I did not realize that I was in trouble until it was too late.
It was the 27th of July. I figured I had another week or so with enough light to paddle through the nights. I hadn’t intended to paddle through this particular night but the weather was calm so I kept going until late.
All was going well until the darkness crept up on me. I wasn’t expecting it. I hadn’t noticed it on the preceding nights because I had been sleeping through them. The Alaskan summer nights are gone. Fall is coming. Already. Perhaps it was worse than it would have been because the clouds were so heavy with rain. Either way, by midnight, it was just too dark. Too dark to see the river well enough to judge it. Too dark to observe how the current was moving. Too dark to be able to see exactly where the whirlpools were as the current tore around irregular points in the river. Just too dark. I needed to go ashore. I needed to set up camp . . . but the river walls were sheer and where they weren’t there was 10 feet of driftwood blocking me or thick growth or towering cut banks. There was nowhere to pull over . . . and soon enough it was too dark to see more than a dark blur of shoreline as I paddled past.
I was stuck. Stuck on the river in the dark with no option but to press on to the next spot where I knew I could land: Holy Cross. But that was hours away and even one hour is a very long time in the dark.
Each section of river has had its own challenges, its own puzzles to figure out. With the lakes back in Canada, the trick is to avoid the wild waves in the middle, to not get pinned to a northern shoreline and not paddle too near peninsulas in the wind. In the Yukon Flats the trick is to not lose the current and to not lose track of where you are on the map. In the Rampart Canyon, the trick is to avoid the current in the wind- that’s where the waves get too nasty. Here in the lower river, the trick is to keep free of the whirlpools. They are especially strong this year because the river is high and fast with all the rain that has been falling. The whirlpools tend to develop behind points. Behind tough rock along the Yukon that the river has yet to erode. The current hits these points and ricochets off.
Don’t get stuck in a whirlpool. Even boats with engines can have trouble getting out of some of them.
This was my main fear as I paddled through the dark. I was able to navigate by keeping track of the silhouette of the land and I knew I had my gps to lean on if I got confused. The night was calm. Fog settled making the visibility worse. It rained steadily. I kept my headlamp ready so that I would be visible in case a boat came but the rest of the world was asleep.
And how do you keep sane paddling through the ambiguous dark and rainy fog on the mighty Yukon? You listen to the Trail Show of course! And that is just what I did. A Trail Show marathon saw me through the night and kept my spirits up. To avoid whirlpools I steered way clear of the points. Despite this, as I headed towards the slough leading to Holy Cross, I found myself stuck in the outer drag of a whirlpool and had to paddle hard to finally make the slough and float up to the town’s beach at 4.30 am.
I was dead tired when I pulled over onto the beach. It was all I could do to set up my tent, haul my boat to a safe spot and collapse in a heap in my shelter. I was finally in my sleeping bag by 5.30 too tired to eat.