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Alaska Travel Magazinenext

This is the end. Finished.

I just ran out of river. I'm sitting with my back against a beacon marker, where the Yukon reaches the Bering Sea. Overhead a flame-red sun is setting into a calm ironic Sea.

Ironic, for many reasons. What had started out as a family adventure, turned into a struggle for survival. It became one man's solo battle against nature, and ended far, far, differently than anyone could have ever foretold.

It has been written that a long journey is very much like a life. When first born, all is excitement and delight of learning. Then comes the enjoyment of experience. Finally, like Lemmings compulsively rushing to destruction —it all comes to an end, at the Sea.

Unfortunately, the ending for my family was sad. After 2,000 miles, having to give up the river with only 200 miles to go. Truthfully, it was the wisest thing to do. The storm that brought on that decision, it turned out, was one of the most ferocious the natives had seen on the river in a month of Septembers. An unofficial weather station nearby recorded the winds at sixty plus miles per hour. There is a search still going on now, for two that disappeared into the waves, that had sent our kayaks bucking like wild horses.

That was only a week ago. Yet, ages. Paddling on, I discovered a few facts about myself. Truth; I have Lemming blood. Truth; for all the noise I make about family adventures, the call of the wild goose, the lone wolf, the migrating salmon, is the loudest of all.

I miss my wife. I miss my children. But, from Russian Mission onward, I was prepared to; battle my own way to the sea, come what may. Then, Eskimo summer came my way. Again, I was able to experience the lazy hours of the upper river, daydreaming in shirtsleeves.

Evenings would find me camping with Doug Bourhill and Jim Greenwood, a couple of crack Canadian canoeists doing the River in an open canoe. As a family, we had had them drop in to camp and sample Bernice's dutch oven cooking quite often. Now, I shared their campfire, and Angus, their husky puppy.

Doug had been born in Scotland; Jim in England. Both are mountain climbers, skiers, as well as good canoeists. They are planning on developing a river guide service on the Yukon, from Lake LaBarge to Dawson. They are also planning a sled dog tour.

I hope their plans work out well, for they are comrade Lemmings. I have always had difficulty finding good camping partners, (except the one I married, and those I raised), and it was a real pleasure "boiling a billypot" with those two.

Together, we did the Eskimo villages along the tundra bordered river, mobbed by kids that wanted to hear Doug and Jim "talk funny." I made the mistake of offering kayak rides to the little Eskimos that had never ridden in anything less than a 40 hp outboard. The only way we could finally get some quiet around camp was to take all of them to the store to buy frozen Eskimo Pies.

We had many adult visitors too; most of them with a gift, for it was in the old Eskimo tradition to share. I mentioned that I was looking for a canvas to make a drift sail, and ended up with a piece that had been a flapping door from an old "privy." Then fresh salmon for dinner, kippered whitefish for breakfast, and a boiled seal stew for lunch.

Jim Lamont —English, Russian, French, Eskimo —and medal winning helicopter door gunner, gave us a haunch of moose meat. It was his first kill of the season, and following tradition, meant to be shared. He also told me that Al, who had gone ahead in his kayak, after Bernadette left to meet her Stevenson High cheerleading commitments, was waiting at Emmonak. He was camping with a party of Japanese TV cameramen who had motored the river from Whitehorse, losing a boat, motor, cameras, food, and their way as well.

By now, I myself was "talking funny" (a cowboy, Scottish, English, Eskimo accent), so it didn't seem the least bit unusual to attend a "Kashim," or Eskimo sauna bath party, where the Queens English, Japanese with a Mississippi twang, (Al's home), and pure Eskimo, filled the hot, smoky room.

The next morning —a perfect day —we all, Lemmings all, began another day in our life. It was lived, and nothing will ever be the same again.

Question? Now what? Over 500 miles from Anchorage. I could fly out. That, however, takes a bit more than the twenty-six dollars I have left in my pocket. Al found another way home for us. Free! Sort of; seems he signed me on as a cook on a Seattle bound cannery ship. We're supposed to leave on the morning tide. I have some doubts about the cooking part, but the name of the lumbering old pot, a relic left over from World War II, happens to be very appropriately "Bering Sea." Why fight fate?

That's a lesson from a Lemming.


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