Alaska – Canoeing to the Bering Sea
»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.
One hilltop chases another; one heap of rocks resembles the next. We trudge through muddy debris. There’s no end in sight. As we’re just overcoming another hill, the parking lot is still not in sight, only the next hill. We try to keep our little one happy with cookies and singing. But eventually nothing works anymore. He’s screaming at the top of his lungs, but there’s no one there who could feel irritated by it. Only his parents, who aren’t feeling irritated but rather overwhelmed and forlorn.
His lips have turned blue and his eyes are red from crying. Our boy is cold and is screaming his head off. Off into mommy’s arms, his little feet tucked tight under her coat, his father hauling the carrier and the backpack. The wind is freezing cold. We sob, pray and hope that we will somehow survive this trip. And then, yet another damn hill! The sturdiest shoewear fails. Again and again, our feet slip on the loose debris. Slowly, we’re losing our strength. But stopping is not an alternative. Eventually, Matteo’s energy fades as well and he’s only whimpering.
How could we?
. . .
Usually I ride my bike to work. But not today. Today, I am driving our new vehicle: a black, well-maintained VW bus which I bought fifth-hand. I present our Fatty. He’s high-gloss polished and well equipped. “Would you like to see the inside?”, I proudly ask my co-worker. “No thanks! I can’t stand how busses smell inside!” He relates that his parents drove a T4 for years and that the smell doesn’t agree with him. Traumatic childhood memories.
But those aren’t meant to be for our son Matteo: for two or three months, this car will become our new home. We’re almost ready to rock and roll. The three of us want to go to Norway in our T4 and spend our parental leave there together.
* * *
Somewhere in Denmark, we spend the first night in our bus in a rest area. In the morning, the thermometer reads a snug 3 degrees Celsius. The sleeping-place under the roof for the three of us is smaller than we expected. It would have been better if we had tested it before our trip. But there’s no time to lament. The ferry is waiting for us. We will tackle the space problem in the following days. After all, we’ve got plenty of time to do that. And certainly it’s going to get warmer! Too bad that just now the auxiliary heating isn’t working…
A bit of driftwood near the fjord is the solution to our space problem. It now serves as a slatted frame and is set up every evening in the small entrance area of our sleeping quarter. Now, the lad can slumber sweetly. But still the nights are so-so. Matteo’s unrestful sleep makes us worried. The days are rainy, the nights are chilly. We keep ourselves happy with an extended breakfast.
Scrambled eggs or boiled eggs? This question is an important topic of discussion every morning. We are substituting egg for meat because meat in Norway is just too expensive for us. But after Matteo gets a hold of the carton of eggs, the question of boiled or scrambled eggs has become superfluous.
We are living in a tight space with a baby who is just learning how to walk while it’s snowing outside.
Suddenly it gets dark. A dark blue, almost black mass comes rolling our way. Just a moment ago it was still visible in the distance, and now it’s right in front of us. We look at each other. And then it’s already lashing out at us.
The storm says hello.
We pull Fatty’s door shut and wait to see what happens.
The bus is shaking. With a drum roll, hailstones the size of a marble pound against the sleeping-roof. Again and again, the wind keeps tearing at the roof as if wanting to test its construction.
We are overcome by uneasiness. One look up: our little one is doing great! While the storm is rolling over the coast, he is sleeping like a lamb, taking his nap under the roof.
Labor-like, the bad weather comes and goes. Time and again, heavy rainfalls move across from the sea.
Once again, we are stuck inside our bus. In good weather, we had wanted to explore the road along the coast. But now we have to kill time. Play, eat, play and eat… “Tomorrow, the weather’s supposed to get better, so we could get on the road again,” I announce. At least according to the weather app. It’s now 1 P.M. Time for lunch.
At night, we once again ask ourselves: was it a good decision to park that close to the coast? Maybe we should have chosen the spot that was a bit further up?
Matteo has been sound asleep since 8 P.M. We can’t think of sleep. It feels as if at any given moment Fatty might get knocked over by the wind. And then there’s this thought that races through my head again
“What if the roof suddenly gets ripped off?”
We don’t get a wink of sleep. The worst scenarios play in our heads. The 3 degrees Celsius feel like -10 and the wind is brutal.
Quickly, I decide to fold down the back seat and pull in the roof. Renate holds our child tight in her arms, “If we fly away then at least we’ll fly together.”
Sleeping below seems harder than expected. Where should we put all our boxes and stuff? Out into the storm?
So I quickly dismiss my idea and climb back under the roof, which is still being thoroughly shaken by the wind. “We’ll stay up here!”, I whisper to Renate. Grit your teeth.
* * *
We return to our car from a hike. While Renate is unlocking the car and taking off her hiking shoes, I set down the backpack carrier, including the baby. The little rascal is excited about his freedom and squealing with joy. But he also loves the carrier. After I’ve masterly taken him out, I put Matteo on his feet. Something’s different, I think to myself, and start counting in my head. One second, two seconds, three… He anticipates my excitement and, uncertain, falls back on his padded bottom.
“Did you see that?” I call euphorically. “He stood all by himself, for at least one minute!” Renate doesn’t quite believe me. I swear that it was really a whole minute. At least it felt like that! It was a moment that made me feel like the happiest and proudest daddy on earth!
We are often asked the following question: what do you do all day long when you’re out and about? It’s pretty simple: we’re out and about. Everyday, our little man brings us such joy. Our days are very simply structured. We get up early, eat breakfast, wash and then we’re out and about, until it’s time to find a nice sleeping-place sometime in the evening. And that’s not hard in Norway – one dream sleeping-place follows the next.
* * *
We enjoy our breakfast on a picnic blanket and then wash the sleep out of our eyes in the river. Our destination today: the North Cape! It’s the northernmost point in Europe that’s accessible by car. We are a good 3,000 kilometers from home.
As usual, we take a short break enroute. Fatty’s door opens and Matteo points his small middle finger into the distance. It’s about time he learns to use his pointer instead, I think. But at this moment, nothing else matters. The diaper boy is so happy he’s jumping for joy. He’s discovered a herd of grazing reindeer.
End of the line. I talk to the guy in the porter’s lodge. Behind the bar, the iron globe hides on a massive hill, surrounded by a thick cloud. A globe. For which they charge 30 € per person. Babies are free. “Many thanks,” I politely decline. And return to Fatty. Too bad the gate is permanently manned and one can’t even get in for a short time at an affordable price. And, this isn’t even the northernmost point. A freshly tarred broad road that eventually becomes a dead end. And at some point, somebody decided that this was now the northernmost point of Europe.
But, the true North Cape does exist! And that requires a lot.
7 kilometers away from the wrong North Cape, we reach the parking lot.
We check the time. It’s 4 P.M. and the sun has long gone into hiding. Our bags are packed; we are warmly dressed and fully motivated! We are not impressed by the approaching low hanging clouds. An old information board at the parking lot points out that the route is 18 kilometers long. We can do that!
Matteo’s supposed to sleep, but he doesn’t keep quiet – as if he already had a sense of foreboding. Only after a good deal of snacks and singing children’s songs non-stop, does he finally shut his eyes, being gently rocked to and fro in the carrier. We’ve made a quarter of the route. The easiest quarter.
Euphorically, we continue our hike, make films, take pictures, feel excited about the destination of all destinations. 2,100 km further north is already the North Pole. Almost within one’s grasp. After two and a half hours of hiking we see the open sea before us. “It doesn’t go any further, guess we’re here!” we naively think. But the track doesn’t end here. It’s getting cooler.
To our right, we can see the slate cliffs protruding from the sea, embraced by a thick cloud. But where is the real North Cape hiding? The cold is slowly creeping into our clothes. Go back or move on? In this rugged solitude, there is no one about who could make that decision for us.
The little one is still sleeping and we let our pride make the decision. We hike another full hour along the rough and rugged coast going north. An icy wind is blowing our way.
Then, finally, the long-desired northernmost point. What a moment! We are actually standing at Europe’s northernmost point and make plans when might be a good time to travel to Europe’s southernmost point. We’re happy; we goof around, dance and screech euphorically. We’ve made it! Too euphorically. The baby wakes up. Oops. For now, he’s still in a good mood, but we know from experience: hunger and cold can change that immediately. So, better get moving! We must start our way back!
At breakneck speed we head back. The baby is happy. Every time the carrier jolts it means action!
The father sing’s the child’s praises. Soon after, it’s all over: Little Bigfoot is screaming at the top of his lungs. Break! We take out our little one from the carrier, provide body warmth, cookies and snuggling. His cheeks are red, his little hands and feet ice-cold, despite the wool. We start to feel guilty.
Despite his screaming, we put him back into the carrier and head towards the parking lot. A thick soup of low hanging clouds is approaching and has now also closely enveloped us.
Dear Reader, you know what’s coming now: we’ve arrived at the beginning of our story. At the lips turned blue, at the eyes red from crying, and all the damn hills that never want to make room for a view of our destination. The parking lot with our home. Did we get lost?
How could we! The tarred place and the company of other tourists would have done it, too.
60 Euros!? What’s 60 Euros?
Then finally: our Fatty! We’re a good 500 meters away from him. “We’re almost there!” is how we encourage each other. Our little one has fallen asleep from exhaustion.
We start to drive, take off our son’s clothes – followed by body warmth, a hot water bottle, cuddling, kissing. Our bad conscience is almost killing us. These are exceptional circumstances for all of us. The thermometer reads 5 degrees Celsius.
It’s the first time that we are somewhat haunted by sentences such as “Do you really think you can do that with a baby?” and “That’s pretty bold, or actually irresponsible!” Tonight, we won’t open a bottle of champagne or something similar to raise our glasses in a toast to the North Cape as the tradition might require. We just hold each other and cry for joy. We made it. This could have also gone differently. In a reflective mood and physically exhausted we fall into a restless sleep.
The next morning our boy wakes us up with joyful laughter, pulling at our hair and noses. He doesn’t seem to remember anything. We observe him over-watchfully, still feeling bad. But nothing – he’s his old self. Not even a runny nose!
We are more grateful than ever. Over a strong cup of coffee and scrambled eggs we recall what happened the day before – unforgettable!
* * *
Putting behind a lot of miles, it takes us two weeks to get back to Middle Norway. Everyday, we drive 100 to 150 kilometers while our son is taking his nap. We hope for better weather in Mid-Norway. Sun and warmth! All we can think of is summer. How nice that would be now…
The cold is slowly getting to us. And we want our little globetrotter to celebrate a nice first birthday. Someone who is so easy to have and almost always in a good mood should be spoiled with nice weather on his birthday.
And, in fact, we make it back to Romsdal as planned. An incredible nice corner which we had already fallen in love with on our way up north, but which we had to leave due to special circumstances: with a closed snow cover of 3 meters height, activities were simply out of the question.
Today no driving and no hiking. Today we will anticipate his every wish. Not the stress of finding a location where we can wildcamp, we are staying on an official campground. No seclusion but skyping with the family. Pancakes for breakfast, a barbecue for lunch and yummy strawberries in the evening. Roughhousing, yelling, cleaning out the cupboards in the car and playing with birthday presents. Simply enjoying the first official day as a toddler.
* * *
Several weeks after our trip, we skim through our journal. An unforgettable, completely enriching experience. We can’t imagine a more wonderful and active parental leave. Our T4 also served us well, even if it wasn’t always easy. He mastered several meters in altitude and fatally narrow roads.
We reached our limits, tore and expanded them. Climbing mountains when you’re inexperienced is challenging. Physically as well as mentally. We weren’t used to such vistas. Panoramas that knocked us off our feet. Dimensions your mind just can’t grasp. A diversity of flora and fauna that enthused us and left us speechless.
But also the unfamiliar confinement turned out be a challenge. Often we wanted to go back home. Fought or yelled. Gave each other the silent treatment or swore. You can’t escape pouring rain. That was also our parental leave! And it remains to be said: The child survived – and so did we!
We’ve grown together as a family, in an unbelievably beautiful country.
Now, we are back in the grip of everyday life and often go separate ways during the week. But at night, mother, child and father lie together in bed and remember the time in Norway.
Matteo, maybe someday and somehow you might remember this trip. And if not, then there are several pictures and a journal to tell you about our adventure. Mom and Dad spent 100 percent time with you and really enjoyed it.
Oh, and our Fatty, our Fatty no longer has the typical T4 smell.
He smells of life – and freedom!
* * *