Summer 2018 found us planning another Yukon River float. We had floated a section in Canada the previous summer so we opted to float Eagle to Circle – a 150 mile remote section, much of it Yukon Charley National Preserve. Joining us were Bryn Clark, Louis Sass and Aven, who had previously floated this section in August 2015 and also Angela Cioifi, Jeff Barrett and Wallis, friends from Charlottesville, Virginia who had joined us for Meander Canyon on the Colorado River in 2015.
Our party of 6 adults, 3 kids, 2 dogs, 2 rafts, 1 canoe. We drove 1536 miles (Anchorage to Eagle, Eagle to Circle, Circle to Anchorage), flew 150 miles (Circle to Eagle) and floated 150 miles (Eagle to Circle) over a period of 12 days (4 days driving, 8 days on the river). It was a wonderful wilderness trip with complicated logistics through a remote section of Alaska in beautiful July weather.
Last year I wrote up a lengthy piece concerning the changes undergoing the Yukon and the mining that threatens the surrounding areas. Unlike the lands surrounding the Canadian section of the Yukon, the Eagle to Circle float goes mainly though Yukon Charley National Preserve which protects 128 miles of the 1800 mile Yukon River and the entire Charley River Basin. No roads access the preserve, the closest approach by road is the village of Eagle (where we launched) and Circle (where we took out). Likewise much of the lands surrounding the stretch of river are also federally protected (the Charley River to the south is designated Wild and Scenic, and the preserve adjoins the Steese National Conservation Area to the west).
That’s not to say the area is not without controversy – the recent Sturgeon case being the latest controversial ruling affecting this zone. John Sturgeon, a timber executive from Kodiak, brought a suit against the park service when the NPS stopped him from accessing the Charley River via his personal hovercraft. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court (Stugeon v Frost) with the State of Alaska arguing that the federal government had no inherent water rights on the Charley River. In a unanimous decision the Supreme Court ruled that ANICLA stopped away any jurisdiction that the National Park Service had over the waters – and John Sturgeon was free to drive his hovercraft up the river.
At this point the decision leaves several points in limbo (see the recent case of federal fisheries managers withdrawing patrols on the Kuskokwim), and given that wealthy Alaskans already ply virtually every corner of Alaska with helicopters and airplanes, the implications to federally managed wild lands could be vast.
But I digress. For the lone boat floating through Yukon Charley National Preserve, the wilderness is raw and in places where humans have made their mark, the forest is slowly creeping back and reclaiming the mining roads and relics that lay scattered from where the miners one day picked up and left. You are more likely to see peregrine then humans and hear wolves over motorboats.
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We loaded three boats, 9 people and 2 dogs into a van and truck and left Anchorage midday on July 2nd. We made it as far as a campground just outside of Tok on the first day and then pulled into Eagle mid-day on our second day. We unloaded the rafts and then Bryn, Yvonne and Angela immediately set off for the drive to Circle. We spent that day rigging and the kids crashed early after a long bout of travel.
July 4th dawned bright and sunny and the town came alive. A bi-plane buzzed our camp, a community parade wound around town and a community picnic filled the day. The kids devoured candy and popsicles until we finally pulled them screaming to bed. Wallis, new to Alaska and the 24 hours of sunlight, lay in bed screaming as the hot sun beat down on her tent while the bi-plane buzzed circles around us until midnight and locals shot guns well into the early morning. Meanwhile the women had finished the shuttle and spent their 4th of July in Bryn’s van drinking wine well into the night. Not sure who had the better day. The dads didn’t have to drive 12 hours… but the moms didn’t have to wrestle 3 girls wound up on sugar into bed while bi-planes buzzed the tent.
The never ending shuttle wait ended with the charter plane buzzing our tent mid-morning on July 5th. And finally around noon we launched the boats and started drifting downriver.
We spent the first day floating and made it about 25 miles (note – all river miles correspond to the map embedded below) before pulling off to camp on a sandbar adjacent to the smoking Windfall Mountain Fire. Windfall Mountain Fire is an abnormality that has perplexed scientists for over 5 years. Smoke was first noticed in 2012 and it was initially assumed that it was either volcanic activity or a coal seam fire. However subsequent testing did not show the presence of shale oil or volcanic activity and the scientist are still puzzling over the mystery. We camped down river and when the wind shifted in the early morning could smell the acrid air as we packed up camp.
Day two was another leisurely day. When the river is flowing at 5mph and you only have to make 20-25 miles per day there is little pressure to row hard. We took a long lunch break on a sand bar and pulled into camp around mile 50 where the river had changed course and left a series of back sloughs.
After dinner Louis and I portaged the canoe over a channel and paddled around the sloughs. While the main channel of the Yukon is swift and generally windswept, the back sloughs are dead calm. We floated past beaver and when we stopped at a small stream we found fossils and wood frogs. As we paddled back a great horned owl hooted in a tree nearby. It seemed like another world when compared to the 200,000cfs highway that is the Yukon River.
The next day we pushed another 25 miles and camped around mile 74 on a large sandy island just upstream from the Kandik River. It was a hot and sunny day without a lick of wind and the kids spent the day building sand and mud castles. That evening we forced them into the cold waters of the Yukon and attempted to scrub the dirt off their faces as they screamed.
And then 2 days at Slaven’s Roadhouse where we mingled with the caretakers, explored the abandoned dredge and ate fresh pike and Yukon King courtesy of the caretakers, Amanda and Jormah Pope and their family who have a set-net permit to operate the point just downstream from the roadhouse. Amanda Pope is a Gwich’in Alaskan Native whose family has been fishing the Yukon for generations and she and her husband have chosen to raise her two young children in the wilderness. Their eldest son was a wealth of knowledge who escorted us on tours and schooled me on how to properly catch pike and trap a marten. Her youngest daughter played in the cold waters of Yukon with Aven and Isabelle until late into the afternoon. Watching our kids interact with them was a highlight of the trip.
One night Jormah me out in his boat to fish back sloughs downriver. We floated through the dark still waters in the evening light and the reflection was so perfect I couldn’t tell up from down and sat mesmerized as we drifted past beaver and waterfowl and fished late into the night.
Digression: A review of To the Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey.
I brought along Ivey’s book because I wanted Alaskana fiction but also because I like to read water-themed books while on river trips. This book tells the story of a fictitious expedition up the Wolverine River and over a high mountain pass and then a descent down to the Yukon. The location is clearly modeled after the Copper River and several of of the locations within the book are modeled after zones I have traveled to – including the high mountain passes the protagonist traverses in order to complete the journey.
The story revolves around Colonel Allen Forrester who is charged to navigate the Wolverine River with a small group of men. Up until Forrester’s expedition all attempts to navigate the Wolverine have ended in tragedy and Forrester undertakes the expedition with trepidation given he has just married a young woman named Sofia and learns she is pregnant just before his departure. The story unfolds in a nonlinear narrative that jumps between journal entires from the expedition, letters to and from Sofia and a modern day correspondence between a distant relative of Forrester and an Alaskan historian. The disjointed narrative threatens to derail the reader, but Ivey manages to weave the story together in a way that works and never leaves the reader lost or confused.
It begins as a simple expedition journal with entries passed back and forth between the characters as Forrester slowly begins his journey up river. As the expedition moves deeper into the wilderness the story morphs towards the bizarre as the author begins to weave in bits of fantastical Native mythology. There is a medicine man who transforms and follows the party as a raven, a swan who transforms into a young woman, a child birthed from the roots of a spruce tree and a sea-monster in an alpine lake. These tales all evolve as the protagonist drifts through starvation and scurvy-induced delusions and the reader is left questioning whether Ivey wants to portray Native mythology as an element of realism in pre-Colonial life, or defining these events as a hallucination induced by ritual, starvation or sickness (think Dan Simmons portrayal of Captain Crozier as he descends into madness while hunted by the mythical beast in The Terror).
The fantastical elements build as the characters move deeper into the mountains and then slowly are stripped away as they crest the mountains and descend towards the Yukon, which at the time is a bustling highway of riverboats and miners traveling to and from Nome and Dawson. These terrors are in turn replaced by modern terrors; murder, sickness and depression.
I read the book at night around a campfire and spent the days thinking about the book while rowing downriver. Themes that I would have probably glazed over while reading at home circulated with the waters as I pulled at the oars. Few books draw me in as this book did and I welcomed the questions that arose with each reading. I finished the book as we left behind the deepest part of the park and drifted back into civilization, mirroring the protagonist as he descends from the mountains and embarks on a steamship down the Yukon.
A wonderful book that Alaskans should consider on their next wilderness outing. You could read it at home, and find it immensely enjoyable, but it won’t be the same.
Slaven’s was a wonderful respite, but the bugs were horrendous and we were happy to leave and be back on the river where bugs weren’t an issue. We spent a night at Mile 113 at a beautiful sandy camp across from steep bluffs and a final night at mile 135 on a large beach with great exploring on a 2 1/2 mile long abandoned meander criss-crossed with moose and wolf tracks.
Our final day was our only rainy day. We woke up in a cold drizzle, packed up and drifted the remaining 17 miles into Circle. We left the park boundary at mile 138 and immediately the fish camps started appearing. Floating past the remaining miles past slow turning fish wheels and set nets and then the sun burning through the clouds and drifting into Circle on a hot afternoon with tired and hungry kids and dirty dogs and a yearning to push away from shore and just keep floating down the river for miles and days and weeks.
The greatest obstacle to this float are the complicated logistics. If you are an able bodied adult and have either the confidence (or ability) to handle a canoe then the trip can be easily planned via a single outfitter and scheduled air service. First rent a boat from Eagle Canoe Rentals ($385 / 8 days / eaglecanoerentals.com) and get to Fairbanks and fly Everts Air from Fairbanks to Eagle (9am Monday – Friday). Take your time floating the river and get to Circle in time to catch your flight back to Fairbanks via Warbelow’s Air (12:20pm Monday – Friday). This entire trip will cost you around $800 (not including food).
That said… if you have a raft (or a dog or kids) the logistics get more complicated. You could conceivably drive to Circle and charter a flight with 40-Mile Air from Circle to Eagle ($1200 for a Cessna) – however you will be strapped for weight if you’re carrying a raft and passengers. All which leaves you with maddening logistics for Anchorage boaters… mainly 486 miles / 10 hours of driving from Anchorage to Eagle, followed by a shuttle drive of 524 miles / 12 hours of driving from Eagle to Circle. Then a $1200 charter from Circle to Eagle (if you have extra time you could fly commercial from Circle to Fairbanks to Eagle but this eats two entire days). Next enjoy the 150 mile float. And finally, drive 512 miles / 10 hours from Circle to Anchorage. In short… 4 days of driving to and from, 2 days for a shuttle run (for a grand total of 1500+ miles of driving!) and 8 days of floating. A note: whoever is left is Eagle will be spending 2 1/2 days sitting around waiting for the shuttle. Since Eagle isn’t necessarily a happening place I would advise you to schedule the float trip around July 4th – which means you get to spend a day celebrating with the town at the parade, dessert auction and community picnic.
When you finally get on the river you will find a swift (5-8 mph) current and the water will be rushing past you at 200,0000 cfs. This means you could easily row hard and do the entire 160 miles in 3 days, however a better plan is to relax and turn the journey into a week+ long trip where you average 20 miles per day. The camping is on huge beaches, the back sloughs hold hungry pike and the abandoned dredge at Slaven’s Roadhouse all beckon you to slow down and savor the journey.
As for gear I stand by my raft recommendation. Most travelers will opt for a canoe since it is cheaper and faster, however if you’re carrying kids or dogs nothing compares to the ease and comfort of a raft. Parents routinely float this section in canoes with their children, however kids quickly grow weary of sitting in a boat with only their parents. Put then in a raft with other kids, toys and food and the days flow by quickly.
This year I opted to build side-rails for my raft to make gear tie down and loading / unloading easier. Louis likes to joke that my raft becomes more like an RV every year, but the side rails made for easy gear stowage on the mellow river. I used the left over marine plywood from my table project, routed both top and bottom the edges with a 3/4 bit and dilled multiple holes for tie down points. I mounted 3.5 gallon Waterbrick water cans on either side of the captain’s chair, and in the front lashed my camera dry box on one side and a cheap day cooler full of snacks on the other. The dog was placed in the back of the raft on a cheap vinyl dog bed lashed on top of all the dry bags and the passengers / kids on the front seat/table which has a small paco-like pad (“Tush-Cush” made by Cascade River Gear) for a cushion.
Another recommendation is to either have a canoe or pack-rafts within your party. Carrying either will allow you to ferry to back sloughs from multiple camps where you can fish and have a better chance of spotting wildlife. Spend some time on Google Earth checking out potential sloughs or abandoned meanders and try to camp near them.
And finally… carry some sort of sand stake for tying off your boats. We carried two snow pickets and at a couple of camps they were the only things we could tie off to.
There is limited hiking on this section due to the heavy brush and marsh. You can hike several miles up Coal Creek from Slaven’s Roadhouse which will take you past the gold dredge (a must visit) to the old camp where there is a ranger on duty who will give you a tour. Otherwise your hiking is limited to exploring back sloughs and dried river bars. Be warned – the second you step away from the river you will be swarmed by thousands of hungry mosquitoes. Bring head-nets and bug spray.
For fishing bring a medium weight spin cast rod, a handful of vibrax spinners and several loud and obnoxious Rapala Pike lures. Fish the river outlets and the back sloughs and you should catch a handful of pike big enough for dinner (watch “How to Fillet a Pike” to learn how to remove the y bones).
My other gear recommendation is a nice rafting cook tent. Last year I splurged and purchased the LL Bean Woodlands Screen House and vestibule. The tent weighs a ton (25 lbs) which means it’s only good for rafting, but it covers a full 10’x10’ area, is 6’6” inside and the full length vestibule makes it completely dry. It also has beefy poles and a decent stake system for moderate winds. We set it up every day out of fear that the bugs would be too bad, and only had to use it for bugs and rain a couple times. That said… if you float the Yukon and a low pressure system moves in you will want a big dry area or else your kids could quickly transform into uncomfortable terrors.
I’ve embedded the river miles map below. You can download the KML directly from Google Maps (click the options bar in the legend). I included river miles, potential fishing waypoints and key landmarks. I did not include camps since this section has huge river bar camps for the entire portion. Note that you want to spend you last night within the park (the gravel bar at mile 133 is an excellent spot with a nice back slough you can explore) since once you leave the park you will find yourself floating past several fish camps and private land. Likewise pick up a copy of Mike Rourke’s Yukon River (Dawson to Circle) guidebook. While the river maps are crudely drawn, the mile by mile historical notes are great to read. This book also marks the multiple public cabins that are open to the public within the park.