It has been a couple of months since I made it to the Bering Sea after 2,000 miles of paddling from the headwaters of the Yukon River.
The end of these adventures is always a strange thing.
For months, for hundreds of miles, you have this wonderful purpose, this single goal to work towards. It is just you and the river and your kayak. You and the mountains and your boots and every adventure within reach. Your job is to see the world. To learn from the wild.
To make your own story. To live.
The end goal isn’t the point. You don’t hike the Appalachian Trail just to summit Katahdin, you don’t hike the CDT to see that slab of concrete at Crazy Cook, and you don’t paddle the Yukon to see the Bering, just like you don’t live to die. You live to live! It is the journey that is everything.
When I look back at the beginning of the Yukon River trip, I can’t quite believe how everything fell apart and fell together.
After losing an expedition partner days before the start, the trip seemed near impossible. Too much for just one person. Too much to figure out and afford.
It would have been easier to quit. Easier to be comfortable and safe. Easier to stop right there and not deal with the stress of having to find a boat and figure out how on earth to afford the adventure alone. Easier to find work and stay inside. Easier to not try so as not to fail. It was tempting.
Going on a solo adventure just one year after the Brooks Range expedition was too much and I was afraid to kayak such a formidable river when I had never been on a kayaking trip before. There were plenty of things to be afraid of- drowning, hypothermia, whirlpools, high waves, wind- what would happen in 2,000+ miles of paddling? . . . but most of all, I was afraid to be alone again.
There are so many reasons not to follow a dream. It is too impractical, too difficult, too dangerous. I almost gave in to comfort.
Just as quitting was sounding most appealing, my Dad said this:
What did you do when a forest fire burned across your route on the Pacific Crest Trail?
What did you do when the rivers were too deep and swift to cross in the Brooks Range?
What did you do when three feet of snow buried the Arizona Trail?
You found another way around.
Find another way around.
Find another way around.
When things get tough, work harder. Don’t give up if it means something.
In the end I knew that if I didn’t kayak the river now, I was in danger of never seeing its length. Of never following this dream and having to live with that disappointment. Having to always wonder “what if?” Growing old with “what ifs” sounded more painful than anything.
Once I decided to go for it, once I surrendered to the idea of making the Yukon Expedition happen no matter what, things fell together as quickly as they had fallen apart. In just a weeks time, Folbot saved me by helping out with the Kodiak, Tarptent helped with a shelter, Windsails with a sail, Vasque with shoes and Patagonia with rain gear.
I bought my plane tickets, printed the maps, figured out a re-supply strategy. Everything fell into place.
I’ll tell you the big secret. The trick to these long distance expeditions is to forget the end entirely. To keep it far from your mind, to lose yourself in the adventure. You can’t look at the whole picture. 2,000 miles of paddling! That’s impossible. That’s overwhelming. The sort of weight that would send you into a panic attack. You can’t focus on the whole when you’re taking the first steps, just focus on the pieces . . . little step by little step, stroke by stroke. Then, all of the sudden, you’ll see that all of these tiny pieces can add up to something great. You can do something impossible. You can.
I headed out to the headwaters of the Yukon knee shaking kind of scared with a pile of fears squashing my hopes.
And what do you know but once things got going, the Yukon River turned out to be one of the greatest adventures of my life.
Going solo turned out to be a good thing. I met more people, made more friends and took more side trips than I would have had I been in a group. I was able to follow my whims and spend a day picking mushrooms with a First Nations Family near Carmacks, I was able to see the length of the Dempster and visit the Arctic Village of Inuvik, I was able to take my time at 40 Mile and Selkirk, I was able to visit with families in Fort Yukon and Marshall and Holy Cross. I was able to experience the Yukon in a meaningful way.
It was perfect.
Trade comfort for adventure. Trade inertia for wildness. Trade in the couch for LIFE.
An enormous thank you to all of the good people who cheered me along and helped me out on the journey. Every note, package and donation I was sent meant so much on such a mentally challenging trip. Thank you! I am one lucky kid.
After these trips it is hard to sit still, hard to stop moving. Once you’ve built up all that momentum, you are in danger of rocketing right around the world, never able to stop. After finishing the Yukon, I wandered in a whirlwind from Alaska’s Deltas to Idaho to the heart of the grasslands. Now it is time to hunker down and give writing a book about Brooks Range adventures my very best shot. It is another undertaking that scares me! But if I try my hardest, at least I’ll never have to ask myself “what if?”
I will be in New England for the next couple of months, so if your group would like a presentation about the Brooks Range or Yukon River, send me an e-mail! firstname.lastname@example.org.
And don’t forget to live.
“Sometimes you have to go ahead and do the most important things, the things you believe in, and not wait until years later when you say, “I wish I had gone-done-kissed.” . . . What we most regret are not the errors we make, but the things we didn’t do.” –Audrey Sutherland