By Simon Frez-Albrecht
Anticipation—and exasperation—had been building all summer toward this one special day. I had the fortune of stepping in right at the end to wrap up loose ends and hop on the bandwagon. By the time I showed up, hundreds of hours had gone into planning and arranging the logistics of putting all 35 first-year students at APU on the Yukon River for ten days, not to mention the 10 staff going with them.
The last week before departure, the students spent their mornings in class while we shopped for food and sorted gear. In the afternoons, we conducted lessons in wilderness living, basic water rescue, and geared the students up for the journey. Finally, with the gear truck gone and everyone loaded on the bus, we pull out of campus headed north.
After a 13 hour ride, we arrive in Eagle, Alaska and set up camp for the night. Tents go up slowly and clumsily as dinner is prepared. Soon enough, everyone is tucked away in their sleeping bags, eager for the next morning.
Rudely woken by fine rain on my face a few minutes before my alarm, I pack my sleeping bag and move into the kitchen to work on breakfast. I watch the students break down camp slowly, working awkwardly together. For some, this has been the first night sleeping in a tent. After a visit to the National Park Service visitor’s center, our group moves down to the river and begins unloading the Carlile truck of the bulk of our belongings. Food boxes, rafts, oars, canoes and tents all spill onto the muddy gravel beach by the river. Soon every student bustles about, preparing for our journey.
Rafts transform from limp, wrinkled sacks into plump river-going vessels under the power of panting students manning the pumps. Raft frames are fitted and oars distributed. Food boxes, coolers and finally personal gear bags are piled up on the rafts for the first time. Hundreds of feet of straps crisscross our loads like webs. Finally, our ponderous vessels loaded and the beach bare of our belongings, we launch.
Floating quickly past Eagle, the students settle into their spots on the rafts, nestled among gear bags. The action of a raft is unfamiliar to me, so I play with the oars, spinning our craft in lazy circles down the river. I imagine we might look something like a giant blue water bug dancing on the surface.
Miles flow past as the skies clear and we find ourselves at a suitable gravel bar for our first campsite on the river. Our tents go up while the sun goes down, and I stand with my boots in the river, washing dishes, feeling content as in the company of an old friend.
Morning sees us launching under hazy skies, floating toward Calico Bluff. The bluff towers over us as we drift close to the base. Bands of color heave and twist, relating a story I can’t read. I regret not having learned more about geology before coming here. A bumblebee flies around us lazily, landing by my heel to inspect a crumb of food I’ve dropped. He stays for some time, and we wonder whether he is cold in the shade of our raft.
Our conversations swing back and forth between hearty, meaningful discussions and banal chit-chat as we cruise beneath brilliant blue skies dotted with clouds. Our rafts drift together and apart, our gab mixing and separating. Each raft is a tiny world, occasionally overlapping and mingling ideas with another before breaking away to develop independently again.
Further down the river, the binoculars rise to look at billowing smoke around the bend. A volcano appears before us, and the words of Ranger Carl pop into my head. Shale oil deposits have been burning on a small mountaintop for some time. In Eagle when we asked whether to worry about the fire or the smoke, Carl chuckled and said we would be fine as long as we didn’t all march right up to the thing and stick our heads in it. Sitting in my raft with the students, I chuckle to myself as I recall his mirth.
Our raft travels past seven bluffs shaped like pyramids, and we take turns imagining the story of a prince and princess of rival nations in a love affair like Romeo and Juliet, who sneak away to elope and eventually have five children. When they are found by their parents years later, the whole family is punished by being turned into pyramids along the river, to serve as a lesson to the young lovers of both nations to obey the laws of their people.
Watching the sunset while making s’mores over a fire, the students seem content: warm, dry and happy.
Mist greets us on the cool morning of our first layover day in camp. We three of the instructor team stand in the kitchen under the big sky of the North, waiting for the sun to peek over the peaks, the professor eagerly wolfing down cold breakfast ingredients. “The calories are the same,” he reminds me. He wanders off with his dog to prepare for the day, leaving me and Jule to concoct breakfast for the students. I bumble about the kitchen, trying to keep up as she expertly darts to and fro, throwing quips and naming the songs I sing. To an observer, it must be clear that she is the veteran river guide and I am the neophyte. Jule shares her wisdom in subtle ways, chides me for worrying about the wrong details, brings my focus back to the big picture. I watch her and imitate, trying on habits for myself and taking off what doesn’t fit.
The professor shares stories and perspective. He asks thoughtful questions. I try to return thoughtful answers. He paints beautiful murals across the sky with his words, punctuating tales with smirks, gestures, and long pauses. I am envious of the brilliance of the tapestry he weaves, dancing pink and blue like the northern lights on a cold, clear winter night. Inspired by his tales, I attempt my own. My stories stumble into the air, but they are more like the weak green hues that muddle the sky in fall, fumbling for the grace of their later-season brethren.
A bright, still morning finds us gloating at having the rafts loaded by 9 am. We push off and settle in for the short float to Slaven’s Roadhouse. We expect to be on the water for two hours. Clouds catch up to us, the wind picks up, and suddenly we’re fighting to keep our rafts off the shore. The Yukon is a large river, and with the wind against us it took half an hour to ferry across, riding two, three, and occasionally four foot swells in the middle. We attempt to navigate with driving rain in our eyes and low, flat clouds all around. The professor motions to come closer, and we quickly discuss our options: land on a nearby beach that would make a relatively poor campsite, but have all the students in their sleeping bags with hot drinks in thirty minutes; or push on to Slaven’s Roadhouse where we would have a roof and a woodstove waiting for us. We decide we’re already wet and Slaven’s will be worth it. At a pee break, everyone runs around manically, whooping and throwing rocks and eating candy bars to warm up. I keep warm by rowing, as the students huddle in their Gore-Tex, and we all sing at the top of our lungs to keep the wind and rain out of our souls. When the going gets tough, the tough start singing.
Six hours after leaving camp, we land in front of the roadhouse, happy to see that Ranger Carl from Eagle has beat us there and stoked the woodstove. The students rush up the hill to shelter, and by the time we walk in, the cabin resembles a bazaar in the Middle East with colorful garments hanging from every rafter.
When the other raft group arrives later in the evening, Slaven’s Roadhouse becomes a time machine. Except for the Gore-Tex and fleece, the scene could be straight out of 1939 with tens of people coming and going, drying their clothes and warming themselves with food and hot drinks. The students from different groups share stories and compare experiences. Some thumb through the tattered notebook on the table, reading entries from people who have come from all over the world to visit this river and this roadhouse. Jacob tries to decipher an entry in German, and everyone giggles at his over-wrought pronunciation.
In the morning, plans are hatched to visit the famous Coal Creek Dredge nearby. Ranger Carl zooms away on his ATV and the students move as a pack up the trail. The dredge reveals itself through the trees, and it’s easy to imagine this metal behemoth as a giant beast that once roamed through the area devouring stream beds and expelling the waste out the rear, leaving tailing piles for miles up the valley. Each of the sixty-four buckets that make up the mouth are large enough to curl up in. It sits still and quiet, frozen in time as though one day it lay down to sleep and never woke up. We are told that there are other dredges four times this size, though it’s hard to imagine an iron monster that could dwarf the creature before us. Ranger Carl leads us inside, pointing out the massive diesel engine, the drive belts longer than school buses, and the sieves and troughs that had separated the gold from the chaff. He relates the story of a worker who caught his hand in the gears. Faced with the split-second decision of dying in the machine or maiming himself, the man gave a tug and ripped off his hand. He returned with a prosthetic to continue working the dredge. Looking around at the faces of the students, I imagine this makes us all reconsider how accomplished we felt after pushing through the rough conditions of the day before.
The third group on the Yukon, traveling in canoes, arrives in the afternoon. The evening rings with music, singing, and chatter. Without the distraction of instant updates from all around the world flashing on our phones, the happy chorus of community swells and ebbs to the rhythm of the stars.
The next morning dawns clear, and we’re all itching to get on the water again, to avoid the risk of paddling in suddenly poor conditions again. Waving goodbye to the other groups, we depart cheerfully. I lay my wet sneakers and socks on top of the gear in front of me to dry in the sun, and soon everyone is removing layers. We stop for a break by a small creek and all the males strip their shirts to soak up the vitamin D. Many of the girls and some of the boys dip their hair in the creek and take turns with the hair brush. Yarden pans for gold, pausing to explain the process to a few interested classmates. Melody wanders off with the camera, and comes back with photos of a tree house hidden away in the brush. We climb back onto the rafts to continue toward our next campsite, settling back into our conversations.
Around the bend, jagged rock faces and spires climb up the left bank, a contrast to the stately bluffs we’ve been floating past. I look up and try to imagine climbing on them, straining my eyes to see whether they’re solid or crumbly.
A day or two, or maybe three later, it rains on us again. The light, steady rain without wind seems mild compared to the day at Slaven’s, but we’re still all wet and a little cold when we arrive in camp. This spot will be a layover campsite, so we spend more time assembling the kitchen and erecting our group shelter. While the students’ tents pop up quickly, I take a seat inside our nylon teepee to ignite the fire.
The small firebox began the trip bright and straight, but after a few uses it now resembles a sooty rainbow. Heat from our fires has colored and slightly warped the metal, leaving it purple, blue and yellow. I pick through the stack of firewood we’ve cut and split from down trees along the gravel bar. Birch, poplar and spruce are all fine, but it’s been raining all day and even the middle of these small blocks is a little damp. With my knife I shave down sticks into piles of feathers, though I can tell by the way they curl this fire will take care. I turn my knife to splitting wrist-sized wood into thumb-sized wood, and further into pencil sticks. With all the materials laid beside me, I begin the process of nursing a small flame into a robust bed of coals in our petite wood stove: light the shavings, feed the pencils, poke and prod and gently blow. With the pencils slowly taking, I gingerly add the thumb sticks one at a time until the fire is finally starting to take breaths on its own. Heat begins to emanate from the stove, and our shelter quickly warms.
We eat dinner and watch day give way to night, and return to our nylon teepee to conduct class. After the lecture and discussion, the students dissipate one by one. At last, I slowly head for bed, settling into my sleeping bag with the professor’s dog at my feet.
Our last layover day is delightfully sunny and windy. The students have reading to get through, so we avoid sharing with them that our pickup is only an hour down the river. We don’t want them too excited to focus. After breakfast I’m free for a few hours, so I rig up a clothesline with a couple of paddles and some rope, and string my things out to dry. This close to the end of the trip, drying my gear seems a little silly, but I remind myself that I must stay disciplined straight through to the end.
Dinner on our last night on the river is simple: we kindle a fire on the beach and roast sausage over the coals. A pot of chili and a bag of shredded cheese complete the dish, with a bag full of marshmallows, chocolate, and graham crackers for dessert. Everyone stands around staring into the flames long past dark, some a little more reluctant to end the trip than others.
As we paddle away from our last camp on the Yukon River, we come into sight of the other raft class and rush to beat them to the takeout. Landing on shore, the launch scene plays in reverse. Piles of gear stack up in anticipation of our cargo truck. Rafts come apart and students flop and roll on the tubes to deflate them. Where there stood a mixed group of slightly nervous students at the beginning, there now stands a smiling, smelly cohort eager to return to town.
A year ago I was new to this land, here to experience a different world. I came to Alaska seeking adventure, new people, and growth. I found all of these, beginning with the Yukon River.
Returning to the river was a bit like returning to a childhood home. The memories are dim, washed with nostalgia and wonder. Specific moments jump forward, crisp and bright as the photos that take us back in time. A certain phrase triggers memories of glowing faces sitting by a small fire under the dim aurora borealis. Cold hands and feet are forgotten in favor of the times we danced and laughed to keep warm. Hunger is forgotten in favor of the songs we sang to distract ourselves.
As I traveled down the river this year, many things felt familiar and comfortable. We camped in some of the same spots. We took respite in the same historic roadhouse. The same park ranger shared generously of his knowledge.
Like returning to a childhood home, some things have changed, as well. Tributary streams and rivers have different mouths after a year of hydraulic action, ebb and flow. Islands and gravel bars have different shapes. Most importantly, perhaps, is that my own purpose for being here is different, and I have changed.
My souvenir of the river, a handful of gray pebbles, lies on the counter by the sink, as unremarkable as any gravel. One by one, I pick them up and run them under the faucet. As each passes under the water, gray gives way to brilliant colors. Bands of light and dark green light up under the polished luster of a stone tumbled down the Yukon for untold years. Another one, rounder and a little bigger, shines purple with neat pink polka dots. Looking down at my little pile of pebbles, I am reminded not only of the 31 days I’ve spent on the Yukon River, but also of mountains, frozen waterfalls, dimly lit Nordic ski trails, countless late nights tromping around campus, and all of my other experiences here in Alaska. The Yukon River set the stage for my new life here, with my new friends and new adventures—something larger than I ever could have imagined.
About the Author: Simon Frez-Albrecht
Simon Frez-Albrecht came to Alaska in 2012 to begin working toward his degree at APU and play in the mountains. When he is not doing schoolwork, he may be found pursuing a wide variety of mountain sports with friends, working with his hands, or managing a canoe rental shop in Connecticut.