Last month in the story, “Launching a Dream,” I described the events leading up to the beginning of my journey drifting down the Yukon River with my boat companions Robin, Kathy, Eliot, and Clare in the summer of 1980. Below, the story continues from the waters of Lake Laberge to where Eliot and Clare disembarked in the historic Dawson City, and then on to Eagle, Alaska.
The Yukon River is one of the last major rivers to be discovered by white men. Beginning in northern British Columbia, Canada, the river proper forms by the combined outflow of a series of lakes to include Tagish, Marsh, Bennett, and others. As the mighty river flows into the interior of Alaska, it takes in all the waters draining from the south side of the Brooks Range and all waters draining from the north side of the Alaska Range.
The Russians were on the Yukon as early as the 1830s. Working out of Kodiak and then Sitka, the Russian American Company pilfered and prospered from the furs found in the newly discovered territory trading up the Yukon as far as Nulato, Alaska, while the Hudson Bay Company came down the Porcupine River from the Canadian side. All utilized the vast, far reaching, greatly flowing Yukon.
The Hudson Bay men thought the Yukon flowed north as the McKenzie River does in Canada, emptying into the Arctic Ocean. Some years ago I acquired a map published in the mid 1800s showing the Yukon flowing into the Arctic Ocean near Barrow. They were known to create maps like this to discourage competing traders from entering into their trade territory. In 1851 the Hudson Bay trader, Robert Campbell, who established the post at Fort Selkirk was ordered to explore the Yukon below Fort Yukon. When Campbell left the upper river on June 4th he didn’t know whether he would be carried by the Yukon to the Pacific or Arctic Ocean.
For the early explorers all they knew was the current flowed to an unknown location where it met salt water. For us, the river was mapped. Besides a compass we did not have, nor did we need, navigation aids. The purpose for NSEW orientation was to identify where we were at among the hundreds of bends in relation to the maps we carried.
“On its banks live thousands who know neither its outlet nor its source, who look to it for food and even for clothing, and, recognizing its magnificence, call themselves proudly men of the Yukon.”
William H. Dall, Alaska and Its Resources
Along with not knowing their final destination, early explorers also faced the same river hazards as all travellers on this great river. Sweepers are among the most common obstacles known to all Alaskan river runners. The white spruce, cottonwood and birch trees that grow along the banks slip into the water and hang horizontal to the surface, becoming life threatening if you have not the steerage control to avoid them.
The wind for drifters is another hazard that must be managed with caution so as to avoid being blown into the sweepers. Hidden gravel on sand bars lurking just under the surface did pose some difficulties on more than one occasion for us.
Of all of America’s rivers the Yukon has the longest prehistory and the shortest recorded history. My research and study of the Yukon revealed the first expedition of white men was led by Lt. Schwatka in 1883. He and his men built a 42 by 15 foot raft and drifted the great river to the Tanana. He was charged with a military reconnaissance, mapping the mountains, tributaries and navigation possibilities for future opportunities.
There are many stories of Yukon River adventurers who have drifted, paddled and motored many miles of this magnificent river. I could find no story of a party in a motorized vessel navigating the miles of water from “the lakes” to the Bering Sea, 2,000 plus miles. We appeared to be the first expedition to make this entire journey with a motor.
Our expedition left Lake Laberge to the tune of Hank Thomas’s song, Squaws Along the Yukon, sung by Eliot and Clare. The Yukon is blue here, the channel is narrow, and it leaves one wondering how the large sternwheelers like the Casca II could access the upper river.
We camped at Hootalinqua, a former Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) post during the Gold Rush. There we had fresh grayling and pike over the fire for supper. One hundred and eighty miles were already behind us.
Fife Creek camp was next. We had some difficulties with shallow water here and ended the day with coyotes serenading us to sleep as a curious beaver drifted near the boat. We stopped briefly at Little Salmon and checked out the old cemeteries.
Then it was on to Carmacks on June 7th—95 degrees with no wind. An Irish immigrant, John Mitchell, was so kind as to haul our fuel to the river sparing us from having to pack the gas in five gallon jugs quite some distance. From our research prior to departure we knew that gas was available in every village but not often convenient or close to the river landings.
As we neared Five Finger Rapids, a place where large rocks in the river create five channels, I remembered reading about the difficult challenge this portion of the river caused for steamboats during the Gold Rush. We selected the most challenging white water channel. The inboard V-8 with 8 inch Hamilton Jet was up to the task of carrying us swiftly down to Tatchum Creek. We made camp, caught some pike and cooked it over a great campfire. It was a fine evening on the bank of the mighty Yukon!
Tatchum Creek had a water temperature of 54 degrees and provided an ideal bathing opportunity for us and an even better opportunity for the local mosquito population to gorge themselves on the abundance of exposed soft white skin we provided. The next morning we woke to heavy smoke in the air. There was a large forest fire burning just two miles to the east in the Pelly River area. For breakfast we ate more fresh pan fried pike. We then cast off for Fort Selkirk, one of two Hudson Bay Company trading posts. The other was built at Fort Yukon in the mid 1800s. At the time these trading posts were established neither founder knew they were building on the same river!
Fort Selkirk was a well cared for and restored historical site. We met Danny Roberts, who was born there in 1935. Danny knew and shared some history about the Upper Yukon. He told us how the trappers and traders of the Upper Yukon with the British Hudson Bay Company came first. While the British were trading on the Upper Yukon the Russians dominated trade on the lower river up to Nulato. After the purchase of Alaska in 1867 the Russians and British were sent packing allowing for Americans, through the Alaska Commercial Company, to move into the territory.
Then came the Gold Rush, making the Yukon River a freeway for river boats. At one time there were over 500 boats and barges plying the river. We were able to explore much of this history by visiting each location with a notable history such as the Bradley Ranch on the Pelly River just up from the Yukon. This ranch was much as it was during the Gold Rush, providing hay to horses that traversed the Dawson trail. Experiencing these locations brought them to life. Taking the character from the page of a book to the banks of the river itself. We met many fascinating rugged individuals, each with a personal story of how and why they were on the Yukon River.
Then we were on to Stewart, once the site of a general store and roadhouse. The river here is over a mile wide. Just above the Stewart River is the White River that flows from the north side of the St. Elias Range. Silt carried from those coastal glaciers changes the color of the Yukon to the a gritty gray. Glaciers dump thousands of cubic feet of sediment into the river. The silt flowing in at the White River created a noticeable, constant rasping sound as the suspended particles made contact with the hull of the boat. This sound kept with us for the next 1,500 miles.
We ran the boat engine for the last thirty miles to Dawson City, “The City of Gold.” We had been drifting for nearly a week. At Dawson City, Eliot and Clare departed as planned. Kathy, Robin and I would continue on the river to the Bering Sea.
With five of us on the boat we had slept in tents on the shore. From Dawson down to Emmonak at the mouth of the river, Robin, Kathy, and I slept on the boat.
Dawson City is a great stop for exploration of Gold Rush history. There are many restored buildings including Robert Service’s cabin. We spent the evening in a restored Gold Rush saloon. Kathy exercised her magical musical skills by playing the ragtime tunes of the Gold Rush era on the antique piano. It was a great evening for soaking in the atmosphere of this once thriving Gold Rush city.
From here it was down river to the US border and Eagle, Alaska where we cleared customs through the US postmaster. Eagle is the site of Fort Egbert, the first military establishment in Interior Alaska. The National Parks Service has restored the buildings to their original condition, creating a great museum that is a must see.
The date as we headed out of Eagle was June 13, 1980. We had traveled ten days, 500 plus miles, and put a total of twenty-six hours on the engine. Only 1,800 miles left to go.
To be continued next month…