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A September Yukon float

Fall colors and sandhill cranes on the Pelly River

Posted: October 10, 2013 - 11:02pm
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Sarah Sjostedt and Ben Crozier take a break from paddling while floating the Pelly River in late September. The Pelly River eventually dumps into the mighty Yukon River, which winds its way through interior Alaska before emptying into the Bering Sea.            Photo by Mary Catharine Martin
Photo by Mary Catharine Martin
Sarah Sjostedt and Ben Crozier take a break from paddling while floating the Pelly River in late September. The Pelly River eventually dumps into the mighty Yukon River, which winds its way through interior Alaska before emptying into the Bering Sea.

When I got my job writing for the paper, my freedom-crazed boyfriend, Bjorn, immediately began searching for flights out of Alaska.

“Trips to Peru are cheap right now,” he said. “Maybe I’ll bike through the Atacama Desert and then hike to the southern tip of Chile.”

He looked at me with tear-filled eyes. “What about our trip to the Yukon? Are we even going to be able to float the Pelly River? Are you going to be staring at your computer for the rest of your life?”

I stopped typing the sentence I’d been working on and blinked at him.

“Did you say something?”

So the last week of September, Bjorn and I, along with our friends Ben and Sarah, left Juneau for 180 miles of the Pelly River in the Yukon.

We took the ferry to Skagway, then drove north. In Braeburn, our first stop past Whitehorse, Bjorn and I got a cinnamon bun bigger than my head from a man who made it clear he didn’t think much of my mental capacities. (When you’ve never been somewhere, there’s no menu, and the burly man doing crossword puzzles at a corner table just stands up and glowers at you, it’s not always clear what you can order. Take it from me: if you’re in Braeburn, order the cinnamon roll.)

That night, we camped in Pelly Crossing. I hadn’t yet worked out my heating routine (given how many Southeast Alaskans camp on glaciers and ice fields, it’s kind of embarrassing, so I’ll just say it involves a very tightly sealed hot water bottle and a ridiculous number of layers) so I woke up throughout the night to reposition my frozen feet and listen to something slide along the side of the tent. When the light began to creep over the horizon a little past 7 a.m., I saw the sounds had been caused by an inch of snow that had fallen throughout the night.

We left Sarah’s car next to a red fox waiting for handouts and headed to Carmacks, where the grocery store had a completely unexpected and completely welcome bounty of fried chicken. Mm, breakfast.

The best part of the morning, however, had to do with live birds: the road to Faro, where we’d start the trip, was circled by hundreds of sandhill cranes. I’ve never seen so many at once. They must have been waiting for some kind of cue; they just fell into and out of formation, interweaving with each other.

They were heading south along the Tintina Trench, a route some think they’ve used for millions of years. It’s the same valley the Pelly River follows.

Faro, where we’d start the trip, has a slogan that calls it “Yukon’s Best Kept secret.” We drove over the river and into the town, past empty-looking apartments and houses for sale, stopping to try to fill up at an enormous gas tank. Two tries (and, I later found out, almost $300 in charges) later, we still had no gas.

“Doesn’t work,” said a man unloading potatoes in front of the grocery store. His dog edged near us and growled.

So, we left Faro’s secrets well-kept, loaded up our boats, and headed downriver.

That afternoon was filled with sandhill cranes; their cries carried incredibly far. We would look up and see a thin, oscillating “v” etched above snowcapped mountains miles away. Those first few days, we estimated we saw more than a thousand of them.

That first day, we also saw our only bears of the trip — two adult black bears, one on the road on the way to Faro and the other after a few hours on the river. We were floating fast down a narrow section when Bjorn spotted one staring at us from the riverbank a few feet above. He’s a photographer and writer, so he wanted to get a picture.

“Paddle back! Paddle back!” he whispered. We turned around and managed to paddle hard enough to stay in place. The bear stared at us. We gave up and watched it shrink as we floated farther downriver.

That night, we watched the smoke from nearby moose hunters’ fire rise over the river as we drank one of Bjorn’s best camp concoctions — hot water, rum and Tang powder — and ate beans and rice with our first of too many packages of sausage.

•••

The morning of the second day, we switched boats, taking turns between a canoe and two inflatable kayaks. The inflatables were fun, but harder — you encountered more water resistance, and, on windy days, you had to battle through headwinds. I’d never kayaked on a river before, and was frustrated my first day by trying, and failing, not to spin to the side or backwards anytime I ran over a whirling current. Bjorn tried to help me, but I’m a bit stubborn, especially when the one giving me advice is my boyfriend. Sarah made paddling the inflatable look relaxing, so the second full day, I watched her. Ah, so you don’t have to dip your paddle so deep! Who knew?

That night we built a fire near the water. The beach was covered in beaver-cut logs and driftwood so dry it turned almost immediately to ash. We took off our rain gear and watched the clothes steam in the heat of the fire.

For the most part, the cold and the wind kept us bundled in gloves and hats. Occasionally, it prompted Bjorn to take an uncharacteristic jog up and down the beach as Sarah sang “Eye of the Tiger.”

We’d pass time on flat sections of the river fantasizing about dinner. Ben was particularly good at using well-chosen descriptions (sautéed onions, lightly roasted sausages, a touch of guacamole) to make it sound like we were choosing from a gourmet restaurant’s menu.

The next day, we passed through two of the rapids marked on our map. While they were exciting — the only other rapids I’ve paddled were in West Virginia, on a raft — there wasn’t any real danger; mostly we just had to avoid sweepers (logs stuck in the water) and rocks, paddle hard enough to take small waves head on, and enjoy the ride, although at high water they can apparently become class three rapids.

Shortly afterward, we saw our first moose of the trip — a cow and calf standing on the side of the river. When they saw us, they startled and ran up the steep, spruce-covered hillside.

That night the clouds lifted and the temperatures dropped. We woke up to a beach glittering with frost and a sunrise like none I’d ever seen — pink, but lined with blues so deep they seemed almost indigo.

•••

On our break and camp spots the next few days, moose tracks covered many of the sandy banks of the river, along with squirrel, mink and porcupine prints. We also saw a large number of wolf tracks — something a group of First Nation hunters we encountered blamed for the fact that in days of motoring up and floating down the river, they hadn’t seen any actual moose. They turned off their engine as we called back and forth between our boats. When they asked, we told them about our sighting.

“She was protecting her calf,” one of the hunters said. “Like a good mom.”

They also thought they might be a bit early for the rut, though they’d hunted this river in late September for 20 years.

They warned us of Granite Canyon, the only place we might risk capsizing or running into rocks, they said.

The next morning we were packing up the boats when Sarah pointed at a dark shape on the opposite riverbank.

“I keep thinking stumps are moose,” she said. (So did I; I failed in my goal of spotting an animal — any animal — before Bjorn, though I did spot quite a few logs and rocks.)

“That is a moose,” Ben said. He grabbed a paddle and began his best impression of a bull moose, holding his paddle over his head, tilting from side to side as he walked and grunted. The bull looked up, then kept munching. Sometimes, he grunted back. Ben disappeared into the trees and began whacking at brush with his paddle as Bjorn sneaked over a small hill to try and get pictures.

The bull kept grunting but decided not to swim across the river, so we packed up and continued toward Pelly Crossing.

As we floated farther northwest (the Pelly flows into the Yukon, which flows all the way to the Bering Sea) the snowcapped mountains we’d admired during the first half of the trip evened out to low, rolling hills covered with yellow birch and alders, alternating with patches of spruce.

The banks of the river seemed to get more active. Several times, we paddled along cliffs that rose high above us. Once, we arrived just after a big slide; rocks clattered down the dirt walls and tree roots hung into space, the trees they’d once anchored balanced on precarious overhangs. Fallen spruce lined the river, their tops submerged in the water.

We battled headwinds past the mouth of the MacMillan River, which joins the Pelly and makes it wider and a little slower, and camped on a gravel bar a little past it. Owls hooted as we warmed our feet by the fire.

On our last morning, only a half-hour or so after beginning, we saw the first indication of Granite Canyon — a pullout the hunters told us about. After a few days with no signs of people, other than a couple of dilapidated cabins and the occasional drone of a float plane, it was strange to see pick-up trucks and boat trailers parked on the side of the river.

The river narrowed as we entered the canyon. We went where the water was less frothy and shot through, paddling hard to stay straight. After another curve, we went through another rapid — this one with a recognizable rock the hunters had told us about, a pyramid in the middle of the white capped river. There were one or two moments when we had to paddle extra hard to avoid rocks and large waves, but by and large, we agreed these were easy class two rapids.

That afternoon, the number of cabins dotting the river increased. We listened to a strange new animal snarling in the woods, then realized it was a chainsaw. Just as it was starting to rain in earnest for the first time, we paddled into Pelly Crossing.

The sandhill cranes had flown south for warmer weather, and the trees that had been so thick with brilliant yellow leaves at the beginning of our trip were now partly stripped by the wind. But as we deflated our boats and loaded our bags into the back of the car, stomping our frozen feet and rubbing our wind-chapped noses, we knew we’d chosen a good time to paddle in the Yukon.

With luck, we’ll be back.

• Contact Outdoors reporter Mary Catharine Martin at maryc.martin@juneauempire.com.

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