FAIRBANKS - With the creation of the national parks, preserves and refuges in Alaska under President Jimmy Carter from 1978-1980, there was a reaction among Alaskans. There were restrictions that upset the lifestyle of many guides, miners and certainly, squatters. Thirty-one years later, I would see the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve.
After retiring from Delta State Forestry in 2009, my husband Reb Ferguson planned to canoe the Upper Yukon River with his new Lab pup, Zach. Reb would use a 20-horsepower motor on his Canadian canoe, launching from Johnson’s Crossing, Yukon Territory and travel the Teslin and Yukon rivers to Circle.
A friend, Steven Reeves, would go with Reb. Not wanting three weeks on the river but not wanting to be left out, I made a deal. At Eagle, I would join my husband and travel the 115 miles of the preserve of the 1,800 mile Yukon river. At Eagle, Steven would return to Delta with our truck and then meet us a few days later in Circle.
When we arrived at Johnson’s Crossing on June 24 the Teslin River was the highest it had been in 16 years. As the mosquitoes hummed, Reb and Steven pushed out into the water with Zach on top of the load. Over the next couple of weeks, Reb called me on our satellite phone. The water was so high that they weren’t catching any fish. Below Carmacks, Five Finger Rapids wasn’t bad but a second set of rapids was rough and Steven caught a wave in the face. However, they dried out in Dawson where they took in a couple of shows.
As they continued, they passed beautiful vistas, but they caught only seven grayling, no sheefish and no pike. But help was on the way. At the last minute, our youngest son, Ben, a diligent and patient fisherman decided to join me and his dad at Eagle.
When Ben was 20 and on the Chugachmiut Hotshot Crew, he and Reb had fought the raging Boundary Fire that burned over 312,000 acres in 2004. Reb had saved a cabin of Wayne and Scarlett Hall’s and fought with zero visibility as the fire like a freight train came roaring up the mountainside. That summer 6.7 million acres burned including in the Yukon-Charley River Preserve, the worst of any summer since the beginning of record keeping in the 1950s.
Where acres of smoking rubble had been five years earlier, flaming fireweed carpeting the hills as we drove up the Taylor Highway July 9. The fire was a dim memory, but the healing balm stretched for miles.
At Eagle’s waterfront, destroyed from spring’s catastrophic breakup, we met Reb and Steven. They had boated from their camp across the river on a sandbar.
The next morning after breakfast, on the Eagle side, I began organizing my bags for the trip. Reb and Ben boated over to the sandbar to pack up camp. Ben walked to the far end of the sandbar to see where massive ice packs had bulldozed acres of trees. However, as bowman he had forgotten something. As Ben was returning to camp, Steven noticed that the boat was not tied up but was drifting out into the Yukon. He screamed.
Lifejackets and boat rope were in the canoe. The wind caught the boat and began pushing it into the middle of the current. I jumped into the truck to get help. Ben stripped down to his underwear and dove into the river, swimming at top speed. The wind kept pushing the canoe just beyond his reach. Ben swallowed water and began thinking if he should pursue or return to shore when he finally caught the boat.
He hoisted himself over, started the motor and nosed the boat back to shore.
On the bank, international tourists from the Holland-America Yukon Queen were filming and whooping in German, French and Japanese. We packed up and waved to the Reeves as we headed downstream.
Past Calico Bluff, Reb spotted a couple walking on the far shore near a partly-constructed fishwheel. From a distance, Reb figured it was the Halls, the couple whose cabin he’d saved in 2004. We stopped, and with great surprise and joy, they greeted Reb.
Finally, some fish
As we continued, the river swung around an uplifted bluff, a dramatic presentation of the dynamic, textured layers of earth’s ages. A little farther, we pulled up to Seventymile River. Ben grabbed a fishing pole and waded into the confluence of the rivers.
As Reb picked up his pole, Ben hollered that he already had a pike on the line. He followed it with not one but two sheefish. In the slanting golden light, father and son stood abreast in the clear, rippling water catching one pike after another until they had to begin throwing them back.
That evening, we began our camping routine. After unloading the boat, Ben shouldered large dead trees and packed them back to camp for a bonfire. Reb set up my kitchen while I prepped fish to fry. Ben suspended the water filtration system.
Reb took a flat saucer-like tent and threw it into the air like a Slinky. It sprang magically into a combination bath and outhouse. After 41 years of camping, I had comfort and privacy at last.
On our MacKenzie River canoe trip with powerful winds in 2002, every morning I had crawled from a sleeping bag on the ground with an aching back, clawed and stooped my way out through the two-thirds high vestibule, looking for a bush. But now, we had a tent, large enough for three cots, standing room, and two vestibules for gear. That night through the mosquito net door, we saw the full moon rise over the river.
The next day as we passed the Tatonduk River, Reb pointed to the nearby mountains of Canada and explained, “There are Fannin sheep up there,” a relative of the Dall and Stone sheep.
Rain, then hot sun
After pushing out from camp that morning, it began to rain, the nemesis of the 2002 cold, windy MacKenzie trip.
“Put up your big umbrellas,” Reb said. With the press of a button, we had wraparound protection, complete with a stitched in, small plastic window. After the storm, we stopped at the Nation River for tea and cookies. In no time, Reb’s almost instant-boil, camp stove made us tea.
As we continued, Reb was alert for shallow water. When we did hit bottom, wearing hip waders, we got out, pushed, grunted and shoved into deeper water.
Then the sun began bearing down with relentless intensity.
At the Kandik River, Reb and Ben fished. Despite snagging hidden log jams, Ben patiently fished for over an hour in the heat. I eased into the cold water and was scooting downstream when Ben walked over with a 7.5 pound, 30-inch sheefish, shining silvery in the sun.
As we continued downstream, Reb measured the air temperature: 99 degrees in the direct sun. I kept soaking Reb’s bandana, letting it drain down my neck. We nosed into the Charley River, but the slanting rays of the midnight sun were merciless. Sunburned and overheated, I stumbled around, trying to focus on dinner preparation.
Reb asked Ben to pack in some driftwood logs. They made a tripod for a sunshade, and soon, looking like a sail on the sandbar, it offered respite. With my shirt soaked in the river and the new shade, I was OK.
As Ben began fly fishing in the clear Charley River, dragonflies hovered above the water while swallows dipped and dived, catching bugs. Ben loaded two set burbot lines with bacon and then, caught two fat beauties, the connoisseur’s fish. After he cleaned them, I rolled them in pancake flour and fried the succulent delicacies for dinner.
Every evening after dinner and dishes, I made coffee for morning and filled empty soda bottles with river water to refrigerate our few perishables in the cooler.
In the next day’s heat, we came to Slaven’s Roadhouse, built in 1932 by Frank Slaven. It was basic, but functional at two stories with a dormitory, kitchen and living rooms.
During the 1890s, veterans from the California gold rush as well as amateurs had staked claims between Eagle and Circle. After the construction of the Alaska Railroad, mining would industrialize by the 1930s. Dredges like those at Coal Creek behind Slaven’s and downstream, at Woodchopper Creek, complete with water pumps and multiple sluice boxes, could process several thousand cubic yards of gravel a day.
After touring the beautifully preserved roadhouse, I slid into the Yukon to again cool off. On the horizon, a voluminous cumulus cloud with a vaporous wood smoke base indicated the fire near Circle was blowing up.
We left the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve and on the right, passed the 1880s Gwich’in Chief Senate’s “Shahnyaati” grave site on a higher bank.
Reb paid close attention so as not to miss the entrance to the channel to Circle. At the end of the road system in the slanting rays of the midnight sun, Steven Reeves waited for us, ready to drive the long gravel Steese Highway back home.
Judy Ferguson is a publisher and freelance writer from Big Delta. Her most recent book is “Bridges to Statehood, the Alaska Yugoslav Connection.”