Journal of Dan T. Cook - Fly Fishing the Globe
Traveling 75,000 miles around the world in search of fish and friendship.
July 3-12, 2006 --- Tanana to St. Mary’s
((( Photos at bottom! )))
July 3, 2006
N64 57 16.4
Today’s agenda was pretty straight-forward; row 10 miles to the mouth of the Tozitna River and fish for whatever lurks there. I left Tanana under typical Alaska weather, overcast with a bit of wind and clouds that appeared ready to drop sheets of rain. I arrived at the Tozitna (the “Tozi” to locals) and it looked like perfect pike territory. The mouth of the river was inundated with Yukon River water, so I rowed up a mile and tried my luck with the salmon/pike fly that proved successful earlier. Nothing. I was a bit surprised. Another mile up and again nothing. Then I noticed something that I hadn’t experienced in a few days—complete calm. Not spiritually, but in the weather. There was no wind! It was already 3pm, but I made the decision to forego more fishing in order to get back on the river and make some miles while the weather was good. I rowed until 2 in the morning before calling it quits for the day.
July 4, 2006
I had the pleasant surprise of spending the 4th of July in Ruby, Alaska. After arriving and securing the boat in the line-up on the riverbank in front of town, I wandered up to the main street. In front of general store was a crowd of spectators watching the “egg roll” competition. The “girls 4-6 year old” category pushed the uncooked eggs 10 feet down the dirt street with their noses. At the conclusion of the race, each child would get up, dust off their hands, knees and nose and accept their prize. This continued on till each age group of each gender had declared a winner. It was a true piece of Americana, and I found it in the literal “middle of nowhere.”
Later, at the recommendation of Chris Brier, I tracked down Wolf Hebel. Wolf immigrated to Alaska over 40 years ago. His stories and pictures is a treasure trove of what Alaska used to be. In his pictures, the villages that have been long-abandoned were bustling centers of trade and life. His stories were equally fascinating; living in a 15’ x 10’ cabin for two years, the dangers of chopping wood at -60 degrees (the axe head tends to shatter), being chased by bears and giving chase to bears. Wolf’s autobiography will be published in Germany in the Fall with a English-version to follow shortly after. I would highly recommend it to anyone who is intrigued by this part of the world.
July 5, 2006
The title of this entry should be “The Fleecing and the Shower.” I arrived in Galena (one of the larger “towns” on the Yukon) under pleasant conditions. The sky was clear and the sun was warm. I walked up from the riverbank and inquired about a shower. Turns out the “washetaria” was located in “New Galena,” about 2 miles down the road from “Old Galena.” A well-dressed fella named Randy overheard my inquiry and said he could give me a ride if we stopped at the liquor store first. “No problem, I need to pick up some beer anyway.” As I’m at the counter paying for my Rainier, it becomes obvious that Randy required me to purchase some Seagram’s 7 for him. Immediately recognizing the “booze-in-exchange-for-a-ride” arrangement, I bought a small bottle for him. After dropping the beer off at the boat (Randy commented on how “interesting” it was while I stashed the beer in the front passenger area) we were off to the shower facility. It was then that he informed me that I would have to pay him for the ride. “I thought that’s what the Seagrams was for,” I responded. “You only got me the small bottle” he said. “Oh” was all I could come up with.
In an effort to outsmart the notoriously short shower that the $2.00 would get me, I prepared the 8 quarters in the slots of the payment box, stripped, stepped into the shower and proceeded to lather myself up with the liquid soap. After satisfactorily turning myself into one big soapsud, I reached out and slammed the quarter slide into the box. Nothing. I turned the faucet off and then back on. Still no water. Giving the box a few good hits, I began to accept my predicament. This was serious. I wasn’t just slightly lathered up. I was saturated with Equate ultra-moisturizing body wash from head-to-toe! The stuff has the consistency of motor oil. There was nothing to do but dash out to one of the sinks and attempt to rinse off before anyone walked in. My apologizes to the janitor of that facility, but I needed A LOT of water and FAST. Luckily, no one walked in while I was frantically rinsing with handful after handful from the sink!
Randy was kind enough to wait for me to shower. He drove me back to my boat and demanded $20 for payment. When I said “Okay, so $20 minus the $9 bottle of Seagrams….so I owe you $11 bucks.” He responded by yelling “TWENTY DOLLARS!!!!” “Okay Randy.” Later, while I was at the only bar on the lower Yukon River (Archie’s), Randy crawled into my boat and stole my beer. That was LOW. To take $29 for a 4 mile cab ride is one thing. But to steal my BEER? My friend Brett Markowski would have tracked him down and removed his spleen for such an offense. I just went to bed and rowed out of Galena at 9am.
July 6, 2006
Near Nulato, Alaska
It was a pretty easy row to Nulato, the next destination for fishing. I stopped in town to use a phone. There are no public phones in the villages along the river, I usually have to depend on the kindness of the residents. But Nulato looked like a town on life support. All the structures had a tilt, ½ of them were abandoned. I walked around for a while trying to find someone to talk to. I saw people in their yards rounding up children, but they quickly retreated into their homes when I started walking in their direction. I decided to skip the human interaction. I rowed down to the outlet of the Nulato River. Unlike almost all of the other rivers, the Nulato poured out into the Yukon and made a small ribbon of clarity along the right side for a mile or so downstream. I had been told I could catch “She-fish” here (I’m not even sure that’s how it is spelled). I hadn’t even heard of “She-fish” until Jim-Bob had told me about them. Apparently they are the “tarpon of the North” in both appearance and ferocity. Anyway, I decided to rig up a double fly using pink and black salmon flies. This would give me a better chance to hook into their wide mouths when they hit. It took only about 5 minutes to catch my first Chum salmon. As soon as it hit, I anxiously played it to the boat hoping to get my first glimpse of a She-fish. I was pleasantly surprised to see the signature color configuration of the salmon. In keeping with the unexpected nature of this trip, I caught a Chum with a pattern I set-up for She-fish. It only makes sense: I rig for She-fish, I catch salmon. I rig for salmon, I catch pike. Anyway, I fished for a couple of hours and caught a few really nice ones. It was gratifying to be successful, even though I really didn’t have a clue what was in the water.
July 7, 2006
N63 41 19.4
I was re-invigorated by the fishing at the Nulato. This river trip IS a fishing trip, but there is certainly a lot of river between fishing opportunities. Today was one of those days to get as many miles behind me as possible. Conditions were near perfect and the current moved me along at a good clip. Never-the-less, spending 14+ hours rowing constantly is pretty exhausting. I think I’ve lost 10-12 pounds so far. I guess a nice by-product of rowing is that I’m getting in decent shape.
July 8, 2006
N63 06 4.2
Today was a frustrating day on the river. It started off nice and calm, but that quickly turned into wind and waves. I’m not sure of the probabilities of it, but of all the hours on the river thus far I’ve only had a tailwind for about 30 minutes. It has been all HEADWIND! I’ve had a headwind when I’m rowing North. I’ve had a headwind when I’m rowing West. I’ve had a headwind in every direction. I think I may name my kid “Edwin” and secretly call him “headwind.” It’s been that ridiculous. I guess it is STILL better than sitting in an office though. Anyway, I started out at 8:45am and had to get off the river at 1:30 due to the difficulty in making forward progress. I took a nap for a while. Some fellow river travelers stopped to make camp where I was anchored. We chatted and shared a fire for a bit. I got back on the river at 6pm but conditions continued to be difficult. I was able to squeeze out 20 more miles before I threw in the towel and called it a day.
July 9, 2006
N62 05 29
I was determined to make up for yesterday’s stunted progress. Things were great till around 6pm when the winds began to stir. I decided to stop at Holy Cross. It represented a good day of 76 miles. I also wanted to see it now and compare to the pictures that Wolf Hebel had of it from back in the 1970’s. I rowed into the slough where the town was located and came upon section where 10-12 boats were tied up on the riverbank. I continued on till I could see the town come into view. The problem is… that never happened. It didn’t occur to me that the town wasn’t ON the river till I was about 100 yards past the boats. That’s one of the drawbacks of traveling by rowboat. Usually, once you are downriver from something (unless currents and winds allow and one is willing to expend a GREAT deal of energy), there is no going back. I guess I should have realized that it only makes sense for town residents to park their boats as close to town as possible. It never occurred to me that people would build a town on the river without actually being ON THE RIVER. I know I’d prefer to have a house overlooking something other than the mosquito infested woods. I continued on for another 7 miles before anchoring. About 180 miles left to St. Mary’s.
July 10, 2006
Russian Mission, Alaska
The village of Russian Mission came along at exactly the same time as the winds. Although I would have preferred to get in another 20 miles or so, I decided I’d settle for the interpersonal contact that I inadvertently missed in Holy Cross. The interesting thing about the maps I’m using is they don’t have much ability to communicate the size of towns. For instance, the towns of Grayling, Paradise and Anvik are each represented by the same size symbol and the same size font. However, from what I could tell Grayling was about 40 people, Anvik was about 80 people and Paradise was completely abandoned. I figured Holy Cross and Russian Mission were about the same. For all I know, they may well be. All I know is that Russian Mission couldn’t have contained more than 30 people. There was no washetaria and no phone. Definitely no facilities for visitors. Fortunately for me, a resident named Nick was fiddling around in his boat and directed me to use the phone and sink at his house.
I decided to wake up early the next day in an attempt to get in a good 12 hours before the winds start around 5pm. I ate and got into my sleeping bag at 10pm. Then a totally unexpected thing happened: The entire town descended upon the boat launch area to mingle, play games and to otherwise make as much noise as possible. There were kids tripping over my anchor line, which was stretched 30 feet up onto the bank. Best of all, the newest rage in Russian Mission is to use a snowmobile to cross the small bay in which the boats were anchored. I’d never seen this before. It is quite interesting to see… a snowmobile riding on the water. Aside from the obvious cross training capability, what immediately struck me is the noise the machine made. In order to generate the track speed to literally “float” on water, the engine had to be redlined all the way. So the first couple of passes across the bay were pretty entertaining. The next 25 times were less so. “Don’t these people know the cost of gasoline?” I thought. I think everyone finally returned to their homes around 1am.
July 11, 2006
N62 00 50.1
I knew the day where there was little to no current was bound to come eventually. I had been watching the elevation continue to dwindle since Tanana. Even there, 605 miles from the ocean, it was only 160 feet above sea level. 250,000 cubic feet per second can move pretty fast, but when the land is flat, the water is flat. That is what happened today. Twice I found myself in nearly motionless water. I just pushed on, determined to set myself up for an easy last day to St. Mary’s. I would have normally stopped due to exhaustion at 6pm, but I pushed on for another 3.5 hours. Winds picked up. The water turned choppy. I kept rowing. At the end I just put the oars in the water and fell against them with my weight. I couldn’t clench my fingers around the handles. It was rather painful. I anchored in a slough, set up the tent and went to sleep without taking the time or effort to make dinner.
July 12, 2006
St. Mary’s, Alaska
The river saved the best for last! I guess the mighty Yukon didn’t want me to get off easy. For the second day in a row I woke up early to put in a few hours before the winds picked up. Today the wind was already blowing. As I had yet to experience a day when the winds reduced or stopped completely as the day progressed, I knew I was in for a doosy. There were times when I was traveling at less than 3.5 miles per hour. The chop was heavy too. 2 miles from the confluence with the Andreafsky River, the Yukon is wide and the winds were stirring up 3-4 foot waves. I had images of newspaper headlines “Man drowns 1,719 miles into 1,720 mile trip.” At this point I was just holding on for dear life! I wouldn’t have ventured into water like that for any reason normally. The winds were howling when I finally pulled into the Andreafsky channel. Fortunately, the winds were screaming up the tributary and it allowed me to row UP the river 1.5 miles to St. Mary’s. This was truly incredible. I guess it was a fitting way to end the trip… with my first REAL tailwind.
I will stay in St. Mary’s for 3-4 days to find someone to fish with and to solve the logistical issues regarding the transportation of the boat and myself by air back to Anchorage. Next update should come from civilization!
Roll the Chum Salmon photos!
A look at the trip as a whole. 1,720 miles from Whitehorse, Yukon Territory to St. Mary’s, Alaska