It’s become a tradition: the fall trip to Yukon, Canada, and a week or so spent on some stretch of birch-lined river listening to wolves howl, watching osprey feed their young and trying not to go for any involuntary swims. This year, my boyfriend Bjorn, his dad Nils and I threw some canine variables into the equation: Loki, Nils’ 12-year-old red heeler, and Fen, Bjorn’s and my 3-month-old golden retriever. When he’s outside, Loki’s neuroses fade away and he becomes a Zen master. Fen is his wayward apprentice.
This year, we decided to float the Big Salmon River, a 150-mile or so Yukon River tributary Bjorn had traveled once years ago; we’d do the last 60 miles of the 210-mile trip on the Yukon. We dropped a car off at Carmacks and put in at Quiet Lake, about 60 miles up the dirt Canol Road. That afternoon was mirror-laked and peaceful. We paddled along the water until the fish started jumping and Nils and I threw our lines in. We’d each caught arctic grayling when a silver streak just below the surface took off with the Swedish droppen lure Nils had put on my line. It was a shimmering, two-foot-long green and copper lake trout almost too beautiful to eat.
That first misty morning of paddling, we drifted past a cow moose and her two calves, staring at us from the banks of the lake as they ate willow leaves.
The start of the Big Salmon paddle is a series of three lakes filled with grayling wavering just below the surface of the water. At the end of the third, we found the (difficult to see) outflow.
The most dangerous part of the trip is right away. Though there are rapids later on, the wind can whip the lake into a wavy froth, which has flipped boats before. There are also two log jams the first mile or two of the (very snake-like and relatively fast-flowing) start of the river.
At the first log jam we portaged a short distance on a beach. At the second, a torso of a scarecrow with an outstretched hand seemed to point to the fork we clearly didn’t want to take. We got out and looked over the right side of the blockage. A log lay perpendicular to the river, the water flowing over it, and the rest of the logs narrowed to a point. We shot through, Bjorn in our inflatable kayak and Nils and I in the canoe, with Fen and Loki keeping watch.
Toward the end of that first full day, I pointed at a silhouetted spruce tree with a strangely shaped top.
“Look at those birds up there,” I said.
“It’s an osprey nest!” Bjorn said. “Paddle to shore! Paddle to shore!”
We watched the three birds — we couldn’t tell if all were chicks, though they looked very similar — until one of the parents swooped in with a fish and they bent their heads.
Over the next few days, we paddled past eroding cliff walls and yellowing, aspen and birch-clad mountains. Black spruce trees clinging to loosening banks seemed to bow over the river. Beavers slapped their tails against the water, a sharp-shinned hawk chased a chattering kingfisher, a flock of mergansers ran on top of the water just next to where Nils and I were paddling, and an osprey and a raven took turns dive-bombing and chasing each other.
A few days in, at the end of a long day of paddling, we pulled up to the first beach we’d seen in a long stretch of cut banks. Wolf tracks and scat were everywhere. As it soon became clear, we’d set up camp right next to a wolf den.
We began cooking. And that’s when the barking began.
I’d heard wolves howl before, but never bark. Fen strained against the leash we tied to a nearby log and kept her focus on dinner. Loki, who had learned a hard lesson about messing with wolves after Romeo trounced him on the frozen Mendenhall Lake several years ago, cracked his eyes open and then curled back to sleep next to the fire.
Over the course of a half hour or so, the barking changed into howling. What sounded like around a dozen wolves joined in. We could see the curve in the river the howls were coming from but we didn’t see the animals. Some of them were higher pitched; they, perhaps, were pups. The howls faded in and out for hours.
That night, Bjorn woke me up. “Headlamp!” he yelled. “Give me the headlamp!”
I squinted. “What?”
“Something’s outside the tent!”
“The headlamp’s hanging up,” I said.
“Give me the headlamp!”
“You need the headlamp?”
By the time I managed to move my arm, the wolf whose tracks — and scat — we found outside our tent the next morning had disappeared back into the forest.
The second to last day, we made it to the only sustained rapids of the trip — a class 2 soon after a tributary. Nils and I, in the canoe, shot through first, shouting over the whitewater about which way to paddle and where the rocks were as Loki blinked, zen-eyed, and Fen sat alert, wondering where the heck her humans were taking her.
The last day on the Big Salmon, my hat decided it loved the river, and the wind took it upon itself to play matchmaker. Bjorn and I chased it for a while as its bill bobbed slightly above the water, but we weren’t able to catch it. Loki blinked at us from his spot on the inflatable, behind Nils.
“Cling not to material things, human,” his blinks seemed to say. “For it is written that the immaterial is the eternal.”
Soon after that, we emerged onto the wide-open space of the Yukon River, stopping to explore Big Salmon village, inhabited by Northern Tutchone people decades ago. Now, it’s a series of log cabins with a strangely intact shelf of empty glass liquor bottles, caved in roofs and a newer building adorned with facetious “Starbucks — Coming Soon!” graffiti.
We floated past an old, abandoned suction dredge; past the Little Salmon River, where Nils caught and released almost half a dozen grayling; past an old cemetery you can see from the river. A cinnamon black bear took a slow-motion swim across the Yukon, turning back to look at us before it disappeared into the shadowed trees.
“Well,” Bjorn said. “We could paddle all the way back to Carmacks tonight.”
Nils shook his head. “Why would we do that?”
Instead, we spent one more night on the Yukon River, roasting chicken sausages on a fire, telling stories about the trip and watching storm clouds that never quite reached us. Loki blinked and offered a few enlightened thoughts for our consideration, Fen chased her tail and us three humans savored the fire and the last riverside evening of the trip.