(State #41/50) I woke up in an empty terminal, surprised to feel rested. I’ve tried before, with little success, to sleep in airports. Typically, there’s a frequent, booming robotic voice saying “Welcome to…” and reiterating why it’s a bad idea to let a stranger place a bomb in your carry-on. The main objective, it often seems, is to prevent any travelers from dozing more than ten minutes. If you somehow manage to sleep a few hours, you will inevitably wake up to a gate swarming with crying children and beaten down families waiting on their next flight. Sometimes, it’s almost like airports aren’t meant for sleeping.
So, when I arrived in Fairbanks at midnight, with no intention of getting a hotel, I assumed I’d spend a restless night on the floor. I found an empty gate and built a nest in a corner, beneath a row of seats. I drifted off and, in a true North Pole miracle, slept undisturbed. I awoke after eight o’clock to discover I was the only traveler in the terminal. I stood up, stretched, put on pants and wandered down a few gates to order a coffee — a pleasing start to my first morning ever in Alaska.
That evening I sat on a bear barrel in a puddle-filled parking lot, waiting. A van arrived and out poured my brother and two cousins. They were fresh off the train from Denali, where they had backpacked over squishy tundra and through low trees. They checked in and snuck me up to the hotel room, where their backpacks had exploded; clothing, water bottles and zip locked bags of oatmeal coated the beds and floor. Wesley and Shane, having already served their time in my canoe, geared up for a Gates of the Arctic adventure. Now, it was cousin Mindy’s turn to join me and brave 40 miles of an Alaskan river.
Mindy, the poor thing, has one brother and three male cousins on the Straw side. At home, she took dance, played flute and collected small glass horses. At our country place, however, we conscripted Mindy into our plastic gun-toting armies, dam constructing detail and, often, just digging holes with unclear goals in mind. Now, my older cousin joins us for long backpacks and runs marathons. Perhaps there’s some connection between the senseless dirt-moving activities of our youth and her penchant for strenuous physical feats. Nevertheless, Mindy remains skeptical of any activities we drag her into.
“Remember, I haven’t canoed in a long time,” Mindy reminded me as we drove out of Fairbanks. She worried that we were going to canoe a fast flowing, rapid-filled affair. So when Cat (from Alaska Dream Adventures) deposited us on the banks of the more mild Chatanika, Mindy was relieved.
After I gave Mindy a brief tutorial on paddling, we launched an un-named, new canoe under the misting sky (Rider waited, high and dry and rightfully jealous, back in Seattle). The Chatanika wasted no time on introductions. Within a hundred feet, the river wound through cut-banks, where the water narrowed into fifteen-foot channels. Pressing, the water formed slopes against these bends like the outer lanes on a racetrack; a phenomenon I’d never seen. Adding to my unease, the current undercut weak-rooted (from permafrost) spruce and aspen, which fell into the river, creating “sweepers.” Though Mindy was unaware, I stressed while trying to prevent swamping in the freezing waters or being skewered by the dead trees.
“Something’s in front of us,” a faint voice said. I saw a big strainer, fifteen feet off the bow. I maneuvered to avoid the log, which would have scattered us into the river. “Mindy, call that out louder!” I said. A couple minutes later she did; I leapt out of the boat and stopped the canoe from going into a series of disastrous logjams. We scouted the gravel bar for a way to portage, but it was stacked chest-high with washed-down trees. So, Mindy got out some cord and we used it to lead the canoe around through the rushing waters and past the dangerous obstructions.
By evening, I was happy to make camp. We chose a mossy permafrost upland and placed the tent atop the great northern shag carpet. Some aspen and spruce grew, stunted and thin, while many of their relatives stood dead and burnt or lay strait across the ground, like big used match sticks — slow rotting relics of a hardy life*. With bear-spray in-hand, we stepped over moose tracks and piles of scat and stared at the shallow arching hills of the river valley. We looked and looked for moose and bear. Nothing. Just silent and still wilderness, rolling on over the hills to more Alaska.
Gathering firewood, I studied the tiny wintergreen spruce trees, some sprouting only a few inches high from the orange and green and white array of mosses and lichen; I felt like a giant, plodding around camp. Aspen saplings joined in, helping the allusion of the micro forest. I’d grown used to tantalizing views of mountains and sunsets over water, but never had peering down at my feet been so captivating. Along with the baby trees and dead wet logs, mushrooms abounded. “What about this one, Mindy?” I asked, pointing to a red and white capped toadstool, “Can we eat this one?” Mindy shook her head. “No! We’re not eating any of these mushrooms!” Always so damn sensible, I thought (My cousin didn’t budge from that position, even after I told her it might be the only way we’d see the Northern Lights).
The Alaskan summer evenings last forever. Hours and hours of low-angled light pass by and you’re only halfway to remote darkness. The light rain abated and bits of blue sky and sunshine broke through the gray dome. Though it required a lot of maintenance, we got a fire going. I prepared whiskey and cokes and, breaking normal protocol, Mindy played her Alaskan mix as the sun took it’s time setting. Sometime… maybe eight, maybe ten o’clock… we stuck sausages on black spruce branches and roasted our dinner over the taiga fire.
A cold, rainy morning gave way to clearing skies and a warming sun. After breakfast burritos, Mindy-made coffee and we set out for the second day. As we continued down, thicker forests replaced the burned, bare sides of the sweeping hills. Glittery minerals sparkled beneath the Chatanika as the sun found gaps between white clouds. The enveloping scenery wasn’t the dramatic faces and glaciers of the Alaska Range, but it was enamoring — unlike many places on my journey, there was no doubt where we were canoeing.
We found camp on a sandbar that evening as the sky clouded over and temperatures dropped. Mindy and I bundled up and set a collected mass of driftwood ablaze. Warming by the fire, we made drinks and ate canned chilly for supper. It was our last good chance to see the Aurora, so we devised a strategy. It was simple — I’d look skyward when I got up to pee and wake her up if I saw anything.
Around 2:30 a.m. I stood outside the tent and stared at a patch of clear sky. In the Alaskan summer, the sun doesn’t as much set as just skip off the horizon, as a light blue glow follows the unseen polar star across the northern sky. I didn’t spot the Northern Lights, but it was worth the chilly minutes to behold the night.
On our final day, the low, wide hills gave way to higher summits, thick with verdant, sun-soaked spruce forests. Even the trees along the river grew taller and more robust. Already behind from a porcupine sighting, the Chatanika took one last shot at swamping us. After flying around a small island, piled with logs, the river swept our boat into a ten-foot wide channel. The current rushed towards the left cut-bank, beneath a jagged, downed spruce. In heroic fashion, I managed to point Mindy away before I crashed into the tree, arms outstretched for impact. We avoided flipping, but the spruce gave me a nice little gouge on my left hand.
We paddled the final stretch, joking about continuing onward, down into an ever-snaking, never-ending wilderness of Minto Flats. Instead we pulled out at the bridge where Cat and Tony waited for us. We were two hours late, but they just seemed pleased we had survived… I mean paper work alone… Jokes aside, they were wonderful outfitters and even showed us sights driving back to Fairbanks. In town, we met Wesley, ate Thai food and saw the house where our Fathers had lived in 1961. Satisfied with the day, the trip and the glimpse of ancient family history, we strolled back to our hostel in the horizontal light of another slow burning, late summer Alaskan sunset.
*Black Spruce seeds after wildfires, which helps them reestablish burned areas. In the absence of fire, hardwoods, such as quaking aspen, will take over a grove. Wildfire, while appearing solely destructive, is a crucial part of most North American ecosystems, even way up in Alaska.
River Stats and Fun Facts:
- Chatanika River, Alaska
- Dates Canoed: 8/19-21/2017
- Miles Canoed: 40
- Weather: Rainy and overcast with nighttime lows in the upper 30s to partly cloudy with highs in the upper 60s
- Elevation: From Approximately 1201 to 504 feet above sea level (no wonder there was such flow!)
- Launch Point: Mile 60 (65.272976, -146.64731)
- Campsite #1: Taiga burn area (65.215505, -146.972351)
- Campsite #2: Sand Bar (65.15153, -147.380819)
- Takeout Point: At Elliot Highway (65.083577, -147.726223)
- Songs Sung on River: Alaska and Me by John Denver and Stephanie Says by The Velvet Underground (“Cause sheeee’s not afraid to die, the people all call her Alaska”)
- Huge thanks to our outfitters, Alaskan Dream Adventures, for their knowledge, low prices and flexibility in meeting our specific timeframe. Cat and Tony are friendly, professional and good company, too. Cat dropped us off with a beautiful new canoe, good paddles and all the proper gear. Wonderful experience. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org (907-460-2909). Also worth noting: Tony hosts kayak ultimate frisbee games during the summers, of course.
- Thanks to Uncle Russell for creating my new fiberglass tent pole (replacing the thrice broken aluminum, which wouldn’t have made it to Alaska). Thanks to Wesley for being the courier and delivering it to me in Fairbanks. Thanks to Dad for researching places to canoe and doing all the leg work to put me in contact with Tony. Also, big thanks to Julie (and Marcus) for letting me park my car and canoe at her place in Seattle!
- Birds: Bald Eagles (2 adult, 2 juvenile) Gray Jay, Crow, raven, song birds, kingfisher, hawk
- Mammals: Porcupine! and beaver (Grizzly tracks, moose tracks, droppings)
- Noted Species: Grizzly Bear, Black Bear, Timber Wolf, Lynx and occasional Caribou
- Dominant Vegetation: Black Spruce, Quaking Aspen, Paper Birch, Balsam Poplar and White Spruce
- Ecoregion: Split between Interior Highlands, (105) and Interior Forested Lowlands and Uplands and (104). I had no luck finding Level IV designations
- Current Threats: Potential pollutants from historic hydraulic mining activities
- Trash collected: some rope, tin cans and micro trash (not much garbage!)
- Fundraiser for American Rivers: Currently at $3447 of my $5000 goal. Please go to my Crowdrise link below to donate. American Rivers is a 40+ year old NGO working to clean up rivers, remove antiquated dams, restore riparian ecosystems and preserve Wild and Scenic Rivers among much else. If you find my trip remotely inspiring, please consider donating! As always, thanks to all that have already given! https://www.crowdrise.com/canoe-50-campaign