Rivers of stories

Sometimes I think I could spend my life happily following rivers. I love the way they’re born from a tiny trickle and grow until they dissipate into something foreign and bigger.

Last spring on a flight to Bethel, I sat behind an old man who stared down at the Kuskokwim River flowing out of the hills.

“My mother is from those mountains,” he said.

I asked the name of the village but couldn’t understand his answer over screaming babies and the shuddering engines. There was only forest, snow-covered tundra and hills as far as I could see.

“Every bend of the river has a story to me,” he said, gesturing at the mostly frozen waterway winding through the snowy land.

I studied the river, thinking of histories and wondering where stories go when they’re no longer told.

The hills disappeared as we flew over the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. The delta is one of the largest in the world; there are more than 50 Yupik and Athabascan villages settled along its rivers and tundra.

The day I spent in Bethel left me disoriented. There seemed to be more taxis than people. An expanse of yellowed grass shuddered in the wind just beyond the edge of the community. Not too far to the west, the great Kuskokwim and Yukon Rivers drained into the Bering Sea.

I took a late flight home. The aurora appeared massive and green above Mount Saint Elias. Groggily, I watched it twitch and waver all the way to Juneau. At the airport, while I waited outside for a taxi, a well-dressed man with two big suitcases stepped out of the terminal. It was nearly 2 in the morning and we were the only people around. He began screaming and threatening violence. I studied him and realized he was yelling at people or things only he could see.

A few days later, my partner MC Martin, the editor of the Capital City Weekly, came home brimming with excitement.

“Whoopee! I’m going to the Klondike! If you don’t come with me, I’ll leave you for a Klondike King!” she yelled, as she threw beans, bacon and whatever else she could find into her backpack. This is a slight exaggeration, but she was excited. She had decided to write a novel set during the Klondike Gold Rush and as part of her research would retrace the most popular route stampeders used to get to the Dawson gold fields. She would begin in Dyea and follow the Chilkoot Trail to Lake Bennett. From there it would be a 550-mile paddle on lakes and the Yukon River to Dawson City.

It didn’t take much arm twisting to get me and our dog Fen to sign on as sidekicks.

On the fourth of June we set off on the Chilkoot Trail carrying 10 days of supplies. It was early in the season and we had the trail to ourselves. The rain quit as we neared the pass and were greeted with an expanse of mountains stretching into Canada.

Our last camp on the Chilkoot Trail was above the shores of Lake Bennett. The beach was lined with broken glass left over from stampeders. It was hard to imagine that Bennett had been a tent city of upwards of 10,000 folks during the winter of 1897-1898. The city around Lake Lindeman, just a mile to east, had been even larger. A few years later, both Bennett and Lindeman were abandoned. All that remained was a church, a railway station for tourists and a few other buildings.

We inflated our canoe, ate dinner and enjoyed a peaceful evening. We were alone, besides a porcupine gnawing on a new Park Service sign. That night I couldn’t sleep. I became increasingly restless as the hours wore on. I listened, waiting for a twig to break or the soft step of something approaching. The weather was calm and there was nothing other than mosquitoes buzzing against the tent. I couldn’t shake the feeling we were intruding on something.

At first light, MC asked if we could get an early start. When we left the shore, she looked back at the railroad station and admitted she also had an uneasy and sleepless night.

We paddled as a light rain fell. Some people say Lake Bennett, along with Lake Lindeman, are the headwaters of the Yukon River. Others claim the Yukon begins from the outflow of the Llewellyn Glacier draining into Atlin Lake in British Columbia. Jan Harper-Haines wrote in her book, “Cold River Spirits: The Legacy of an Athabascan-Irish Family,” that her Alaska Native ancestors believed the headwaters of the Yukon River was where spirits of the dead went to reside.

The sun came out and burned off the clouds. I took a break and studied the mountains as Fen nuzzled her head into my lap, begging to be petted. I wondered if it was the ghosts of Alaska Native peoples, stampeders, or forgotten stories that had visited us at Bennett.

We paddled on, listening to the water whisper and forgetting the strange night, and got lost in the journey before us.

• Bjorn Dihle is a Juneau writer. His first book is “Haunted Inside Passage: Ghosts, Legends and Mysteries of Southeast Alaska.” You can contact or follow him at facebook.com/BjornDihleauthor.

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