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Adam Bradley on Floating the Mighty Yukon River

Adam Bradley's view of the Yukon River. Photo: Adam Bradley

If you follow notable (read: crazy) solo expeditions, you likely recognize the name Adam Bradley—or Krudmeister, as his friends call him. In 2009, Bradley set a record for the fastest unsupported through-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail: 65 days, nine hours, 58 minutes, and 47 seconds. But recently, besting records on established trails is less appealing to him than blazing his own.

Last summer, Bradley undertook a 4,738-mile biking-hiking-canoeing expedition from Reno, Nevada, (where he lives and works at Patagonia as a customer sales representative) to the mouth of the Yukon River, where it meets the Bering Sea. "After last summer, I would prefer to spend my time in vast tracts of wilderness and I don’t need a trail laid out in front of me," he says.

While the expedition was focused on reconnecting with his Alaskan roots—Bradley was born and raised in Anchorage, where his family homesteaded in the 1950s—it put the changes taking place in the landscapes and cultures of the far north into stark relief. Adventure Ethics spoke with Bradley and got the full story.

How did the BLC (or Biggest Little City, a.k.a. Reno) to Bering Sea trip come together?
I did a few bike tours here in Nevada and started thinking about doing a multisport thing, where I would use the bike to get into a trailhead or a river. Then I started researching a route to Skagway, Alaska. My dad and some friends of his did a trip in the 1970s that was documented by National Geographic. It's called the Yukon Passage trip. National Geographic heard about it after they did it and actually asked them to reenact it, to film. What they did is they hiked the Chilkoot Pass, much like the miners did, and then literally made a log raft with a cabin on it that they floated to Bering Sea. Part way down they got iced in, so they broke the boat down and made a cabin, until the river completely froze up and then they dog-sledded out the rest of the way. So I saw that as a kid and it definitely made a huge impact on me in terms of me becoming a river guide. So then when I started planning this trip I thought, Well, I have to hike this trail.

So you rode from Reno to Skagway, hiked the Chilkoot Pass, and eventually met up with a canoe and shotgun that you had shipped into Canada. But that's when things got complicated.
I did run into a hassle with customs officials at Frasier. I had purchased a shotgun and learned how to use it [before the trip] and did all the paperwork and everything, registered it. But when I got there, Canada had moving goal posts for me, so they kept changing what they were going to allow me to do and not allow me to do, so I ran into a lot of delay there. When I got to Lake Bennett, which is where the canoe was supposed to come up the White Pass on the Yukon Railroad, my gear didn't arrive because the customs officials were hassling the train, saying I was smuggling guns, which is funny, in retrospect, because I had declared it. If I had been smuggling I probably wouldn't have opened my mouth and attempted to do it the legal way.

Eventually you and your gear started the float. You were a professional river guide for many years, but it sounds like the Yukon kept you on your toes.
You hear how quickly the weather can change but I'm one of those people where I don't believe it until I see it. There was a night where I was sailing—I had a big hoop sail by this company called Wind Paddle, so a lot of days I could sail downstream—with a beautiful tailwind, and I was wearing surf trunks and a short-sleeve shirt. And literally I came around a 90-degree bend in the river and I encountered a thunderstorm. It was raining instantly, the river suddenly had six- to eight-foot waves. I was looking at these beams of light shooting through these clouds and these little beam rainbows, and it was the first spot where I saw King salmon coming up the river and there were hundreds of them rolling in this eddy.

The river creates its own weather. You've got a huge 150,000cfs of very cold water—it transports more sediment than any watershed in the world—coming through this very dry interior. It creates its own weather and thunderstorms and wind. So seeing that, all the salmon rolling, I was like, Yeah, I want to be a part of this one last time. I'm going to have my ashes put on lake Bennett so I can make one last trip to the ocean.

I stopped at a sonar project where they determine how many fish go up the river, so they can determine for the tribes and fishermen their allotment for the year. They were 10,000 Kings, but it should be 100,000. There were actually several tribes along the river where there was no season this year. So the Yukon River is seeing a major decline.

So why did you do this expedition?
It was a good way for me to reconnect with the state I grew up in. I think it's probably been over a decade since I've been back home. I have seen the Yukon, crossed the bridge on the Parks Highway. I knew it was one of the longest rivers in the world, and in reality it's a testing ground for me for future trips, and now I'm ready to do ones that are even more remote. There are sections of it that are very remote, but compared to other watersheds in the Northwest Territories, Yukon and Alaska, there are definitely watersheds that are more remote.

Did you set out specifically wanting to see changing landscapes—particularly a warmer landscape?
No, that just happened. And it shocked me. I definitely got good video footage of it. It became readily apparent once I crossed back into Alaska and left the Yukon, namely downstream. It's called the Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge. The banks of the river were undercut upwards of 40 feet, so it would look like a deck hanging out over the river, and underneath it's almost kind of a little glacier, but dirty and brown and you can see how it's shaped by the river.

I stopped in to a roadhouse and stayed one night—and this is a public-use cabin in old Yukon Charlie—and while I was in there, there were several Park Service scientists who were studying climate change. They said there is a big rush to Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge because of fires and warming trends. It's changing from a spruce forest to a more deciduous forest. It's happening so rapidly they can see how other animals and plants respond to it. So one of the things that happens is as the river carves its banks—and all the Indians that live in the interior say that it is happening at a pace they've never seen before—it goes in and starts hitting permafrost under the ground and it'll just melt it away. Then you have thousands of little lakes that are just off of the river and river water will mix with the lake water and change the pH of the lake. And then all the fish die off in the inland lakes. On any given day the Park Service is flying in scientists to study this.

[The undercutting] literally sounded like cannons going off. All night long the banks were caving in—these are 30 to 40 feet. I could float underneath them, like a tunnel, but I wouldn't because I didn't know when it was going to break.

It made a huge impression on me. That was the one, 20-mile section of the route where I was above the Arctic Circle, so the effects of global warming are intensified at the poles.

What about the cultural aspects?
The day I finished my trip, I floated out past a Yup'ik village called Emmonak so I could say I dipped my paddle into the Bering Sea. So then I had to turn around and paddle against the current, and it's really deceiving because when you're in the boat all day it hardly feels like you're moving at all just because of the enormity of the river. But then suddenly when you're standing on shore it's racing by. The delta is huge. There are probably seven or eight different channels that you could take to the Sea. The one I was in was the easiest because it was by the village of Emmonak. The guidebook I was using ... I can only assume the author never did it, because he said "Well, you can time it and ride the tide back in." Well, there is no riding the tide. I had to line my boat from the shore. There was a 30mph headwind coming downriver, so that pretty much negated anything the tide was doing.

So I paddled and fell into the river a couple of times, dragging my boat. I was wet, and this was all to go 10 miles, where I was floating 70 miles a day [downstream] in 12 hours. I got back to the village. I was exhausted and frustrated. I was standing there on shore and the villagers started to come down to meet me and say hello. One old guy was standing there. I was complaining about fighting the current. He waited very patiently as I told him about this. Then he said: "When I was younger, we went that same course, with skin boats and hand-made paddles, to hunt seal and then turn around and come back up."

In a boat laden with seal?
Yeah. Here I was, doing this for recreation, with high-tech gear and GPS. So suddenly it put what I was doing into perspective. He wasn't trying to one-up me. The people there were very welcoming.

I was only in the village for about 12 hours, but it really drove the message home. We're all very concerned with minimizing impact—you know, riding our bike, driving a Prius—but it really sets itself apart that these people have lived in these villages for 15,000 years and the land that surrounds them is intact enough that they can really live off of the land. Driftwood from the river fuels their homes' fires. I would guess that 75 percent of their diet is from the land around them. So here are people who are in many ways living a very green lifestyle. A lot of people prefer dogsleds to snow machines because snow machines break down, and you're moving at speeds where you could harm yourself.

Are they seeing shorter winters? Less game?
Yes, and the river breaks up faster in the spring. They used to be able to move around on the frozen river during duck hunting season in the spring. But now, literally in the course of a day you could cross a tributary and then you come back later in the day and it's a raging river and you're stuck.

In Emmonak, in particular, they saw their first polar bear at the mouth of the Yukon River. That had never happened before—it was several hundred miles out of its range. The town of Port Yukon had a polar bear visit in 2008. That's 300 miles inland from the Arctic Ocean. So again, these people don't need to be told that something drastic is happening, they're experiencing it on a daily basis. Even a child—these people are bilingual, they speak Yup'ik, which if I practiced for 100 years I'd have a very hard time wrapping my head around—would look at me and say things like: "Oh, the wind is coming out of the northeast, it won't rain. It'll be cold but it won't rain." These children have the type of knowledge I wish I had.

You can read more about the BLC to Bering Sea expedition on Bradley's website, FSTPKR.

—Mary Catherine O'Connor

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