Going Big

On River Time: A family slows down and melds with the northern wilds on a float down the Yukon.

Apr 24, 2001
Outside Magazine

This is what we came for, I think. Finally here, in the arctic night, perched above the Yukon River across from the town of Dawson. All this way, all the driving and airports, the schlepping of baggage, the hustling of children, and the days of confined spaces. It all funnels down to this immense boreal valley full of its brawny, storied river. Come morning everything will truly simplify, it will all fit inside the canoe hulls, and the Yukon River will bear us away for two weeks and nearly 300 miles.

In the morning we actually do clamber into our two canoes, crammed tight with gear and three children eight years old and younger. Another couple, friends who recklessly joined in for this crash course in family outdoor living, climb into their canoe. The thick river sandpapers against the hulls. We are swept away.
The Yukon, for this entire stretch, is flatwater, unchallenging paddling. But it is a tremendous, Mississippi-size volume of current, moving at a surprising speed. Upwellings boil to the surface in blistering outbursts of power. There are eddies behind rock points big as city blocks. The river is brown and gritty with sediment, full of tree trunks and sticks and tannic froth. Dirty hunks of ice still rest along the shoreline well into June.

We paddle past rock scarps that fall sheer into the river. Distant mountain ranges float on the horizon. Old prospecting camps and abandoned settlements decay along the banks. The weather this first day is hot enough that the kids vault over the side and gasp for breath in the frigid water.

In a few easy hours we have been borne nearly 30 miles along, to what will become our preferred site for river camps, the gravel tip of an island. These open, breezy spots are largely free of bugs. More important, the kids explode into spasms of play that last for hours. At this one they call us over to see a line of lynx tracks in wet sand. They bring us pretty rocks and feathers by the pocketload. They build nests out of sticks and grass.

That night, in the late, cooling twilight, we lie side by side in the family tent. Eli, eight, is naked on his belly, asking what he should write for his first journal entry. "Oh yeah," he says, "the lynx tracks!" Sawyer and Ruby, seven and five, prompt him with their vivid bits of the day. Outside, the call of a hermit thrush, a ruckus of ravens, the hissing river, the never-dark night.

It takes three or four days to achieve river time, to really arrive. By then, campsites and events start to blur together. The moose in the alders at a lunch spot, a claustrophobic prospector's cabin we walked up to, the clouds of mosquitoes at a tributary where we stopped for fresh water. And by then our collection of keeper rocks fills up a sleeping-bag stuffsack.

More than 100 miles downriver and across the border into Alaska, it comes to me that time is flowing the way the water flows, neither dawdling nor hurrying. It is an attitude threshold I've been waiting to cross.

About then, too, the weather shifts from sunny and warm to gray and stormy. For the next week it rains intermittently—showers at night, half-day drizzles, gusty thunderstorms. We are repeatedly seduced by sucker holes that dissipate into more daunting weather. And the river keeps rising.

We take to stabbing marker sticks at the waterline to measure the rise—as much as an inch an hour. We paddle along with a parade of flotsam. At night we hear the roots of trees grinding over shallows and by morning our campsites have been appreciably diminished.

But the kids take it in stride. They have become bug-resistant, weather-hardy, boreal river rats. They pull on rubber boots and slog around in the drizzle and mud. For them the encroaching river and transformed campsites are an exhilarating drama. The passing rafts of trees are an endless target-practice challenge. They busy themselves in shallow side channels, erecting dams and adding to logjams.

Big, arctic, horizon-spanning country with a behemoth flow rustling through it. Country that my children prove themselves more worthy of each day.

When, too suddenly, we reach our final night, poised a few miles upstream of Circle, Alaska, our camp rests on another gravel bar. The kids spend the bugless afternoon playing naked in the shallows. After dinner, it is my wife, Marypat, and I who give way to fatigue and head for the tent first.

Outside, in the lambent night, the kids are raucous with their play, making a final fort. They are dusty as aborigines, creatures of the North.


The Basics Getting to the Yukon River is the hard part. Once you're on the water the trip is straightforward. From Anchorage it's a 400-mile drive to the put-in at Dawson via the "Top of the World Highway." You can also fly to Dawson from Anchorage or Fairbanks, or take the Alaskan Highway.

The river between Dawson, Yukon Territory, and Circle, Alaska, is roughly 270 miles of easy, fast paddling. No permits are required, but you need to check in with U.S. Customs when you pass through Eagle, 100 miles along.

Outfitters Guided trips are hard to come by, but you can rent canoes, rafts, and other gear, and get plenty of travel advice, from Eagle Canoe Rentals (907-547-2203). A canoe package, including a boat, paddles, and PFDs,costs US $270 and can be picked up in Dawson and left in Circle.

Resources Yukon River: Dawson to Circle, by Mike Rourke (US $16 from Rivers North Publications, 250-845-3735; hss.sd54.bc.ca/Rourkes/homepage.htm) is a good mile-by-mile river log. For more information, contact Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve: 907-547-2233; www.nps.gov/yuch.

Filed To: Canoeing, Alaska

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