Touched by the Yukon

A canoe journey that captures the soul of Alaska, and of Latvia

Latvian Yukon Expedition. Photo: onthewayoffreedom.com
Latvian Yukon Expedition. Photo: onthewayoffreedom.com

If at first you don't succeed, try again—even if round two involves tangling with a Magnum-wielding mountain man and feasting on fresh bear heart.

A group of five Latvian adventurers experienced that and more on a 1,980-mile-long source-to-sea expedition on the Yukon River. Naturally, they did it Latvian style, which means subsisting off the land as much as possible, be it fishing, hunting for waterfowl or rooting around in the woods for cabbage and mushrooms. Six years after paddling the stretch from Whitehorse, Yukon to Circle, Alaska, the team resumed where they had left off, canoeing for 41 days from Circle to Emmonak, Alaska, on the Bering Sea. Their feature-length film about the adventure, Jukonas Skartie has become a sensation in Latvia, and is available in English on DVD.

Here is the story of a canoe journey that captures the soul of Alaska, and of Latvia, in the words and photos of adventurers Andis Pikāns, Māris Olte, Raimonds Dombrovskis, Sandris Jūra and Jānis Kļaviņš.

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Early in the journey we realized our only information about the Yukon River was Killing’s book “The Legend about Yukon,” which is full of many exaggerated facts which at times you can call lies. At first we didn’t know if we would make it to the end. But it was easier than we thought. We had a tail wind the whole way except for the last three days. It was lazy man’s style.

Latvians in Jukon
Latvian Yukon Expedition. Photo: onthewayoffreedom.com

The most dangerous part of the trip was meeting the heavily armed man seen in this picture, Johnny, who was responsible for a two-hour long puzzle called, "Who stole our filming equipment?" The end of the story was in best American movie traditions.

Latvians in Jukon
Latvian Yukon Expedition. Photo: onthewayoffreedom.com

We found a place where we could catch huge salmon as if in paradise the day after it was created by God. We ate a lot of salmon eggs. North Americans do not eat them, but we do, with vodka, like Doctor Zhivago.

Latvians in Jukon
Latvian Yukon Expedition. Photo: onthewayoffreedom.com

Any trip is about meeting people. Most boaters are so obsessed with how fast they can go or how difficult the paddling is that they ignore details along the way. Now we are traveling over Eskimo territories. Locals you can recognize with bright smiles, and their boats have high sides to withstand waves and strong winds.

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All the people we met were so different and interesting. The best part was learning about their lives and hearing their stories. We met a new friend from Finland, a Russian named Yakov, and Wolfgang, an Austrian artist and fossil hunter. We met this young hunter in Anvik.

Latvians in Jukon
Latvian Yukon Expedition. Photo: onthewayoffreedom.com

It is clear now that Yukon does not care about getting us to Bering sea. It will do as it wishes. Locals do not even try to predict weather. They say it is useless. We have managed 570 miles, 520 still to go. As Andis says, laughing, it is the same as to paddle from Riga to Warsaw. Still, we are all okay. Our paddles are not yet worn out!

Latvians in Jukon
Latvian Yukon Expedition. Photo: onthewayoffreedom.com

We have made very good friends with the substance called mud, which is very wide and deep along the shore. When stopping one paddler must jump out the canoe into mud that reaches his knees, then fall down with spread fingers and try to reach out for mainland. Others meanwhile wait till footbridge is built and team can safely get out.

Latvians in Jukon. Photo: Latvians in Jukon
Latvian Yukon Expedition. Photo: onthewayoffreedom.com

We found a bear's head with skin and guts along the river. It was only a couple of hours old. Eating the bear's heart with rice was Janis's idea. No one questioned it. We thought it was a delicacy.

Latvians in Jukon
Latvian Yukon Expedition. Photo: onthewayoffreedom.com

We had a great group. Some of us were a bit lazy, some got lost in time and place, but all went well. We all had a good sense of humor. Here we enjoy a warm bath in this tub made from ubiquitous Alaskan blue tarp to capture natural hot spring water.

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On the 18th of September, with harsh North headwind and rain at Emmonak, the expedition of Yukon finished journey at 13.00 local time. The day after we left Emmonak, it started to snow for the rest of the winter. We were lucky, lucky, lucky.

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