To Emmonak

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From Mountain Village it is only 80 miles to the sea.  The weather took an unexpected turn and not only did the sun come out, but it was forecasted to stay around for a couple of days!  Can you believe that?

I paused briefly in Mountain Village in the evening to fill up on water for the final stretch.  I was greeted by a kid named Clayton who was running around the town’s boat landing holding the first fish he’d ever caught. He set it down only to investigate my kayak.

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After a quick dinner and a trip for water, I hopped back into my Folbot and paddled away.  70 miles to Emmonak.  80 miles to the sea.  It never really sunk in.

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The following morning I awoke to blue skies above but a thick fog all around.  Luckily it was very still and I was able to stay in the current and make good progress.  The fog did not burn off until noon.  A barge past by but the river traffic did not start to pick up until late in the afternoon.  More than I’d ever seen further upstream.  I’d see a couple of boats every hour zipping this way and that.  Most of them would drive over to check me out without slowing down, leaving wild wakes to bounce me around and I’d have to maneuver carefully to prevent myself from tipping.

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I had not planned on reaching Emmonak that evening.  I ducked into a side slough to get out of afternoon wind and lazily paddled down enjoying the contrast of a smaller space to the river which is now miles wide.  I love looking at the shallow root systems in cut banks.  I took some pictures and just floated enjoying the sun.

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I heard a boat coming down the narrow slough from up river.  Three people were aboard.  A father, his daughter and an Englishman working at the Fish Plant in Emmonak.  They had been out exploring that afternoon just for fun.  They insisted I take their extra food and past me an egg sandwich along with a soda.  It was around then that I realized I was only a couple of hours from town and that I could make it there that night.  No good camp sites presented themselves, so I ended up paddling all the way to the village of Emmonak.  It was around 11 pm by the time I arrived.  I set up my tent a little ways above the boat landing and carried my Folbot up on the beach.

Emmonak.

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Just 10 more miles to the sea.  Unbelievable.

To Pilot Station

“But don’t the dead people bother you?” a young girl with wide eyes asked me after hearing that I was traveling the river by myself.

“No!  Do they bother you?”  I asked and was then treated to several good ghost stories.

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I hadn’t intended to stay in Marshall, but when I arrived at 7 pm, it had been raining steadily for 24 hours and I was in hope of finding a place to dry off.  I secured my kayak at the boat landing and walked up to town.  I stumbled upon a building with a towering cross and, thinking it was a church, went in to see if it was alright for me to dry off there.  Upon opening the door, I was ambushed by a good twenty inquisitive kids filled to the brim with questions about who the heck I was and what I was doing there.

I had stumbled into the community’s rec center run by Samaritan’s Purse, or more specifically, by Margaret and John who put together meals for anyone in the village under 18.  Margaret and John are originally from Seattle and moved up to Marshall temporarily to work with the Samaritan Program.  They like it so much, they hope to stay on permanently.

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They were kind enough to let me camp out in the rec room for the night.  The kids hung around until 9 pm and were a lot of fun.  I sat in a corner of the room, trying to stay out of the way, but as soon as I sat down, I was swarmed and half of the room was standing around me or sitting at my feet asking a million questions, inspecting my compass, and trying to feed me candy.  They were a sweet bunch.

After the kids were sent home around 9, Margaret and John asked me if I’d like any leftovers from the dinner and let me watch a movie on the tv there.  Wow!  I’m spoiled.

It was nice to get out of the rain.  Even though I am getting so close to being done, the end seems so impossible and far away when the weather turns for the worse.

Bad weather had trapped me at the Devil’s Elbow for a good 12 hours.  The Devil’s Elbow is a point where the Yukon takes a 90 degree turn and the current does strange things.  It was a relief to finally get safely past.

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I got going again at 8 am the following morning, fighting against wind and waves.  The current has slackened quite a bit in the last 100 miles.  The weather began to clear some in the evening and I paused at Pilot Station’s boat landing to eat dinner.  A mother and her two little girls came over to say hello and welcome me to town.  The girls had never seen a kayak before.

I ate cold chili for dinner and ended up camping on a very nice beach on an island a couple hour paddle from town.  There were several sets of moose prints in the area but no bear.  I took care to camp in the open so that nothing would trip over me by accident.  A moose did come near my camp at 2 am, but a holler sent him away.

Holy Cross and on to Marshall

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“This is our guest, Kristin.  We found her in the woods.”

That is how I was introduced to most of the population of Holy Cross, or at least all of the people who stopped by the Peters Family home that day.  That gave me a good laugh.

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After collapsing on the beach at Holy Cross and sleeping until 10pm, I wandered (or rather limped) into town to find the post office where I had a package of supplies waiting for me.  I was not sure exactly where the post office was but figured if I just kept walking up and down the streets, I would find it (this is my usual strategy).  A woman standing outside her house noticed me.  She waved me over and asked if I’d like a cup of coffee.

Before I knew it, I was invited inside, showered, had my clothes in a washing machine, and was eating hot food and watching tv from a comfy couch with the Peters Family.

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The Peters Family.  Some of the best people that I have met on the entire Yukon.  3 girls and a boy, all grown up or in their teens.  Smart, hardworking kids.  One of the girls, who is in her early twenties, has already worked in the village’s community center, had a job on the North Slope and run for Tribal Council and nearly won against her father (who was the one who convinced her to run)  The family had just held the 40 day feast for their father who passed away in June.  His name was Leroy and as it turns out, he loved to take canoers and kayakers in from the Yukon and show them the village.  His family is continuing the tradition.

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The Peters family insisted that I at least stay one night.  I met so many lovely people in Holy Cross that I was rather sad to leave the following morning, but the sun was shining and the breeze was light.

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On to Russian Mission, past the Devil’s Elbow where some nasty weather held me up for 12 hours, and then on to Marshall in heavy rain and fog, but I felt good and strong thanks to the rest in Holy Cross.

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To Holy Cross


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I did not realize that I was in trouble until it was too late.

It was the 27th of July.  I figured I had another week or so with enough light to paddle through the nights.  I hadn’t intended to paddle through this particular night but the weather was calm so I kept going until late.

All was going well until the darkness crept up on me.  I wasn’t expecting it.  I hadn’t noticed it on the preceding nights because I had been sleeping through them.  The Alaskan summer nights are gone.  Fall is coming.  Already.  Perhaps it was worse than it would have been because the clouds were so heavy with rain.  Either way, by midnight, it was just too dark.  Too dark to see the river well enough to judge it.  Too dark to observe how the current was moving.  Too dark to be able to see exactly where the whirlpools were as the current tore around irregular points in the river.   Just too dark.  I needed to go ashore.  I needed to set up camp . . . but the river walls were sheer and where they weren’t there was 10 feet of driftwood blocking me or thick growth or towering cut banks.  There was nowhere to pull over . . . and soon enough it was too dark to see more than a dark blur of shoreline as I paddled past.

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I was stuck.  Stuck on the river in the dark with no option but to press on to the next spot where I knew I could land: Holy Cross.  But that was hours away and even one hour is a very long time in the dark.

Each section of river has had its own challenges, its own puzzles to figure out.  With the lakes back in Canada, the trick is to avoid the wild waves in the middle, to not get pinned to a northern shoreline and not paddle too near peninsulas in the wind.  In the Yukon Flats the trick is to not lose the current and to not lose track of where you are on the map.  In the Rampart Canyon, the trick is to avoid the current in the wind- that’s where the waves get too nasty.  Here in the lower river, the trick is to keep free of the whirlpools.  They are especially strong this year because the river is high and fast with all the rain that has been falling.  The whirlpools tend to develop behind points.  Behind tough rock along the Yukon that the river has yet to erode.  The current hits these points and ricochets off.

Don’t get stuck in a whirlpool.  Even boats with engines can have trouble getting out of some of them.

This was my main fear as I paddled through the dark.  I was able to navigate by keeping track of the silhouette of the land and I knew I had my gps to lean on if I got confused.  The night was calm.  Fog settled making the visibility worse.  It rained steadily.  I kept my headlamp ready so that I would be visible in case a boat came but the rest of the world was asleep.

And how do you keep sane paddling through the ambiguous dark and rainy fog on the mighty Yukon?  You listen to the Trail Show of course!  And that is just what I did.  A Trail Show marathon saw me through the night and kept my spirits up.  To avoid whirlpools I steered way clear of the points.  Despite this, as I headed towards the slough leading to Holy Cross, I found myself stuck in the outer drag of a whirlpool and had to paddle hard to finally make the slough and float up to the town’s beach at 4.30 am.

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I was dead tired when I pulled over onto the beach.  It was all I could do to set up my tent, haul my boat to a safe spot and collapse in a heap in my shelter.  I was finally in my sleeping bag by 5.30 too tired to eat.

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To Kaltag

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“I would NOT camp there if I were you”

“Why not?”

“I don’t even want to tell you what was seen there last week . . .”

“What?!”

My mind raced.  Had someone died there?  Had some violent crime been committed?

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I was in the fish processing plant office in Kaltag where Veronica and Cleitus had been kind enough to let me in to fill up on water.  Just before leaving, as an afterthought, I took out my maps and pointed to the spot where I had been aiming to camp that night and asked Cleitus if there was good camping there.  His eyes widened and a haunted look past over his face.  He urged me in earnest not to camp anywhere near there.  He was so concerned that, before I knew it, he was on the phone calling his sister for the number to the local church.  He then called Father Joe and asked if they could put me up at the church there for the night.

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As it turned out, Big Foot, or the Woodsmen as he’s known along the Yukon, had recently been spotted near Kaltag’s old town site where I had been planning on setting up camp that night.  One thing was for sure.  I was not going to get mauled by Big Foot under Cleitus’ watch.  I was able to stay in the town’s church where I was greeted by Father Joe who had lots of great stories about the Iditarod coming through there.  It was such a pleasant town stay I feel indebted to that Big Foot kid.  I owe him one!

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The weather coming into Kaltag was fantastic.  The sun was out and there was barely a breeze.  It was such a relief after all of the wind and rain over the past few weeks.  I was finally able to relax, not constantly stressing about survival, not constantly surveying the terrain and maps to see where the next spot I can pull over is if the wind gets worse, not having to keep track of what gear is soaked through and when I’ll next be able to dry it, not having to force myself to stop and eat in the rain.  Just floating along warm and dry and good and so happy.  The bad weather days are hard but the good days are a dream and make all of the struggle worth it.

To Galena

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A single shot rang out as I approached Rampart.  It came from somewhere up in the village.  I hesitated.

I was in hope of finding a place to dry off in Rampart.

It had been raining all evening.  A steady rain.  The kind that is nice to listen to while sitting inside on the couch with a cup of tea and a good book.  Not the kind that is particularly nice to kayak through.

I drifted up to the boat landing and hauled my kayak ashore.  Two men came down to the beach on an ATV with a dead dog.  A big, black dog with long hair and a bullet hole in his head.  They lay him on the beach, fetched their boat, tied the dog to the boat with a rope and dragged the body out into the current to let him go.

I walked up to the town hall to dry off and eat some oatmeal before continuing on.

Sometimes I think about my timing on this trip.  Depending on exactly when I paddle away from shore into the river each time, I may have an entirely different adventure: meet different people, have different interactions, see different wildlife.  If I had arrived in Rampart ten minutes earlier or later, I never would have seen that poor dead dog.   But that was my timing.

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I saw the sun for a few hours four days ago and then maybe for half a day a week before that.  It’s been all rain ever since.  This is where travel becomes a mental game.  This is where you have to “embrace the brutality” as they say on the CDT.

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It hasn’t been easy spending the days cold and wet in gloomy drizzle but it definitely has made me appreciate town visits more.  At every stop I have been lucky to meet such great people.  Since leaving the road the Yukon has taken me past the communities of Rampart, Tanana, Ruby and Galena.  Visiting these villages has become my favorite part of this trip.  It has been intriguing to learn about the lifestyles of people who live along the Yukon and I have been absolutely floored by the kindness of the people I have met.

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Complete strangers have given me rides to washeterias, helped me get fresh water, invited me into their homes, cooked meals and told me stories about their lives on the river.

I have stayed in Galena the longest out of all of these stops and perhaps that is why I enjoyed it the most.  Galena is one of the larger villages on the Yukon with a population of about 800.  It is spread out between the “old town” and “new town.”  There is a post office, a library, school, elder center and not one but TWO grocery stores.

Last spring a flood caused by an ice jam devastated the village of Galena.  One of the elders in the village has lived here for 99 years and he says the flood was worse than any he had seen or heard of.  People were evacuated.  Homes were destroyed.  This summer they are hard at work re-building.  Volunteers have come in to help raise homes and build new ones.


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Galena is a very special place.  Walk down the street and every single person you pass- whether they are in a vehicle or not will smile and wave.  If they are heading in the same direction as you, they will immediately pull over and ask if you’d like a ride.

When I first arrived in town, early yesterday morning, I walked around the old town for a bit, trying to figure out where everything was.  A woman named Harriet pulled alongside me in her car and told me that nothing opened until ten but that I was welcome to come and hang out at her house and warm up until then (it was 40 degrees and raining so I was thrilled by this offer).  She had me over and fed me scrambled eggs with sausage, oranges and tea!  And gave me a ride all the way back to old town at 10 so that I could go to the Post Office.  Wow.  Thank you Harriet!

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A friend of a friend let me stay at her home even though I had never met her and even though she is out of town.  How spoiled am I!  Thank you Carrie!

I plan to push off later this evening and am looking forward to the villages ahead.  The weather report says it might even clear up in three days.  Boy do I hope so!  But no matter what, I have the villages to look forward to.

Thank you all so much for cheering me on and following this trip!  It means a lot especially with this rough weather which makes the trip more of a mental challenge.  Thank you all for the mail in Galena!  I am one lucky kid and will be eating very well this next leg of the trip!

The Road

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It was good to be in the Brooks Range.

It is a 3 hour drive from where the Yukon River crosses the Dalton Highway and since the weather was too rough for river travel, I thought I might as well (or at least that was my excuse as I was dying to go!) . . .  I was able to hop on a tour that my friend Patrick was giving heading north (THANK YOU PATRICK!).  When we arrived, I ran down to the Koyukuk through the rain on that old dirt path.  How I miss it all.  I was surprised to see how much the river has eaten into the land there.  Right into the dirt road where we used to pick up the rafts when I worked at the truck stop so long ago.  Golly, I’m getting old.

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The river is high.  Most of the gravel bar by the runway is underwater.  I went down to what’s left of the bar.  I lay down on the rocks and mud and stared up at the stormy sky, watery eyes.  I miss this country.  If I ever had a home in Alaska, it was right here.

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I quite accidentally took an entire week off at the road.  It was wonderful!  A few days in Wiseman, a few days in Fairbanks and suddenly it was a week.  Maybe even 8 days!  oops.  It was hard to tear myself away after getting to visit with friends.  I was so spoiled with fresh vegetables from the Reakoff garden and was sent away with an entire bag full of greenery!  I will be eating well.

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My friend Eyal let me stay at his cabin in Fairbanks and eat fresh eggs from the chickens there!  We watched “Paddle to Seattle” – a video about two guys who kayaked from Skagway all the way to Seattle- for inspiration.   Eyal has been on some pretty amazing adventures himself!  Having horseback ridden across Mongolia.

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Weather on the river has been rough.  I don’t mind the rain.  I don’t mind the mosquitoes or the horseflies or the heat or the cold.  It is the wind that bothers me.  It is the wind that makes things dangerous.  Right now there are high winds day and night.  No break.  Up to 30 mph.  Driving rain.  4 ft+ standing waves.  And once you float beyond the Haul Road on the Yukon River, that’s it.  Last road access period.  Last road access and over 900 miles to go.  933 to be exact . . . not that I am counting.

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This second half of the trip was always the part that made me nervous.  The river gets bigger and wider.  The current is slowing down.  The wind is getting wilder.  There are stretches where the wind builds up against the current and can create waves up to 8 feet tall forcing paddlers to shore for days.  The first half of the river was fun.  The rest though will be a more serious business.  No room for mistakes.  No safety net.

The wind calmed down some that afternoon and I was able to set off, a little hesitantly.  One last goodbye to Lacey, David and Brody.  Then down to the river and into my Kodiak and the current took us onward.  I turned around to watch the road disappear from view.

Alone again.

And what will these next 933 miles bring?  I don’t know but I do know that I am setting off warm and clean and well fed thanks to my friends in Wiseman, Fairbanks and the Yukon River Camp. How could I be so lucky to know so many great people?

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I have been enormously spoiled over this last week.  A big thank you to the Reakoffs, Eyal, Lacey, David, Brody, Sundance and Patrick!  So fantastic seeing you all!