March 19, 2018

Lifeforce of the Yukon River

Fish wheel, Kaltag, Yukon River, Iditarod 2018

Kaltag’s fish wheel on the Yukon River


Flying from Iditarod to Kaltag, Bruce Lee sits behind me, scanning the land for animal tracks. After spending many winters subsisting off the Kobuk River, Bruce is always on the lookout for food roaming the land. If he should ever be stranded somewhere, it’s good to know where a meal might be walking around.

It’s an hour flight, but it’s not until we approach the Yukon River watershed that signs of life appear. Moose tracks weave like a ballroom dance, and the dog musher behind me spots six different culprits. I see one, but only because Bruce points it out. I grew up in the Chicago suburbs. If there had been a grocery store on the Yukon’s riverbanks, I would have been the first to spot it. Tracking game, however, takes sensitivity, a developed eye, and habitat knowledge that I’m still learning. It’s no accident, therefore, that interior Alaskan villages are located on the richest rivers in Alaska. They are the life-supporting veinous system of the land.

The Yukon River supports a food chain that spans 2,000 miles. From the headwaters in upper British Columbia in Canada, it drains north through the Yukon Territory, and bends southwest through Alaska before spilling into the Bering Sea. It hosts a self-contained ecosystem––from plant life, microorganisms, and insects, to multiple fish species, to moose, wolves, and bears. It has always been a major travel corridor for humans. In fact, some anthropologists believe the Yukon was an ice-free corridor used as the main immigration route for the first people to embark across the Bering Sea Straight from Siberia. Thus, humans and animals alike integrated into the evolving ecosystem, and have subsisted off the river’s wealth ever since.

Today, the river remains a major travel corridor, but only four vehicle-carrying bridges cross it. In comparison, the 2,300-mile long Mississippi has roughly 130. To understand the Yukon, therefore, we need to forget car travel and let the notion of river travel capture our imaginations. This is nature’s pathway, and it nourishes its travelers.

Yukon River Alaska Iditarod 2018

Billy Honea from the Yukon village of Ruby

“All the way from Canada, all the way down the Yukon they depend on fish,” Billy Honea says. “That’s our main income and our main food.” Billy is from Ruby. He’s in Kaltag where the race leaders are now, volunteering. From the banks of the river, he’s hunted much of the food he’s eaten in his lifetime, including fish, beaver, moose, black bear, and grouse. “In the fall time, sometimes we go like fifty, sixty miles and then camp for a few days and get a a moose.” One moose is a winter’s supply. He remembers being a boy when his dad shot a moose near the riverbank that ran about a half mile away before they could get it. On the way to retrieve it his uncle lost the knife, so his father decided to butcher it with an axe. Billy is still amazed at his skill. Amusingly,  they found the knife the next morning, and his dad said, “well, we don’t need it now!”

From spring break-up to fall freeze-up, people travel the river by boat. In the winter, people travel it by snowmachine. Billy, for instance, snowmachined 138 miles from Ruby, a village on the northern Iditarod route, downriver to Kaltag to see the race.

The Yukon River, where Iditarod mushers are required to take an eight-hour rest, has a rich dog-mushing history. In 1925, Edgar Kalland, from Kaltag, helped carry the life-saving diptheria serum down the trail. Back then, good dogs were an essential component to Yukon village life, but the river was such a rich resource that if you put in the work, it rewarded you with plenty of fish to feed your family and raise strong dogs. It makes sense historically, therefore, that many of the best dogs in long-distance and sprint mushing were raised on this river. The early days of the Iditarod reflect this.

For instance, Ken Chase, who ran the first Iditarod in 1973––before the race even went to Nome––hails from Anvik. He raised hunting and trapping dogs on fish from the Yukon River, and in return those dogs led him on a storied racing career that spanned beyond the developmental years of the race. In 1974, Ken took sixth after mushing 26 days, one hour, and three minutes, He ran his last race in 2002, after 16 Iditarods. That same year, Martin Buser won in just under nine days––a testament to the race’s evolution. During those years, the dog team’s role in village life diminished and was replaced by snowmachines, while simultaneously the Iditarod had preserved the sled dog’s place in modern Alaska.

Though subsistence methods have evolved, the connection to the land remains strong. Food shipped by barge and plane from Fairbanks has become more plentiful, though expensive. Locals agree, that nothing beats food from the Yukon. “Fresh food is the best food,” John Luke Nickoli, tells me. “Canned food is all right once in awhile but you can get cholesterol really fast.”

Kaltag Yukon River Iditarod 2018

John Luke Nickoli stands outside the Kaltag checkpoint

John was born and raised in Kaltag on the front bank of the Yukon, and the stories he shares reveal a deep connection to life on the Yukon. It’s a belief endemic in the Athabaskan relationship to the natural world, that throughout the history of the people has proven to be true. He recalls moose hunting off the Yukon with his dad and his cousin when he was a boy. His dad had spotted a bull and told him where to find it. “I got my brand new rifle with brand new bullets and we went back there while my dad started cooking.” But when he fired, he missed. His cousin missed, too. He unloaded his  30.06 and missed every shot. His cousin did, too. He refilled and called the moose, “hey, hey.” For some reason he called it like he would call another human, instead of using the moose call he knew to use. Stranger still, the moose walked toward him and turned broadside––an easy shot. He missed again, and as the moose’s hair stood up he knew something was wrong and he went back to his dad. His father, slightly irritated, walked back with the boys to take a shot. “He took his turn––boom! Then it was my cousin’s turn––boom! Then I took my turn––click! Nothing happened.” At that point, his father knew something was wrong––that something had happened back home. They returned home the next morning and found John’s uncle had fallen off a boat and died. All the oddities of previous night’s hunt, was the moose’s attempt at communicating the news to him.

Athabaskans believe many animals can communicate or offer omens. If you know the language of the owl, it can tell you good news or bad news. If a fox screams, something bad has happened. Other animals have spirits that command certain respects. Ravens must not be killed because in Athabaskan lore, Raven created the world––though John admits that sometimes a person wants to. Ravens don’t hunt for themselves but use cleverness to scavenge food from people and other animals. John once saw ravens work together to steal fish from a dog that was tied up in a yard. One raven bit the dog’s tail, and when the dog turned to attack its perpetrator, the other raven flew away with his fish. His stories about connections with the land go on and on.

Fish wheel, Yukon River, Iditarod

Old fish wheels on the banks of the Yukon

Out on the Yukon, hunting stories are different than ones told anywhere else in the United States. No one brags about a fish’s size, or a moose’s antler width. The only time “biggest” is mentioned to me is when Richard Burnham of Kaltag tells a survival story in which he got caught in a storm and couldn’t return home. He and his friend  caught a pike they later learned might have been the biggest pike ever caught in the state of Alaska. They ate it for survival. Richard shrugs at the telling, but when he talks about fish oil dripping down his forearms while eating fresh-caught, boiled salmon bellies, his eyes light up as he revels in the memory. That’s what matters on the Yukon––flavor, enjoyment of fresh food, and sharing the experience with family.

These animals mean survival. Not the seeking-hardship-to-regale-your-friends-with-bravado kind, but survival of the communities and culture; the bonds between people and what ties them to the land. Stories about hardship are just standout memories embedded in a way of life, not a source of one-upmanship. For the most part, fishing and hunting are not drama-filled. They’re necessary tasks enjoyed with family, not unlike visiting a grocery store or shopping mall. “We have fish and game all around us.” John says. “You gotta understand nature, you gotta be out there.” The animals of the Yukon are their food, and salmon in particular are their livelihood.

Salmon born at the headwaters of the Yukon have the longest migration of any salmon run on the continent. To make the journey at the end of their lifecycle, from the ocean back to their spawning grounds, they must have great reserves of fat and energy for fuel. As a result they are known for their especially rich and oily meat––part of what Richard loves about them, and what makes them desirable economically.

Kaltag, Iditarod, Yukon River

Snow-covered boat in Kaltag

Kaltag is 450 miles from the mouth of the Yukon on the fringes of economic viability, but they recently revamped their fish wheel system to refine the product they export. Their fish wheel scoops salmon from the river and puts them in ice buckets that keep them at natural temperatures and allows them to reach the nearby processing plant without being touched by human hands. It’s a process of beauty admired by other villages.

Last year, the Yukon had a king salmon escapement of 80,000 fish to Canada. When you extrapolate these numbers out to all the subsistence villages, fisheries, and natural predators along the full length of the river, the productivity of this watershed is nothing short of remarkable.

Grayling, Anvik, and Kaltag boast vibrant cultures steeped in mushing history. Iditarod is lucky to have these villages welcome the race with esteemed hospitality. When you consider the number of villages, fisheries, and natural predators along the full length of this river, the productivity of this watershed is nothing short of remarkable. The Yukon is one of the richest rivers in the world, and to travel its expansive corridor, whether by dog team, boat, or airplane, is humbling.


Experience the river’s expansiveness as Nic travels the Yukon!