So this is the story about my pursuit of a dream to go down the Yukon River. I initially became interested in this adventure because of an experience I had up in Circle City in 1968. I was working with my father for the summer on a state maintenance shop that he was the general contractor on. We had a Sunday off and my brother, a friend, and I drove up to Circle City. We took a gold pan and I carried a Ruger 44 Magnum in a cowboy holster around my waist. There on the bank of the Yukon River we met two British expeditioners who were floating down the entire Yukon River, or at least that was their stated mission at the time that I met them.
The Yukon River Flats start just above Circle City. The river current slows down there and on that day the sun was hot and there were lots of mosquitoes. These two guys were on this little tiny raft and they were getting eaten up by the mosquitoes and scorching in the sun because their motor wasn’t working-they had pulled out their starter cord. The expeditioners were stumped as to how they were going to continue on their trip in the slow moving current and not get devoured by the mosquitoes or cooked by the sun. Fortunately for them I was able to fix their boat motor.
After fixing the motor I took my gold pan and dipped it into the bank of the Yukon and told the expeditioners, “You never know when you may get a gold flake.” Sure enough I swirled my pan and there was a flake right there. They got all excited about seeing gold, but they were most intrigued by the fact that this young kid was carrying around a pistol. Coming from England, they weren’t allowed to have a weapon like that and so they just marveled at me and the pistol around my waist. They wanted me to point it at them and I said, “Well, I can if I unload it.” They were saying things like, “Oh, we’re Bonnie and Clyde,” and they were raising their hands, so I pulled my gun out, unloaded it, and pointed it at them. They took pictures and I asked them more about their trip. They were doing a series of articles for the London Times, and mailing them in along with their photographs as they went down the river.
“I want to be like those guys, I wanted the adventure of going 2,000 miles on one of the longest rivers in North America.”
I didn’t think anything more about their articles for the London Times. What really interested me was the Yukon River, the length of it, how long it would take them to go down it, and those kinds of things. After our discussion they ended up taking another picture of us standing in front of the Circle City Trading Post. As some time went on, I thought a lot about that encounter with those guys and I began to have this overwhelming interest in going down the Yukon River. I told myself, “I’m going to do that someday, I want to be like those guys, I wanted the adventure of going 2,000 miles on one of the longest rivers in North America.” At the end of the summer I got home to Eagle River and in the house on the refrigerator door was a clipping from the London Times. I said, “Mom, where did you get that?” She explained that the preacher from Eagle River was in England visiting, and as he was sitting in a jet airplane on the tarmac the stewardess came down the aisle and asked, “Sir, would you like to have a copy of the London Times?” “Oh, sure,” was his reply. So he’s thumbing through this newspaper and suddenly exclaims, “Oh my God. I know that kid.” He recognized us in the London Times while sitting there in England. He tore out the story with the photo of me and the others in front of the trading post with my pistol and brought it home to my mother.
After high school, I joined the Navy. I began talking to some of my Navy friends saying, “You know guys, when we get out we should go down the Yukon River.” And yeah, we talked about it a lot, but life didn’t allow for it to happen. It wasn’t until 1979, when a friend and I bought a 21 foot Duckworth jetboat together in the Matanuska Valley, that my dream of traveling down the Yukon River was resurrected. We ran that boat together all over the Valley, Talkeetna, and up the Yentna River.
Sometime during that summer of ’79 I took some time off from work. My wife, Coleen, was a farm girl from southeast Nebraska who enjoyed her nice garden and yard full of chickens, all while she took care of our two boys. She noticed a pain in her lower femur near her knee joint and it turned out to be bone cancer. We had to go to a Mayo clinic and were there for three or four days. They removed her leg in the hopes of saving her life by preventing the cancer from spreading. When we came home she had a prosthesis. The dream house I had built for her in Wasilla had a stairway, and with her new prosthesis she had a difficult time learning, maneuvering, carrying laundry up and down the stairs, and doing other daily activities. As I was making these observations of her experiencing this difficulty I began thinking maybe this was a time in our lives when we should just set aside time to go rehab somewhere and let her adjust to taking care of a family with one leg. I suggested that we go to Sheldon Jackson College, a hundred year old college in Sitka, Alaska, founded by Sheldon Jackson in the 1800s. I had always wanted to go there and with my VA benefits from my military service, it was a possibility. We could combine her rehab and my opportunity into one event. We could be on the college campus and she could learn to walk again without having to climb any stairs and I could use my VA benefits. So that is what we decided to do. I called the college and they said, “Yeah, no problem.” We packed up the truck and made our way down to Sitka.
We were able to take the 21 foot Duckworth jetboat with us. I met a student named Alfred in Sitka. His boat had sunk in the Sitka boat harbor and so he pulled his out and let me put my boat in where his had been. My two boys and I could just walk across the college lawn and be right at the boat harbor where we would go out and fish or whatever.
As fall passed and we headed into winter we started talking about the summer coming up. What Coleen particularly wanted to do was go home to her family’s farm in Nebraska for the summer. I really didn’t have any interest in going down there in that heat with nothing to do besides sit down in the prairie and cook. So I suggested she take the boys and go down to the farm, to the family, while I go fulfill my dream of floating down the Yukon River. I would have plenty of time during the summer break from school. So we agreed that we would separate in May and meet back in Sitka in August.
I began to talk about my summer plans around the campus and ended up getting the interest of a young man, a student from Soldotna, named Robin Bogard. There was also a professor, named Kathy Elser, who wanted to join us, so the three of us began to plan. I ended up reading 24 books about the Yukon-the history of the Gold Rush, steamboats, telegraph lines, and all the historical pieces of the Yukon River. With that accumulated knowledge I could enjoy my time on the river even more. The three of us decided we would look at doing a project while on the river that could be financed or sponsored by the Alaska Humanities Forum, a state group that funds art projects. We applied for a grant to do research and produce a document at the end of the trip on the history and development of missions on the Yukon. The application ended up getting voted down by one vote, by a guy living in Fort Yukon. In the mean time I had done some additional research on the church history along the Yukon River. I studied the religious groups who are represented in the different villages along the river and the ones who were represented there during the Gold Rush. There were some Russian Orthodox, Episcopal, and Anglican churches, while some current ones were Baptist, and Assembly of God.
Prior to submitting my application to the humanities forum I needed to get accurate information as best I could from these villages on the Yukon to find out not only what kind of church they had there, but whether they had fuel and food. From having worked in the “bush” I thought about how mail was delivered out there. The plane lands, they throw the mail bag out, the postmaster gets the mail bag, takes it in a little cubicle, dumps it out, sorts the mail, puts the outgoing mail in the bag and takes it back to the plane, and away it goes. So I thought, you know, I’m going to send a letter addressed to the postmaster with a self-addressed stamped postcard on the inside. On the back of that postcard I put five questions. The postmaster could get the envelope, open it, there’s the card, check three boxes, put the card back in the mail-all in less than two minutes. Out of 22 villages that I sent cards to I got back 21 cards with the boxes checked. We submitted the information with our packet to the humanities forum so they would know we had some contacts out there.
Along with all that information we also gathered the names of a lot of Alaska native students from the Yukon who had attended Sheldon Jackson College over a period of years. With this list of names we would pull into a village, like Beaver, for example, and could ask if Billy Beans was there. They’d ask, “You know Billy Beans?” and we would have an immediate rapport with the people there. It worked in nearly every village.
So anyway, we had almost all the pieces gathered to make the trip possible. We had information on what was available on the river, some knowledge about the history, and we had the boat. I made the agreement with Robin and Kathy that I would provide the boat and equipment if they would split the cash expenses.
While I was working on the boat, and we were preparing to leave Sitka, a gentleman came by and asked what I was doing. Sheldon Jackson offered classes for senior citizens in the summers and this man, Eliot Mock, and his wife, Clare, were planning on taking one of these classes. He was a retired Boeing engineer who designed jet airplanes. I told him about our trip and he asked if we would be interested in having them go along for part of the adventure. I told him I’d talk to the rest of the crew. When I talked to Robin and Kathy they said, “Well, sure.” Eliot and Clare were willing to pay so it was just going to be money that Robin and Kathy could save, so yeah, 600 bucks and you can ride with us from Lake Bennett to Dawson City.
The last piece of the trip that had to be put in place was how to get the boat from Sitka to Lake Bennett, around the dam just south of Whitehorse and then getting the boat trailer back to Wasilla. Fortunately, Robin’s parents were available to drive his pickup from Soldotna to Skagway. We would put the boat with its trailer on the ferry in Sitka. In Skagway Robin’s parents would pluck the trailer and boat off of the ferry with their truck and drive it over White Pass to Carcross where we would launch the boat. Above the dam in Whitehorse, Robin’s parents would be there with the pickup to pull the boat and carry us around so we could relaunch below the dam. Then they would drive back to Wasilla and drop the trailer off. Those important logistics came together, and all the pieces were in place. Without Robin’s parents, the trip would never have happened.
In May I sent Coleen and our two sons off to Nebraska, and Robin, Kathy, Eliot, Clare and I got on the ferry to Skagway. Robin’s folks were there to pick up the boat. Kathy, Eliot, Clare, and I rode on the train while Robin rode with his parents. We met in Carcross, got off the train and there we were. The dream was beginning-right there on June 4, 1980. We launched into Lake Bennett and travelled to the far end of the lake where the gold seekers would have started their journey and then went back across the lake to where we went through a lock. There used to be rapids right below Tagish and Marsh Lakes leading into a place called Miles Canyon. This was a very hazardous canyon during the Gold Rush because it was boiling white water, and folks were trying to take rafts with 1,200 pounds each of supplies through there. A lot of gold seekers lost their lives and their stuff in that canyon. After we ferried around the dam and relaunched the boat in downtown Whitehorse we said goodbye to Robin’s parents. They took off and we pushed the boat off and headed down the Yukon to Lake Laberge where we saw the frame of an old sternwheeler stuck in the gravel. Robin knew Robert Service’s poem, The Cremation of Sam McGee, so he stood up, quoted the poem and then we were off and running down the Yukon River.
Story by Yukon Don Tanner