This is Part I of a three-part piece I've written about a week spent on the Yukon River, helping to build a wilderness lodge. I'll be posting parts II and III through the week. Click on pictures fo a larger view.
Have you gazed on naked grandeur where there's nothing else to gaze on,
Set pieces and drop-curtain scenes galore,
Big mountains heaved to heaven, which the blinding sunsets blazon,
Black canyons where the rapids rip and roar?
Have you swept the visioned valley
with the green stream streaking through it,
Searched the Vastness for a something you have lost?
Have you strung your soul to silence? Then for God's sake go and do it;
Hear the challenge, learn the lesson, pay the cost.
From "The Call of the Wild," by Robert Service
In the summer of 1980, on a farm in Windham, Maine, Ann and Larry Clark packed their kids in the car for a classic American vacation: Drive across the country. From Maine to the West—a thousand sights to see, America the Beautiful. Young Sam Clark, though, had a singular itch in his nine year old head: Alaska! We’re going to Alaska! Alaska had fixed itself in Sam’s mind from the beginning of the trip. Like Jack’s Magic Seeds, from Maine to Washington, Alaska grew and loomed. “We got all the way to Prince Rupert – you know, in Canada, British Colombia—like 30 miles away. And we had to turn back,” he told me. “I was crushed.” They had run out of summer—school was starting all the way across the continent. Alaska would have to wait.
“Alaska” has never been simply a name. It is an icon, with a mythology that starts with Jack London’s "Tales of the Yukon" and traces a vein through our culture like the gold that induced a swarming generation of prospectors to clamber over its every rock. From Robert Service’s “Songs of a Sourdough” to the Grizzly Man; from Dick Proenneke’s wilderness outpost to the 1150-mile cacophony of the Iditarod; from “the Slope” and Prudhoe Bay to Denali and Chris McCandless and the Devil’s Thumb and the Kenai Peninsula; Caribou and Reindeer to King Salmon and sleek Grayling; from Anchorage to Valdez, to Exxon Valdez: Alaska works a fantasy on the American mind. We seek it, we long for it. There is something missing—it’s in Alaska. Our cultural inheritance, our frontier instinct, somehow knows that the last blank space on the map is Alaska.
Not true, of course. Every inch of Seward’s Folly has been walked on and examined in minute detail for two things at least: Yellow Gold and “Black Gold.” Nevertheless, it retains the lightest population density of all the United States, 1.1 people per square mile. It also retains its mystique. The allure of wilderness there has never died. Since 1958 Alaska has flown the stars and stripes. But in spite of those 50 years, the other 49 states remain “outside.”
I am flying to Alaska. I am not going to fish, to hunt, or to hike. I am going to bang nails. It is that skill that has gotten me on this plane for free, it is that skill that’s taking me from Boston to Seattle to Fairbanks on jets. It will get me on a twin-prop plane to tiny Ruby. It will get me on a small aluminum boat to motor up the Yukon River. It will help me help two people to build a future together on an isolated stretch of that river, a wilderness lodge. There they will trade “outsiders” brief glimpses of a young, raw world, meals of fresh salmon and open hospitality, in exchange for the means to live in the midst of great, expanded silence.
I never thought a hammer would bring me this far.
From the air, the river valleys of interior Alaska look like a giant, half-drained puddle. The Chena River flows through the city of Fairbanks. West of town, it is joined by the Tanana (pictured) and later, the Yukon. All along this expansive plain, potholes, ponds, marshes and sloughs shine back at an aircraft passenger like so much spilled silver. The topsoil is shallow and the rivers cut their way through it as water drains from a sand-bar on the ocean. Through their post-ice-age lives, the great rivers of interior Alaska have carved alternate courses, often pursuing many options in concert so that from the sky a river looks like a vast, unraveling braid. Its fly-away strands may eventually become one of the countless ox-bow ponds—curiously crescent-shaped slivers of water, connected to the river only through the porous loam of topsoil. Even these ponds have no sure independence, however, as the meandering Yukon may one day reclaim them. Who knows but that one spring’s vicious and inexorable break-up of ice might deposit new sand-bars and shoals, redirecting this massive flood down one of its ancient paths?
At the height of the gold-rush, flat-bottomed stern-wheelers plied this bewildering channel. Raw gold motivated thousands upon thousands of speculators, prospectors and miners. In their wake came more calculating individuals: merchants, salesmen, outfitters. A paying claim is uncertain. What is certain is that men will need clothes, food, equipment, an occasional bath. Women. Whiskey. And not necessarily in that order.
To satisfy these needs, erstwhile prospector, Akron native and determined merchant E.T. Barnette commissioned Captain Charles Adams and his steamship, Lavelle Young, to get him up river to Tanana Crossing. The one rail line to the interior was slated to cross the gold river Tanana at a particular spot—the “Crossing.” Here, at the crossroads of steel and steam, E.T. Barnette would establish a trading-post. Then a town, then a city. He would be rich. Captain Adams would get him to Tanana Crossing; he would take it from there. At least that was the goal. Written in to the contract between them was a more open ended promise: Adams would take Barnett as far as his ship could go.
They steamed the Tanana River for hundreds of miles without reaching the crossing. Balked by shallow water, Barnette persuaded Adams to try the Chena. The going rumor was that the Chena was merely a slough that connected to the Tanana. In truth, it is a river. Barnette didn’t find out the truth on that trip. Again, the shoals of those broad, flat, shallow floods frustrated his aims. The Lavelle was stopped.
Unable to make Tanana Crossing by river and true to the terms of his contract, Captain Adams dumped Mr. Barnette, his wife Isabella and 130 tons of freight on the banks of the Chena river, having brought them all as far as he could.
Figuring that a trading post is where the goods are, Barnette set up shop. The ultimate result was Fairbanks Trading Post, named for Indiana Republican Charles Fairbanks—a political expedience at the request of one of Barnette’s investors.
Barnette’s Fairbanks tottered on the brink of instability, an unruly collection of stores, saloons and streets laid out in optimism, propped up by salesmanship, showmanship and gamesmanship. Finally, consummate conniver E.T. struck a deal with one Judge Wickersham that resulted in the construction of a jail and some government offices. This indicia of legitimacy and order (so far as it went) swung the pendulum from rival Tanana City toward Barnette’s trading post and firmly rooted this speculative collection of miners, traders, opportunists, “last-chancers,” sourdoughs, prostitutes and missionaries to the thin Alaskan soil. To this day, the city remains the last firm outpost of “outside” civilization on the way to Prudhoe Bay.
Two hundred and thirty air-miles west of Fairbanks, on the south shore of the Yukon river, lies the town of Ruby. Once, briefly, over 1000 miners and townspeople lived here. Now fewer than 200 folks remain, mostly Athabascan Alaskans, working mostly seasonal jobs and hunting and trapping. There is a gravel airstrip, and occasional barge service. No roads connect Ruby to other towns.
I flew in to Ruby in a Beechcraft 1900. On its way to Galena with 14 people on board, it touched down on Ruby’s gravel strip and unloaded but two passengers: myself and a woman returning from a trip to the city. I was met at the runway by a Frontier Alaska agent in a Toyota pickup truck. He secured the mail and me and drove me to town—to “The campground” on Front Street.
The campground is a covered picnic area with an open-pit grill on a bluff above the river. It’s a place for local events, and a place to meet your boat. For me, it was a place to find Ann and Larry Clark. They’re Sam’s parents and my main connection to this adventure. I met Ann and Larry because they are trying to preserve that farm in Windham. They need to get value out of it, but they don’t want to see the land and forests they’ve managed for a lifetime turned into tract housing. They want to see it farmed and used; not developed. I’m trying to help them. When they found out that I used to handle a hammer for my living, they invited me to come to Ruby (on their air-miles) for a week in exchange for helping Sam to build a dream by the Yukon River.
Ruby cliffs from the Campsite
Kokrine Hills and Yukon River from the Campsite
Ann and Larry are already at the Campsite when I arrive. I throw my backpack in the boat and we push off from the silty shore. I still have 13 miles to go, this time east, up the river. It is a clear day, around 70 degrees. We pull out into the current.
We are headed to Yukon River Lodge, still nothing but a pressure-treated basement, half decked. It perches on a northern bluff above the river about 13 miles east of Ruby. The property is split by a small stream, unnamed on any map, which is their source for fresh water. Over years, the stream has created a spit of gravel in the river-bottom, forming an eddy that protects a gravel beach. Driftwood has lodged against the spit, a silvering break-water subject to high river whims, yet remarkably constant in form from ice-out in the spring until the river freezes in October. That bluff and spit will be our light-posts, together with a solar array, as we motor northward along the wide breast of the river.
Headed east from Ruby
The Yukon is nearly a mile wide here, but its surface still boils with massive up-wellings and spiraling currents that betray an immense volume of water passing by in seeming placidity. It has been a warm, wet summer—wet near Ruby, warm in the mountains to the east. The warmer it is 500 miles away, the more ice and snow melt, the higher the river. As winter comes and melt turns to freeze, the level of the Yukon will drop and the water will clear to a crystal transparency. When that happens, it will be short weeks before the water freezes, and a month and a half to eight weeks before it becomes a winter highway, traversable by snow-machine and dogsled. In between, Yukon River Lodge will be completely cut off.
But now it is summer and the salmon are running. Well, “running” might be a bit strong this year: the pulses of migrating fish have been uncharacteristically anemic. According to the fish report on KIYU "the voice of the Yukon," only 120,000 Kings are expected to come by Ruby during the week of my visit, and many of these are destined for Canada. There is a limit on what can be taken from the river here, as the natal spawning grounds of many of these fish are still some six- to seven hundred miles away.
Even so, there are prescribed times a fishwheel still can be run, and we pass a working wheel just a mile out of town. Fishwheels are a Japanese import, though of long standing here. They float in the river, held out from shore by a spar and anchored by a cable to something solid on land up-river. Using the current to drive it, the “wheel” alternates paddle, basket, paddle, basket through the water. Fish swimming upstream to spawn—mostly Chum and King salmon right now—are guided toward the wheel by a gate on the shore-side, scooped up in the basket and deposited in a holding box. Finicky (or, as I like to call them, “smart”) fishwheel owners also fasten a bucket to the wheel that scoops up river water and keeps the fish in the box well-doused.
I’ve never seen anything quite like it as we trundle slowly past, its baskets dipping with perfect regularity into the river’s flow. Every trip I take, there seems to be one thing that signals for me that I’ve arrived somewhere new, somewhere distinctly “other” than my life has yet seen. In Alaska, I might’ve thought this would be a wolf, or a Byronic snow-capped mountain, perhaps a grizzly bear. Instead, it’s this simple fishwheel, spinning in a riverine harmonic. I will be on this river for only 6 days.