Galena to Nulato

by Donald Bowers, Jr.

Quick Overview

This leg is all on the Yukon River and normally presents no real problems. It is a major snowmachine highway maintained by the locals and is well used all winter. Plan on four to six hours for this run. It can be cold, as can all river runs, and all the usual river hazards can be present, including overflow, rough ice, and open water. When the wind blows, the trail can become obscured very quickly, but it should be well marked. The trail can swing back and forth across the river several times on this leg to cut across bends.

Leaving Galena the river runs generally west. Fifteen miles from Galena the trail passes the fishing camp at Bishop Rock, a prominent landmark on the north bank of the river. Ten miles later it passes the mouth of the Koyukuk River, a major tributary, flowing in from the north, with the village of Koyukuk on the northwest bank. Five miles past Koyukuk the river swings south and the right bank becomes a low range of mountains rising to a thousand feet above the river. Nulato is eleven miles past the big bend to the south, on the right (west) bank.

Detailed Description

Once on the river leaving Galena, you’ll usually work your way across to the south bank and the entrance to Jimmy Slough, on the left side of the river five miles out. On the north side of the six-mile-long slough will be Jimmy Island, Hen Island, and Cat Island.

Off to your left you can usually see Pilot Mountain, one of the most prominent landmarks in the area, rising by itself to a thousand feet; it is located ten miles due west of Galena and four miles south of the river at its closest point.

Just past Cat Island, the trail often crosses the river to the north side; the crossing may be rough depending on how the river has frozen up. Note: The state of the river upstream from Galena has no relation to what happens downstream—you may have a smooth highway coming into Galena and find a jumbled obstacle course in places headed down to Nulato, or vice versa.

Two miles after rejoining the main river past Cat Island, Pilot Mountain Slough opens to the left; it makes a nearly 15-mile meandering loop past the base of Pilot Mountain and rejoins the Yukon seven miles downriver, past Bishop Rock stay on the main river for five more miles past Pilot Mountain Slough, swinging gently to the north in a big oxbow bend, often on the right side of the river.

As you come out of the bend headed back to the south, Bishop rock will be on the right bank in front of you, rising a few hundred feet above the river. This is a notorious spot for ice jams during the spring breakup and flood waters from the instant ice dams locked against Bishop Rock have been known to rise at the rate of a foot an hour, more than once swamping all of Galena, including the airbase behind its huge levee. If the river has frozen up rough, the trail at the foot of Bishop Rock can be tight sometimes, with sidehill ice and rough spots.

The trail usually swings off the river to the west behind Bishop Rock onto Whontleya Slough in front of the summer fishing camp of Yistletaw, whose houses and cabins you will see on the south side of Bishop Rock. The slough passes behind Bishop Rock Island on the left (south) and rejoins the river in four more miles. Just past the end of the slough, one of the lesser mouths of the Koyukuk comes in from the north.

You’ll run down the Yukon for seven miles past Koyukuk Island on the right. The main channel of the Koyukuk enters from the right (north) at the west end of Koyukuk Island. The village of Koyukuk is on the northwest side of the Yukon at the mouth of the Koyukuk. There will probably be one or more trails going to the right to the village; follow the Iditarod markers and stay on the main river westbound.

Past Koyukuk the river runs west for five miles, heading directly for a thousand-foot ridge dead ahead, then makes a 90-degree left turn to the south to run along the base of the ridge. There is a liquor store at the northwest corner of the bend that is frequented by villagers from up and down the river. Unfortunately, you may have to watch for discarded bottles and cans and inebriated snowmachiners.

When feasible, the trail will cut the inside of the corner and head down the left (east) side of the river. In 1998, however, the trail stayed on the right side all the way from Bishop Rock to Nulato. Wherever the trail runs, the ridge will remain on the right bank of the river all the way to Koyukuk (ten miles), where the hills break to allow the Nulato River flow in from the northwest. Four miles past the bend you may see a low-lying half-mile-long island lying close under the high west bank.

At five miles out you may see Patsy Slough opening off to the left; it separates four-mile-long Big Island from the mainland and rejoins the main channel three and a half miles above Nulato. A mile from Nulato the main channel is divided in the middle by Nulato Island.

At night you’ll probably see the beacon flash from the airport, which is a mile north of town atop the south tip of the ridge on the right side of the river. Finally you’ll swing up the bank to the checkpoint, which in 1998 was in the new community center, several blocks back from the river. Watch the markers carefully as you wind through the village streets to the checkpoint.

You couldn’t ship anything to Nulato, so you’ll be feeding the dogs with whatever you hauled from Galena. There are usually people munchies in the checkpoint as well as a place to warm up and rest for a bit.