Paddling the Big Yukon in a Little Boat

A little girl on the beach of Russian Mission was the first person to ask the question I’d been expecting for the past six months.  The question was the most obvious of all: why? Why were we attempting to paddle the entirety of the Yukon River?

Fortunately, the river had given me plenty of time to prepare an answer.  Actually, I had a whole panoply of reasons.  To explore a new swath of this wild state.  To spend two uninterrupted months with my partner, Pete.  To finally have upper-body muscles.  To stave off the world of careers and employment after graduating with a degree in May.  As I ran through the list of responses in my head, none of them seemed convincing enough for this bright-eyed little girl.

Over the months leading up to Pete and my big paddle, my friends and family never asked me why.  They have all come to expect me to keep moving, keep pushing into uncomfortable and wild places, and keep returning with new dreams and schemes for the next adventure.  Whether or not they wonder if there’s a purpose, I guess they’ve given up on asking the question out loud.

The Yukon trip was the most epic scheme yet.  Pete and I would drive our food and boat up from Missoula, Montana, to Skagway, Alaska.  Pete had served as an interpretive park ranger at Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park the season prior, so we would have friends to provide us a base camp.  We would then hike the Chilkoot Trail as the Goldrushers had, meet our canoe and provisions at Lake Bennett (as the Goldrushers hadn’t), and paddle from these headwaters along the full course of the Yukon River.  The water that falls on the Canadian side of the Chilkoot Pass–only twenty miles from the Inside Passage–travels 1800 miles, flowing in and out of the Arctic Circle and past a dozen mountain rangers before emptying into the Bering Sea.

As luck would not have it, we arrived in Skagway sick as dogs.  Instead of hiking the trail and paddling the hundred or so miles of windy, dangerous glacial lakes, we drove with friends to Marsh Lake, just east of Whitehorse in Yukon. We began our journey feverish and phlegmy without much faith in our own sanities.

Over the course of 54 days on the river, our doubts and fears came and went about as often as the rain.  And as you might know, it was a wet year on the river.  Why spend a whole day hauling your 700 pounds of gear, trip after trip, around the Whitehorse dam?  Why run the class-three Fiver Finger rapids in an open canoe weighed down with gear?  Why sleep restlessly on muddy flats pockmarked by brown bear prints the size of meteor craters?  Why paddle eight, ten, twelve hours a day, in rain and shine, wind and waves?

After a few seconds, I answered the little girl’s question.  We were paddling because we wanted to learn more.  She shrugged her shoulders and skipped away to play in the mud with her brothers.  Oh, well.

Pete and I managed to paddle from Marsh Lake to the Yukon Delta village of Emmonak.  Just about 1800 miles.  We never swamped, though we were glad we had our bilge pump on some of the windier and rainy days.  We never had any close encounters with bear or moose, either.  I’m fine on both accounts.

It didn’t take long to lose most of our romantic notions about what it means to live in the wild north country. With plenty of time to sit in our 17-foot red canoe, I had enough time to envision all the terrible and sudden ways we could die.  But at least for me, living in wild land and on wild rivers isn’t about dodging all the fatal dangers and risks.  It’s about paddling headlong right into the simple, joyful, beautiful, and mostly mundane moments of life.  The ones that, collectively, make living worth it.

Alex Johnson is a writer who has lived in and out of Alaska for the last six years.

His blog is at

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