Today, near Fairbanks, the weather was perfect. Perfect! It was warm and sunny with no clouds in sight and no smoke from the nearby fires. And since we planned on a canoe trip down the Upper Chatanika River, perfect was just perfect!
We met the neighbor up the road with her kayak and the neighbor’s down in the valley with their two canoes. There were five of us in all, our friends, a mother/son team, with the son working on requirements for his Canoeing Boy Scout merit badge in their canoe, me and my man in the second, borrowed canoe, and our friend with her kayak. We were kindly chauffeured to our launch spot and set off, armed with snacks, sandwiches, the best gluten-free cookies ever, mosquito dope, fishing gear, extra clothes, various cameras, all with near dead batteries and a firearm. Just in case, a necessary precaution in, well, just about anywhere, outdoors, in Alaska.
I’ve been on this river a few times before, in an airboat, and I kind of had the gist of it, but, still, I will admit, I was a little nervous. I’ve been a passenger and in participated in no way in the navigation. I just hung on and smiled. I haven’t canoed in quite some time, and have usually canoed on a lake, or “flat water” as it is often called. Rivers can be tricky, and even rivers you are familiar with can change, literally, overnight. One new tree fall can make a lazy stretch a much more hazardous challenge. I remember one of the few times I did canoe on a river, the Russian River in Sonoma County (Northern California), back in college, in an aluminum canoe, we got sideways in the current and sort bend the canoe around a bridge pier. We straightened it out as best we could, and, believe it or not, no questions were asked when we returned it to the rental company. So. Yah. A tad nervous. I knew I was in good hands, with much experience, both with the river and with canoeing in general. So, I just paddled as instructed. And smiled.
Originally, this was going to be a “ladies” trip, but not all the ladies could attend, so we invited the guys. And as soon as we encountered our first tricky tree snag, which required some thought, planning, contemplation and strength, we were glad we had the men with us, for more than just their good looks and excellent company! There were a few passages we had to stop and walk and figure out whether to proceed by land or by “sea”. We fished along the way, catching an Artic Grayling with every few casts, most of which were released.
As we made our way down this scenic river, we passed an upended tree root in the middle of the river. Caught in the snag was a fishing rod, the first canoe spotted it and yelled back to our canoe to try to grab it. I was in the front, so as we sidled up along the snag, I grabbed the fishing pole. The top half detached from the bottom half, so I had half. My man grabbed the bottom half! And in the time it took to negotiate around the next few bends in the river, I had the twigs, dirt and other river matter removed from the reel, the rod reassemble almost correctly, and another functioning pole for us to use! Finders keepers!! The unofficial fishing derby competition intensified. And at the rate we were fishing, it was going to be a very long canoe trip!
We pulled the canoes and kayak ashore at one point and enjoyed the food we all brought, potluck style. I made a salmon spread, for the first time ever, with only a little supervision and guidance. I used one of the jars of salmon we canned just a couple of days earlier, added some salt and pepper and some mayo and sweet relish. It was really, really good, bones and skin and all! Now, I get it with the whole jarred salmon thing. I’d still prefer fresh, of course, or a frozen filet, but the jarred salmon has many, many options for deliciousness!
I’d brought my “helmet cam” and we fastened it to our canoe, turned it on, and anticipated the potential of eight hours of digital filming capacity! I also had my “still “camera with me, which has both still and video functionality, and I let our friend borrow it to take some pictures as “evidence”, if needed, for the canoeing merit badge. Sadly, though, and totally my oversight, the batteries died after a couple of shots. After our lunch on the rocky banks, we took again to the river. Our river. We were the only people on this part of the river, all day long, until we arrived at our destination. Bliss.
We paddled and fished, fished and paddled, trouble shooting “sweepers” (fallen trees or branches that, if passed under, could sweep you out of your canoe) and snags. We ported the canoes and kayak a time or two, the kayak being far more maneuverable than the canoes. At one point, focusing a bit more on fishing than paddling, the two of us fell a bit behind the other canoe and kayak. My man suggested we slow up and possibly walk around the fallen tree across that portion of the river. We watched as the other canoe headed through and they appeared to make it just fine. We paddled forward in pursuit. Then I noticed our friend in the kayak quickly beach her vessel and begin to run. I thought to myself, “she just went to ‘study nature’, as we used to call it in Girl Scouts”, so I couldn’t imagine she had to find another private spot behind a tree. As we drew closer, I saw the occupants of the other canoe, drenched, dragging their canoe towards the shore. The young man had firm grasp of one paddle and his mom was swiftly off and into the river after the other, which, thankfully, she retrieved, lest we have a canoe up the river without a paddle! Everything was soaked, but accounted for, except their fishing pole. Darn. You win some, you lose some. We’d won one, and now we’d lost one. We gave them our extra, our newly refurbished and almost as good as new, rod and reel. Fishing poles be dammed, thank goodness everyone was okay! And we set off. I decided, at this point, to tuck my helmet camera safely into a Ziploc buried deep into my daypack strapped securely to the canoe. I couldn’t wait to see the footage! Too bad the batteries were dead and there was nothing to view once I got home and tried to upload. Oh well. I was able to revive the other camera enough for a couple of photo op shots before the batteries decided they were, once again, dead. Or maybe just extremely sleepy.
The rest of the trip went without incident, a few fish caught, a couple released, a couple saved for later consumption. We reached our destination, the bridge crossing the Upper Chatanika at the Elliott Highway and called for our chauffeur. And with our thirty-three mile trek behind us, in five short hours, we made our way back home.
And, in reflection, all I can say is that I am so thankful; I am thankful for the unique opportunity to be able to share experiences like this with so many truly, wonderful people, in such a magical and beautiful place, with so much laughter and friendship, love and fun. I am thankful, most of all, that we all made the trip safely, of course, and look forward to many returns. I’m a lucky girl. Blessings counted!