Epic Yukon River Journey: Days Six Eight

On my previous Yukon trip, I had also stopped at Seventeen Mile Island. This year, when I reached it, about one hour below the confluence with the Takhini River, I let the kayak drift along the bank until I reached the downstream end. Once there, I paddled past a beaver lodge occupied by at least two beavers, around the point and back upstream on the other side of the island until I came to a place where I could land the kayak.

I found a narrow sand bar below a five-foot high bank of the island. Just upstream, on a very large sandbar curving out from the island, were a couple of canoes, three adults and three children. After I had set up camp and secured the kayak with bow and stern lines tiedto some sturdy trees, I talked to the people sharing the island with me. I found they were pushing on because the kids couldn't fall asleep when it was so light; it was 9:30 but bright as day.

After my campfire was going and my supper re-hydrating, I walked about the island to see what changes had taken place over the past seven years. The large campsite contained pit toilets, picnic tables with shelters over them and fire pits, looking as though they had not been used in a long lime. Things were falling apart and no one seemed to be making repairs or replacing broken down camp stuff. Back at my campsite, the other group was just pushing off to paddle down the river. They invited me to stop for tea the next morning at their campsite, if it was not too early when I reached them.

By the time I had eaten supper, checked my gear and made my entry in the journal it was midnight. Up to that point, it seemed like I could not get into my sleeping bag before midnight. Generally, it also took me about two hours each morning to get back on the river. That, of course, included cooking breakfast, taking down the tent, washing dishes (not too many), packing my gear, checking the campsite for forgotten gear and trash and making my sandwiches for lunch before finally pushing off.

I left the island that day at 8:00 am after getting up at 6:00. My goal for the day was to get down Lake Laberge as far as I could. On my first trip, I had been advised by several people to either pay someone to drive me around the lake or take me by boat down the lake. The reason for that advice was that the winds were contrary and generated high waves as they swept down the snow-capped mountains along both shorelines. The winds and waves had pushed many a canoeist and kayaker off the lake and had often forced them to wait two or three days before they could get back on the water.

The lake is 35 miles long and at its narrowest point and is about three miles wide. In 1999 I had seen a couple of groups of canoeists and kayakers forced off the lake by the high winds and waves. The two groups standing on the shore looked quite forlorn. But, not knowing any better (ignorance is bliss), I had paddled on.

It had taken me two hours to paddle from the island to Lake Laberge. At the entrance to the lake there are pilings thrust up high above the water. They are from the days when the steamboats plied the waters of the lakes and the Yukon River. As the current of the river swept me onto the lake I had thought to paddle down the middle of the lake but the wind drove me to the right shoreline. Rather than fight the wind, I chose to follow the shore. That proved to be a good decision since the wind was not as severe there and sometimes even blew from behind.

Around noon I found a very scenic cove for lunch. It was secluded, out of the wind and warmed by the sun. After finishing lunch I wandered around and found the remains of what appeared to be a small steamboat. I paced off what looked like the keel of the boat and found it to be about forty feet long. There were some ribs from the boat lying on the ground and some large spikes, rusted and scattered about. I was to find other places along the river where boats had broken down and been abandoned after being stripped of working mechanical parts such as the boiler and engine. These were usually put to work in new boats.

When I continued down the lake, the wind had shifted somewhat. It was now blowing from behind making the paddling much easier. But it also blew a repugnant scent past my nostrils. Soon I realized the repugnant odor was rising from my body. I was due for another bath. I found a beautiful cove at 6:15. There was a lot of firewood for my campfire which I would need after my two-minute bath. Once again the water was frigid. But the sun (which was shining brightly) and the fire quickly warmed me.

That day I had managed to paddle farther than I had anticipated. I was about ten miles from the end of the lake and it looked like it was going to be a good day to paddle the next morning. The sky was clear and there was no wind. This was the sixth day in a row that no rain had fallen. I was greatly pleased and surprised by that.

It was 7:45 when I pushed off on the following day. Two hours later I was at the end of the lake. Because the trees of the forest reach to the water at that point, the outlet is hard to see. To help boaters find the outlet, somebody had fastened two large pallets high up in one of the spruce trees. I could see them from two or three miles away.

Lake Laberge was the last lake I would have to paddle. From then on the current of the river would be working hard to take me to the Bering Sea. It would be working much harder than I would. Soon after entering the Yukon River, I caught up to a couple from Germany who were paddling a canoe. It was a standard sized canoe of about seventeen feet in length but it was very much overloaded. Tied to the top of a stack of gear and boxes of stuff was a guitar. We spoke briefly and they said they were also headed for the Bering Sea. I am not usually one to offer unsolicited advice but this time I did offer my opinion that they seemed to have overloaded their canoe. What I actually said was, "You sure have a lot of gear piled high in you canoe. Is that a guitar strapped on top of the pile?" They both just laughed and paddled on down the river.

After I had passed them, I decided to stop at Hootalinqua Shipyard which was abandoned long ago. It was located on an island and drawn up out of the water was an immense, decaying steamboat. It looked like it would not last through too many more winters. A sign warned that people should stay off the boat for their own safety. I thought about setting up camp there but the clouds of mosquitoes drove me back into the kayak and out onto the river.

I had wanted to stop at 6:00 but could not find a place where I could get out of the kayak until 7:30. Even then it was not an easy, or graceful, exit from the kayak. I clung to some tree roots with one hand while getting out. I used my other hand to hang onto the kayak and the line attached to the bow. Once I had climbed the steep bank and tied the bow line to a tree, I took all of the gear out and then lifted the kayak onto the high bank. Because there were logs being swept down the river at that point, I did not want one of them coming too close and taking my kayak downstream with it. That campsite had an overabundance of mosquitoes and not enough blood donors to go around.

I soaked supper while slapping at mosquitoes. There were too many to allow me to eat outside so I was forced to eat in the tent. As I was going into my tent to eat my supper in peace, I was horrified to see a whole dark swarm of mosquitoes waiting in ambush for me. Apparently they had gotten in while I was setting up the tent and putting my gear into it. I set my food down, jumped into the tent, zipped the screen shut after me and prepared to engage those critters in mortal combat. The zippered screen kept reinforcements out and kept the trespassers from escaping. There would be no exit for them.

I quickly began smearing the mosquitoes against the tent wall, against the screen door and against the floor. Some I smashed in mid-air between my palms. Some I snatched out of the air with one hand and ground them into a protein mush in my fist. By the time the carnage was over, there were mangled mosquito bodies everywhere; it was not a pretty sight.

In the morning I discovered that I had missed a few of them. They had supped on my blood during the night and having gorged themselves, could barely crawl up the tent walls, much less fly. It was their last supper. I relished smearing them into the tent fabric. My blood left streaks that stained the walls. I left the streaks as a warning to other mosquitoes.

Almost forgot. Earlier the previous day I had stopped at the deserted village of Big Salmon. There were several buildings still standing. Near the edge of the village were two new outhouses. I guess other travelers stopped there often enough that somebody had built them to keep the place clean. I walked around taking pictures while carrying on a loud conversation with no one in particular and with my can of bear spray in hand. I had seen a rather fresh and large pile of bear scat when I had climbed out of the kayak. Apparently the bear had not been trained to use the outhouse.

Farther downstream, just past the Little Salmon River is an Indian burial site but I did not stop since I had done so on the previous trip. Besides, the current was too fast and the river was too high that day. The water covered the landing and the brush was right to the river's edge.

So, after the mosquito massacre I ate my supper in the tent enjoying the peace and quiet. Once again I crawled into my sleeping bag just before midnight. And the river rolled on.

Ray Zvirbulis
Show Low, Arizona