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The Travel Episodes

Alaska – Canoeing to the Bering Sea

Big River

»Big River« is what the Atha­bascan Indi­ans call the Yukon. It’s one of the migh­tiest rivers on the planet. In this episode, Dirk Rohr­bach travels the river all the way to the Bering Sea in a self-made canoe.

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.

 
 

 

* * *

Chapter two

Riverbank People

The encoun­ters along the banks of the Yukon River are what makeS trave­ling here so unbea­ta­ble. I meet a musi­cian at heart and a stran­ded Russian who is really a philo­so­pher.

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.

* * *

Chapter Three

Smoke on the water

On point­less pests and useful crea­tures. And an Inde­pen­dence Day parade.

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.

Chapter Four

To the ocean

The Yukon River flows into the ocean through three arms. I reach the Bering Sea at sundown. Ahead of me there’s nothing but water.

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

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An Episode by

Highway Junkie

Dirk Rohrbach

Dirk Rohr­bach is a travel­ler, photo­gra­pher, jour­na­list and doctor. His live travel repor­tage is award-winning, and he also blogs stories of his expe­ri­en­ces around the world, writes books and campai­gns to preserve the languages of indi­ge­nous Ameri­can peop­les. Over the last 25 years he has travel­led inten­si­vely in North America, and is curr­ently navi­ga­ting the Yukon in a canoe. Dirk shut­tles between America and Europe, without resi­ding perman­ently in either.

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  • feli on 24. Januar 2017

    Ich bin so beein­druckt von den Bildern und Videos! Herz­li­chen Dank für diese wunder­volle Episode!

    Liebe Grüße von einer ande­ren Welt­rei­sen­den aus Argen­ti­nien :)
    feli

    Reply
  • Belinda on 26. Januar 2017

    Es sind schöne Bilder, ja, aber was mich etwas störte, waren die teil­weise sehr un–
    natür­li­chen Kommen­tare bzw. Erklä­run­gen und die Beto­nung der Sätze dazu. Ein wenig wie, wenn man einem Kind was erzählt.
    Einfach mal ohne Kontrolle reden oder nicht darüber nach­den­ken, wie man viel­leicht am besten rüber kommt, täte gut ;-). Es wirkte auf mich irgend­wie nicht authen­tisch.
    Trotz­dem Respekt…so ganz allein…, Belinda.

    Reply
  • Sabrina on 21. August 2019

    Ich bin beein­druckt von dem Mut und der Leis­tung, die Dirk da an den Tag, rsp. Wochen, Monate legte — grade mit einem Birken­rin­den­kanu unter­wegs zu sein. Bin soeben von der Yukon-Kanu-Gruppenreise mit ihm zurück. Ja, er hat seinen eige­nen Stil, seinen Willen, sein Rhyth­mus. Aber das funk­tio­niert so ganz gut. Für mich ist er halt auch ein Inspi­ra­tor, die eige­nen Träume, das Wilde zu leben. Im Büro wird man schnel­ler alt, das ist klar. Der Yukon hat mich sehr inspi­riert und beein­druckt. Bestimmt werde ich mal wieder­keh­ren… Schliess­lich wird er Teil des eige­nen Seins. Zu unse­ren Heraus­for­de­run­gen als Mensch gehört sicher auch, sich selbst zu finden und den echten eige­nen Kern zu leben. Das aller­dings bedingt die Fähig­keit und Möglich­keit, in einer gewis­sen Unab­hän­gig­keit leben zu können. Das eine begüns­tigt das andere. Aber der Weg mag manch­mal lange sein… Sabrina

    Reply
  • Sea on 4. Juni 2020

    So beau­ti­ful, I love your photo. Thank you to sharing with us

    Reply

Overview

Antarctica