Copyright © 1997 The Seattle Times Company
Sunday, July 13, 1997

The mighty Yukon, a river of gold

by Ross Anderson
Seattle Times staff reporter

ON THE YUKON RIVER - My boat drifts effortlessly on the strong, silent current of the river, easing into a long, sweeping bend to the east, then another to the west, then back again.

It is a slow but powerful rhythm, shaped by eons of natural forces.

I am supposed to paddle to quicken our journey downstream. But even the stroke of a paddle blade seems an irreverent interruption of a profound act of nature.

For Mont Hawthorne and thousands more Klondike stampeders of another century, the Yukon River was transportation, a means to an end, a one-way ticket to the City of Gold.

"Seemed like the Yukon knowed I was in a hurry to get down to the Klondike," Mont recalled years after his adventure. "She just kept going right along, cutting away at them high, sandy banks . . ."

Today, the river is the roundabout route from Whitehorse to Dawson. It takes most travelers 10 days or more to make their way across this northern landscape on the river, while the Klondike Highway will get them there in half a day.

So the road is how most folks get from here to there these days.

Yet, the Yukon flows on, alive and well. It has a voice, a pulse and a soul.

As fellow kayaker Glen Sims and I drift along, it speaks with murmuring whirlpools and burps unexpected upwellings.

Invisible grains of silt, washed off distant mountains by a heavy spring runoff, hiss past the hull of my boat. Here and there, a submerged rock or fallen tree creates a mini-rapid that warns river runners that the Yukon is untamed, something to be reckoned with.

The great river begins modestly, draining vast mountain lakes just 30 miles from the Pacific Ocean. But the glacier-topped peaks of the St. Elias Range direct those waters northward, away from the ocean.

Just north of Whitehorse, the river is transformed into another spectacular lake before gathering itself one last time for its long journey to the Bering Sea.

Along the way, it collects the waters of lesser rivers: the Takhini and Teslin, the Big Salmon and Little Salmon, and others.

At Whitehorse, the average flow is 433 cubic meters per second. By the time it reaches Dawson City, 450 miles downstream, it is carrying nearly 10 times that volume. When it reaches the ocean, it will have doubled itself twice more, to 16,000 cubic meters per second - three Niagara Falls.

Eventually, it will drain much of the northwest corner of the continent - most of the Yukon Territory and the Alaska interior.

Depending on where one begins to measure, it is roughly 2,000 miles long, the fourth-longest in North America. It is home to the world's longest salmon runs.

The silt that hisses past my boat is a constant reminder that the river has a job to do: whittle away at mountains and move them somewhere else. Scientists estimate that just one day's sediment during the spring runoff would amount to 300 tons - 24 truckloads.

Prospectors will tell you that mixed in that gray silt is a fortune in gold: tiny dust-like particles that have gradually sifted down from the Klondike and Stewart and a hundred more rivers and creeks.

For more than a century, men have tried to invent ways to extract those riches. The river is littered with the relics of their mostly futile efforts.

Long before Europeans arrived, natives traveled up and down the Yukon, living on, and fishing from, its banks.

For decades, white men came looking for gold. There were minor discoveries here and there, but the Klondike discovery in 1896 brought hordes of invaders - including my friend Mont - and changed this place forever.

Within a few years, the rush was over. Prospectors continued to come and go, but the Klondike was taken over by industrial mining.

For 50 years, the Yukon remained the region's highway, served by a fleet of shallow-draft stern-wheelers that sustained towns, wood-cutting yards and native villages.

Then, in the 1950s, a road was punched through the wilderness to Dawson. The riverboats became white elephants, beached for good. The wood camps closed down. The natives moved to town.

Today, abandoned villages at places like Upper Laberge, Hootalinqua and Big Salmon are left for mosquitoes and to rot.

We stop here and there, beach our boats and explore, peering through the cracked glass of "spirit houses," burial sites that blend the trappings of native theology and Christian missionaries.

We visit collapsed log cabins where Mounties once tracked river traffic and explore a makeshift dredge that dug $2,000 in gold from the river bottom in 21 days, but still never paid for itself.

And the river flows on, hissing and gurgling and murmuring, oblivious to the restored silence around it.

We float northward, paddling for a while, then stopping to listen to the silence, to look across a seemingly endless boreal forest of dark-green spruce and pine on the mountain slopes, aspen and birch in the damper valleys.

The banks, left and right, are festooned with summer color - miniature dogwood, blueberry, kinnikinnick, lupine and wild rose.

Farther downriver, recent lightning fires have charred the hills for miles. But the blackened landscape is lit by dazzling fields of purple fireweed, the first stage in nature's comeback.

Gulls and terns swoop over the river. Ravens squawk their cranky complaints. Eagles perch atop stunted spruce trees, waiting for a trout or grayling to venture too close to the surface.

There is a sameness to the landscape.

Much of this region was missed by the glaciers - too dry and too cold. So the hills and horizon are softer, less dramatic than the coastal side of the mountains. There are few jagged edges, just gentle curves.

But that sameness gives a grandeur to the wilderness. Each sweeping bend offers a subtle change of perspective, a shift in light, a reminder that the river does not know, or care, what people are doing in Ottawa or Washington, D.C., on Wall Street or at Microsoft.

At the end of the day, we begin looking for a campsite, a grassy sandbar exposed to the breeze to minimize the bugs. We watch the day turn to sub-arctic twilight, where you can still read a book at midnight.

We talk about gold, about fortunes made and lost, about Dawson City and Bonanza Creek. But mostly we talk about the grand river that is taking us there.

In the morning, we launch again, resuming a rhythm defined by the river. Yes, the Yukon is transportation, but it is also our guide and, in a very real sense, our destination. The means becomes the end.

There is still gold drifting with the silt in the Yukon River.

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Copyright © 1997 The Seattle Times Company