|The two of us pushed off for Ruby from Tanana around 1:00 pm under leaden, but dry, skies. The wind had worn itself out over the six days it had harassed us, letting us paddle and drift as we wanted. Continuing downstream we eventually left the clouds behind and emerged into the sunshine. The river flowed without a ripple, smooth as glass. No headwinds and no rain. The day became a sheer delight.|
A serene day of paddling on the Yukon – no wind and no rain. © Kenneth Urnes
To keep from getting dehydrated, I sipped frequently from my bottle of energy drink which my wife had sent to me in powdered form (about two pounds). But that meant I had to make stops every couple of hours. And those stops were terrible; I soon began to dread them. The problem was not being able to find a decent place to stop. The problem was the welcoming committee—hordes of mosquitoes. They were terrible.
The mosquitoes did not even wait for me to get to shore but rushed out on to the river to greet me as I made my approach. Hundreds of them waited for me as I stepped out of the kayak. Two of them met their doom as I gasped for air while pulling the kayak out of the water. I inhaled and swallowed them. My pant legs were pulled up to my knees to keep them from getting wet as I climbed out of the kayak. Glancing down I saw that my legs, from knees to toes, were covered with the gray bodies of mosquitoes. It looked like a second layer was building on the first, sucking my blood from the bodies of the first layer of mosquitoes who could not seem to get enough. I left a mess on my calves as I brushed my hands down my legs. Those critters were totally without mercy or shame. They attacked all exposed flesh not caring where the blood came from.
It can get warm on the river. This was the day Kenneth got a sunburn. © Kenneth Urnes
|Finishing as quickly as I could, I would jump into the kayak and push off with a cloud of critters in my wake. If I slowed down, the swarm pounced and attacked but that gave me a chance to kill some of them. This was repeated until the swarm was annihilated one by one. Unfortunately, about then, I would have to make another stop and the whole process would be repeated. Kenneth did not fare any better. Finally, having lost a lot of blood, I stopped drinking and slowly dehydrated myself so that I would not have to make such frequent stops. Thirst, even acute thirst, was preferable to extreme blood loss.|
When I did the Yukon trip in '99 I never had the kind of massive problems with mosquitoes that I had in '06. As a matter of fact, when I got back to St. Louis after the first trip I told everyone that the quantity and size of mosquitoes in Alaska were greatly exaggerated. I said that they were not a problem unless one walked into the bush away from the river. I had started the '06 trip two weeks earlier than the first trip and so the river was higher and provided bigger and better breeding grounds for the mosquitoes. Also, on that first trip, the weather was much colder most of the time.
That day the paddling was so easy and enjoyable we did not want to get off the river and so we continued on into the "night" (night being defined by my watch rather than the absence of light). At midnight we stopped to make a meal and feed a few mosquitoes. We managed to keep most of them at bay because we had built a large, smoky fire. Having difficulty breathing with tears running down my cheeks while sitting in the smoke was preferable to being a transfusion depot.
Sunset on the Yukon. A few moments later it was a sunrise.
© Kenneth Urnes.
As we were finishing our meal, a dory approached. It was the person I had met and talked to while in Dawson. He traveled and lived on the dory. When he stopped for the day he erected a tent on it. He and I had also talked in Tanana. When he was close enough, I invited him to stop and share our smoky campfire. Voicing our thoughts, he said that because the weather was so good, he wanted to take advantage of it and continue down the river. When he had disappeared from view, we doused the fire and set out after him for Ruby. I did not feel tired at all as we started off but by 7:00 am the weariness began to set in. As a matter of fact, it was hard to keep my eyes open and not fall asleep. The kayak was like a cradle being rocked gently by the current of the river.
Ruby can be seen from a couple of miles upstream. The village was a welcome sight. We stopped at the upstream end of town and I left Kenneth to doze in his kayak. I climbed the graded slope to the road paralleling the river and running the length of the village. I lurched along the road, staggered and reeled as if drunk, having paddled the 130 miles in about 20 hours.
I was looking for the shelter built by the village, under the watchful eye of Lucy Williamson and her husband. Actually, they were the ones who came up with the idea; it was built to encourage kayakers and canoeists to stop and shop. I had met Lucy on my first trip. Then, she and her husband had owned a kayak touring company that ran out of Ruby. She was the one who told me that as one neared the Bering Sea, ocean swells running up the river could reach a height of six feet or more. I had tucked that information in the back of my mind to dredge it up when I neared Emmonak. Anyway, Lucy and her husband had since moved to Cheyenne, Wyoming so I would not see them on this trip.
The shelter was at the far, downstream end of town. I had walked about a half mile before I came to it. Fortunately no one was using it so I hurried back to the kayaks, woke up Kenneth and both of us drifted downstream until we reached the boat landing just below the shelter.
The shelter was big enough to hold both of our tents when set up. There was still room for two large picnic tables. Instead of leaving the kayaks by the river, to keep anyone from messing around, we brought them up to the shelter. The village was still asleep even though it was already noon. I crawled into my tent and slept until 4:00. I had intended to sleep just a couple of hours but I guess I needed the rest. Sure felt good. While I had something to eat, Kenneth went to the store and came back with an armload of junk food. I was more sensible; I bought a plastic jar of honey to go with the pilot bread and peanut butter. But, being able to resist everything but temptation, I grabbed some chocolate chip cookies, a couple of cans of Pepsi and an ice cream bar. It's a good thing I had eaten before I went grocery shopping.
The first day of our stop in Ruby was the Fourth of July. And it is celebrated way up in Ruby, Alaska, a place so remote and far away that it does not feel or look like it is part of the United States. It seemed that the whole village had gathered in the large, open space in front of the store. All kinds of different contests and races were being held for the kids. One of them was a race of about 50 yards from the start to the finish line. The finish line was an actual clothesline stretched across the course. Attached to the line by clothes pins were quite a few one dollar bills. The kids raced to the line and tried to grab as many dollar bills as they could. I think each of the dozen or so kids got at least a dollar. Every once in a while, just to prove it was the Fourth of July, somebody would shoot off some firecrackers. After all, it was the Fourth.
Supper was instant rice which was donated by Kenneth who had brought so much he was going to throw some away. The rice was a welcome change from canned corn beef hash mixed with canned vegetables. I diced a small can of Spam and added that to the rice. I was going to dice a hard boiled egg into the concoction but because I was hungry, just had it as an appetizer.
As I was eating supper, one of the locals stopped by to talk. In our conversation I asked him about Emmett Peter, whom I had met on my first trip when I had stopped in Tanana. Emmett had won the Iditarod about 30 years ago as a rookie and thus became a hero to the native population of Alaska. When I told people I knew Emmett, they wanted to shake my hand and get my autograph. Anyway, he told me Emmett had had a severe stroke and was doing poorly. He also knew Lucy Williamson and said she had sold the cabin they owned 17 miles downstream. I had stayed by the cabin on my first trip but knew I would not stay there on the current trip since they were gone.
Later another person by the name of John stopped by. He was tall, athletic and white-haired. He invited us to stop by his cabin, 18 miles downstream, the following day and have something to eat. When I had finished eating and put away my dishes, I walked to the bluff overlooking the river and saw below me, John, putting on water skis. Soon a motorboat ripped out onto the river with John in tow. He spent about 30 minutes on the water before he joined a group of older teens on an island far out on the river. They had a big bonfire going and he stood as close as he could to get warm. I had been sitting on the bluff, relaxing, writing and enjoying the scenery and weather when I saw the motorboat slowly heading back to the village. But it was also drifting slightly downstream. About a half mile from the bluff, to my amazement, I caught sight of John as he swam back to Ruby, across a mile of fast flowing, cold water. The current took him about one mile downstream. When John reached the shore, he climbed into the boat and they powered back to Ruby.
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