Yukon Summer Sky
Travel Stories: A century ago, Canada's Yukon River carried dreamers from around the world in search of gold. Laurie Gough recently followed in their wake and found a multi-national assemblage immersed in love, languor and a valiant quest to save a runaway honey-baked ham.
08.03.06 | 9:25 PM ET
Few places in the world exist where there were once many people and now there are none. All along the Yukon River are the rotting and rusting relics of a population long since disappeared. In the gold rush to the Klondike thousands used the river like a highway leading into the far reaches of northwest Canada and Alaska. Twenty thousand dreamers floated north in 1898 and few returned rich with gold. Some, in their dangerous pursuit in looking for it, didn’t return at all. The Yukon is a museum the length of a river, a land of artifacts-rusting tin cans, crumbling cabins, old roads barely visible, rotting carcasses of dredges and steamboats, gravestones, crosses, abandoned villages and ruined roadhouses. Paraphernalia of the past is strewn along the river like an antique collector’s dream. The land seems untouched at first, looking as it must have hundreds of years ago with the forest rolling endlessly back from the riverbank. But once you step into the forest, rusty cooking pots crumble beneath your feet, releasing untold tales of a gold seeker’s life.
Our canoe trip down the Yukon River began in Whitehorse in the cold rain of a foggy afternoon. Rain continued to beat down on my friend Kevin and me for three days until we emerged, soggy and bedraggled, at the north end of Lake Labage. Where the river resumes after the lake, purple shadowed cliffs begin to close in on you, the water cutting into the land like a deep thirst. I’d never seen so many sheer unspoiled miles of pure untamed wilderness, almost frightful in its isolation. Mountain goats and moose drank from the river, ignoring us entirely. Above us, bald and golden eagles soared. The water was Crystal clean green and the mountains that rose straight up beside us were out of a painting, reflected in the river at our paddle. We had been thrust magically back in time. All around us was magnificence and we were paddling into it.
We weren’t the only canoeists on the river. About a dozen people were paddling along the same route at the same time. We all had our own pace and stopped at different times, but two or three times a day, we’d come across the same people, especially at campsites which were usually abandoned miners’ camps or old Indian sites. We got to know our fellow river people, even fairly well sometimes, all of us part of a friendly assemblage of people of different ages, different countries and lifestyles but all encountering the same scenery, the same rain, sunshine and wildlife, and all with the same whimsical compulsion to paddle the Yukon River.
Even though we were in Canada, we were among the few Canadians on the river. Most of the other canoeists were German, Swiss or American. Every day we’d pass the same spiky-hair Germans, two guys with leather jackets, tattoos, and lots of metal bits protruding from their flesh. They were usually fishing, which seemed incongruous. Another pair of Germans we saw just once because they were hell-bent on making it to Dawson City as fast as possible. Since it was 24 hour daylight, they refused to waste light and were paddling around the clock. The six women from Florida we came across at least three times a day. They were in their early fifties, on a college reunion, and this was their first canoe trip. Every time we came across them they were laughing at a minor catastrophe they were either entering or escaping, and always the one named Marge was the butt of their jokes since she insisted on applying make-up and styling her hair. “Mr. Right could be out here, honey, any time, around the corner,” she told me. “You just don’t know!”
The Albertan Brothers was the name we gave to two bald, not terribly bright twins from Alberta, each with his own canoe equipped with a small outboard motor. Often the Albertan Brothers would come ashore at a campsite for the “night” and cook dinner just as Kevin and I would be eating breakfast and preparing to set off for the “day.” The 24-hour daylight was confusing. We’d wake not knowing if it was 7 a.m. or 7 p.m. As time passed, I kept waiting for it to get dark. I felt as if I was missing something essential as each day continued on into the next without the familiar dream time to replenish what the day took away. The Albertan Brothers would never fail to ask us what time it was whenever we saw them. We never did know the time and I never understood why it was so important to them. “Does it really matter?” I finally said to them one morning, which was “one evening”, for them. They had no reply but looked at me as if I’d told them I was holding secret meetings with the Pope deep inside the earth.
One morning as we paddled down the river we heard a man shouting wildly but could see no sign of him. We looked up high to the top of a metal look-out tower beside the river, and there he was: a crazy fat man yelling at us. Dressed in army fatigues, he was nearly hysterical, waving his arms frantically. Incoherent and panic-stricken, he seemed to want desperately to tell us something. When we asked him if he wanted us to pull in, he shouted down, “Well, if y’all can, I’d mighty appreciate it.”
We pulled in for him. He wasn’t half-way down the tower when he started telling his tale, how he and his partner, hunters from Georgia, had capsized their canoe the day before in some monstrous rapids not far ahead, how he’d swum to shore and walked hours back along the riverbank to the tower he remembered passing, while his partner, who he thought was now probably dead, had stayed floating in the river to chase after the canoe, and save the ham. The lost case of beer was okay. His wife was always nagging him to cut down anyway, but that mother of a honey-baked ham brought all the way from Georgia, they’d really been hankering after that. All that food, all that beer in the bottom of the river. It was a crying shame.
Ernie plunked himself down in the middle of our canoe, causing it to sink so deeply into the water I feared a river disaster myself. Out of breath, Ernie commenced a one hour monologue. “Those rapids are a-comin soon and I ain’t gonna fall out again,” Ernie said. “I’m gonna hang on. My wife. I gotta call my wife. I almost died yesterday and do ya think she cares? Probably not. I’m callin’ her as soon as we get to a phone. We lost our ham, we lost our beer, shouldn’t have been sittin’ up on that beer case. Too shaky. Better to sit down low like this here. What part of the States you two from?”
The Canadian part, Kevin told him.
“Hell, I gotta find my partner. I doubt he’s alive.”
Shortly afterwards we reached the rapids where the southern duo met their fate. The rapids were nothing more than a few barely discernible ripples in the water. How they’d managed to paddle through Lake Lebarge I couldn’t fathom. “It ain’t what she looks like,” Ernie said. “She’s a trickster this river. Hang on.” We paddled along as always, waiting for something terrible to happen. “Okay, maybe this is a better canoe. Those rapids were powerful yesterday. Nearly killed us. Jimmy, my partner, he’s probably dead. Yep, won’t be shootin’ ducks with Jimbo no more.”
Not far after the nonexistent rapids we came across Jimbo but Jimbo wasn’t dead. He was relaxing with his face aimed into the sun beside a campfire he’d built. Next to him sat a sleeping pad propped on its side with the word HELP written across it in large letters. “Howdy all,” Jimmy said, with a casual wave of his hand as if this were a church picnic. “Thought you’d be showin’ up soon, Ern.” Jimmy, in contrast to paunchy Ernie, was long and lean, slow-talking, with a scraggly red beard and felt hat pulled low over his head.
We pulled ashore. Ernie hauled his massive body out of the canoe, walked up to Jimmy, grabbed hold of him, and pulled rigid Jimmy into the wide spread of his sweaty chest, displaying a degree of tenderness I found surprising from this man who’d lamented his beer and his honey-baked Georgia ham. Jimmy, looking vaguely bewildered, didn’t hug Ernie back but Ernie didn’t seem to notice. “We ain’t dead, Jimmy, we ain’t dead. I love you, man. I love you. Where the hell’s our canoe?”
“Where’s everything else?”
“How’d you get this fire lit? How’d you get this here sleepin’ pad?”
“Some friendly folk come by. They helped a bit. They left.”
That’s when it struck me for the first time. Kevin and I may have to take Ernie and Jimmy with us for the rest of our canoe trip. I looked over at Kevin and could see the same thought was occurring to him. A silent shudder passed between us.
But then, miraculously, we were saved. From around the bend the Albertan Brothers were approaching, each with his own canoe, even outboard motors which would help lug the extra weight of Ernie. “Come ashore,” we called to them. “Have some lunch.”
At first the Albertan Brothers were happy to take along Ernie and Jimmy. Apparently the twins had been fighting, sick of each other’s company, and were thankful for the distraction. But later that day, when they finally came across the Americans’ upside-down canoe caught in a mass of dead trees near the shore, the Albertan Brothers were no longer on speaking terms with Ernie. We spotted Ernie and Jimmy ahead of us on the riverbank with their canoe, Ernie jumping up and down and waving at us, Jimmy lying on the ground, the pair of them stranded once again, at the mercy of whoever came down the river. Their canoe badly needed patching and the Albertan Brothers had unceremoniously dumped them there with it and left. “Stupid rednecks,” said Ernie. “Trying to tell us everything we done wrong yesterday. As if they’re any smarter.” Since we didn’t have room for the two of them, or any patches for their canoe, we were of no use to them and free to leave.
That night, at a campsite called Big Salmon, we learned that the six women from Florida had rescued Ernie and Jimmy. Marge was beaming at the campfire, her rouged cheeks flaming, her coiffed hair all astray. Jimmy, pulling on his beard and stealing quick shy glances her way, was a changed man, a man whose last name apparently was Right. Marge and Jimmy had fallen in love.
And so it went, the Yukon River, inspiring love and languor and a never-ending light. In the day we floated and at night we recalled, trying to rehearse the scenes of the river in our minds: the eagles and the leggy moose, the impossible green of the river and the mountains rising up so close like sudden thoughts. The nights too never failed to bring with them, on schedule and at a distinct required decibel level, the not-too-distant voice of Ernie telling his story of the river disaster which almost took his life, the story of how he’d been so close to death he’d spoken to God and asked forgiveness—forgiveness for what we never asked-how he’d swum miles alone along the river, searching for his partner, a tale of heroic proportions we didn’t even recognize, a tale Kevin and I, by its fifth telling, had been cut out of entirely.
“I don’t understand,” said a Swiss man to me one night around a campfire. “Every night we hear this same story and every night the story grows more dangerous.” The Swiss man told us he also had canoed by the hysterical Ernie in the tower, but hadn’t stopped for him. He simply waved and kept paddling, thinking Ernie in his army fatigues must be an escaped lunatic from the military. “This sometimes happens in Switzerland. The army drives them mad and they head for the wilderness. I didn’t want to go near him.”
On the tenth day we looked up from the river to see a bridge approaching. The bridge seemed intrusive and alien and meant civilization was ahead. A few minutes later we passed some shacks along the water and a clearing of the forest. Sadly, we’d arrived at Carmacks and the end of our canoe trip. Carmacks was a forgettable little town with three restaurants all owned by the same man, which explained our ten dollar salad consisting solely of iceberg lettuce.
That night, camping in our tent beside a river that felt like home, I thought of the drifters, homesteaders, and renegades who had tramped across an unimaginable expanse of country and sailed down a river to find gold, or their spirits, or a new life. I thought of the ones who died on the way, their bones left at the river’s bottom, polished, and fragile. You could almost hear their voices, a murmur around your sleep, as if the dead souls were babbling at the edge of the river. And I thought of Ernie, whose bones the river didn’t want, and whose babbling at the edge of the river was enough to waken the dead.