Sunday, 31 July 2011

Denali National Park

Bus on park road
There are no long-distance trails in Denali NP. There are no long-distance trails in whole Alaska! If you want to go for a hike, it will be crosscountry. Denali NP is relatively expensive: I had to pay for the shuttle to get there and back (80$ one way), entrance fee into the NP (10$ for a hiker), and the shuttle bus inside the park (31$). At least backcountry camping permits were free. Despite the high costs I decided to go to Denali because it made logistics so much easier: All of Alaska is grizzly bear country and for overnight camping you have to secure your food. In Denali you get a bear canisters for the length of your stay for free. In Denali you can cache food in all the campgrounds along the park road - thus reducing your pack weight tremendously. Plus you can use the shuttle bus inside the park to go back and forth as much as you like - you still only pay once for a ticket.

Braided river
I had heard all sorts of bad stories about the tyranny of the backcountry rangers and their quota system. Whole of Denali is divided into several backcountry units and only a limited amount of hikers are permitted into each unit per day. Although the permit itself is free, you have to get into that quota, watch a bear safety video and have a personal safety talk with a ranger. To my big surprise getting the backcountry permit I wanted was not a problem at all. Hardly any quota was full and I could chose whatever I wanted. But then I made a big mistake: I had only 25 minutes left before the departure of my bus, but the bear safety video is 30 minutes! I asked whether I could skip the last 5 minutes of the video.... big mistake! The ranger nearly freaked out, took the remote control away from me and insisted on watching the whole damn thing, even watching the door to the video room so that I could not escape early. I could not believe that... luckily the ranger relented after another tantrum and let me go running after my bus, that was already about to leave the bus stop - I made it in the very last second. So much for the ranger tyranny....

I had permits for 3 different hikes in Denali, but I want to focus on the longest one - a five day hike- to give you an impression what hiking in Alaska is like. As I have mentioned before there are no long trails in Denali. If you don't want to constantly bushwhack through alpine tundra you have two options: Either you climp up over tree and brush line (4,000 ft at Denali) and walk along the ridges. Or you follow rivers and streams. I opted for the latter, because I was afraid that the exposed ridgeline option could turn pretty nasty in bad weather.

Toklat River valley
The bus takes over 5 hours to get from the park entrance all the way along the park road (81 miles) to the end at Wonder Lake. My first hike started about in the middle at Toklat River - a huge wide glaciated river bed that I followed north for 2 days. This section of the hike was actually pretty easy for Denali standards. Although the river bed itself is almost 1 km wide, the stream itself is very small and braided in summer. It is not a big problem to walk on gravel bars, although you still have to cross the various streams occassionally - which have a strong current and can be up to waist high. Still, finding a suitable flat spot is not too difficult, albeit a bit time consuming. You have great visibility along the barren river bed - meaning you could see bears and other wildlife early enough to avoid it. But I did not see any bears in that section and only the occasional foot print. Weather was fantastic and the views great - I really enjoyed myself.

Clearwater Creek
The trouble started when I had to turn southward again this time following another drainage: Clearwater Creek. Clearwater Creek did indeed have very clear, but also very swift and deep water- and unfortunately was single channel, too. It was impossible to cross it in the beginning.Unfortunately it was surrounded by almost inpenetrable thick brush and sometimes even high cliffs. As it was impossible to walk in the swift water I had to fight my way through the brush always expecting to rip my clothes or backpack apart. Of course there were thousands of mosquitoes that made my life miserable. Things got especially bad when the river took a turn and on my side high cliffs turned up that I had to climb up and down. Going was incredibly slow as I had to move on arctic tundra which means layers and layers of thick moss interspersed with holes and thick brush. I was constantly afraid of stepping into one of these holes and spraining my ankle. To make things even worse I had to keep singing and speaking in order to make myself known to the bears - despite the fact that I was already huffing and puffing from the strenous walking.

After 10 hours of straight hiking (well, you can't really call it hiking - bushwhacking would be more appropriate) I had managed to advance less than 10 km and was totally exhausted. I was shaking from exhaustion. Eventually I had been able to cross the river, but these crossing were always iffy. As a rule of thumb you can cross very swift water as long as it is only knee deep. Usually you can still cross water levels that are a bit higher, but it takes a lot of effort and concentration. Clearwater Creek by now was up to mid-thigh, and although the crossing was now manageable - there were too many of them. I had to cross almost every 300 meters and the effort just drained my energy. I slept fitfully and had nightmares of not being able to get out of this mess. If the terrain did not improve, I would not be able to make it out to the park road before my food ran out.

Stony Creek
Luckily, the next day things improved tremendously. Clearwater Creek split into 2 different creeks and my side channel called Stony Creek started to braid almost immediately. River crossings got easier all the time and I made great progress. The weather stayed nice, too and my mood improved considerably - until I saw the huge amount of bear prints on the ground. There had been the occasional bear print before, but now they were all over the place. And for sure, it did not take another hour before I ran into my first grizzly bear in Denali. Just about 200 meters in front of me frolicking in the brush was a huge grizzly that had luckily not noticed me because the wind came from the other direction. I retreated immediately and pondered my options. The grizzly was feeding on berries along the river bank. I could not get around it on the right side, because there was the river with a steep high bank on the other side. But I did not dare to go around it on the left side either because it was all thick brush (possibly hiding bear cubs) and if the bear noticed me while I was on its left side it might panic because I was cutting off its escape route. I came to the conclusion that I could just wait till the bear moved on itself. Unfortunately, it took its time eating all those delicious berries. I sat there hiding for almost 45 minutes until the bear had disappeared.
Gorge narrowing down

I continued very carefully crossing onto the other side of the creek as soon as possible. Well, the bear had disappeared, but one hour later I stood right in front of a huge moose. Moose are no predators, but still more people die from moose than from bear attacks. And this particular moose seemed to be pretty deaf, because no matter what I yelled at it it would not move. It only ran away when I started moving towards it. I had less than 3 km to the park road but my problems were not over yet. I had to go through a narrow gorge first and a huge rockslide had gone down there a couple of years before. Instead of walking through tundra I had to rockclimb now. I thought I would never make it out to the road - but eventually I did!


Era airline plane
The flight back from Kaltag on the Yukon to Anchorage could have been really nice- if it had not been forced upon me under these unpleasant circumstances. Kaltag is a little native community with about 150 people. There are no roads to Kaltag and the only means of transport is either boat or plane. The only way to get to Anchorage was by plane and I booked that flight immediately after arriving. You book over the phone, but you can either pay by credit card or in cash. Almost all the airstrips in these little communities are pure dirt. We were given a ride to the airstrip by the local airline agent who is collecting and delivering cargo to the plane as well. The plane was tiny and the pilot a spotty 20 year old with cheap sunglasses. He did everything from loading the cargo and our luggage to giving safety instructions ("Read the paper in front of you"). And off we went getting a last glimpse of the Yukon from above. I felt so sad about having to leave that I cried looking down on the river.

Yukon from above
We landed in Kaltag where we had paddled through several days before and changed into another plane. This time we were the only 2 passengers....The flight from Galena to Anchorage was much longer and the route left the Yukon immediately - so no more nice views. In Anchorage I had another challenge to master and that was going through immigration. We had only done the immigration process over the phone in Eagle and still needed stamps in our passports. I had anticipated big problems with immigration since we had come into the US in a very unusual way - but the officers were incredibly friendly and gave us no trouble.

Pike - the Iditarod dog
Adrian's premature bail out had been unexpected and therefore I had had no time to plan what to do next. I was also still under shock from the events and felt mentally paralyzed. Luckily I had arranged earlier to stay with Matias, a friend of Triple Crowner Skittles.When I had called Matias from Kaltag he had luckily agreed to take me in earlier and even picked me up from the airport. I must have been a mess these first days. I still had to digest the unhappy events, change all my travel plans and come up with what to do in my last days in Alaska. Matias lives in a wood cabin in the mountains around Anchorage with 2 huskies, electricity, but no running water. I loved the place - and the dogs. One turned out to be a real celebrity: He had participated in the famous Iditarod race. I was thrilled! So, after 2 nights at Matias' place I had changed my flights and made up some plans for Alaska: I was going to hike in Denali National Park.

Thursday, 28 July 2011

Yukon: Gear recommendation and accommodation

As this has been my first long paddling trip I had to do a lot of research into the appropriate gear - and bought a lot of new stuff especially for this trip. Therefore I would like to give some advice on what worked and what did not:

Boat: I had originally wanted to go in a foldable single kayak, but Adrian talked me into a 2 person canoe. For reasons explained in earlier posts this turned out to be the worst decision I have taken in a long time... But even taking the "divorce boat" aspect aside I think now that a solo kayak would have been the much better choice for a thrupaddle of the whole Yukon. The big problem on the Yukon, especially coming closer to the delta, is wind and the high waves dumping water into the boat. With a kayak you are far better off here than with an open canoe: A kayak is dealing much better with the wind and the spray deck prevents water from being splashed into the boat. Of course, you have less storage space in a kayak, but being an ultralighter this would have been not a problem. Also, it was much easier to find clear water than I had expected resulting in less storage space needed for drinking water. Another argument against the kayak had been the cold water temperature: Being much closer to the water in a kayak than in a canoe I had been afraid of getting cold. But other paddlers assured me that this has not been a problem for them, mostly because the air temperature is very warm during the day and the water gets much warmer once past Dawson. Also getting in and out of a kayak is much more difficult than in a canoe, but in hindsight I realise that we mostly camped on islands or sandy beaches where this problem would not have been an issue.

But my other new investments have proven to be very useful. Here is my list of the most useful items of this trip:

Camping in arctic jungle
Tarp: We had bought a very cheap tarp of the sort you can get in any hardware store. This had come in very useful when we had to quickly get ashore and wait out a rain shower or when we had to cook in the rain. Keep in mind that the Yukon is bear territory and you will not be able to cook in or close to your tent.

Synthetic quilt: On a paddling trip like this you have a very high risk of getting your sleeping gear wet or at least damp. During the last couple of years I have had constant problems with down sleeping bags in this sort of environment: The down starts clumping together and the insulation factor drops considerably. Therefore I had invested into a new synthetic quilt from BPL and it turned out to be one of my best recent investments! To my big surprise I have never been cold at night with this new setup and I never had to use the down bag I had brought on top as an extra layer. Most nights I was just sleeping in my base layer and shorts and was plenty warm. Only on very few occasions I had to put on long johns and a second pullover. From now on the BPL quilt will be my default sleeping bag.

Buff: This little accessory turned out to be of great value on the Yukon and I was wearing it daily. Especially in the mornings it could still be kind of cold on the water - too warm for a warm hat, but the buff was just right then. And when the wind started blowing the buff was perfect to hold my baseball cap in place and protect my ears.

Waterproof socks: I had first thought of buying neoprene socks but a British friend told me about Chillcheater socks. They are not neoprene, but still waterproof and much more comfortable to wear. I heeded his advice and have not regretted it. The Chillcheater socks do not give much warmth: When it got really cold I wore thick socks underneath them and it worked well. But most of the time it was actually very warm or even hot - but still we needed the socks because of the mosquitoes, and then the Chillcheaters were just perfect! I would definitely take them again.

Cheesefondue for my birthday
Stove: When hiking I always use gas canister stoves, but on this trip I was cooking extensively for 2 people and a gas canister stove is just not efficient (and the gas to expensive!) for this amount of cooking. Therefore I invested into a new petrol stove: The MSR Dragonfly. I had used that stove already for almost 7 months on my bike trip with John where his stove had worked great. Well, it turned out that it worked great on the Yukon, too. It was very reliable, used much less petrol than I had thought and most important of all, you can regulate the flame very well and simmer with it. This stove will definitely accompany me on future bike and paddling trips - but it is way too heavy and bulky for hiking.

Maps and guidebooks: There are tons of information about the most popular stretch of the Yukon from Whitehorse to Dawson City and we carried the German guide book by Dieter Reinmuth. The town info in this book is great, but the maps are rough sketches only and ok for navigation, but could be better. The much better choice is Mike Rourke's map guides of  the Yukon: He covers the Yukon all the way to Circle. His maps are impeccable and he gives a lot of historical information. The best overall guide book is the invaluable Dan MacLean: The Yukon River and its tributaries. For the section after Circle we were relying on US topo maps from Garmin. Unfortunately, the data base of these maps is over 20 years old and the river is changing constantly, therefore navigation was rather difficult with these maps. Still, they were better than nothing and at least they showed were the villages were located.

Yukon-Charlie NP
And now a last piece of advice: On the Yukon there are not many possibilities for staying indoors - especially if you don't want to spend a fortune on expensive B&B. Also you cannot leave your boat and gear unattended on the beach as the local kids are infamous for stealing stuff out of the boat. But there is one really nice hostel in Dawson City that is run by the German author of a Yukon guidebook: the Dawson City River Hostel. There is no electricity or running water in this hostel, but the place has so much atmosphere that is an attraction in itself. Plus you will meet all the other paddlers there, as it is close to the river and the hostel has carts to get your boat up from the river to the hostel.

The best free accommodation on the Yukon is in the Yukon-Charlie River National Park, where a lot of old huts and roadhoused have been restored and are now fantastic public use cabins. Definitely take your time in this stretch and enjoy the free accommodation.

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Yukon: Conclusion

In this post I want to keep aside the big negative aspect that galled the trip for me and forced me to get off prematurely: my paddling partner. I also do not want to take into consideration that I had constant ear pain - and still suffer from it now. I just want to focus on the trip itself - and that had been GREAT! Yes, I would definitely recommend paddling the Yukon river to a friend and will probably do it again myself to make it all the way to the end. Still, paddling the Yukon is not a piece of cake either - it will not be an easy trip, especially not for paddling beginners. So what are the main issues to look out for?

Heavily undercut bank
First of all the strong current took me by surprise. Things were aggravated by the fact that this has been a year with unusual high water levels leading to an even stronger current. Handling and steering the canoe with a current up to 15 km/h was kind of scary - especially in the beginning and especially being a rookie. But I think now that I have gotten used to it and would not be that scared any more doing it again. Still, you should definitely practice the U-turn or so-called ferry before you embark on the Yukon...

Half submerged island
Second, camping turned out to be more difficult than expected. Again, things were more difficult than usual because the island were still very much submerged. Normally you would camp at the sandy front end of the river islands, but those were still under water! On the other side it was very difficult on camp on the main land either because of the very steep and high cut banks that made landing and getting out of the boat very often impossible. Very often the banks were extremely undercut and constantly huge chunks of soil or trees were crashing down - an eerie sound at night. When new soil gets exposed the permafrost starts melting creating a constant dribble. And if you were able to find a spot were to land it would probably be totally overgrown with thick brush and thorn bushes..... But on the positive side: Things got much better towards the end when water levels were residing.

Now to the positive surprises:

Bear print
Yes, the mosquitoes were bad and the can really taint your experience. But I have to admit that you sort of get used to them. Also their bites are not as painful as with other mosquitoes. They do itch, but the swelling and the itch subside after less than half an hour. Other than that the wildlife was just great! We saw lots of moose (with baby moose), bears with cubs and a surprising amount of interesting birds: Huge ravens, loads of ducks, eagles and very aggressive mew gulls that skydived on us.

Barge with mining equipment
I was also very much worried about paddling in high waves, especially in an open canoe. Although I admit that it is not the most pleasant paddling time, we were able to cope with the waves much better than thought. Except in the Five Finger Rapids we never got water into the boat. But not only the wind creates waves: Some stretches of the Yukon have quite a bit of barge and skiff traffic. Most drivers were very considerate and gave us a wide berth, but some came pretty close and their wake shook us quite a bit. On the lower half of the Yukon boat and air traffic is the only mode of transport as there are no roads. Therefore you can see barges loaded with mining equipment slowly coming up the river - and almost speeding coming back.

The weather can be an issue and paddling in rain and strong wind is miserable. We did have some bad weather, but luckily it never lasted longer than a day. I was expecting to be stuck for days on end, but that never happened. Actually I was surprised how many really hot days we had. Overall I was more too hot than too cold on the Yukon - but of course, I missed the last bit on the Delta.

Undercut bank
We had read that the low water temperature would be a big issue as well. If you capsize in very cold water you have little time to make it ashore before you die of hypothermia. The Yukon is very cold, but only in the beginning. The water warms up soon after Dawson and at the end of our trip we were actually swimming in the Yukon just for fun. You would not want to stay in there for hours, but you would definitely survive more than 10  minutes. The Yukon itself is very silty and could not be used as a source of drinking water, but there were plenty of clean side streams or little creeks coming down the mountains with good water. We usually loaded up with water in the villages.

Smoking salmon
There was also a surprising amount of interesting things to see: Lots of relics from the goldrush era, abandonded cabins, bearproof cemeteries, native villages, fish camps.... Dawson City and Fort Selkirk were definite highlights of this trip! I very much enjoyed stories about the interesting Alaskan characters and after having spent a bit of time in this hard climate myself I cannot help but admire the courage and endurance of the early settlers and miner to survive in such an environment.

Overall, paddling has been a very pleasant experience. It is by far less physically demanding than hiking or cycling. You go at a much more leisurely pace and have more break time (mostly due to bad weather). And because weight is not so much of an issue you can do a lot of very good cooking!

Bottom line: I will soon be paddling again and will definitely buy a folding kayak.

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Yukon: Adrian or How to ruin a great trip

It has been over a week now since Adrian has forced me to abandon the Yukon River trip and after having hiked again I feel in much better shape to write about the events that led to this sad end of an otherwise fantastic paddling trip. Unfortunately, Adrian never elaborated on why he bailed and therefore I can just write about my perspective of the events.

In the divorce boat
The trouble already started at Frankfurt airport where we met for our flight to Whitehorse. I had especially come to Switzerland for a planning meeting a month before our departure date to discuss our equipment for the paddling trip. Well, I could have saved myself the time and money..... Adrian showed up at the airport with all the equipment we had agreed on - but brought at least the same amount of extra stuff we had NOT agreed on on top! True, weight is not so much an issue on a paddling trip but you still have to handle and carry all that stuff at least twice daily. And being in a boat together with all his stuff would become my problem as well... Things got even worse once in Whitehorse when I had to discover that he had not only brought tons of useless stuff but that he had no clue how to pack it either. Everything was still in bulky packages taking up way too much space and Adrian stubbornly refused to reduce the bulk. Adrian was carrying more vitamin pills than I carried snacks. He had several complete sets of outdoor clothes. He had brought a ridiculously huge amount of cooking stuff we had not agreed on despite the fact that I was to do the cooking. He had brought everything from Balsamic Vinegar to organic broth! I was seriously getting worried whether we would even be able to fit everything into one boat! Well, we did at the end, but we ended up with way too little waterproof space in our dry bags.

Right from the start Adrian showed the most negative attitude I have seen in long time. Finding a campsite was very difficult with him. No matter what I suggested - Adrian found an argument against it: The place was either too wet, too low or too high or too whatever. But he never made any constructive suggestions himself - he was just bashing mine.... He would never say: "This is a good place to camp." The closest he would come to saying something positive was: "Camping is not entirely impossible here...." By the way: His most favourite word on the whole trip was "impossible"...

The next serious blow came after a week on the water in a place called Carmacks. We had discussed at great length that we would stop at the camp ground, have a look around and then decide together whether we would stay or not. But when I was still looking around checking out the place Adrian went straight to the office and paid for our stay - forcing me to stay as well. I was furious! This was already the second serious breach of trust in one week. On such a trip you rely on each other with your life and he was just doing whatever HE liked not caring at all about what I wanted to do. Despite his promises to be more considerate it would happen again and again later during our trip: As soon as Adrian saw an opportunity to get back to civilisation and spend some money, he would just do it - no matter on what we had agreed on before. I had to realise that I could not trust or rely on Adrian.

I soon had to admit that I myself had committed a big mistake. Due to the fact that Adrian had thruhiked the Appalachian Trail I had assumed that we would have the same outdoor background, experience and mentality, something that I would call thruhiker mentality. But I should have been more careful and asked more about his AT experiences. Adrian had indeed hiked the AT 10 years before, but his and my thruhike could not have been more different. Adrian had stayed in about every B&B along the AT instead of camping out - and expected this on the Yukon as well. He had received resupply packages with gourmet food every 4 days by mail and admitted that he had never eaten a Lipton side dish in his entire life!!!! And he had slackpacked whenever possible - but unfortunately he had to realise that you cannot slackpack on a paddling trip.... .Had I know about his AT experience I would have never agreed on a joint Yukon trip. When Adrian realised that the Yukon is much tougher than the relatively comfortable AT, he acted more like a spoilt 6 year old child than like an experienced 60 year old thruhiker. He was constantly whining about something: The weather, the mosquitoes, the paddling, the quality of the accommodation...

By the time we reached Dawson City I was ready for a break. Luckily we could get a bit of distance between each other during our stay there - I would only see Adrian coincidentally during the day sitting in a cafe drinking expensive cappuccino. But the break had done us good and leaving Dawson City I felt that things had improved. It was apparent that we would never be best friends, but we had found a way to get along. Adrian would get up half an hour before me to deal with all his gear. He was lowering his expectations on a camp site. We had settled into a routine.

We were just about halfway through when Adrian started to say that he did not like the trip.It was not what he expected it to be and he said he was not enjoying it because it was too tough for him. I must admit that I did not take that very serious and assumed this was just a little depression. I tried to be very positive and cheer him up - but unfortunately it did not help. These little depressions turned into almost daily bail out threats and it quickly became apparent that Adrian was more of a burden than a supportive partner. When there was a problem my first thought was to hide it from Adrian because it would just create another one of his bail out threats. It cost me a lot of energy to motivate not only myself, but Adrian as well! It was very obvious by now that Adrian was the weaker part of our "team" - but I still tried to keep him happy. Adrian on the other hand did everything to make my life miserable: He not only came up with his bail out threats every other day, he was also constantly criticising my abilities. True, I do not have the greatest sense of equilibrium and getting in and out of the boat would not win me a prize for grace and elegance - but I coped and got better all the time. Still, Adrian was not missing any opportunity to tell me that my J strokes are a disaster, that I would not be able to climb up a steep bank or that I would break the boat. I just closed my ears and let him rattle on - anything to make Adrian happy.

Adrian finally threw in the towel just before the tiny settlement of Kaltag. We had had a rather rainy and windy day and were camped at the local cemetery... I have had a lot of time to reflect about his bail out decision, but I still cannot forgive him - neither the decision itself nor the way he communicated it.

I was not a happy hiker then...
The decision itself was bad enough: We were 3/4 or 2,200 km through with our trip and had only 1/4 or 700 km left, which meant about 10 to 14 more days on the water. I had already suggested a compromise in just paddling to St. Mary's and thus skipping the last 150 km in the real windy Yukon delta. I do understand that there are situations when it is ok to bail out of a joint trip like a medical or family emergency or when the situation gets life threatening due to bad weather or the like. But on our trip nothing even remotely close had happened. The only person with a medical problem (ear pain) had been me. There was no family emergency. We were way ahead of schedule. The paddling and the conditions had been even better than described in the various guide books and trip reports. Everything had gone as or better as expected. Still, Adrian single-handedly decided to bail out and thus forced me to do the same. I can still find no excuse for that decision. I in his shoes would have just gritted my teeth and finished the last 2 weeks. Hey, we were not talking about a yearlong expedition, there were less than 2 weeks left! I still feel that Adrian had an even stronger moral obligation to continue: HE had talked me into paddling in a two person canoe, whereas I had always wanted to paddle in 2 single kayaks. In a single kayak I would have been able to continue on my own, but I could not handle a 2 person canoe alone in these windy conditions. In hindsight his motivation became very obvious: Adrian would never have been able to get all his luxury equipment into a kayak - he needed a canoe!

The way he communicated his decision was even worse than the decision itself. A decent person would have tried to talk about the problem, see the other person's view, find alternatives or compromises - but at least have a face to face talk. Not so Adrian: At 7 am in the morning he came up to my tent where I was still sleeping and told me through the tent wall that he was leaving. He did not even have the guts to tell me face to face. I struggled to awake and tried to stick out my head of the tent (where hundreds of mosquitoes were immediately attacking me) to at least see him - well, Adrian always tried to stay out of my view range... I think that tells a lot about his character. He did not offer any apology, any compromise, or even the chance to talk his decision over. He had made up his mind - and did not care about anybody else.

This trip could have been fantastic - but it turned out to be a disaster. I still cannot help but feeling abused by Adrian.

But I learnt one thing: They don't call a 2 person canoe divorce boat for nothing.....

Saturday, 16 July 2011

Yukon: Galena to the sad end

Great grassy campsite in Galena
Galena is the last "bigger" settlement on the Yukon and therefore the logical place to stock up on supplies for the last 500 miles to the delta. It has a big paved airstrip, 2 shops and a B&B for Adrian. But when we stopped just short of the public landing to hide the boat and find a camp site for me Galena did not look to inviting: Mosquitoes everywhere and hardly a good place to camp. Luckily a local in a car stopped for us and gave us some great advice: There is a nice meadow with a picnic table in front of the Fish and Wildlife Bureau and other paddlers had stayed there before. He even gave Adrian a short ride to the place and showed him the lay of the land. The rangers were very friendly and not only allowed us to camp on their lawn (Adrian's B&B had closed forcing him to camp as well), but stored our luggage during the day (local kids tend to steal stuff out of canoes) and let us refill our drinking water supplies. They even printed out the weather forecast for us. And when we learnt that there is a coffee shop with free internet the world looked much better.

Washeteria in Kaltag
We spent the whole day shopping, doing laundry, working on the internet and hitching from one end of town to the other. The only thing we could not do was taking a shower as the public showers had been closed due to vandalism. We had a nice dinner prepared on the Fish & Wildlife barbecue and got a good night's sleep despite lots of air and ATV traffic.

Next day was my 44th birthday that we celebrated with Swiss cheese fondue, white wine and mousse aux chocolate. Beside Adrian about 1,000 mosquitoes had invited themselves to the party, but after a bottle of wine for the two of us they did not matter that much any  more...

Fish wheel
In this stretch the river is dotted with loads of little native settlements - you pass a village almost every day. There were still lots of fish camps, but now they only consisted of smoke houses and no other buildings. The river is truly wide now and crossing it is definitely not recommended. We had to fight with strong head winds and high waves for the first time. Although I was a bit scared in the beginning I soon realized that the waves don't provide the most comfortable paddling, but they are not as dangerous as they look. We made very little progress due to the wind, but still managed to do 40 to 50 km per day. The weather got colder, too and it began drizzling a lot. Not the most comfortable conditions, but still pretty manageable - I thought, at least.

Alaskan bearproof grave
One evening we ran into a group of native fishermen. Of course we were immediately invited to visit and Adrian was given a fishing rod to try his luck. Well, Adrian did not catch anything, but our new friends insisted on giving us a fish. I was not overly enthusiastic about this idea as we were in prime bear country and would probably not be able to find an island for camping. And fish would of course attract the bears much more than our usual vegetarian fare. But it was already too late: Adrian was handed a huge fish and off we went - luckily being able to find a campsite on the grounds of a former hut. We decided to cook far away from our camp sites and built a fire for the fish. Adrian did a pretty good job cleaning the fish and wrapped in aluminium foil and roasted on coal it turned out to be a delicious meal. We had just started eating when our Indian friends showed up in their boat and tried to entertain us.... I must say that I felt a bit uncomfortable when we were offered alcohol and a gun (to defend us against the bears) - and all their stories about how many people they had killed in the Afghan war as soldiers in the US army did not improve my mood either. But eventually they left and we spent a quiet night inside Adrian's bear proof electrical fence - despite all the locals' warnings about bears.

The weather continued to be windy and forced us to spend the next night in the cemetery next to the little village of Kaltag. Some locals driving by could not believe their eyes when they saw that some crazy foreigners were camping right between the graves... and warned us about bears, of course.

Unfortunately, this was the end of my Yukon trip as Adrian decided that night that he did not want to continue on the Yukon - thus forcing me to give up as well because we were paddling in a 2 person canoe that is not suitable for single person use in these conditions. Now, 3 days later, I am still so furious, angry, frustrated and disappointed with Adrian's egotistical behavior that I have a hard time writing about it and will save these events for another blog entry.

I am in Anchorage right now licking my wounds and trying to recover from the shock and disappointment of having had to abandon an otherwise fantastic trip. I will leave for Denali National Park tomorrow to do some hiking and clear my head.

Yukon: Yukon Crossing to Galena

Oil pipeline
Yukon Crossing is more or less the halfway point of the Yukon. It is not a real settlement - there is just a hotel (with rooms for 199$ per shabby room), a gas station, a restaurant, a laundry and showers for 10$. As you might have guessed I preferred to stay dirty with these prices. Yukon Crossing is the last place where a bridge crosses the Yukon - the next 1,300 km there is nothing but boats and airplanes for transport. The road bridge has only been constructed in the 1970's - as a by-product of the oil pipeline crossing Alaska. Due to the extreme weather conditions the bridge is able to move 2 1/2 ft! Construction work in winter took place under a heated tent: Not to keep the workers warm, but otherwise the cement would have frozen.....

Bridge at Yukon crossing
Approaching Yukon Crossing we saw the bridge from far away, but nearly panicked as we could not determine which side the buildings were on. According to our map they should be left, but it looked better on the right side. The Yukon is almost 1 km wide there and you really do not want to cross from one shore to the other with 4 bridge abutment right in front of your nose and a strong current.... Luckily, we made the right decision for the right side and were immediately greeted by the woman running the local crafts "shop", although shed would probably be the more correct term. She told us all about here house on the Yukon, her kids, fellow paddlers and life in general. We spend half a day there with Adrian doing his washing and phone calls.

Last highway for 1.400 km
Just before Yukon Crossing we had changed position in the boat: I was sitting in the back now doing the steering and Adrian in the front doing the navigation. I became more and more confident with steering, but Adrian turned out to be a disaster as a navigator: He could not read the maps or GPS without his glasses and therefore we were very often not there were he thought we would be... But instead of focusing on his navigation job he seemed to enjoy more criticizing my steering and he seemed to believe that he must give me a lesson on J-strokes every single day. Well, I might not be a world class paddler, but I managed all right. I even made it through my first rapids in the steering position without capsizing the boat!

In this section the river turns back into the mountains. It is very wide now, generally about 1 km, with various big islands in the middle, cut banks and a very manageable current of between 3 to 8 km/h. Camping became less of a problem as the water levels were slowly sinking and exposing sandy beaches at the front and back end of islands. Unfortunately, the mosquitoes became more and more of a problem. Sometimes they were so thick that you could hardly open your mouth without eating some of  them. They actually taste quite good, almost sweet.

Fish camp bath room
Fish camps were abundant in this section and were quite comfortable. Usually people leave this fish camps open when they are not there and only take bear precautions in the form of nail boards or boarding up windows. We had some very nice lunch breaks out of the wind in these very comfortable structures that sometime even come equipped with satellite dishes and fully equipped kitchens. Of course we left everything as we had found it.

In this section we had to stop at a village called Tanana because we both had a mail drop there. We arrived on a Sunday but had called ahead to the post mistress and she had promised to leave our packages at the local store. I must say that people tend to very flexible in bush Alaska. But when we finally arrived after a very windy day the shop had already closed. Not a problem as it turned out: A local woman just rang the the shop owner who came down to not only give us the package (unfortunately, mine had not arrived yet), but also gave us some time for shopping!

Inside a fish camp - not a B&B
She was also running the local B&B and of course, Adrian could not resist the temptations of civilization and had to stay there - despite our prior agreement to stay at the free local camp ground. The B&B owners must have been very much surprised that Adrian had ditched his female paddling partner into a tent while luxuriously staying indoors himself. So after being told that he would not have to pay more when I stayed there as well I was finally invited indoors as well. Although I would rather have stayed outdoors this unexpected stay in civilization turned out to be a good thing: Checking my mail I was horrified to read that my credit card had been frozen due to suspicion of fraud! With free wifi and Adrian's laptop I could contact my bank and figure out how to access money now.

Friday, 15 July 2011

Yukon: The Flats

 The National Park and our maps ended at the village of Circle where another interesting river section starts: The Flats. Until now the river has always been confined by high mountains on each side and although the Yukon had already became very wide you could still manage to paddle from one shore to the other within reasonable time. Now the Yukon left the mountains and entered an extremely flat area - and immediately spread out tremendously. At some points in the Flats the Yukon is over 6 km WIDE!!!! Of course the river is now a maze of big and small islands, sand bars and loads of different channels. Navigation is sort of a nightmare here. The river changes constantly and our maps were made more than 20 years ago - so almost nothing looked like it should according to the map.

Small side channel
At first we tried to follow the main current which was still surprisingly swift with over 10 km/h. This strategy turned out to be a recipe for disaster. The river is very shallow and peppered with all sorts of obstacles like sand bars or driftwood and trees. On top of all that there are lots of eddies in the water that can swirl you around into directions you do not want to go at all. If you end up in one of these eddies it feels like the river wants to swallow you and eat you alive. This eddies can just show up out of the blue. I called them piranha eddies as they reminded me of a pool of hungry piranhas at feeding time. After two days in the main current we were both nervous wrecks, but luckily discovered how to avoid all these problems: We just stayed on side channels that were much longer and winding and had little current, but were very scenic, easy to navigate and had no steering problems. Paddling became relaxed again and actually turned out to be one of my favorite stretches. But don't get me wrong: These little side channels are usually still wider than the main river Danube!!!

Only once we had another problem on this stretch when we ended up in a thunderstorm in the middle of a big channel. As usual the storm started without prior warning within 10 minutes. We could just make it to shore in time when the waves got so high that paddling became almost impossible. Unfortunately, we were now stuck at a very high cut bank and we had to use almost acrobatic efforts to get ourselves and the gear up on high ground onto one of the most miserable, overgrown and mosquito-infested campsites of this whole trip. But other than that the Flats turned out to be an interesting section of the river.

Yukon: Yukon-Charlie National Park

Moss insulation of cabin wall
 Right after the 100-people-Yukon-metropolis-without-immigration-officer Eagle Yukon-Charlie National Park starts. The Park still causes a lot of tension: Several people are still living inside the park on subsistence fishing and although they are allowed to continue to do so, they are not very happy with the Park Rangers. So when we stopped at a fish camp to get out of the rain we were welcomed by a local who immediately told us all the bad stories about park policies. But the guy did not only talk about local politics, he had also a couple of years ago paddled the whole Yukon himself and gave us some interesting information about our upcoming trip. He stayed at the fish camp together with 21 sledge dogs who were all tightly chained up to their tiny little hut - because otherwise he would not be able to control them. Still I found this treatment very cruel - but it is standard practice all along the Yukon and we would see it several times.

Old greenhouse & meat storage
I personally really enjoyed the park, especially because of the various restored huts that are now used as public use cabins. We had a very good guidebook with maps for this section and learnt all the stories about these places and the people who had once lived there. My favorite story is the one about a German immigrant who ran a roadhouse on the Yukon together with his wife. After too much alcohol consumption he became delusional and started having nightmares about the German army invading the Yukon (this is taking place in the 1930s and 40s). Eventually he became so depressed that he decided to shoot himself - but instead of killing himself he just hurt himself badly. He was found by his wife who suffered so badly from rheumatism that she could hardly move - I guess the Yukon climate is not really helpful with this sort of ailment. Despite being in the middle of winter she got her crutches and made her way to the next neighbor who lived several miles away. The neighbor got his sledge dogs out and took the husband to the next settlement to get medical help. Unfortunately, all this proved to be too much for his poor wife and she died of a heart attack the same night. So when her husband came back from hospital he could not find her and would not believe his neighbors that she had died. He set out in a canoe to look for her and drifted down the Yukon River towards the Bering Sea - only to be never seen again. Hey, who needs TV out there when there are all these true stories around....

Public use cabin
The public use cabins turned out to be fantastic. We had lunch in the first one, a hunting hut built and used by a Fairbanks optometrist who later died from the effects of a plane crash. Next came an old subsistence fisher hut that was so inviting that we decided to stay the night. Next day we just made it to Slavens Roadhouse, another public use cabin that turned out to be the Hilton of cabins. It had two stories with 2 rooms on each floor and even had a fully equipped kitchen! Not to mention the rhubarb that was growing in front of the house that ended up in my cooking pot as rhubarb compote... And when we had just finished our Swiss cheese fondue two fellow French paddlers showed up out of the rain - but we still   each had a room for ourselves!
Slaven's Roadhouse

This first evening a torrential downpour started that would last for 24 hours. We just watched the Yukon River in amazement as it swelled more and more and every minute a huge tree trunk came swimming down the raging torrent. We were happy not to be out there and even happier to be in this fantastic hut! In the afternoon a young ranger showed up and told us the Ranger version of local park politics. At least we had a balanced view now!! The second evening ended with another rhubarb compote and a weather improvement - and on day 3 we were able to leave this fantastic place. By the way: According to our guidebook this roadhouse was once  run by a Czech immigrant called Slaven and a Mrs Bissell - an alleged ex-prostitute from Dawson City who was already past her prime. They catered for travellers on the Yukon and the people who worked the nearby gold mine. The guidebook says laconically: "Frank Slaven ran the road house - and Mrs Bissel ran Frank Slaven...." So much on women on the Yukon.

Friday, 8 July 2011

Yukon: Eagle or Reporting a tragedy with a happy end

Capsized boat
 The first day out of Dawson should get us to the abandoned settlement of Forty Mile where we were planning on camping. And so we were happily paddling down the river in the afternoon when I suddenly spotted something weird on the far shore - something red that looked like an upside down canoe. After a quick discussion we decided to check it out and made a mad dash to the other shore (keep in mind that the current is still strong with about 12 km/h and therefore traversing requires some effort). On the other shore we saw that it really was an upside down canoe buried under some driftwood - and no one around. This was not a good sign and we started to get a bad feeling about the whole situation. This feeling did not improve when we turned the boat around and found a barrel and a backpack still tied to it. It was quite obvious now that someone must have capsized and lost the boat. We opened the barrel and the backpack and tried to find some ID, but only found lots of trash, very little food, maps, toiletries and a leather hat. Both the barrel and the boat were marked as property of Up North, the same canoe rental place in Whitehorse where we had bought our own canoe. Judging from the lack of food and its expiry dated we concluded that this person must have capsized shortly before Dawson City where most paddlers with rental boats get off and a shuttle back to Whitehorse. The big question now was: What has happened to the capsized person?

View from Forty Mile
We took various photos of the boat and the GPS coordinates of the place. After that there was nothing else we could do - especially since it was apparent that the accident must have happened quite a while ago. By now the capsized person must either have been rescued - or died. Of course we talked almost about nothing else and speculated a lot about what could have happened. Losing your boat here in this cold water is a sure recipe for killing yourself, but on the other side we had not heard about any missing paddler or had seen a search and rescue party. I must admit that I had visions of skeleton hands coming out of Yukon trying to grab me....

Phone at Eagle
We would have to inform the authorities but the questions was how? Forty Mile was supposed to have a caretaker but unfortunately he was not there when we arrived. Therefore the next chance for us was Eagle, the first town on the Alaska side. Eagle was important for us anyways as we had to do immigration into the US there - without a customs officer who had died the previous year in a tragic accident and not been replaced. We had been given a leaflet with the immigration details now: You have to stop at the public landing, go to the customs building were there is a telephone. Pick up the phone and it will automtically connect you with US immigration. Well, this is how it is supposed to work in theory. In reality we arrived at the public landing, found the phone box, openend it - and found no phone. It just had not been connected.... Great - what were we supposed to do now? We asked some uncredibly friendly locals who directed us to a free camp spot and promised to drive to the local shop with the only public phone for us and try to locate any authority that might exist in the little town of Eagle. So eventually the local park ranger showed up - there is no other public authority left in Eagle. But by now it was too late to call to Up North Canoe Rental in Canada or the US immigration office. We just camped in the worst campsite of the whole trip and waited impatiently for the solution of the capsized boat mystery and our legalization next morning.

Our camp site at Eagle
Right when the ranger station next morning opened we were there and met the ranger's boss who helped us with all our problems. First she let us make a phone call to US immigration who officially allowed us to enter the US via the phone. We still have to complete the immigration procedure once in Anchorage where there is a real officer. And then she called Up North to find out about the capsized canoe - and the happy ending of our mystery. The canoe had been rented by a Brit in Whitehorse on May 20th. He had indeed capsized on May 28th, but been rescued thereafter. But nobody had found the canoe yet. He had capsized above Dawson and they had searched for the canoe there, whereas we had found the canoe more than 60 km below Dawson! We communicated the GPS data of the boat - and were very happy with this happy ending!!! After a city tour of Eagle and its historical Fort Egbert we left Eagle happily and legally (!) into the Yukon-Charlie National Park.