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360-Mile Paddle Down an Arctic Alaska River

June 08, 1986|LUREE MILLER | Miller's most recent book is "On Top of the World: Five Women Explorers in Tibet." She lives in Washington, D.C. and

FORT YUKON, Alaska — The grizzly reared up on its hind legs, swung its head to the side and let out a blood-curdling bellow. The bear was on the opposite bank of the river about 150 yards from us.

Full-grown, seven to eight feet tall, probably 800 pounds. And angry! The six of us stood transfixed.

Suddenly we realized the reason for the bear's fury--we were in its hunting grounds. We had not planned to be. In fact, we were congratulating ourselves that morning on how well we had planned this three-week wilderness trip on the Porcupine River from Old Crow, Yukon Territory, to Fort Yukon, Alaska.

A 360-mile paddle, all above the Arctic Circle. This was our fourth day out and we were getting the hang of our two canoes and two kayaks, feeling pretty good about how our old bones were holding up to paddling, packing gear and sleeping on gravel bars.

We were, after all, sedentary creatures stuck behind desks most of the year. Moreover, we were all 55 or over and didn't even jog.

A River Routine

A few years earlier, on a canoe trip down the Yukon River from Whitehorse to Dawson City, Canada, we had worked out a river routine that served us well. We learned that pacing is the secret of success. A hearty breakfast followed by a mid-morning break for a stretch and a snack, a half-hour nap after lunch, a cup of tea before setting up camp, a drink, dinner, then fishing or reading or berry-picking, and a perfect day is completed.

Not all of the days worked out quite so smoothly, of course. A burst of rain, rapids to run, or, worst of all, not being able to find a suitable campsite could throw our leisurely routine off a bit.

Now we were back in the far north, and we had gotten off schedule the night before and unwittingly camped smack in the middle of the migrating caribou route south. Right in grizzly hunting grounds.

Our group had met in Fairbanks and driven 135 miles north to Arctic Circle Hot Springs, where there is a delightful resort consisting of a recently restored log roadhouse with 40 rooms done up in Gay Nineties decor, several log cabins, a general store and a huge outdoor swimming pool fed by hot springs.

There we sorted and repacked everything we needed for 16 days on the river: the dried food, tents and sleeping bags from the three-foot lockers we shipped ahead, clothes and equipment we brought with us, plus the food we bought locally.

Traveling Light

It was all stuffed into two four-foot canvas duffel bags, one three-foot waterproof duffel and 13 cardboard cartons; and we each had one small day-pack. Total weight: 334 pounds.

Alaska has reliable bush airlines but none runs a scheduled flight out of Arctic Circle Hot Springs. We had to arrange two charter flights, one for us and one for our freight, with a pickup stop at Fort Yukon for the two canoes and two kayaks we rented there. We would have preferred to have three canoes for the six of us but that would have entailed a third plane trip because the canoes had to be lashed onto the plane's pontoons, one canoe for each pontoon.

Flying at about 7,000 feet, we headed northwest to Canada over row after row of mountains sweeping up like waves with sharp crests. About 45 minutes after crossing the Arctic Circle we saw the tiny settlement of Old Crow, an Athapascan Indian village on the migration route of the great Porcupine caribou herd.

There we assembled our kayaks, loaded them and the canoes, and put into the Porcupine River. It was like a corkscrew twisting through the tundra, its banks giving way to mud slides streaked with ice.

The water ran at about three m.p.h. We estimated we could paddle about the same, so we counted on making six m.p.h. With 360 miles to go, we planned on doing about 25 miles a day for 14 days with two rest days, a comfortable four to five hours of paddling each day.

The night before the grizzly appeared we had left the tundra and were in canyons with 75- to 150-foot cliffs. It was late before we found a long sandy strip to camp on.

Peaceful Beauty

The next morning we awakened to see caribou ambling out from the woods behind us in groups of twos or 10s or 20s. They were not afraid. We watched, enchanted, warmed by the sun and lulled by the peaceful beauty of the wilderness scene.

The sudden roar of the grizzly was a shock. The bear swam to our side of the river. It got out of the water about 150 yards downstream, shook its massive body and started running toward the woods. Suddenly it veered and with a spine-chilling roar, charged us.

We were lined up with the fire behind us, shouting and banging on pots and pans. But the bear kept coming.

We had one shotgun. When the grizzly was about 100 feet away we shot once over its head. The bear turned, its powerful flanks heaving, and headed back toward the river.

We broke camp as fast as we could.

The rest of the trip was serene. The sun shone and not even the notorious Alaska mosquitoes bothered us.

Wild Berries, Clean Air

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