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.