began to fade into the background as the noise of day-to-day life reemerged. Now, I still have the memories and I have my life back here at home. Now I can start to plan another trip into some wilderness.

On to the Yukon River. I had read in a 1999 National Geographic that the Yukon River has its beginnings in the glacial waters that flow into Lake Atlin, British Columbia which was where I decided to start my kayak trip down the Yukon. I had done so once before in 1999 but only got to Russian Mission, Alaska, 300 miles from the Bering Sea. I had to go back to work!

Anyway, I contacted the Atlin Visitors Center to see if there was a flight service that could pick me up in Juneau and fly me across the mountains and Llewellyn Glacier to Lake Atlin so I would not have to portage my gear from Juneau to Atlin. The person at the Visitor Center referred me to Atlin Air which I did contact. The guy at the other end said that he would be able to pick me up and fly me to Atlin. Our first conversation was in March or April. I made a couple of other calls just to remind the person who I was and why I was calling him. Everything was still on schedule. I would arrive in Juneau, via Alaska Airlines from Phoenix, on June 5th and the person from Atlin Air would pick me up and fly me to Atlin. On Saturday, June 3rd, I called Atlin Air again to confirm that all was still well and that I would be picked up in Juneau. I gave the person my arrival time and was told that he would be there unless the weather got bad enough that he would not be able to fly over the mountains.

The flight to Juneau was uneventful and the approach to the city was spectacular… just awesome. Having collected my baggage I checked the lobby but there was no one waiting for me. Since it was raining slightly as we landed, I called Atlin Air to see if the weather had delayed the flight. After I identified myself, the person said that the plane would not be arriving because of the weather. I said that would not be a problem and I would wait until the next day. The person on the other end of the line said that her husband, the pilot, would be taking some mining personnel out to the mines and would not be able to get to Juneau until the end of the week. And, in fact, he would not be coming at all since he did not have a commercial license!

It was at the start of this trip that I learned, really learned, the meaning of self-control, flexibility, alternative plans and patience. Having a calling card, I turned to the phone book (perfectly calm, having chewed my way through a wooden post in the parking lot) and found a couple of other flight companies. One of them was a charter-only and would have charged me $825 to fly to Atlin. A second one charged about $100 less. But as I talked to the lady she suggested a different way to get to Atlin. I asked where they were located. She said if I just turned around, I could see their counter across the lobby. Hanging up the phone, I walked over with my three bags of gear to talk to her. What we worked out was a flight to Skagway for $100 followed by bus trip to Whitehorse, followed by a van trip to Atlin which would take me two days. That was much better than a flight back to Phoenix or packing it all over the mountains and Llewellyn Glacier to Lake Atlin.

Snow covered mountains above Skagway, Alaska
Snow covered mountains above Skagway, Alaska.

It was a beautiful flight to Skagway in a 5-passenger plane. From the airfield in Skagway I got a free ride in a van to The Sgt. Preston Hotel where for $60 I got a room for the night. When I had all my bags in my room I went back to the hotel office to see where I could find a good place to eat. As we talked, I told them my sad tale. They felt sorry for me but would not reduce the price of the hotel room. All they could spare was a free cup of coffee and a warm lobby where I could whine for a while.

Our conversation was overheard by a person working the computer and he offered some suggestions such a renting a car and driving it to Atlin. That did not work since I would have to bring the car back. He then said he would try to find a person to drive me to Atlin so that I would not have to go to Whitehorse first. I said that would be great and we agreed on a price of $160. Later that evening, as I was relaxing on my bed, he called and told me that his sister would drive me to Atlin on the following day for the agreed-upon price. I thanked him profusely and went out for a good supper. My ride would be at my door at 7:00 am!

Ray Zvirbulis
Show Low, Arizona