Saturday, September 10, 2011

Up North

Chapter 1

Starting Out

   This little trip happened before I moved back to Seattle. I was looking for something back in those days. I didn‘t know what it was but I figured I’d recognize it when I saw it. I’d wandered through California, Nevada, Origen and Washington without really finding anything when I happened to get an opportunity to go to work driving a truck in Alaska. I flew from Seattle up to Fairbanks where I met with the company and took a little driving test around town. They must have really needed drivers because once the hired me I found out I wouldn’t be driving around town but up the pipeline road which was frozen solid. No wonder the guy giving me the test kept asking if I had every driven in ice and snow. It really wasn’t a bad job and let me tell you they paid really well and since I was single and more or less living in the truck it didn’t take to long to save you a nice little nest egg. The only drawback was that it looked like the job was only going to last through the winter. I was in Fairbanks when I heard there might be a chance to homestead over by Circle on the Yukon River. This just might be what I was looking for. I’d been trying to be a “mountain man” since Stanley and I were kids and this would be the chance to see if I could really cut it. I checked it out with the Alaska D.N.R and found out there was some land over there that might be open for homesteading. They weren’t a hundred percent sure and they didn’t make it sound very good. The only way to get to the property would be by walking or by boat trip on the Yukon River either from Circle or Fort Yukon. There was no electricity and never would be to any of the properties. The only water would either be from a hand dug well or we would have to get it from rivers or creeks. I would have to live on the property and do improvements on it each year for at least five years in order to own it. There were a lot more regulations I would have to meet but the more I thought about it the more this seemed like something I could do. I had to make a few more trips with the truck so I could save up some more money but since my job was mainly through the winter I’d be ready to go as soon as the ice melted. When I decided to call it quits with the truck I caught a ride with a pilot friend since there was only one road to Circle and it was a lot quicker to fly than to drive. I hung out in town for a week getting all my supplies ready and trying to learn all I could about the area I was headed to. I bought a fourteen foot canoe from a guy in town. I also loaded up with firearms getting a 30-30 rifle, a 41mag pistol, a 22 rifle and a 12 gauge shotgun. On a sunny spring day I was ready to go.

   I loaded up my fourteen foot canoe with all the tools I thought I would need to build a cabin plus what I assumed would be more than enough food and supplies to last at least thirty days before heading downstream. Of course this made for an extremely overloaded canoe. I had just enough room in the back to work the paddle with a mound in front of me that I couldn’t see over. There was still snow on the ground even though it was early spring and everyone in town had told me that it wouldn’t all be melted off for at least another month but the river was open and I was ready to go. My destination was a small sandy beach about 30 miles down the Yukon River where a small creek flowed into it. I had never actually seen the area I was going to but I was sure I could find it from the maps I had. I’d never really seen the Yukon during spring flood either. If it’s true that ignorance is bliss then I was definitely in hog heaven.

   I left out at daybreak just as soon as it was light enough to see. I figured it would take me a couple of days to get to the homestead and I didn’t want to rush it. With my usual lack of planning and no more forethought than Stanley and I had as kids down the river I went. The Yukon close to Circle has to be at least a mile wide. The main channel runs closest to town and you could see the flood plain across it. All broken trees and gravel bars. I knew there were other channels over there but I never knew how many. The maps I had never really did justice to it. It was more like a swamp down home or river delta of the Mississippi. I kept waiting for the channels to come back together and make one river, but they never did. For the first few miles it wasn’t too hard keeping to the main channel because it was the deepest and fastest but then it split into three different ones all about the same. Since I was going down the left bank I ended up in the left channel and boy was that a wrong choice. By the time I finished the trip I found there were five sets of rapids in the channel I was following. I made it through the first two all right even though I was thanking my lucky starts that I had an aluminum canoe after bouncing off a few rocks. On the third one I hit a rock dead center with the front of the canoe which shoved me around cross wise of the current and over I went. Thank god I had everything packed in water tight bags or tied to the canoe. I managed to hang onto the canoe as I worked my way over to the bank and was able to drag it ashore. That ended my first day on the river. I’d made it about ten miles. I had to spend the rest of the day building a fire and running around buck naked trying to dry out my cloths plus running a half mile down the river to get my paddle back. Thankfully the only one out there to see me was one bear and a moose. By the time I had everything unloaded, dried out and repacked in the canoe it was too late in the day to travel any more that night.

   I hung out a little longer the next morning. I wanted to make sure I had plenty of daylight before heading out. After a leisurely breakfast I loaded everything up and started out again. Things went pretty well the first half of that day mainly because I was taking it easy and trying my best to stay in the main channel. A little after noon things started to go bad though. I ran into some rapids in the main river. I was drifting along not paying attention when I came around a bend and right into the first set. I made it through those even though it scared the hell out of me and made my way over next to the bank just in case there were more of them. It was a good thing I did because the rest of that set were the worst yet. I managed to see them in plenty of time to paddle over to a smaller channel. I ended up having to get out and wade through the smaller one dragging the canoe behind me to get around them. The bad news was that as soon as the channel I was in rejoined the river I could see rapids for at least a mile down the river. I decided to be on the safe side that day so I beached the canoe while I walked down to look around the next river bend and see what I was in for. What I saw wasn’t good. There was no way I was going to be able to get the canoe down through all the rapids and around the rocks, especially not with it loaded like it was. My only option was to unload all my stuff and carry everything down to the next calm area which was about two miles away. I made two trips before dark but had to leave some of the supplies and the canoe. I got everything hung from trees so I wouldn’t have to worry about bears and headed back to the canoe and what I hoped would be a warm camp for the night.

   I was up and at it early the next morning making the first trip with the rest of the supplies before daybreak. It was after ten by the time I made the last trip carrying the canoe. It was time for a little breakfast and a rest before I started reloading everything. I was sure I’d find the creek that day. It looked to me like I had about ten more miles to go and I thought I’ be at the spot by no later than three that after noon. Again the map didn’t add quite enough detail. There was one more set of rapids. This one had about three different channels, two of them were to shallow to drag the canoe through and the main one had rocks the size of Volkswagens. I figured you might be able to get past that set if you had a jet boat but there was no way I was going by with my overloaded canoe. Back I went to the piss ant mode unloading everything and carrying it down the bank. My first trip down the river held a real shocker for me. I was trucking along with my head down just trying to get to the end when I happened to glance. There in the trail about fifty feet in front of me was the biggest brown bear I’d ever seen. The trail on both sides of us was over grown with trees and brush so there was no way for me to run even if I had wanted to. I was just standing there bent under about eighty pounds of gear to scared to run, which turned out to be the best thing. I was trying to slip my hand down to my pistol not that I had any hope of being able to stop him at that distance. About that time he stood up to get a better look at me. He shuffled back and forth on the trail and snapped his jaws a few time and that’s when I thought he’s charge. He just stood there looking at me for what seemed like hours then dropped back down turned and ambled off down the trail. I didn’t move until he was completely gone from sight then I had to sit down for awhile just to get my legs to stop shaking. I never saw him again as I finished packing my stuff below the rapids. I had it all finished by dark after which I tried to burn up half the drift wood on that river and spent a very tense night. I finally made it to the creek late the next day only to find the flat bench next to the river was really a gravel bar in the flood plain and instead of just taking me a couple of days to get there if had taken me four and I wasn’t done yet. Since the creek was deep enough to paddle up and I had 160 acres to pick from I headed up it for about a quarter of a mile until I found a likely spot. There was what looked like an old beaver meadow nest to the creek. There was a high spot close to the creek with a grove of trees and a good spot to beach the canoe and a nice trail back down to the river. I was home even thought the only thing to welcome me there was a little pine squirrel and the silence.