Four days to get through the Yukon Flats! The Flats start way back at Circle City and end a few miles below Stevens Village. The distance through the Flats is not easy to pin down. Back in Circle City there is a display board for tourists that indicates the Flats are 180 miles in length and 10 to 20 miles in width. In other references the distance has been up to 220 miles. The width depends on the time of the year.
Nevertheless, the four days it took to get through the Flats were very hard paddling days. The wind blew incessantly and unfortunately into our face. It blew so strongly that I had to paddle constantly hard. If I let up at all, the wind stopped all forward travel, despite a current of about six miles per hour. If I stopped paddling for too long, not only did the wind stop me from going forward, but I soon found myself being blown back upstream. There certainly was no drifting with the current for relaxed sightseeing.
|The wind also created waves that seemed to come from several directions at the same time. They were quite unpredictable and forced constant vigilance. My mind certainly did not wander while on the river. If it did, the waves washing over the kayak (sometimes from the right, sometimes from the left, often from the front) and threw spray into my face which woke me up rather quickly and rudely. On the first three of those four days, I paddled ten hours with just a short break for lunch. On the fourth day, with the fiercest headwinds, Kenneth and I paddled for 14 ½ hours. Later that day (1:30 am) I sat and wrote in my journal but seemed to sway from side to side as if I were still in the kayak. When walking, I felt like a sailor on leave, reeling from side to side. While writing I noted on the map that I only had 953 more miles (approximately) to go.
Stevens Village, the last village in the
Yukon Flats before the Pipeline.
Got to Stevens Village by 2:00 pm and asked one of the natives where the washateria (laundromat to some of you) was. Instead of just giving directions, he took me to it, quite a distance out of his way. I also asked him if he knew Lillian Pitka. She had let me use her phone when I had stopped at Stevens Village in 1999. At that time she was 74 years old and the only person in the village with a phone. My guide told me she had moved to Fairbanks about seven years ago. He also indicated that we were the first river travelers that year so far to stop at the village. At the washateria I got some more water and then we headed downstream to the bridge and pipeline—a distance of 36 miles. That took us five hours.
A few miles below Stevens Village, the Yukon Flats come to an abrupt end; there is literally no gradual narrowing of the channel. Two parallel mountain ridges force the river into a much narrower channel - a channel that is about one-mile wide though. Anatomically speaking, it looks like one leaves the stomach and enters the small intestine.
The bridge and oil pipeline across the Yukon River.
© Kenneth Urnes
|Upon reaching the pipeline/bridge we set up our tents a short distance from the river in some trees. It felt good to be out of the wind. After I had turned my kayak over and tied it securely (a caution against the high winds) we hurried to the restaurant for a hearty supper. I knew from my first trip that there was a motel and restaurant there which was built for the pipeline construction workers. When we got to the door, there was a "Closed" sign hanging there. What a disappointment. All the way from Stevens Village I had thought about and fantasized about a huge, hot meal.
I checked the door anyway and discovered it was open. I walked up to a couple of guys and asked one who looked like the cook if we could still buy a hot meal. The other guy said, "Sell him my sandwich." He was part of a road crew and had not bought his lunch sandwich that day. The cook brought out two large lunch boxes—one for Kenneth and one for me. Inside was a huge sandwich with tomatoes, onions, lettuce, cheese (lots), ham (lots), chips, pickles, cookies, an orange, peanut butter and a can of Coke. All that cost just $5.00. The meat alone would have cost that much at our Safeway back home.
I went back to the tent to do some reading and to relax after such a big supper. Kenneth came running back, grabbed his towel and soap and hurried back to the motel saying that the girl (Ingrid, who told me later she was from St. Mary's) said he could shower for free. He was to use the side door which was always open. When Kenneth got back, I hurried to the showers. Ingrid also told me we could just hang out in the cafe dining room if we wanted to. As I went into the bathroom where the showers were, I saw a sign that read, "Showers—$10. If you bring soap and towel—$6." Ingrid let us shower for free. I was overdue for a shower. I could hardly stand to be in the same tent with myself.
After showering, I went back to the tent and got my journal and camera and returned to the cafe to sit, write and snack in comfort. I had brought along my pilot bread and peanut butter from the lunch box. Kenneth had not wanted his peanut butter so I took it. I also used the jelly at the cafe to fill out my midnight meal. There was even a pot of coffee left over from supper that I was told I could drink if I wanted it. Was there any doubt about that? I was still hungry; probably losing some weight with all that paddling. On my previous trip down the Yukon my weight dropped from 170 to 140 pounds. So, I had made it a point to eat more on the current trip.
While sitting in the cafe, Ingrid stopped by and we talked. She worked as the supervisor of the hotel/cafe during the summer and I guess that gave her the authority to let us shower for free. I think Kenneth's and my rank body odor contributed to Ingrid's kind offer. She also invited us to stop at St. Mary's. People would put us up if we mentioned her name. The problem for us was that the village was four miles up a different river.
I stayed at the cafe snacking, drinking coffee and writing in my journal until 3:00 am. At about that time the morning work crew began to arrive and prepare for breakfast. The cafe technically opens for breakfast at 9:00. Kenneth and I had already made plans to be there at that time. I wanted to start the day of paddling on a full stomach. We had also wanted to buy some groceries but there were none for sale. Both of us did have enough food for three days and hoped to reach Rampart before then.
In the morning, or after sleeping for a whole three hours, I was back at the cafe because I wanted to use the phone. Had to wait until 7:00 when the person using it finally surrendered the phone to me. According to the guy standing next in line to use the phone, I had talked for 20 minutes. I don't think it was that long but the time seemed to fly as I talked to my wife.
After giving up the phone, I went back to the tent, packed my gear, woke Kenneth and returned to the restaurant. Kenneth is about 6 ft. 4 inches tall. I am about 5 ft. 6 inches tall. However, my breakfast was much taller than Kenneth's. He had a stack of pancakes (3) and bacon. I had the Yukon Stack (6) plus a large slice of ham. When I finished the stack, the waitress remarked that she was surprised (and probably shocked) that I was able to eat all that food in one sitting. We walked out of the restaurant at 11:00. I began to think about what I would have for lunch.
At the river we met up with a couple of young guys who we had caught up to at Beaver. One was rowing a rubber raft while the other was paddling a covered canoe equipped with pontoons. Back in Beaver they had told us they were on a five-week trip down the river. They called it quits after one week at the pipeline because they said the wind was too much for them (Kids!). One of the guys said his father was driving all the way from Anchorage to get them. Lord have mercy! Had I been the father, I would have inflicted severe bodily trauma to both of them.
|I was grateful for the Yukon Stack breakfast that I had downed that morning because once again, the wind beat on us all day. It had done so for five days in a row. That particular morning, as we set out for Rampart, the wind also brought with it rain. The wind and the waves and the rain beat on us all day long until we finally reached Rampart at 8:00 pm and hauled our weary bodies off the river.
Rampart campsite – Kenneth looking for lunch.
© Ray Zvirbulis
The first thing I noticed was that the store/post office I had visited in 1999 was closed. But, there was a new post office almost across the street. After we found a place to put up our tents (on the large, covered porch of an abandoned log house, out of the rain) and carried the kayaks to the house, I went back to the post office and found the door to be open. Going inside I saw a guy talking on the phone. When he finished, he said anyone could use the phone. I called my wife and told her where I was. Next, I called the Rampart postmaster and asked when she would open up the post office the next day. There was to be a package there for me from my wife. Once I knew she would be there at 10:00 am, I went back to the tent and made supper.
I had planned to have a big breakfast but woke up too late. It was just the usual three sardines and three rounds of pilot bread. I had to be at the post office at 10:00 to meet Peggy the Postmaster. She was there ahead of me and handed me a package from my wife. I said there might be a second package from a friend and a letter from one of my sons. After searching for a while, Peggy told me there was nothing else. She added that if anything else arrived after I was on my way downstream, she would forward it to Russian Mission. We spent a few minutes talking. I asked where the grocery store was and she told me that there was no grocery store any longer in Rampart. People who still lived there had to order groceries over the phone and have them flown in from Fairbanks. Peggy also said that most of the people were gone, moved to larger towns like Anchorage and Fairbanks. During the winter, the village was almost completely deserted.
Fish wheel in the Rampart area; the fish box was empty.
© Kenneth Urnes
|We pushed off at 11:00 am right into the teeth of the wind. It just refused to let up. I was starting to feel persecuted. Six days in a row of an unrelenting wind that blew so fiercely I had to paddle continually to keep from being driven back to the Flats. Before pushing off, I had opened the package and taken out some of the goodies to stash them in the NRS deck bag: a couple of candy bars, two jerky sausages and some sort of energy drink. Those I ate as I paddled. Lunch, eaten at 4:00 pm, consisted of crackers and Velveeta cheese (Mm! Mm!), two cans of sardines and a can of a fruit smoothie drink. Nothing like living off the land.
Along the way we began to see more and more fish wheels. In one place there were three in a row and all going. And so was the wind. As we began to look for a place to stop, we came upon a cabin with close to two dozen dogs spaced and staked safely from each other. A guy had just stopped there and was unloading another dozen or so dogs (one at a time). I asked if we could put up our tents on his property. He didn't say no, but did say we could camp on the river bank just around the bend. We paddled on. The only place "around the bend" that seemed to be minimally acceptable, was low, over-grown with grasses and very muddy. We paddled on.
After some time, way off in the distance, I saw what appeared to be the tin roof of a cabin. We set our sights on it. My watch showed it was just past 9:00 pm already. What seemed like more hours of paddling into the wind, we got to the landing, just a brush-cleared, muddy path to a couple of cabins. I ground to a halt and climbed out of the kayak rather stiffly. Kenneth stayed in his kayak paddling upstream just hard enough to stay parallel to the landing. My intent was to ask if we could pitch our tents on the property since it was the only clear place we had seen since leaving the dog farm.
As I started up the path toward the cabins, a black and white, mid-sized dog burst out of the bushes and charged me barking and snarling (I suddenly realized why Kenneth suggested I go and ask for permission while he sat safely in his kayak just off-shore). I stopped. Standing still while the dog sniffed me over, I told it everything was alright. Upon its heels came a German Shepherd-like dog, snarling and salivating. It also was told everything was alright. Glancing over my shoulder, to see how far I was from my kayak, I saw that Kenneth was just a little farther off-shore. That was not the last of the dogs. A fox terrier came bounding down the path and was accompanied by a small, furry mutt. All that had just taken a few seconds.
After they had finished the sniffing business, I resumed my walk up the path. Kenneth seemed to be even farther out in the river. The dogs preceded me, walking stiff-legged and growling, looking back at me every once in a while to make sure I was not up to some funny business.
Then down the path came a young man, maybe in his early 20's, shook my hand, said his name was Justin and asked my name. I told him and asked if we could pitch our tents on the property. Justin said I would have to ask Kelly and Jenny who owned the fish camp. Right behind him came another person, about the same age. His name was Ryan Cox, cousin to Justin Cox, who greeted me just as enthusiastically. With him came Brandon Curtis— just as welcoming as the two cousins. He also said I would have to ask Kelly and Jenny about staying on the property.
Well, Kelly, sporting a long black beard, quickly appeared, just behind the welcoming committee, shook my hand and greeted me as if he had been waiting for days for my arrival. Kelly said that Kenneth (who was still on the river in his kayak) and I were more than welcome. He added that when we were set up, we should go up to the kitchen cabin for some hot tea, coffee or hot chocolate.
The rain continued to fall as I walked back down the path to the river and gave Kenneth the thumbs up. He was too far out for me to yell to him that we could pitch our tents. Once we had the kayaks pulled out of the water, we started to carry our gear up the path. Kelly had found a level place for our tents. It was between their smokehouse and their outhouse. The outhouse was remarkable because it was just a raised throne with a roof overhead. No walls at all. If I remember right, the toilet paper was kept in a plastic bag which in turn was in a box with a lid. That was very important to know.
When my tent was set up and I had brought up the minimum amount of gear I would need for the night, I noticed that Kenneth was setting up his stove to prepare his supper. I walked over to him and suggested that he hold off on his supper preparations because I suspected, due to our warm and enthusiastic welcome, that Jenny and Kelly would probably feed us. (I can be so shameless.) Kenneth quickly put away his cooking gear. It was still raining as we walked up to the kitchen cabin for the hot chocolate or tea (and possible supper). Kelly introduced us to his wife, Jenny who gave us a choice of tea or hot chocolate. As we were being warmed by the hot drink, Jenny, right on cue, invited both of us to stay for supper. Neither Kenneth nor I wanted to be rude, so we quickly (maybe too quickly) accepted her invitation. Jenny made smoked sausages and red cabbage salad. Both were wonderful. My thanks for the supper were profuse.
When all seven of us were finished and the table cleared, we sat and talked until 11:00 pm. Kelly has a construction business in Fairbanks where he builds log and timber homes. He added, "Sometimes I prostitute myself and build a stick house." Jenny worked as the health director in one of the outlying towns. Consequently they rarely saw each other. Jenny said she had quit that job because she was pregnant and was moving to Fairbanks to be with Kelly. Brandon, Justin and Ryan all work for Kelly. The whole group had come to the fish camp just for the salmon run—for about for two weeks. Originally, Brandon was from Colorado as were the two cousins. Justin paraded tattoos up and down his arms while his cousin sported a nose ring and dreadlocks.
The supper and subsequent conversation was great. It took the tiredness from my body and mind. As we got up from the table at 11:00 to go to our tents, Kelly invited us to have coffee in the morning. Morning came much too soon. At 7:00 I did some reading and then dropped back down onto my sleeping bag where I slept for a couple of more hours. After I made a pot of my homemade dehydrated food (20 tablespoonfuls instead of the usual 10) I took the hot breakfast up to the kitchen where Brandon had the coffee ready. We were soon joined by Kenneth. By the time I finished breakfast, Kelly came in and then Jenny. It was 11:00 am when she started a breakfast of sausage and biscuits. She invited us to stay. It was very hard to refuse but we had to get going. Jenny had told us the previous evening that the store in Tanana closed at 5:00 on Saturdays and we wanted to get there before that.
I thanked them all again and asked if I could take a photo of them all. They agreed. Because it was too dark in the kitchen cabin, we all went outside. As the group jostled for position, we were joined by Justin and Ryan. They stepped up to be a part of the group photo. Kenneth and I then went to pack our gear. As I was taking down the tent, Brandon came up and gave me a baggie of several pieces of cooked salmon. It looked to be just over a couple of pounds. He said as they were canning the salmon, the lid on one jar had not sealed properly. They wanted to give it to us. Brandon did not have to offer it twice.
As I pushed off into the river and toward Tanana, I thanked them once more and waved wood-bye. They all wished us a safe trip.
Show Low, Arizona