Three-Thousand Rivers

Alaskans rely upon rivers for travel and sustenance the way people of the Lower 48 depend upon highways.

By Ken Marsh

I don’t remember our destination that muggy July day on the Yukon River – likely some abandoned mining camp or ghost town – but I do recall spotting the swimming wolf along the way. We were upstream of Eagle, several of us in a riverboat piloted by a family friend who collected Gold Rush relics, when I spotted the animal dogpaddling mid-channel. I was 12 or 13 years old then and pleased enough to be in a boat on that wide, historic stretch of water. The swimming wolf was an added delight. So I shouted and pointed and our skipper, formerly a fighter pilot in the Korean War and Vietnam, grinned gamely and swung the boat around.

Muddy with sediments and a quarter-mile wide at that early point in its 2,300-mile-long journey, the Yukon downstream of its junction with the heavily glacial White River is nearly impossible to swim. For starters, the river here is coldblooded, reputed to chill, cramp and paralyze its victims. Even more insidious, locals used to say, are the glacial silts; word was the flour-fine grains of rock collect quickly in the clothes of those who capsize or fall out of boats, dragging down even the strongest swimmers.

At that time, the early 1970s, one Dawson City man – I believe it was local sternwheeler captain Dick Stevenson, though I can’t be sure – was rumored to have successfully swum the Yukon, bank-to-bank, on a dare. Legend had it he’d foiled the river by downing a few shots of hard liquor to guard against the cold, and that he beat the silt by stripping to his undershorts. Whether or not the tale is true I cannot say; more than 40 years have flowed by since I last heard the story and time’s currents have a way of eroding memories. 

In any case, the power of water moving at 227,000 cubic feet per second cannot be overstated. And neither can the determination of the swimming wolf we encountered that day long ago. 

“Want to pet him?” our skipper friend asked as he eased us close off the animal’s side.

I balked, processing in my mind the snapshot I carry with me to this day of that canine head, dry and smoky-white, followed by a soggy mane, the wolf’s back and plume of a white tail submerged and trailing in its wake. Now a few yards off the starboard gunnel, the wolf ignored us as it worked against the roiling current, its yellow eyes never leaving the far shore.

“Here,” the friend said, “use this.”

He handed me a canoe paddle, kept for emergencies in the bottom of the boat. I understood why he thought an Alaska boy should seize the opportunity – for the novelty of it. After all, what could be more “sourdough” than petting a wolf as it swims the Yukon? By then the others in the boat had joined in, encouraging me to punctuate our encounter with a harmless touch. 

For an instant I considered how I might, in the spirit of counting coup, reach out with the paddle and lightly stroke the wolf between its ears. Intent on its fight against the Yukon, the animal probably wouldn’t flinch, even as everyone in the boat cheered. Imagine the glory!

In the end, though, temptation lost out to compassion. The wolf and the river weren’t playing, even a boy could see that. Further distractions were unwarranted. To my onlookers’ collective disappointment, I shrugged and set down the paddle.

The boat then turned and we motored away, leaving the wolf alone with the current. Now whenever I reflect upon the prominence and power of Alaska’s rivers, I picture the events of that day – wolf versus river, two natural forces engaged in a contest of strength and will. I like to think the struggle ended in a draw, that the wolf unfazed by silt and cold survived the crossing, though not before being swept far downstream. 

Perhaps. 

Beyond that, a question whispers over the eddies of time: Why might a wolf dare swim the mighty Yukon, anyway? The answer, of course, is simple and very old: To reach the other side. 

***

The Maclaren River, which crosses the Denali Highway, is one of 3,000 rivers that flow through Alaska.

The Yukon is Granddame of Alaska’s rivers, the North’s own long, broad, brown Mississippi. Rich in Native history, passageway for early Russian fur traders and Gold Rush stampeders, she flows 400 miles through Canada before transecting 1,875 miles of Alaska, draining along the way 330,000 square miles of raw, virtually trackless country. Still, she is but one river among many. Some 3,000 others flow across Alaska, fed by untold thousands of lesser streams, brooks and rills. Indeed, this wilderness state is in large part defined (along with its mountain ranges and ice fields) by its rivers. 

Like rivers everywhere, ours in Alaska are metronomes, conductors of water, measurers of time. Too, they are conveyors, offering passage to destinations near and far. In that respect, and considering that our fewer than 6,000 miles of certified public roads and highways hardly probe this 570,374-square-mile state’s edges, rivers here are especially important.  Even if you were to include the 9,000 miles of lesser city streets, alleys and frontage roads overseen by towns, villages and municipalities and stretch them out across the hinterlands, Alaska’s river networks would offer far greater span. For this reason, our dependence on rivers for instate travel is critical, particularly for rural residents whose road systems are at best localized and short.

To greater or lesser extents, Alaskans depend upon rivers to lead us to our homes, livelihoods, recreation, and food sources as surely as citizens of Seattle, Los Angeles, Memphis or Pittsburg rely upon freeways to access the same things. River travel occurs here year-round, except for the brief periods of freeze-up in fall and breakup in spring, when ice forming or thawing makes for treacherous going. In summer we use riverboats, rafts, canoes, kayaks – even tugboats towing barges – to navigate the Kuskokwim, Copper, Tanana, Chena, Kobuk, Koyukuk, Wood, and hundreds of others. In winter these rivers and others like the Susitna, Gulkana, Sagavanirktok, and Yukon freeze and are transformed into highways for snowmobiles, dogsleds, ATVs, and even cars and trucks. The famous 1,100-mile-long Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race and the Iron Dog snowmobile race, each retracing historic travel routes, follow hundreds of miles of frozen river channels.

This coziness with rivers is to be expected in a frontier state where many still rely on game and fish as dietary staples, where log cabins hewn from local spruces remain unremarkably common, and where the presence of wilderness looms large on the edge of every port, city and mind. 

Rafters float the Gulkana River north of Glennallen.

***

Of course, there are two sides to every river. And even as rivers here serve much of the time as highways for men and machines, occasionally they are nothing less than formidable barriers. Yukon-swimming wolves would agree, I’m sure, as would the engineers and grunts who tackled the Copper River in 1908. Back then prospectors had discovered enormous copper deposits in the Wrangell Mountains. Unfortunately for them, the Copper River blocked the only practical transport route between the mining community of Kennecott and the Prince William Sound port town of Cordova. The only solution was to build a bridge. 

Imagine in those elbow grease and horse-and-buggy days bridging a swift, swirling glacial monster a third of a mile wide, its channel an expressway for icebergs calved from glaciers upriver. Figure too that the Copper is hardly stable, its water levels fluctuating as much as 24 feet between July and April. All told, you’d need a bridge that would stand well above the high-water mark with enough clearance to allow icebergs rising 20 feet above the water to pass safely underneath. You’d be looking at placing four steel spans, each weighing roughly 4 million pounds and – here’s the incredible part – every last ounce would have to be transported at least 20 miles upriver on barges and canoes towed on ropes gripped by men scrambling through alder tangles and over boulders ranging in size from bowling balls to motor homes.

The job seemed impossible. In fact, it still seems impossible, except that through a mix of genius and sheer cussedness the engineers and scores of laborers pulled it off. The Million Dollar Bridge, as it was named for its construction cost, was completed in 1910. And so the big, fast Copper River, that roiling glacier-fed giant, was tamed. That is, at least, for a while. Gravity got the last laugh 54 years later when the 1964 Good Friday earthquake savagely shook Southcentral Alaska, collapsing the bridge’s fourth span. The broken structure now stands as the terminus of Cordova’s abbreviated Copper River Highway.

***

A riverboat is tied up on the Koyukuk River near Ella’s Cabin.

So rivers surge and ebb, flood and dry up. They busy themselves cutting new channels and, sometimes, they forget things such as old bends left behind to stagnate as oxbow lakes. As often as not though, rivers are revealers. One September, while traveling in a riverboat up the Koyukuk River, Charlie Green of Galena pointed out some sandbars where that Interior Alaska river frequently exposes the carcasses of woolly mammoths.

“I like to take my kids there sometimes and look for bones,” Charlie said of one sandbar.

In that sense, Alaska’s rivers have a way of revealing ancient truths. Many here cut through the permafrost-encased graveyards of ice-age elephants, bison, and saber-toothed tigers, reminding us there’s more to this place than normally meets the eye. Along the way, tiny bits of mammoth matter – bone and even hair – are picked up and carried in the current. Think about that the next time you have a glass of Interior Alaska river water.

At the same time, Alaska’s rivers are loaded with present-day life. Our state is famous for its fish, particularly salmon, grayling, trout and char. Fish feed us here. Indeed, our salmon fisheries help nourish the world. We catch our salmon in commercial nets in the Yukon, for subsistence by fish wheel and personal-use dip net in the Copper, and for sport by rod and reel just about everywhere. 

Many years ago, I spent an early autumn week with friends rafting a river northwest of Dillingham. Our trip began at the river’s headwaters lake high in the mountains. At the foot of the lake, where the river spilled out, the channel was a vermillion ribbon of spawning sockeyes – “red” salmon – mixed with a few humpbacked pinks and the odd coho.

We caught and released a few salmon and trout, then hopped aboard the raft to ride the river and witness a weeklong progression of water, fish, wild country and life. The river wandered modestly at first, gathering as it flowed a fullness that was sleek and direct. I watched the land pass by as the current hustled us along and was reminded of my mortality as the river measured my minutes, hours and days passing on the planet. 

Late one evening, with the rest of camp gone to bed after a long day of rafting and fishing, I was left alone with the river. The current’s volume seemed to increase as daylight faded and, cued by fresh snow topping the hills nearby, flights of southbound ducks could be heard passing low overhead on whistling wings. 

From a gravel bar near the river’s center I found an eddy so full of bright coho salmon that every cast drew a strike. All I had to do was drop a streamer fly into the eddy’s head, let it drift into the sweet spot, and — POW! — a salmon would wallop it. From there the coho would tear downriver, leaping and dancing in the darkness. You couldn’t see them, but you could hear them splashing and feel their heaviness and insane energy telegraphed through the line. 

My feeling of joy, of happiness to be alive at that instant, was intense. I had the river to thank for that. And that was not the first time, or the last, that I’ve felt that way on a float trip. Alaska’s rivers can do that – deliver us, provide enrichment for our starving souls. You need only hop aboard and let the current take you along. Some journeys are longer than others, yet when you reach the end it’s always the same: You look back and realize that life is a river, and the river is always too short.

###

All I had to do was drop a streamer fly into the eddy’s head, let it drift into the sweet spot, and — POW! — a salmon would wallop it.

Published by kenwildcountry

Writer, photographer, and editor specializing in Alaska's outdoors.

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