A new feature has sprouted in the front parking lot at Yukon River Camp this summer: a curved triple row of flowering zucchini plants. The rugged climate on the banks of the Yukon River, 135 road miles north of Fairbanks, kept the warmth-loving vegetables smaller than those in the average Fairbanks garden, but they were still flowering and producing in late July.

The little garden is the most obvious sign of a recent effort by some of the camp’s employees to move toward a sustainable waste system to decrease the camp’s impact on its surroundings. Manager Abby Clarke and her co-worker, Don Carroll, are leading the effort and hoping to create an example for the other remote camps along the Elliott and Dalton highways that struggle with waste, Clarke said.

Camps at the Yukon River, Coldfoot, Prudhoe Bay, as well as the Northern Alaska Tour Co. and related operations, are all under a Fairbanks-based umbrella corporation, Sukakpak Inc., that was started as a small Arctic Circle tour operation in 1987.

The zucchini are the brainchild of one the owners, Brett Carlson, who works side by side with the dozen or so employees. Carlson uses the zucchini in his signature chocolate peppermint cake, which is served to travelers visiting the Arctic Circle with the Northern Alaska Tour Co. The camp also features homemade veggie burgers, made with zucchini and barley from Delta Junction, as well as their own soups, potato buns and other dishes.

“It’s a really eclectic group of people who work up here,” Clarke said. “For the sustainability project, NATC really gives us the space to be imaginative.”

Yukon River Camp is on the north bank of the Yukon River at Mile 56 Dalton Highway, the site of the only bridge over the Yukon in Alaska. The trans-Alaska oil pipeline snakes up the hill across the highway. The camp offers food, gas and lodging and is a popular stop for Chinese tourists who travel to Alaska to view the aurora in the winter. Several hundred people may stop on any given day in the winter, Clarke said. Summer is a bit slower, but not by much, she said. 

Feeding and housing so many people requires a huge amount of food and materials, and their associated packaging materials.

Carroll, 29, who works as a professional cook in Delta Junction when he’s not at the Yukon River, has been thinking about sustainability since he first started working there in 2016. 

“We burned everything,” he said. “It didn’t really matter what it was, you threw it on the fire. I thought we could do something better.”

Their effort is based on maintaining as closed of a system as possible by composting, sustainable sourcing and reusing local resources. Carroll said it’s based on four pillars: food management, recycling, responsible sourcing and education.

Carroll’s first job was to find out where to start. He created a spreadsheet that lists everything the camp imports, what kind of packaging it’s in and how or if it can be recycled, and whether there are alternatives, such as wool dryer balls instead of dryer sheets. In 2018, the camp started recycling and 80% to 90% of its waste is now recycled.

“Right now, we have a solution for most things,” he said.

Cans are washed and crushed, the labels removed. Different kinds of plastic are sorted into different bins. Metals are sorted into piles. Red plastic Folgers coffee containers are not recyclable and are used to store smaller items such as batteries and lids. Four years worth of glass is stored in a building behind the camp. Carroll and Clarke hope to raise enough money to buy a glass crusher so they can use the ground glass to fill potholes or other projects. They started a GoFundMe, bit.ly/2MzXU9T, and hope to raise $2,000 for the crusher.

For food waste, they have built custom compost bins out of materials they found on-site. In late July, the first bin had been full for two weeks and a cloud of steam escaped when Clarke raised the lid. The contents were percolating at about 140 degrees. Clarke, 27, whose background is in organic farming via Massachusetts, is also excited about an emulsion she’s concocted from fish scraps to use as fertilizer.

“I have so many projects in five-gallon buckets,” she said.

The biggest problem is single-use plastics, Carroll said. They no longer use straws, stir sticks or single-serve creamers and try to use paper rather than plastic bags. Ceramic coffee mugs, metal spoons and a container of half and half are placed near the coffee pot. Clarke has heard only one complaint.

“If you make these small changes, most people don’t even notice,” she said. 

“It’s the small, little changes that are making a difference,” Carroll added.

Contact staff writer Julie Stricker at 459-7532.