Arts & Culture

Yukon River Adventure Part III – The Conclusion

Solstice at midnight on the Yukon.

Solstice at midnight on the Yukon.

Last month in Part II of my Yukon River Adventure I covered a brief history of exploration of the Yukon, while telling of our progress from the headwaters of the river to Eagle, Alaska. Part III will conclude the journey my boat companions, Robin and Kathy, and I experienced as we drifted the rest of the Yukon River to the Bering Sea. I will also put some emphasis on the missionary history and its influence on the Native Alaskans of the Yukon. The impact of white men was certainly culture changing. The introduction of trade goods, different forms of transportation and the pursuit of economy changed the river forever. Just as life changing was the conversion of Native Alaskans to Christianity and their introduction to education and health programs by white people. There is a village an average of every 100 miles from the Canadian border to the sea. Of the twenty-two villages along the river all but half a dozen experienced the establishment of churches. Most of the original churches are gone now. For many villages their influence remains.

“This is the Law of the Yukon,
and ever she makes it plain:
send not your foolish and feeble;
send me your strong and your sane.”
– Robert Service

The next village we visited after Eagle was Circle City. Circle was thought to have been founded on the Arctic Circle, however, the location was mis-guessed by 50 miles. During the Gold Rush there were 3000 folks living here for a short time. Within three years the population dropped to 30 and today it has around 100 residents. On the river bank near Circle, as I explained in Part I, is where the seed for this journey was sown with the meeting of the British expeditioners when I was only a teenager. By the way, I discovered twenty years later that they never finished their trip. Personality conflicts in the confines of their small raft became too much for them to overcome.


Campfire on the banks of the Yukon.


At Circle City we hitched a ride to a Gold Rush era placer mine just below Eagle Summit on the Steese Highway. Mastodon Creek was staked by pick and shovel miners as gold played out in the Klondike during the Gold Rush. The Berry brothers came down river from Dawson and purchased these claims. Hydraulic nozzles and water canons were brought in and commercial mining was pursued with great success for over twenty years. The Berry brothers returned to California in 1923.

Bill and Alice Herring acquired a lease from the Berry brothers’ heiress with full rights to recover any gold left behind by her uncles’ commercial mining. Bill and Alice placer mined here for over 50 years with a D-6 Caterpillar and a sluice box. When “cleaning up” one fall they were rewarded with pounds of gold flakes and with some large nuggets.

After Circle City we launched into the Yukon Flats bound for Fort Yukon. The flats are as wide as 50 miles with endless channels, sandbars and islands. Maintaining a position in the “main channel” sometimes required us to stop and do a drift test. The flats can be a bit intimidating due to the vastness of low brush covered islands and no significant points of reference. The comforting factor was all this water keeps moving, including water swirling into and out of a very large whirlpool we discovered at mile 761. The weather here was awesome, into the high 80s with mosquitoes in the 80 millions. Alaska’s highest ever recorded temperature was 101° F at Fort Yukon. The afternoons here can bring on frequent violent thunderstorms dropping the temperatures down dramatically.

 “Squaw candy.” Smoked king salmon belly strips at fish camp near Last Chance.

“Squaw candy.” Smoked king salmon belly strips at fish camp near Last Chance.

Fort Yukon is at mile 795 on the river and was founded as a Hudson’s Bay Company trading post in 1847. These British traders came over from Canada via the Porcupine River that enters the Yukon at this location. This fort played a key role in the development and history of trading and missionary endeavors, as well as other business pursuits. Until the sale of Alaska to the United States in 1867, the Hudson’s Bay Company dominated all trade in the region from the coast to as far downriver as Nulato, nearly 700 miles distant.

Robert Kennicott, a gifted naturalist, first arrived at Fort Yukon in 1861, at age 25. He was on a three year expedition collecting specimens to document and send back to the Smithsonian. He returned to the Yukon in 1865 as the leader of a team sponsored by the Western Union Telegraph Company to determine the best route for an overland telegraph line to Europe. This was a grand plan with a grand price tag (as most Alaska projects are). The expectation of the investors was to charge $25.00 per message and send 1000 messages per day.

Kennicott arrived in St. Michael at the mouth of the Yukon to a devastating disappointment. He had brought a small steamboat in pieces to inaugurate steam navigation on the river while investigating the telegraph line route. Kennicott soon learned there were critical parts missing and the steamer, Lizzie Horner, couldn’t be made operable. He and his six men spent the winter hauling all of their supplies up river to Nulato. Kennicott suffered through the dark cold months of winter only to die on a muddy sandbar in the early spring. He was among the first U.S. citizens to live on this great river and the first of many to die here. The telegraph line was never built.

 Village of Nulato from Cemetery Hill.

Village of Nulato from Cemetery Hill.

As we made our way into Fort Yukon we had many discussions of the impact of these early explorers and goldseekers on the resources and the Native Alaskans. Fort Yukon is what is known as a “wet” village, meaning alcohol is legally sold here. Many of the villages are “dry” meaning no legal alcohol sales are allowed. On the lower river there is a place called Last Chance, which is the last stop for legally sold alcohol below the village of Galena.

An influence that can be easily overlooked today is that of the early missionaries. Fort Yukon was the site of the first church, an Anglican church, established by the Church of England in 1862. A Scotsman, Archdeacon Robert McDonald, spent 50 years working among the Yukon Natives. While there he translated the Bible into the Tukudh dialect of the Athabascan people. There was an Anglican Bishop at Fort Selkirk as well.

In 1896, Bishop Peter Rowe came into the country as the first American Episcopal Bishop. The two earliest Episcopal missions were at Anvik and Tanana. Anvik is 350 miles upriver from the mouth.

Mainstreet at Fort Yukon.

Mainstreet at Fort Yukon.

The Russians had built a church at Russian Mission in the earlier 1800s after establishing a trading post here in 1837. A Russian Orthodox priest occasionally visits the village to this day.

During the late 1800s an extraordinary meeting took place. Sheldon Jackson, a Presbyterian missionary involved in Alaska for several years, concluded that the need for missionaries was far greater than any one denomination could provide. As a result a multi-denominational meeting was called. At this meeting an informal agreement was reached to divide Alaska into missionary districts or territories. There were perhaps ten churches willing to send their people of faith into Alaska to meet this need.

The Roman Catholic Church became the third primary mission church on the Yukon establishing their first missions at the villages of Nulato and Holy Cross. Archbishop Charles Seghers was the first to be assigned this new jurisdiction. Unfortunately he was shot and killed by a mentally unstable Catholic layman. Bishop’s Rock, a prominent stone outcropping below Nulato is named after him. By 1906 the Catholics had begun nine boarding schools, three day schools and four hospitals.

The Episcopalians went on to construct hospitals, churches, schools and the first library on the Yukon. Those structures were turned over to the City of Tanana in 1941. The first newspaper to be published in the Alaskan interior was also at Tanana. The press, provided by the Episcopalians in the states, was the Yukon Press. In the early days, Bishop Rowe ran his dog team to thirty-two villages to bring the light of the gospel to the interior Athabascans. Once, when he was breaking in a new team, the dogs fell through thin ice. After much hard work he finally got them out; later he was asked what he had been saying as he struggled to free them. “God knows, the dogs know, and I know,” was his answer.

Another significant Episcopalian was Archdeacon of the Yukon, Hudson Stuck, who covered anywhere from 1500 to 2000 miles a year by dog team serving and supervising over thirty villages. Hudson Stuck was one of the few missionaries that condemned the “Americanizing” of Natives for profit. He insisted on preserving Native customs, skills, clothing, and food. This energetic, bright young missionary was a highly versatile man well suited to Alaska. He and his fellow climbers made the first successful ascent of the highest south peak of Denali in 1913. He also recognized the ignorance of naming the “Great One” Mt. McKinley and made an eloquent plea to restore the mountain’s Native Alaskan name of Denali.

As we passed over the Arctic Circle now moving south southwest,
we watched the midnight sun never go
below the horizon—a beautiful and fascinating sight.

The early missionaries who introduced the Bible translated it into Native dialects, established churches, schools, and hospitals, and had as much impact on changing the Yukon River way of life as any economic or cultural influence. These early souls made a way for the missionaries who were there when we made our journey in 1980. We discovered at Fort Yukon two different Baptist denominations, an Episcopal church, Assembly of God church and a Wycliffe Bible translator. We attended the Assembly of God with twenty-five other folks from Fort Yukon. Overall we observed that the villages that embraced some measure of faith were more positive and healthy than those who chose to have no missionary influence in their villages. The introduction of education and health services through the missionary efforts brought on the need for public education and health systems via the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the state of Alaska years later.

We left Fort Yukon after mailing my son, Aaron, a “dinosaur bone” and made our way to Beaver, then to the village of Stevens. At this point we had thirty-seven hours on the engine and were at river mile 955. We met up here with Joann Miller, a former student from Sheldon Jackson College. We shared pilot bread, smoked salmon, and tea. It was a delightful visit. When we returned to the boat we were just in time to assist in catching a fish wheel that came drifting down the river. The King salmon were on their way up river and the season dictated it was time to set up fish camps. The kings run all the way to Whitehorse, over 2000 miles from the ocean.

We did visit Purgatory just above the Yukon River bridge. Some have a hope of making it there. I can tell you we were there but no one else was! It is an abandoned Gold Rush campsite—for real, we have been to Purgatory! The bridge site is also known as Yukon Crossing. It is here where the pipeline and North Slope Haul Road cross the river. At the time we were there, in the summer of 1980, there were a hundred trucks a day crossing the bridge.

Pitching pike lures at Tatchum Creek.

Pitching pike lures at Tatchum Creek.

On to Ramparts. It was pretty quiet here and we had a supper of ham sandwiches with chicken soup. Lots of mosquitoes. We were now at mile 1035. We heard some river traveler stories from an elder who said many rafts and canoes are left behind here.

As we passed over the Arctic Circle now moving south southwest, we watched the midnight sun never go below the horizon—a beautiful and fascinating sight.

We stopped at Tanana where it was cloudy and 60° F with some rain, so we made this a shower stop. We met Bob Mitchell, an Arctic Missions man, as he stopped to admire the Duckworth riverboat. He had not seen one before and told us of the Yukon 800 boat race from Fairbanks to Galena. We decided we wanted to see the race and headed for Galena to make it in time to see it. Galena is at mile 1273. The scenery had changed to low rolling hills. Through this section the river narrows and the current picks up. We stopped at Ruby and had a cheeseburger at the Ruby Roadhouse for $5.00.

At Galena we enjoyed witnessing the Yukon 800 racers come in. There was quite the dance party that night. We watched and observed what must be one of the craziest party nights on the Yukon. There was also a softball championship game between Huslia and Tanana. We sat by the fire until 6:00 a.m. when the racers headed back upriver.

Softball fans cheering on the soon to be champions at annual regional games in Galena.

Softball fans cheering on the soon to be champions at annual regional games in Galena.

We headed downriver, drifting. As it rained, Kathy cooked breakfast on the boat of hot cereal, honey, and bacon. The weather pattern had changed to more wind, clouds, and cooler temperatures.

We made short visits at Bishop’s Rock, Koyukuk, Nulato, and Kaltag, till we stopped at Grayling at mile 1468. There we met Henry Deacon with Arctic Missions and went to the service with him—the place was full. Afterwards we met Mountain Deacon, fished with him and caught some bright chum salmon.

Next we were on to Anvik, where it was 78 degrees and a beautiful day on the Yukon. We checked out an old Episcopal Mission church and school there and then drifted on down the river through a heavy spruce forest where there were hundreds of trees with burls on them of all sizes and shapes.

On July 1st we arrived in Holy Cross. This was the most successful Catholic mission on the Yukon. We spent the evening with Father Kanecki, a remarkable and impressive man. Late into the evening we sat discussing missions on the Yukon River. This village is “dry.”

After checking out a Russian mission in Holy Cross it was on to Marshall where the wind was blowing, and the river was very rough and choppy. We took a fellow named Dave for a ride on the boat, and he decided to buy it with the understanding that he wouldn’t get possession until we brought it back upriver after reaching the Bering Sea.

Off for Pilot Station, St. Mary’s, mile 1710, Pitkas Point and Mt. Village. We had supper with Sister Scholastica and Father Jim. She cooked up some fresh Dolly Varden and served warm apple pie with ice cream. We were able to do laundry here and had a very nice visit. Sister Scholastica has been here for forty-six years.

We stopped at Emmonak on Sunday, July 6, attended the Assembly of God Church service and gave thanks for our successful trip.

Upon reaching the Bering Sea where grey sky and grey water meet, our emotional state of mind was mixed—joyful in our success, but somewhat saddened that this incredible journey had come to an end.

 “Wait for me!” The only ride in town, at Ruby village.

“Wait for me!” The only ride in town, at Ruby village.

We returned to St. Mary’s where we dropped Kathy off to catch an Alaska Airlines flight to Anchorage. Robin and I continued back up river to Marshall to drop the boat off to Dave. We chartered a flight to Wasilla with our gear and returned home after thirty-four glorious days on the mighty Yukon.

After our return to Sheldon Jackson College for the fall semester we did a full trip slideshow. It was from this time forward that I came to be called “Yukon Don” by friends and family. The name stuck, becoming the business name for our Bed & Breakfast in Wasilla that we operated for over fifteen years. Somewhere along the way my good friend John Davies, an attorney (now retired), suggested that I make the legal change of name. With all due consideration I chose to make it official eleven years ago.

Kathy, also known as “Klondike Kate,” is retired from teaching and still lives in Sitka. Robin Bogard is living in the Nikiski area with his wife, Gretchen, and has five children. He became a professional welder and student of the Bible, and is now employed up north. I am grateful for these great companions.

We currently own our third Duckworth, a 24 foot with 502 inboard. It is in our retirement thoughts to repeat this incredible journey in 2016.


Story by Yukon Don Tanner

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