The Bering Sea

Low Tide: 10:36 am

High Tide: 2:45pm

I wrote the times on my hand.

 

I left the fish plant barracks just after 4 am.  I wanted to give myself more than enough time to get to the ocean before the tide came in.  11 miles there and 11 back.

The sky took me by surprise when I stepped outside.  Seeing a good starry sky after an Alaskan summer is a special thing.  Imagine it.  24 hours of day all summer and then, that first night it is dark enough to see the stars.  It is pure magic.

The village was quiet.  I tip toed down the wooden pathway onto the muddy road and followed it to the boat landing.

Even in the dark, I could tell right away that someone had gone through my gear.  I had left my kayak upside down as usual to guard against the elements but it was flipped over . . .  cockpit open to the sky and my belongings in a disarray.  I hadn’t left much in the boat.  I keep my valuables with me but I still had my life vest, bilge pump, seat and repair kit in the boat- and those are all pretty essential.  Superman was there too of course.  I always leave him with the kayak as a guard, hoping that any passersby who get a little too friendly with my gear might have a sense of humor and leave my stuff alone after seeing my sentry.

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Nothing was taken.  Phewff.  Everything was soaked through from an evening rainstorm.  I turned the boat upside down to drain out the water and then carried it down the beach to the edge of the Yukon.  It always makes me a little uneasy to leave my kayak at boat landings but I can’t carry it around town with me like a pocket book.  This was the only time any of my things had been touched the entire trip and I would not be surprised if it was just some curious kids.

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I was on the river before 5.  I looked back to see the silhouette of the village against the morning sky.  It was perfect.

To the Bering!

There was barely a breeze, so I stuck right in the current which carried me west.  A few seagulls circled overhead, curious.  One followed me for a couple of miles, squawking with disapproval.  I had some trouble navigating the mud bars – which change so often, no one bothers mapping them -but my Kodiak has such a shallow draft, that I was able to escape quickly.

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And so the current carried me past a bend in the river, past a handful of islands.  The sun rose in a clear sky and then it came into sight.  The Bering Sea.  Water forever.

I was planning on parking on a spit of land on the left bank but it was so muddy I ended up paddling to the island that divides Kwiguk Pass.  A good solid island.  Grassy, firm ground.  I paddled to where it met the sea and hauled my gear on a bank well above the water.

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I stayed for a few hours.  The edge of the world is quite a place.

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I decided to start heading back an hour before the tide turned (since there was no way I’d make it all the way back to town in the 4.5 hours between low and high tide).  I carried my Folbot back down to the water and readied my sail.  There was a eastward breeze now.  Enough to help me back up river to Emmonak a little bit at least.

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I started paddling up river.  About ten minutes later, the wind changed and what do ya know but a head wind was slapping me in the face.  Couldn’t help but laugh.

The going was slow against the current but I stuck like glue to the banks, taking advantage of the occasional slough, and was able to make progress.  Some locals heading out on a beluga hunt passed by and paused to say hello.  I had met two of them in town and they said they’d rescue me if I hadn’t made it back to Emmonak by the time they returned.

I crossed back to river right to be on the same side as Emmonak and hugged the inside of a bend.  Emo finally came into view hours later.  It was a relief to see town.  It was still miles away, but once the village was in view, I knew I could make it.  I inched closer and closer and before I knew it I was paddling past the camps on the far edge of town.  It was a hot summer day.  Kids were swimming all over the place and everyone I paddled by waved and said hello.  “Welcome to Emmonak!”

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It was good to be back!

My arms were dead tired by the time I made it to the boat landing.  But I made it!  I pulled my boat out of the water and brought it to an out of the way spot where I could pack up.  Before jumping into that process, I walked up to the village store and treated myself to a half liter of ice cold lemonade.  Yum.

Then it was time to pack and that was that.  I organized my gear and unassembled my Folbot.  Here is a picture of the skin and frame before I put it in my bag to fly out.

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Not bad for a first kayaking trip.  I like this river travel business.

Koyukuk?  Porcupine?  Tanana?  Nigu?  Alatna?  Kuskokwim?  I’m coming for ya!

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Emmonak

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“Go find Jack.”

That’s what everyone in Emmonak kept telling me.  I wasn’t sure exactly who Jack was or why I should go find him and ended up following this advice quite accidentally. I somehow ended up at the fish plant while I was exploring town and two workers brought me over to his office.

Emmonak is the last stop on the Yukon before you reach the Bering Sea.  It has an airport with weekly service to Anchorage and regular service to St. Mary’s and Bethel.  It is the end of the road.  Or the end of the River rather.

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“So you need a place to stay?” Jack asked  once I was in the office.  “We have an extra bed in the dormitories.  You’re welcome to join us for meals and do your laundry here too.  And there is a computer in the other room if you need a place to book your flight out.”

Wow.  Every single thing that I needed and hoped for was handed to me by the manager of the fish plant in Emmonak, Jack.

Just before I left his office my stomach dropped . . . what on earth would they charge for all of this?  Hotel rooms in rural Alaska (even the ones with just the bare essentials) can cost $200 a night . . . add in meals and laundry and a shower . . . oh no.  What did they expect me to pay?  Surely I couldn’t afford all of this.

“Ummm.  What will the room and everything cost?”  I asked Jack tentatively.

“Oh.  I don’t know, what do you think?”  he said, turning to a woman who was working at a desk.  She smiled “don’t worry about it, just be sure to mention us if you ever write a book!”  And with that, they sent me off to the manager’s dormitory to eat lunch.

Off I went, practically speechless by this unexpected hospitality.  Lunch was a feast.  Hot food, salad, fruit “there is ice cream in the fridge if you want any” several people informed me.  I cleaned my clothes and myself, booked a flight out and watched “The Big Bang Theory” with some new friends.

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But there was still work to be done.  About 10 miles (11 to be exact) still lay between me and the Bering Sea, between me and the end of the Yukon River.  The weather for the following day was supposed to be good.  I found out the tide timing.  My plan was to ride the tide out to sea and then back into town.  The river current was still quite persistent even in the Delta, so I knew that paddling back up River to Emmonak would be a struggle, but planned to stay close to the banks and hoped that after 2,000 miles of paddling, I’d be strong enough to make it 11 miles back upriver.

 

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.