I glanced at my watch as I pushed off into the river, away from Jenny and Kelly's fish camp, toward Tanana. It was noon already. We had to paddle the 25 miles to Tanana in about four hours if we wanted to get to the store and shop for groceries before it closed at 5:00. I sincerely hoped and prayed there would be no headwinds to slow us down. As we left the protection of the riverbank I was delighted to discover that the headwinds had exhausted themselves in their futile effort to drive us off the river. There was no headwind. There were no side winds. And there was no tailwind. No winds at all. The river's surface was free of waves and even free of ripples. The current would work for us, unimpeded by the wind.
As I glided down the Yukon, I recalled a rather embarrassing incident while paddling toward the fish camp the previous day. I came to refer to it as the "Day of the Ducks." It was extremely humiliating—almost as bad as having to ask for directions back downstream from Whitehorse.
Kenneth and I were paddling into the teeth of the, ever-present, unrelenting wind (for the sixth continuous day), along the shoreline looking for any little bit of shelter we could find. The waves were somewhat smaller along the shrub-lined bank while toward the middle of the river, the waves were piling up between three and four feet in height. I glanced ahead (and got a face full of water) and saw, swimming between the kayak and the bank, a mother duck (of the grebe family) and five ducklings. They too were paddling downstream, except that Mrs. Grebe and the kids were using their feet. The mother's feet were probably no more than two inches at the widest. The ducklings' feet were much, much smaller since they looked like they had recently broken out of their eggshells; all of them were in their down coats yet. The ducklings were tiny, just little balls of fluff, bobbing up and down with the waves, following their mother, all in a line. Their feet could not have been much bigger than my thumbnail.
After much time and strenuous paddling on our part, we inched up to them and slowly, ever so slowly passed them. When we got too close, the mother dove beneath the waves but the ducklings had not yet learned that maneuver; they milled about in great confusion, frantically looking for their mother. She finally resurfaced next to them. I guess she realized the ducklings had not yet learned to duck (no pun intended) beneath the waves to escape predators. That happened several times until we caught and passed the feathery family. As soon as we passed them, the little group did an about-face and swam upstream to get away from the two creatures huffing and puffing downstream.
Having paddled for some time, I looked out to my right, toward the other riverbank. There, about ten yards to the right of my kayak, where the wind blew stronger and the waves were bigger, were the ducks! The grebe family had doubled back behind us, swam farther offshore (where things were really tough) and had caught up with us. We paddled on. Every once in a while I would look out to my right and there, parallel with us, the grebe family was bobbing up and down, keeping pace with us. Those little grebes were just following mom as if the water was perfectly calm. This went on for a long time.
After an hour or so had passed, I could no longer see them and thought to myself, "I have outpaced them. I am stronger than they are. The little twerps have exhausted themselves." I paddled on straining with every stroke. Looking ahead to check the waves bearing down on me, to my great surprise and even greater humiliation, the grebe family was ahead of us by about thirty or forty feet, cutting across our bows swimming for the shore. They had passed us! I could not believe what was being done to us by ducks, by grebes—small enough to hold a couple of them in the palm of my hand.
The family just kept swimming along the shore until they let us pass them once again. Not content to humble us once, they did it all over again. I think the grebe family finally tired of the game and swam back upstream.
Kenneth and I laughed about the incident for a long time. He even called his father in Norway and related our humiliation at the hands, no, feet of the grebes. His father had a good laugh also.
Anyway, at 4:15 Tanana came into sight and we drifted down to the boat landing and pulled our kayaks out of the water. I hurried up the slope to the dirt road running between the river and the village. The building housing the post office and the store was just a short distance from the boat landing. It was only 4:15 and the store was still open. I bought three small cans of Spam, three plastic packs of tuna, a box of pilot bread, a can of Dr. Pepper, a can of Coke, two small bags of peanut M&M's and not much else. My total for the food for six meals came to $58. Kenneth did not buy as much as I did but his bill came to $78. He had more sodas and lots of sweet rolls.
After we finished shopping, I asked about the public campground. I knew there was one because I had passed it on my first trip. I was told it was ¾ mile downstream from the village. Someone added that there was construction going on, that the place was a mess but we could still set up our tents there.
We loaded our food into the kayaks and floated to the campground. Once again, I got out and scouted. I don't know, but maybe Kenneth figured that since I was twice as old as he, having lived longer and experienced much more, he should not put his life at risk and not have the same chance to live life fully. Maybe, on the other hand, malnutrition had set in upon me and my mind was going. So, the campground was indeed a mess. There was just a flat piece of very soggy ground overgrown with tall grasses, the perfect refuge for mosquitoes. But, there were two picnic tables sitting in the middle of the "campground."
Scenic Campsite in Tanana, amidst a toxic waste site…
but, hey, it was dry. © Ray Zvirbulis
|Looking just downstream, I saw the roof of a very large shed so we drifted down to the next landing and again I scouted out the potential tent site. The shed appeared to have been constructed for heavy machinery storage. It had a solid roof, two sides and a back made of corrugated roofing. The front was open. Inside were some pieces of lumber. There was also room there to set up at least two tents. I let Kenneth know I had found a dry campsite (it was raining again). We carried our gear to the shed and then took the kayaks to the shed also, but left them out in the rain since there was no more room at the "inn." Looking out the front of the shed, the scenery was not so great. There were dozens of 55 gallon metal drums just outside the shed. I hoped there wasn’t anything too toxic in them. Just a short distance farther were a couple of cranes. But, hey, we were dry.
Because our tents were wet, we spread them out to dry on the stack of lumber. When that was done, I walked back to the village (about one mile) to call one of my sons to wish him a "Happy Birthday." He was delighted to get the phone call since he never expected a call from me while going down the Yukon. Then I called my wife to let her know where I was. When the calls were done, I hurried back to the shed so Kenneth could go to the washateria to wash and dry his clothes and take a shower. When he got back it was my turn to do the same. I think it cost $4.00 to wash clothes, $4.00 to dry them and $2.00 to wash myself.
Back at camp, I set up my tent in the shed and then we had the salmon that Brandon had given us for supper. It was very good. Later I was sorry I had not gotten their addresses in Fairbanks.
It had begun to rain when we got to Tanana, continued to rain through the night and was still raining in the morning when I woke at 7:00. I read for a while and then continued to sleep until 9:30, when I got up and cooked a large breakfast in the off chance that the rain would stop and we could get back on the river. At 11:00 it was still raining and the weather refused to break. The rain continued to fall from the low, gray clouds. I slept through some more of the rain but because I was starting to get bed sores, got up, got my writing things and walked the one mile back to the washateria. There I sat and did some writing: postcards, letters and in the journal. Having done that, I put everything back into my small NRS stuff sack and continued into town. It was still raining.
It seemed odd to be in the middle of a vast wilderness, walk to a store and make a phone call to friends and family. I tried to reach my younger son, Lukas, in St. Louis but he had turned off his phone. Next I called my friend, Chuck, in Illinois and he offered to send me a mosquito head net and a phone card. I declined both because I don't like to wear head nets and I still had over 500 minutes on my phone card. I then called my wife in Arizona and we were able to talk for some time without putting a dent in the phone card minutes.
Back at the "campsite" Kenneth and I talked for a while. When Kenneth was walking to town the sheriff had given him a ride and said the rain was supposed to stop that evening but the wind was to pick up considerably. Well, the rain did stop and that gave us some hope that we would be able to get back on the river. Although both of us had raingear, neither one of us wanted to pack the kayaks and head out in rain. We also had the luxury of not being tied to a timetable or a deadline.
Spirit house, at a gravesite. When the spirit house collapses, the spirit is set free. That’s why they’re not repaired and kept up.
© Ray Zvirbulis
The next morning we had a leisurely breakfast, took our time packing our gear and enjoyed the break in the weather. The sun was still behind the clouds but there was no wind to speak of. We left Tanana at 1:00 and decided that because the weather was so good, we would paddle the 130 miles to Ruby non-stop, except to stop and eat every once in a while.
Show Low, Arizona