Pull of The North

Journal entries from a three-month, 2,000-mile canoe odyssey from the source on the Yukon to the Bering Sea

Story by Ian Finch

Photos by Jay Kolsch

Day 1 – IN SEARCH OF THE SOURCE

“Some areas are poems of geology, so beautiful they defy words.” As my hands frantically scribbled these words with a half broken pencil, the floatplane violently jolted sideways from the uprush of turbulence. The mountains of British Columbia, set green and fractured below us, harboured the multiple sources of the Yukon River. Today we were in search of a tributary feeding Lake Lindeman and ultimately the vastness of Lake Bennett. 30 minutes later as we circled over the green emerald waters of Lindeman we decided it was too narrow and dangerous to land. Banking steeply 180 degrees and following the easterly shore we observed the deeply carpeted spruce, pine and birch. We noticed a narrow fast flowing stream channeled through a rocky gorge filtering out into the monster that was Lake Bennett. Its mirrored surface reflecting the snow capped mountains that cradled this huge expanse of water. Reaching forward over the pilots shoulder, I pointed to a landing spot. From this small tongue of land, where a shallow stream fed the lake, would be where our canoes would be launched.

Day 6 – LABERGE OR BUST

A mile before Lake Laberge we pulled the canoes to the east shore to explore the remnants of an old wooden bridge structure. We stepped out into sideways rain and powerful westerly winds. We’d heard the horror stories up river of the violent nature of this 50km lake. Everyone had given us old wives tales, routes across and stories of death on this temperamental stretch. The following day, after poor nights sleep in a set of old abandoned cabins our progress was a slow painful grind. Wind and rain slammed us into the rugged and untamed east shore forcing us to stop. The 8-hour day ceased at a disappointing 14 miles. Leaving at 5am the next day conditions had cleared yet strong winds still had a grasp. Waves toppled into the canoes as the weather pulled the two teams 800m apart.  We were bailing water out as fast as it was coming in. For the first time on the trip my co-canoeist Caroline and I felt cut off, our friends paddling in their own war with the weather, we in ours. We noticed large grizzly’s patrolling the high ground to our right as the weather gradually began to settle. Hours passed and after the final circular bay at the north end, we felt the magnetized surge of current. This invisible force pulled us into a narrow channel and onwards into the fast flow of the main river.

Day 18 – EAGLE – CROSSING THE BORDER

As the small historic border city of Eagle approached, we paddled energy depleted, into a small muddy boat landing. Wooden houses with moose antlers lined the banks. Young Athabascan natives shouted loudly from the banks, welcoming us to their community. We couldn’t tell whether they were intoxicated or not. Two fishermen sat, rods high, out over the water. Children played with underweight dogs and toy boats. For our expedition, Eagle was major checkpoint.

This was now Alaska, and behind us the vast beauty of Canada had passed. After mooring the canoes we made the call to U.S customs to announce of our waterborne arrival into the states. The call was long and painful with my British accent. Eagle had an antique beauty. It felt very much unchanged from the way it was from decades ago. I loved that. Its wooden buildings, churches and cabins sat on a very prominent bend in the river below a very steep bluff. To avoid the grizzlies our tents were situated on a black sand island in the centre of the river. Behind our tents the rugged beast of Alaska sat waiting. In front the varnished wood cabins and abandoned hotel sat lifeless and shapely. Ghostly-unseen dogs howled in the distance as we tried to sleep under the midnight sun. Tomorrow would be our first day under the shadow and angry skies of Alaska.

Caroline Côté running from the storm near Galena, Alaska.

DAY 24 – THE FLATS

Sammy, a native fisherman from Circle, asked me to hold the fish wheel together. Mosquito’s launch an aerial assault as he hammered in a final nail. As we shook hands, I noticed the warn working history of this man, a lifetime of subsistence living in a handshake. I walked down to the river where the team was ready and waiting. Paddling off we weaved into the multiple currents of the notorious Yukon flats. This area was a labyrinth of islands, dangerous flows and confusing false channels. Sand bars formed and dispersed with every new sunrise. The GPS, almost useless here, became a secondary option. Human instinct and vigilance was now our primary navigation tool. Time after time unseen currents would sweep us into a channel and split us from the other pair. This would naturally regroup us 100’s of metres down as currents converged. After 31 miles our canoes were flanked by two heavy thunderstorms. Shallow sandbars ground us continually as we wade in and push the canoes into deeper water. Sometimes, the decision to stop is more difficult than to continue. Will, guts and determination drags you on, but common sense and safety pulls you back by the collar of your saturated jacket. We had made good time and noticed a huge flat sand bar appearing to our east. Amid the oppressive thunderclouds we discussed our options over a beer. Rain started to trickle and then hammer our location. Here’s where we would stay, amid the dark skies and black sand of the flats.

Caroline Côté and Ian Finch pulling away from camp near Circle, Alaska.

DAY 38 – STEVE AND THE BOYS

We push off into good flow from the tribal community of Rampart. The warm morning sun beats down relentlessly and the smell of protective sun cream sweeps towards my position at the rear of the canoe. It takes me back to the cold beaches of England as a child. Looking side to side the river appears to be 1 mile across.  There are steep sided mountains on our left, a deep forested tundra to our right. As we approach Rampart Rapids from the west we notice a yellow floatplane moored within an eddy. At this magical location two children play in the mud and a pack of dogs dance excitedly along the riverbank. Swinging the canoe nose round we paddle hard, fighting the current that is determined to sweep us over the rapids. As both canoes drift tiredly into the still water of the eddy we introduce ourselves to Tracy-Ann, Parker, Owen and Steve. The dancing dogs and their wagging tails take our introduction further. The tall, slim and weathered Steve has been subsistence fishing here every summer for 25 years. Tracy-Ann and the boys, bearing no blood relation, have been coming for a number of summers to help out at the cabin, enjoying a wilderness summer. They all seem a perfect combination of positive, upbeat people with a curiosity, respect and love for the natural environment.  For two days we fish, play fight and talk until midnight. The cabin location sits in a place where dreams are created. The homemade wooden walls are cut between the spruce and pine that overlook the river and a smokehouse sits lower down soon to be filled with red salmon. The sandy tongue of land that harbours our yellow tents sits opposite a mountainous bluff. Our memories of here are caught between the whitewater of the rapids and the smell of braising moose meat and laughter in the kitchen.

Day 48 – WALTER, NULATO

Today was cold and miserably wet. The 18-mile stretch into Nulato, Alaska had been windy and the waves had beaten us into submission. We were soaked through and ready to land and find somewhere warm to feel human again.  As the comforting sound of the canoe coming to a halt on gravel caressed my ears I looked down at my hands, I couldn’t feel my left little finger. Looking up, the sound of a 4 wheeler (quad) rumbled to a halt in front of us. A middle-aged Koyukon native sat smiling at the controls. “You guys look cold.” he said. Introducing himself as Walter, he had returned to Nulato to spend his life fishing where he grew up. Much of his adult life had been spent in Anchorage under the grip of alcohol, drugs and depression. He was back where he belonged, raising a family and carving an honest existence during the cycle of the seasons. Throughout the following days Walter showed us a generosity and friendship I’d never experienced including the closely kept secrets of harvesting, preparing and smoking King Salmon. He walked us through the old cabins and cemetery’s explaining of the history and his connection to these sacred tribal places. The native communities displayed this selfless generosity all along the Yukon River. For me, it showed the power of giving when all you have is time and friendship.

A typical Yukon breakfast, Greyling and Bannock. Bennett Lake YT, Canada.

DAY 68 – EMMONAK

I wanted this day to come but when it arrived I didn’t want the sun to rise. Minute by minute I would watch the light slowly illuminating my yellow north face tent. And then it was time to go. Barring any catastrophes and freak weather this would be the last time we packed the kit and canoes. The last time we’d build a fire and the last time I’d have a mental battle with the tasteless cous cous and a gag-reflex. Weather was clear but cold. Waves rolled into shore, a sound that had become part of my relaxed and meditative daily routine. The first half-day went without incident other than our war with the waves and shallow ground continued. Nothing new. Our final lunch spot 14 miles from Emmonak was a strange time. We spoke of scraping the barrel for pasta sauces, times and routes home and what on earth we’re going to do when we reach Emmonak. As the canoes pushed off for the final time we could see the familiar sight of the wind turbines in the distance. A fishing window was open and skiff boats passed us at high speed. Families waved as they powered out to their ancestral fishing grounds. Waves rocked the canoes in their wake. Sweeping a hard right turn in the channel that housed Emmonak we caught sight of the infrastructure and containers of KwikPak fisheries. From here it was no longer a fight and no longer a struggle. For us the war was over. Slowly paddling into the fringes of Emmonak, the community was alive and bustling under the late afternoon sun. Children played on 4 wheelers. Fisherman rolled coils of rope on their skiffs. 4 Paddlers sat waiting 20m from shore. For what exactly I don’t know, to preserve the moment of achievement or to enjoy the sense of relief? This moment had haunted and excited me in equal measure for over a year and as the canoe ground to a halt on the silty banks of Emmonak it was over, 68 days and 3200km away from that stream in BC.

Soaked through from the drenching rains of the Yukon, Martin Trahan steers the team towards our first resupply. Whitehorse YT, Canada.

Cold, wet and tired the Pull of the North team (Ian Finch, Martin Trahan and Caroline Côté) hitch a ride to the last resupply of the expedition. Dalton Hwy, Alaska.

Ian Finch and Caroline Côté hammer through the driving storm to make the day’s miles. Galena, Alaska.