Friday, November 9, 2012

Canoeing the Great Yukon

Canoeing the Yukon - Expedition Leadership 2012 from Killian Sump on Vimeo.

        The footage for this video was collected during our three weeks spent canoeing down one of the most voluminous rivers on the planet. You see, this past September, Alaska Pacific University's Expedition Leadership course ran with the idea of paddling the great Yukon River, an educational experience of a lifetime. I had the opportunity to TA this course, acting as an instructor and essentially going for free, teaching classes on topics ranging from weather dynamics to stove repair and bear safety. After a few days of in town preparations, we traveled fourteen hours straight from APU into the heart of Alaska's interior, putting in at a small town called Eagle, near the Canadian border. We would later take out at the Dalton Highway bridge, about 500 river miles away, having paddled through some seriously epic and remote country, even poking above the Arctic Circle.

        We began in the Yukon Charley National Preserve, where the mountains channelize the river, and where the hillsides were bursting with fall color. Eventually we would exit the hills and paddle through the entire Yukon Flats, where the topography disappears and the river widens, braiding into a variety of channels, the scenery repetitive but incredible in its vastness. Sunrises and sunsets in the flats were like being by the ocean, or in the desert, the distant horizon line always in sight. At this point in the trip, after weeks of constantly shifting weather and dynamic skies, high pressure gave us calm sunny days, starry nights, and northern lights. We were on top of the world, and the daily routine of paddling on the river and sleeping upon its banks became a rhythm, ancient in nature, reminding us of the Athabascans who traveled the region by canoe long before our time. We slept on the gravel bars each night, composed of sorted stones and silt that had been displaced by the river earlier in the summer at a higher volume, each bar dotted with the tracks of large mammals like wolf, caribou, moose, and bear. Students taught classes and learned skills in outdoor leadership, and we delved deeply into the rich natural and cultural history of the region. We even got the chance to partake in a traditional native potlatche gathering in the remote village of Fort Yukon, welcomed as if we were a part of the community. This was a trip to remember for all of us involved.

Paddling aside cliffs through the Yukon Charley Preserve

Our simple single poled tent, anchored down with waterlogged driftwood

Here's an excerpt from my field journal:

September 17, 2012:

     "There is a simple yet strong sense of freedom found in letting the river's current take you and your canoe along with it, equipped with all you need to live, flowing around each river bend with content eagerness to see the new world beyond the corner. It has been two and a half weeks on the river now, and the group has settled into a rhythm. We've become united in the pursuit of the river, becoming proficient canoeists as we navigate this ever flowing vein, the Yukon. Everything we do is connected to the river: We drink from its still deposited pools of clear water, we wash our dishes with the grit and pebbles along its shore, we cook and sleep on the wide open cobblestone bars, temporary collections of stones that are usually submerged by water at higher volumes. Our fires come from driftwood sourced from God knows where, perhaps having traveled hundreds of miles in the river's current like us. Each of us are getting to know each other more and more deeply out here, extending our trust, becoming not just classmates but brothers and sisters, as we depend on each other on a daily basis. We've been through storms, warmed our toes around many fires, had long discussions, drank many cups of tea, sang songs, told stories, and silently paddled through the crisp arctic air.We are in this together, learning from each other through our leadership and prepared presentations, but also through our actions and subtle behaviors as we form a small community.

       I am dirty, to the core. The dust and silt of these gravel bars have worked their way deep into my skin, the earth of this place ingrained into the creases and wrinkles of my hands and into the pores of my face. All of us are sporting these dirt tans and many of us have woolly and scraggly faces, signs of our time out here, looking stoic as ever. Last night the winds picked up and shook our single pole floor-less tent vigorously until morning, clearing the sky and revealing the stars, the milky way vivid in all its brilliance. Wind has stayed constant into the morning, bringing in a cold front as rain pelts the nylon walls of our shelter, keeping us off the river as we wait for the wind to die down. So here we sit, drinking coffee and discussing the days to come, with about four days left until our pickup at the highway and still 150 miles to travel. We are at the mercy of the weather, and the true remoteness of our position now seems so real, our desires futile in the midst of such a vast and wild region. It makes us feel insignificant, but we are comfortable that with our crew, our rations, and skills, we will be just fine, and will enjoy every minute we have in this sublime region."

Lunchtime in the Yukon Flats, country about as wide open as it gets