It was another great day to paddle as we made our way from Ruby to Galena. The sun shone brightly all day long, so much so that I soon had to dig out my sunscreen and apply it liberally to my arms, neck and face. That day was the third consecutive day of sunshine.
|Having paddled 58 miles we reached Galena at 6:15 taking a leisurely ten hours to do it. As I pulled out my kayak, I noticed a dory tied up by the sloped river bank boat landing. When I took a walk to look the village over, I met the dory man. We talked and he introduced himself as Dan. He walked back with me to our tent site (which appeared to be the front yard of the Fish and Game Department) where there were a couple of picnic tables. Dan told me he had met Christian Brier, the German I had met in Rampart in '99. He was in Dawson the same time Dan and I were there this trip (this is starting to sound like some sort Yukon River fraternity).|
Kenneth on the river – still a lot of "stuff" on the deck.
© Ray Zvirbulis
Before we reached the tents, Dan was able to tell me Christian, or Chris, as he had introduced himself to me, was doing the Yukon this time in a motorized craft. He had started in Whitehorse taking a paying tourist who claimed he wanted to see the Yukon Territory and Alaska. But, as soon as they set out, Chris said his passenger spent all of his time smoking pot. By the time they got to Dawson, Chris could take no more of the guy and came up with daily excuses for not being able to leave Dawson. His hope was that his passenger would tire of Dawson and bail out. And, that's exactly what happened after four or five days. The guy flew back to Anchorage and then on to Germany. Chris continued his trip down the river by himself.
Dan and Kenneth went off to get some hamburgers and beer at a small bar that had a reputation for good hamburgers. I stayed because I don't drink and said I'd watch our gear as I also wrote in my journal.
What I noted was that the washateria was a filthy dump. There were no showers and neither of the two toilets worked. I had wanted to fill a couple of my water containers but there was no working sink. One of the bathrooms had a sign taped on the door, "Out of Order." The other had a chair in front of it, cardboard on top of the toilet seat with a similar sign on it. The water to that sink was turned off (just as in the first bathroom). But, after looking the place over, I don't think I would have drunk water from there anyway. Both bathrooms had an awful stench. Later I went to the public water tank and filled my Platypus containers.
When we had landed, we saw there was a two-story building just up from the river. On the second floor was the Yukon River Restaurant. Kenneth and I decided to have supper there after setting up the tents. After the tents were up we took our time going back to the restaurant. Across the street from it an older man was working in his yard. I asked him when the restaurant closes. He replied, "At 7:00." My watch showed 8:00 - big disappointment. So, I asked when it opened in the morning (we were hoping for a big breakfast at least). He replied, "At 10:00." Kenneth and I thought that would be perfect. It would give us time to take down the tents and pack our gear before eating.
The next morning I went to the restaurant, climbed the stairs to the second floor and sat down on the top step to wait for the place to open up since it was only 9:50. At 10:00 I could hear no activity inside the restaurant. I got up and looked through the door's window. Nobody was moving around. There were some chairs stacked on the tables, and the tables seemed to have a lot of dust on them. The place looked like it was closed. Wondering if the old guy I spoke to yesterday was a practical joker, or just plain mean, I clumped down the stairs. To check on the status of the restaurant, I went to the Fish and Game building and asked one of the officers about the Yukon River Restaurant. I was told it had closed three years ago. I bet the old guy is still laughing.
Galena, like several of the villages on the Yukon, consists of "old town" and "new town." The old part of town is right on the river while the new part of town is built some distance from the river. In many of those instances, the old part of town is in danger of being swept away by the river. The current just keeps taking away more and more of the river bank, inching closer to the buildings.
A couple of days before reaching Galena, I paddled past what I at first thought was trash and garbage thrown from the river bank. As I got closer, I saw that the "trash" was plastic flowers and wreaths. Among the debris there were also crosses. They were all sliding down the bank toward the river. The Yukon was cutting into a hillside just below a cemetery and the grave sites were being washed downstream. Among the crosses, plastic flowers and wreaths were white picket fences I had seen around grave sites at other cemeteries along the river. It did not look like the graves were being relocated to higher ground.
Fresh salmon, mmm good. However, our hungry looks were not enough to get some. © Kenneth Urnes
|Back to the first day in Galena. Since the restaurant was "closed" for supper I boiled a cup of rice and added a can of diced Spam. For dessert I boiled two cups of rice and added dried fruits and nuts and half a can of condensed, sweetened milk. It was way too much. Kenneth took a little; I ate half and saved the rest for breakfast (even though I planned to eat at the restaurant).|
While eating supper, a woman, two small children and a small dog walked by on the dirt street along the river. They were walking toward a pickup in which a man was sitting, just looking out over the river. The woman and kids were close enough to me that I could hear what they were saying. I heard one of the kids ask his mother, "Is that our father?" Overhearing that sure made for a sad and depressing supper.
Having finished supper, I went to the store to see if I could use the phone to call home. The cashier suggested I come back around 10:00 pm when it would be quieter in there. On the way back, Dan joined me again and told me about his experience that day. He had wanted to take a shower but to do that had to go to "New Galena," two miles back upstream. To get there, he gave a guy, who had a four-wheeler, a pint of whiskey. Then he paid the guy $20 to wait while Dan showered so that he could bring him back. He had been told the showers were short but only cost $2 in quarters. He loaded his quarters, then took his liquid soap, lathered his hair, lathered the rest of his body and shoved the quarters into the box. Nothing happened. There was no water. It had been turned off for the showers for the day. Dan then went out into the bathroom, naked and all lathered up, and washed at the sink as best as he could without climbing into it. I had a good laugh but Dan did not see any humor in the incident.
Kenneth and I left Galena at 11:30 for Nulato. Really quite late for us but due to the bad restaurant deal, Kenneth had to go to the store to see what he could buy that would qualify as breakfast. Fortunately I had my pot of sweet rice, fruit and nuts.
|The paddling that day was fairly easy and also uneventful. As we neared the village of Koyukuk we began to see more and more fishing boats out on the river. They were seine fishing, something I had not seen before. As we passed an island across from Koyukuk, we were recognized by three guys fishing from their boat. Kenneth had talked to them in Galena when he and Dan were at the diner. We stopped paddling and they drifted over to us and asked if we wanted one of the salmon they had caught. They did not have to ask us twice. I suspect they thought neither of us knew much about salmon, but Kenneth did.|
Approaching Nulato – "Old Town." © Kenneth Urnes
He told me it was a dog salmon, a fish the locals do not usually eat but dry and feed to their dogs. But neither Kenneth nor I were too choosy and we accepted the dog salmon. One of the men got a length of rope and tied it to the front of my kayak so that the fish and rope would not interfere with my rudder. I did not want the fish in the kayak because I did not want the kayak to smell like fish. The salmon did create a drag to one side because it weighed about five pounds.
The sloping ground from the river in Nulato, where we wanted to set up tents, was fairly wet from the recent rains. We finally found an area big enough for two tents that had a slight gradient and therefore was nearly dry. The only problem was that it was almost on a four-wheeler path. One of my tent stakes was in the outside edge of the path.
The dog salmon I "caught."
© Ray Zvirbulis
|When the tents were up, Kenneth cleaned and cut the salmon into steaks and I fried them on my small, portable grill. One of the locals, Kelly Sommer, stopped by as I was pretending to be a gourmet chef, to talk. When the fish was done he helped get it off the grill. Because Kenneth needed to get to the store, Kelly offered to take him on his four-wheeler, as the store was in "New Nulato," about 1-1/2miles from the river. Kelly said the store closed at 10:00 pm and it was already 9:30. Well, Kelly did not get back until 10:15 but did bring us two bags of smoked salmon strips. He had taken them from his freezer and they were still frozen. Later, when I tried them, the salmon in one of the bags was very oily, the other was drier but unfortunately both tasted of freezer burn. I ate a bunch of the strips any way. Didn't want to starve to death. Kelly said if we needed anything to go to his house and ask. He also said we could use his phone.|
After Kelly left, a young man named Marvin, maybe in his early 20's, also stopped by. He was waiting for his uncle, the village chief, because they were going to go out and do some drift fishing. The chief’s name was Mickey. So, we had the team of M&M. Marvin told me he and Mickey—Marvin was very, very impressed with the fact that his uncle was the village chief—had caught 51 salmon one day ago and 30 fish two days ago. So the fishing was good and getting better.
When Marvin's uncle did not show up he went to look for him. But, before he left he told us he was an Athabascan Indian and added we could catch king salmon and dog salmon just a short distance from our tent site at the mouth of the Nulato River.
Talking about fishing, a couple of days before reaching Nulato, I was paddling in the middle of the Yukon to catch the fastest current when I saw a small, gray lump of foam drifting across the river. I thought the wind was blowing it until I realized there was no wind. The blob crossed my bow just as I got to it and saw that the gray blob was a mouse paddling furiously to cross the river. At that point the Yukon was about one mile wide. I was very impressed but also hoped the little critter would make it to the shore.
In the morning, July 8, I woke to the familiar and unwelcome sound of rain on my tent. It was 5:00 am and I did not feel like taking down my tent in the rain so I turned over and went back to sleep. While I slept, the rain crept quietly into my tent through the seams and other secret places. When I woke up for the second try to get back on the river, the tent floor was wet. My sleeping pad was wet. And, a good part of my sleeping bag was wet also. Did I curse the rain? Did I wail and gnash my teeth? Did I cry? I did not even lament the fact that for some inexplicable reason my tent had invited so much water inside. No, I simply knelt on the one dry spot of my sleeping pad and began to mop up the water that had pooled on the tent floor, using one of my socks as a sponge. I was not, however, a happy camper so to speak.
When the water was mopped up, I left the tent with my sleeping bag and pad and headed for the washateria which was adjacent to the school (Elementary, Jr. High and High School). There I shoved both into a dryer and passed the time watching them spin 'round and 'round. I found that to be most entertaining that rainy morning.
Just as I was putting my stuff into the tent, Mickey and Marvin arrived from their all-night fishing trip. Marvin said they had caught 60 salmon which he proudly showed to me. As Mickey drove off on the four-wheeler, with Marvin hanging on behind, pulling a small trailer with the salmon, he drove over one of the corner tent stakes. But before he left he said Kenneth and I should go to the 24-hour wake being held in the community building. He said everyone was welcome and that there would be lots of food.
Later on that rainy day Kenneth and I walked to New Nulato to see if one of the two stores was open. Neither one was so we sat in the New Nulato washateria and waited for one of the stores to open. The store across from the washateria opened momentarily so we hurried over and bought some food. The owner had just come in for a minute but allowed us to shop. We hung around in the washateria again until the second store opened because I wanted to buy a tarp to keep over the tent. When it finally opened at 4:00 I was told that they had no tarps left. There were several people in the store and it started to get crowded because it was small. As I walked past the cashier on the way out I saw a guy buy four frozen pork chops. He paid a small fortune for them.
As Kenneth and I started back, a man driving a small pickup gave us a ride. There were four other people in the back already but they made room for the two of us as we clambered in.
Back at the tents, Kelly showed up and invited us to his cousin's house just across the road from the tents. Because it was still raining slightly, we accepted the invitation. Kelly introduced us to his cousin, Wayne Stickman, and to Kelly's brother, Neil John Sommer. Wayne was the person who bought the pork chops. He, at one point had bought two houses from the school district. The houses were on the same piece of property. Wayne said he raced snowmobiles and had a bunch of trophies on shelves. Kelly played an electric guitar and sang. Neil had red hair, raced dogs and had a bunch of trophies he had won, at his house. He said he entered his team of dogs in sprints—races of around 20 to 30 miles.
The three guys consumed great quantities of alcohol. Since I did not drink, and Kenneth did not want to, Wayne made coffee for us. Then he tried to insist we have some of his dearly bought pork chops but I said I just could not take something that expensive from him. Wayne then proceeded to make us a whole batch of pizza bites which I am sure were not inexpensive. While that was going on, Kelly had plugged in the guitar and was playing full blast singing rock songs in Athabascan. Soon Wayne’s uncle showed up. The three guys called the uncle Hank Williams because he sang Hank Williams' songs with a country and western twang. The way the three guys got him to sing was to offer him a shot of whiskey for each song he sang. While I was there he sang several songs and left smiling.
It was getting to be quite loud so Kenneth went back to his tent. I stayed and Wayne showed me pictures of his kids who were living with their mothers. Kelly unplugged and went home and Neil talked about his dog racing. I finally went to my tent around midnight.
My tent was dry because Kelly had sold me a large sheet of plastic, for a couple of bucks. Which reminds me, when I was at the store, a person had overheard me. Later in the day he stopped by on his four-wheeler and said he had a tarp he could give me. I thanked him but said I had just gotten one from Kelly. People were just great.
The following day Kenneth and I walked to the community center to check out the wake. We told the people the village chief said we would be welcome. No one objected to our presence. I talked to the niece of the deceased woman who told me the woman had disappeared about 20 years ago when a young lady. Her bones had been found recently and through DNA analysis it was determined she was from Nulato and related to some of the people there. No one knew how she had died but foul play was suspected.
The bones were in a covered casket and a large photo of her when she was young was next to the casket. She had been a very pretty young lady.
The wakes used to last for three days but now were just 24 hours long. During that time people came and went, except for the closest relatives who were by the casket all the time. There was lots of food laid out on several tables. People visited and ate. Kenneth and I visited with each other and ate. Such shameless opportunists! On the tables was salmon fixed in several different ways, beaver meat, moose and snow goose. For dessert there was cake and wild blueberry syrup to pour over the cake. The food was wonderful and we just kept on eating, though not for the full 24 hours.
|"Meanwhile Wayne was having a party at his house. It started at 5:00 and continued until 6:00 am the next day. Neither Kenneth nor I got much sleep that night. We had been invited but neither of us went. Things got fairly loud and I could hear Kelly blasting away on his guitar. Whenever they ran out of liquor, they jumped into Nell's car and drove to somewhere and came back with more. |
Finally at 6:00 am everything became quiet. That's when we got up, packed and left.
A cabin at the river edge in Nulato. © Ray Zvirbulis
We paddled all day again (as usual) and were happy no rain fell. As we rounded a bend in the river, far ahead, on a hillside was a cabin. When we got to it Kenneth held my kayak as I got out. I climbed the steep, grassy bank to see if we could stay there. I figured it was not being used because there were no boats there and the underbrush was reclaiming the clearing. It turned out there were two cabins, one right behind the other. The first cabin was leaning toward the second because one of the posts holding it up was decayed and broken. The door was open. I called for Kenneth to come on up. Inside there was a table, chairs, stove and elementary school books strewn about on the floor. I suspect someone had been home schooled. Even though the floor was steeply angled, we figured we could sleep inside. We fired up some mosquito coils that were on the table and prepared supper.
After we ate I went to check the second cabin and after opening the door, saw that it had been used as the sleeping quarters. There were two bunk beds with mattresses and sleeping bags on them. The beds even had mosquito netting around them. I brought over some mosquito coils and cleared all the mosquitoes in a matter of minutes. It was quite comfortable in the upper bunk bed. Kenneth decided to sleep in the kitchen cabin. I told him to close the door so that he would not slide out during the night as he slept!
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