Alaska Travel Magazinenext


Tents flapping, a sheet of, water ripping on the rain fly. Now and then I stick my head outside to decide whether to gauge the storm as a half-gale, a full gale, or a hurricane. Let's call it a hurricane.

Being stormbound is not too unpleasant an experience provided one is toasty in a well-made double wall tent, and has an experienced outdoor chef along, who can turn out a one-pot glop, on a small primus stove. Glop? A word defined by a friend of ours, Dave Johnson, on the first winter assault on Mt. McKinley. Maybe a mixture of Chinese noodles, boiled Spam, in a powdered egg broth —or anything else that can be reached within one arm length outside a tent door.

Aside from having to leap out of a warm dream and sleeping bag last night to secure the boats better, the closest I have come to being miserable was when the button that closes the rear flap of my one-piece long johns popped off and couldn't be found.

That, and the fact that we are so far behind schedule makes me blue. It looked so easy on paper. The map has the Yukon River issuing from a string of lakes —Bennett, Tagish, and Marsh; placid footprints of blue leading the way through a wilderness of forest green. Last winter, after an evening of measuring, and checking of the prevailing winds, I had figured, even without a current, the ninety miles could be covered in three days of paddling.

Of course, I had also read enough about the Klondike Gold Stampede of '98 to know that these lakes have a reputation of blowing up big waves for very little reason, and Frederick Schwatka, a U.S. Army officer who led the first exploration down the Yukon in 1883, left a very accurate account of the perils of expedition travel on these fjords in his journal published, simply, as "A Summer in Alaska." Then again, neither the miners nor Schwatka had Folbots —probably the most sea-worthy small craft afloat. Old Frederick tried sailing a log raft with a canvas wall tent as a sail, and spent days covering only three or four miles. Never happen to us. We have nylon sails along, but are not dependent on them. The miners had trouble with leaks in their homemade scows, and with waves that came over the low sides to swamp them. Also never happen to us. Folbots have tightly covered decks and spray-covers. Waves break over our sides and we pop up again like a cork.

Why then have we only covered 45 miles in five days? The wind. That hurricane I mentioned has been very unseasonably blowing in the wrong direction; so strong, it almost snatched the paddles from our hands. So strong, in fact, that while rounding a headland on Lake Tagish, we were blown to shore by rollers big enough to look up to before they smashed down on our heads, and here we have been for the last 36 hours, unable to paddle out into the lake again.

So, here I sit in a four by eight foot tent, accepting fate, drinking tea, curled up with our copy of Schwatka. How right he was. How unique to be able to use the writings of the first European explorer of an area, for a day-to-day travel guide.

Not that much has changed here in the last 91 years. We have even camped in a few of his camps. Imagine trying to follow the Columbia River of Lewis and Clark days past Bonneville dam, and setting up tents in the downtown area of Vancouver, Wash.

Wait a minute —Bernice just came up with a reference from Schwatka, about the wind shifting in the evening. I can still hear the surf booming on the beach, but maybe I should go and take a look. That 'maybe' turned out to be a possibility. At 11:15 p.m. our tents came down, and out came the midnight sun.

We headed North by going South. Three miles breaking the "sea" over our bows. An orange and a candy bar later, we were able to change direction to be blown right down Tagish Lake, sailing without a sail. Thank you, Fred!

The sun stayed with us for a while, for this is the land of the midnight sun, dabbling along the horizon. Then it disappeared for an hour's rest, hopefully to bring us a better day tomorrow, which really was, or is, today. The wind finally died down to a whisper. The quietness was shattering.

On this journey, we are using two-man Folbots —kayaks sort of, or if you prefer to be more precise, one-man one-woman boats, for my padding partner is my youngest daughter, Colette.

Also, on this journey I have experienced the closest feelings I have ever spent with nature. In what passed for the night, I was able to pick out Venus, and the morning star over the vast lake, and awesomely asked the front seat, "Colette, have you ever felt as infinitesimal? A mere speck on this world?"


Colette had fallen asleep.

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