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To this day, it serves as the main artery for the villages in the heart of Alaska with no access to roads. The river became legendary during the gold rush in the nineteenth century, and it gained a mythical status through the novels of Jack London, Robert Service and Pierre Berton. This is my third journey to the Bering Sea along the Big River, and once again I’m back in the birch bark canoe I made for my solo trip a couple of years ago. But this time, instead of starting my journey at the Yukon’s headlakes in Canada, I’m setting off from a colossal structure in the heart of Alaska.
All packed and ready to go, I push my canoe into the water. Rain from the mountains has caused the water level in the Yukon to rise substantially. And it looks like the weather’s about to take a turn for the worse – according to the forecast, the mid-summer heat of the past few days is due to be followed by cool temperatures and some stormy conditions.
I want to camp on river islands whenever I can on this trip. These islands offer the best protection against mosquitoes and bears. They’re usually too windy for the former and too uninteresting for the latter, or so canoeists naively believe.
I can most definitely say I have no desire to encounter members of either species. A nice bear photo would be great – with a telephoto lens, of course.
But what I really want to focus on are the villages along the river. I’m fascinated by the lifestyle and I want to document how the villagers live. So on I go, and three days later, I find myself at an important intersection in the remote Nordic wilderness.
The indigenous peoples used to do their trading here, where Alaska’s two biggest rivers meet: the Yukon and Tanana River. Like many other villages, the one that exists here today was only founded in the nineteenth century, when it started out as a trading post and fort. Although there are just 250 people living in Tanana, it’s regarded as the hub of the Interior Alaska’s bush. That’s because of its strategic riverside location and its close proximity to the Elliott Highway, which is currently being extended. When it’s complete, the highway will connect Tanana to Alaska’s meager road network so that people can finally travel to the metropolis of Fairbanks by car. A lot of the locals reckon this will benefit them and make life a little more affordable, which includes lower prices for the store managed by Dale and Cynthia Erickson on the riverbank.
“Life in the city is a lot easier than living in the village,” says Cynthia, explaining why so many people have left the bush. “Housing is cheaper and you don’t have to cut wood or haul water.” She’s thrilled about the new highway. “It’s gonna open up a whole other world for us. Cheaper supplies, fuel and maybe some tourism.” Until now, most of the goods are flown in by plane. That’s expensive, of course, and the flights are often cancelled when the weather’s bad, meaning no fresh food supplies for days.
In the evening, we sit in front of the big window in the upper story of the building that’s home to her store and the local post office. We chat about Cynthia’s German roots: “The Germans were up here chasing my grandmother. Hello?”, she jests. She also has Athabascan ancestors. “And some Yup’ik Eskimo. So, we’re related all the way down to Holy Cross, at the end of the Yukon. Cynthia says the German in her comes out when she shows her stubborn side. She tells me almost all the residents of Tanana are Athabascan Indians: “We feel Indian, I feel Indian, because I was raised Indian, but I’m going to the store and buying microwave sandwiches, pizza and Pepsi. And when your culture is living off the land, you know you’re hunting, you’re fishing, you’re packing water, you’re cutting wood, I mean that’s a lack of identity. The government is coming and really taking your pride and self-respect. You’re living on welfare, you’re in a free house, everything is given to you, so that’s really broken up the family foundation and the dynamics.” So, as well-intended as the supposed state and private aid initiatives may be, the truth is that they often lead to dependency. We all know the consequences, some are even cataclysmic: alcohol and drug abuse, domestic violence, and child abuse. Very few places have suicide rates as high as they are out here in the Alaskan bush, Cynthia tells me. She wanted to do something about it, so she decided to organize regular meetings for kids and adolescents: game nights and handicraft events; things like that. This ad-lib refuge evolved into a permanent institution. “We called it “My Grandma’s House”. Because generally most of us have a good grandma. You know, it’s moose soup and fresh bread and grandma’s love. So it was a place of comfort and happiness.”
Strung along the banks of the Yukon are various smokehouses. This is where fish is gutted before it’s hung up to be dried or smoked. The shacks are pretty basic in their construction: a couple of plywood boards, some corrugated iron and blue tarp you see everywhere in Alaska. That’s it. Most of the salmon caught in the Yukon are scooped up on with fish wheels, some of which are enormous. The gigantic wire baskets rotate on a floating raft secured in the eddies close to the shore. They’re powered by the current of the Yukon itself, like perfect instruments of perpetual motion. The locals tell me hundreds of fish may be caught from the river this way every day, confirming the success of these archaic yet ingenious fishing machines.
As the Yukon River flows past Tanana, it is almost a mile wide with a strong current. After merging with the masses of muddy water from the Tanana River a couple of miles upriver it becomes an even mightier force and ultimately Alaska’s river, even though its head lakes are in Canada.
People’s eyes light up when they talk about the Yukon.
Resonating with their words is a combination of respect, awe and gratitude. “It’s just kind of like blood flowing through your body, it’s just part of you. You could leave for a while, but it’s the call of the wild, that’s calling you back home. It’s just part of you.” Cynthia says, adding in her characteristic dry tone: “And if you ever leave, and go back to Germany, then you wanna come back. See, we can’t get rid of you!
The sun is shining and the air is completely still when I leave Tanana the next day. Although the conditions are perfect, I stay close to the right bank as I paddle along the river. True, I can’t always make the most of the strongest current while I’m coasting, but I’d rather be able to get to dry land quickly if the conditions take a turn for the worse. The Yukon has gotten so vast by now, plus the weather can suddenly flip and start blowing a dangerous wind, so it’s better to be on the safe side. And as it just so happens, a storm front pushes across the river later in the afternoon. Within minutes, the calm water morphs into a raging torrent, thrashed by the heavy squalls.
All in all, I have to wait eight hours before the wind dies down and I can get back to coasting along in the warm glow of the evening sun. When light rain begins again later on, I look for a place where I can set up camp for the night. I find a passable stretch of shoreline on a large, wooded island and pitch my tent there. Then I bring some water to the boil on my little camping stove to cook my pasta from a pouch, and I sink down into my camping chair to eat my meal. As I spoon the pasta from the pan in my rain gear, I see two otters swimming past me on the waterfront.
Alaska is amazing, even when the weather is miserable.
* * *
Fresh out of the shower, I leave the washeteria in Ruby to the sound of loud music filling the air for miles around. Rather than heading back to the riverbank where I parked my canoe a couple of hours ago, I decide to take a short detour and follow the sound of the music, still clutching my washbag and my damp towel under my arm. A couple of minutes later, I’ve discovered the source of the noise: a man in sunglasses and a baseball cap is playing his guitar on the porch of one of the houses nestled along the hillside. Beside him are some pretty powerful speakers; they’re buzzing and feeding back non-stop, even when the musician takes a quick break to reach for his open bottle on the railing and take a long slug of beer. Then comes the next riff, and he suddenly leans towards the battered microphone clamped into the stand in front of him and belts out “I met a gin-soaked, bar-room queen in Memphis…”.
It’s almost enough to make me rub my eyes and ears in disbelief. The Stones, live on the Yukon, interpreted by a slightly tipsy guitarist wearing socks but no shoes? It turns out the guy’s name is John. “Tonight’s my last night,” he tells me. “Tomorrow I’m heading back to work on the North Slope.” He’s going to be spending several weeks away from his family to earn the money he needs to support them. “My wife knows that I’m a musician, that’s why she lets me play here,” John adds, launching into a self-penned song he wrote for his dead mother.
No doubt, the people you meet on the Yukon are what makes traveling here so unforgettable.
And here in Ruby, they’re that extra bit interesting. When I was out buying a can of soda in the village store not long after I arrived in the afternoon, I came across Cynthia from Tanana’s father. He told me about his German father, whom he never met. And he talked to me about Billy McCarty Jr., one of Alaska’s best dogsled makers. The next day, I go to see Billy in his workshop. Here, I not only learn how he makes the sleds from birch wood, but I also discover that Billy’s father took part in the legendary Serum Run in 1925. A diphtheria epidemic was raging at the time, and it was down to a relay team of dogsled runners to transport the vaccine they crucially needed to Nome on the west coast. The Iditarod Sled Dog Race from Anchorage to Nome commemorates this heroic and ultimately successful operation. It’s been taking place since the 1970s and has long become a famous event in its own right. In 1975, the race was won by a young guy by the name of Emmitt Peters, who was born in Ruby.
But the person who has made the biggest impression on me on my travels along the Yukon is a man called Jake from Galena. Most people simply know him as ‘The Mad Russian’. One of the insights he shared with me when we first met is still etched in my memory. “The distance at which you are used to looking at things, changes the way you think about stuff.”, says Jake.
“If you have space around you it changes something in your psychology.”
Even though the Yukon stripped him of all his possessions a couple of years back when the ice break-up in the spring caused a flood, Jake is still living right on the shoreline, still as broke as ever. “The river doles out its resources, the way things happen in such a just evenhanded impartial way and not cold impartial, but very beneficent impartial.” Jake believes. What he’s referring to more than anything is the river’s role as a source of food. “You get this feeling of found wealth. It was given to you out of the generosity of the river. That affects your character, affects basically the way you treat others.”
Jake hasn’t returned to Russia since he left his homeland with his dad as a teenager in the 1980s. “It is alien to me very seriously alien. I can’t believe what’s going in there, I can’t believe how people tolerate the tyranny, how they love it.” He chose the Yukon because it is the exact opposite of Putin’s ‘tsardom’. “The river is an entity, it has dynamics, it has the pattern in which it changes and undulates. You watch the river go up and down. It’s very dynamic and this dynamism is very constant, it’s very solid. Like there’s nothing much you could do to the river. So there’s this great security for me in like watching him and the micro-actions remind me how unstoppable this creature is. There’s something very safe. It must be why people like Putin. Everybody wants to like huddle next to something stronger than they are because we all feel insecure and lost in this incomprehensible universe. Well, this is better than Putin! I think it’s better than Putin, no offense to my ex-country.”
I make the most of my break in Galena to carry out some desperately needed repair work on my canoe. I slipped on another shallow just before I got here, and before I knew it, there was water onboard.
The constant forces at work on the canoe are also affecting it structurally. It’s been coming apart at the seams in various places ever since I started this trip. I collect fresh resin from the trees in the forests surrounding Galena, then I add some old bear fat to it and generously smear it onto the seams.
The bear fat was given to me by a woman from the village of Fort Yukon on my first trip. I’ve been carrying it with me since: I keep it inside a plastic bag in my repair kit, which otherwise consists of a couple of spruce roots, some small patches of spare bark, and a makeshift meat tin for the resin. A birch bark canoe like this one may be more vulnerable to the elements than one made from plastic or aluminum, but at least you can repair it anywhere on the journey using whatever nature has to offer.
When the afternoon comes around, I bid farewell to Jake, and I take to the water of the Yukon once again in my freshly sealed canoe. The somber heat of the day hangs over the river, and there’s no sign of the usual cool breeze. I try to produce even the tiniest amount of airflow with my speed, as if I were cycling, but I soon abandon my attempts. I’m just too limp to keep trying, much like the Yukon. After a few hours of sluggish paddling, I reach a sandy island in the middle of the river and decide to pitch camp there. And when I’m unloading, I get a pleasant surprise.
* * *
Just minutes after the lightning strikes, a dark plume of smoke rises into the sky. It’s hard for me to estimate the distance of the wildfire in this vast landscape, but a quick glance at the map gives me an idea of its proximity to Nulato. Luckily, this small village is located on the other side of the river, but it still has to be evacuated a couple of days later, as I learn when I’m further down the river. The unrelenting emissions of dense smoke pose too great a risk to people’s health, particularly for children and old people. It’s a problem they have time and time again in the Alaskan summer, especially when it gets as hot and dry as it is this year.
The infinite swarms of mosquitoes are certainly less dangerous than wildfire, but they’re infinitely more annoying in the Alaskan summer to make up for it. And the little black flies that seem to be waiting for me when I get to Holy Cross are almost even worse than the mosquitoes. They may not be as obvious when it comes to sucking blood, but they do love to form swarms with hundreds of their conspecifics and cloak helpless paddlers in the dense cloud, battering brains with their high-frequency humming and their lack of regard for personal space. They creep into your mouth, nose, ears and eyes; they even follow you along the river when the air is calm. And every now and again, they bite.
I admit it, I’m questioning Creation at this point. I reach for my mosquito head net, wishing the storm would come back just for a while. Damn creatures…
Arriving at the village of Russian Mission, I’ve finally made it to the Lower Yukon and the territory of the Yup’ik people. This was originally Russian territory, they first settled in their Alaskan colony in the nineteenth century before selling it to the US for 7.2 million dollars in 1867. The tsar needed the money for his wars, and by this time, the forests and waters had already been obliterated on the hunt for valuable furs. Russian Mission was founded as a Russian trading post sometime around 1836. It was the Russian orthodox missionaries who gave the village the name it still bears today. The old village church stands on a hill at the edge of town as a reminder of the local history, but unfortunately this former landmark is going to rack and ruin in the harsh northern climate.
A couple of miles downriver, I find a sandy spit and decide to pitch camp there. I want to get started early in the morning to make sure I arrive in Marshall on schedule by the Fourth of July. Yup’ik culture may have a greater bearing on everyday life out here in the Alaskan bush, but they obviously celebrate Independence Day all the same.
The parade through the town gets underway around midday. While lavishly decorated floats led by the local fire department, the high school cheerleaders or the war veterans in antique cars make their way through the main streets in the cities of the South, a lonely four-wheeler rattles along at walking pace here on the dirt roads of Marshall. Not only is the driver steering the ATV with expert control, but he’s also simultaneously managing to hold the pole up high with the obligatory flag while making sure the little child is safely seated in the carrier in front of him. More and more villagers join the colorful procession on foot, many of them wearing stars and stripes in the form of bandanas, caps or masks. Cries of “Happy 4th” echo through the air, while mini US flags are passed around and sweets are handed out to the kids. After the parade, they all meet for the obligatory barbecue in front of the tribal administrative building. Hot dogs with pasta and potato salad, all for just five dollars with a can of soda – irresistible.
The stormy winds are back. It’s cool out, and there’s some drizzle. The forecast for the next few days isn’t looking any more promising, but I want to keep going onward to Pilot Station anyway.
“People always say we live in such a pretty village. We live in a nice little valley, it’s nice and green right now in July, in the fall-time it’s red, it’s yellow, orange and it’s so beautiful. I can’t imagine living anywhere else.” And indeed, she never has. Vivian Peters was raised in Pilot Station and wants to stay here forever. Six hundred or so people live here; we’re not far from the Delta now. When Vivian raves about the beauty here, she sure isn’t talking about the houses or the public buildings. They’re functional at best, often dilapidated. But at least many of them are colorfully painted, plus they’re gently nestled between two lines of hills that come to an abrupt halt towards the Yukon. “I love the river, I love the sloughs, the tundra. I love how it provides berries, blueberries, salmon, fish, moose, all kinds of fish. Yeah. And we get clams, too, across the river.” Vivian and her husband Terry picked me up this morning. Right in the middle of a heavy downpour, they steered their boat towards the riverbank where I stayed last night, and they invited me into their home for shelter. I warm myself up with a cup of coffee in the living room, then I follow the two of them to the back of the house, where they’re currently preparing today’s catch: Chinook salmon.
“I’m cutting the collar, cutting down the belly part so that I could have these for half-dried fish and they’re good during the winter. Vivian is leaning over a heavy-duty wooden table, which Terry made. He also built the smokehouse and extended the roof outwards to give his wife somewhere dry to work. She’s responsible for gutting and cutting the salmon. “I learned by watching my mother. I was ten years old when I first learned how to cut fish. My mom would just have us stand on the opposite of her and watch. And of course when we first start cutting our dry fish we made mistakes.” Vivian is focused on her work, chopping the fish with the traditional semi-circular blade used by the indigenous peoples. “My knife is a called ulu. It’s made out of the iron part from skill-saw blades.” Lots of different species of fish inhabit the Yukon River, but for Vivian and others who live along the river, everything revolves around the salmon.
“It’s very important, that’s what we live off, that’s what we eat. Most of us eat fish all summer long. Who gets tired of fish? Nobody gets tired of fish. You can cook it in different ways, you can boil it, fry it, bake it, good over the fire, there’s a lot of families who sit outside together and cook it over the fire and they just sit and visit together and talk. It’s like a family thing, you sit together and cook your fish outside. We can’t live off meat, I can’t imagine eating meat all the time. Even my kids get tired of meat. They want fish, they want salmon.”
And their favorite kind is Chinook, also known as King salmon. It’s bigger and healthier than any other kind, but it’s also rarer. Numbers of King salmon have been declining for years, to the extent that fishing banned, whether it’s for commercial fishing or for subsistence use. The fishing seasons and quotas in Alaska are regulated by the Department of Fish and Game. This authority is responsible for monitoring the migration of the salmon and decides when is the best time for fishing, depending on how many fish there are in the river. Salmon usually swim upriver in schools in a pulsating manner. Chinook salmon is one of three species that live in the Yukon – or perhaps more precisely, it’s one of the species that passes through its waters. Once they’ve hatched in the spawning areas, they head for the ocean and live there until they reach sexual maturity. Then after a few years, they swim back to their birthplace, travelling sometimes over 2000 miles upriver. And when the salmon finally reach their destination, they spawn and die. Nobody really knows why the numbers of Chinook salmon have dropped so drastically.
“I don’t think it’s just one simple answer”, says biologist Kyle Schumann, who works for the fishing authority. “I think it’s probably a combination of a lot of different things. A lot of people are leaning towards it being more of something that’s going on in the marine environment than it is in the freshwater environment. Because even though we’re meeting our escapement goals across the Alaska drainage and getting them into Canada, we just don’t seem to be getting the returns off of them that I think the managers and everybody would hope to. That kind of is pointing to something in the marine environment.”
Kyle is in charge of the fishing authority’s sonar station in Pilot Station. Every summer, he and his team pitch camp and spend months monitoring the trail of the salmon as they migrate along the Yukon River. “This our sonar computer, that’s running the sonar that’s down there on right bank where that buoy’s at.” The sonar equipment provides data 24/7 and tracks how many fish there are rushing through the Yukon at any given time. Test-netting is also planted in the river and monitored on a daily basis. This equipment is vital for determining which fish are swimming upriver when, and in what numbers. Kyle lets me take a look at the data that’s been collected so far.
“So, through July 6 we estimated that 1.2 million summer chum have gone by, almost getting close to 1.25 million fish there. It’s a little low, for Yukon River standards. I think the preseason projection was something like 1.6 to 2.2. million. So we’re gonna come in around the lower end of that. But still, it’s been enough that the managers have allowed commercial fishing and subsistence fishing.”
With drastic penalties for failure to comply with the restrictions – everything from fines and confiscating equipment (including boats), right through to prison sentences –, the authorities and their employees are not always popular with the people here. But history has repeatedly shown that unrestricted hunting and fishing can have dire consequences. Particularly in Alaska, where trappers had almost wiped out the entire sea otter population.
The four wind turbines in the distance tell me that Emmonak is within reach. But that’s hours before I finally make it to the city. That word, ‘city’: for the first time in weeks, it’s actually fitting to use it again. Although there are just 800 people living in Emmonak, the city is regarded as the fishing hub of the Yukon Delta coast. Everywhere I look, people are hard at work on their boats, some loading and unloading their cargos, while others race along the river in their skiffs at breakneck speed. Battered trucks clatter along bumpy tracks, and the noise from the fish factory only dies down a little in the early hours of the morning. People work almost around the clock during the peak salmon migration period.
“The state did a research of Emmonak, there’s the value of 41 full-time jobs here in the village, normally. So there’s a lot of social problems because there’s a lot of poverty here. This is the most poverty-stricken region not just of Alaska but the entire US”, explains Jack Schultheis, the general manager of Kwik’Pak Fisheries as I sit across from him in his container office. Chinook salmon fishing was a million-dollar business for a long time, but the industry’s collapse had serious consequences for the people in the villages. “A family used to make $40.000 a year is now making maybe ten, twelve. So, it’s a major issue here from the economic standpoint.”
Kwik’Pak was founded by five communities in the Yukon Delta in 2001. Over 300 people work in the factory during the salmon season in summer. Around 440 fishermen also come here to sell their catch during this period. That makes Kwik’Pak the biggest private employer in the whole region. “I think last year the value paid to the fishermen was 3.6 million dollars. And we paid another two million in wages here. Five million dollars today doesn’t seem like much money, but out here it’s a huge amount of money. Considering there’s only about 3500 residents here.”
Ron Jennings is one of the fishermen who sell their catch to Kwik’Pak. I meet him the day before I get to Emmonak, and we sit talking at a table in his little cabin. It’s located on the bank of the Yukon, across from where I’ve pitched my tent on the beach. When Ron returns from his night shift on the Yukon, he waves me over to join him and his family for a coffee. “I don’t need much, I just need the freedom to do what we wanna do. I’ll fish, I trap in the wintertime, I try not to work for anybody else but myself.”
Ron originally hails from Spokane in Washington. He came to Alaska with his father in the 1970s. His first stop was Valdez in the south-east, but then he moved to Nome to work in a gold mine and finally met his wife, whose family is from Emmonak.
Ron and his two helpers were out on the river last night. Ever since the chinook fishing ban came into force, chum salmon and coho salmon have been the sole source of income for the fishermen in the Lower Yukon, with chum salmon bringing in the most money. Ron is happy with his catch. “We’ve caught 107 fish weighing on average 6 to 7 pounds. At 60 cents per pound, that’s three or four hundred dollars. Not bad for a twelve-hour day. But it’s not always as good as that.” Ron needs to catch at least a hundred fish per trip to cover his expenses, particularly the cost of fuel.
Here at the end of the world, gasoline easily costs three times what it does in the rest of the US.
“In ten years everybody in the village is on welfare. Food stamps, you know, assistance. We don’t even get to do our subsistence hardly. If you go work, have a full-time job and you still can’t make it fishing. Still can’t make it with the prices up. That’s why we try to just make our life up here. Raise our kids hope they learn.“ I’ve heard this same thing so many times on my travels along the river. These people are losing their culture, an essential part of which is subsistence, self-sufficiency. And the less of a chance they have at being self-sufficient, the more they lose perspective and the more useless they feel. Maybe that’s why the work in the Kwik’Pak Fisherie in Emmonak is so important – not just as a source of employment and income, but also because it brings the people hope.
That evening, a thunderstorm delays on my onward journey to the ocean. Just a little over 10 miles to go from Emmonak until I’m right out on the coast. I sit next to my canoe on the riverbank with my gear all packed up, waiting for the weather to calm down in my old faithful rubber rainproof suit. It’s past 8 p.m. when I finally get around to starting the final chapter of my journey. I try to push the thoughts of my impending farewell to this river and its people out of my mind, at least for the time being. I still have one more night left and I want to spend it right beside the Bering Sea. I set my sights on the southern bank and cross the river one last time. I sail around the shallows, a sign that there’s not much further to go now until I reach the estuary. The Yukon flows into the ocean through three arms, the smallest of which is the central Kwiguk Pass, which also runs alongside Emmonak. Several islands are blocking my view out onto the ocean, but the river gradually opens up a good three hours later. I finally reach land at sundown. Ahead of me there’s nothing but water.
I haul my gear over the steep bank, then I pitch my tent on the surprisingly uneven ground and secure it with all ropes in case a storm breaks out at some point. After midnight, three Yup’ik people come to see me on their boat. They’re on their way back from a seal hunt, but unfortunately, they’re returning empty-handed. Together we take pleasure in the pastel colors of the night sky, which is now awash with hundreds of buzzing mosquitoes. When the family moves on, I seek refuge in my tent and stretch out in my sleeping bag, listening to the waves as they gently lap against the shore. “This Lower Yukon is like the mightiest place there is.” I remember how fondly Ron Jennings, the white fisherman from Washington spoke of this place. “Ain’t gonna find any place better. Some place you can’t see the other side. It’s like being out in the ocean. But it’s a river.”
Truly, a big river.
* * *
Translation by Isabel Adey