I leave Teslin after three days. It is early June. Out on Teslin Lake it is hot, too hot to paddle, too hot to think. I float and drift and loaf. A loon is out there somewhere, warbling through its crazy cries. I sing dumb songs. I scare the ducks for something to do, like a small boy. Trucks rumble far off, out along the highway. All along the shore are the remains of families’ fishing camps, old bits of metal glinting in the sun. Through binoculars, I watch two kids on a quad-bike scrounging one for firewood. I watch my paddle, the line and vortex of each stroke drifting away behind me like footprints across the water. I stop and swim and carry on, I stop and swim and camp. One evening I catch a grayling, and fry it up beside potatoes in my skillet on the fire. The sun turns circles in the sky overhead. I have already forgotten darkness.
There are always those first few days, I find, until I shed the city where I live, before I feel at ease again. Before muscles feel good, before cracked burnt skin stops hurting and feels like it’s at home. Before my eyes open as wide as they ought. I dip a cup from the side of the boat and drink. Not even from a spring, straight from the lake. It feels astonishing that once all rivers would have run with drinking water, that once I could have dipped my cup into the Thames. And I remember the words of Bill Mason, the Canadian who did more to popularise modern canoeing than anyone else, who made it a rule not to paddle on water that he wouldn’t also drink.
The Yukon River and its tributaries comprise the longest salmon run in the world. The king salmon that travel furthest swim 2,000 miles against the current to reach the spawning grounds of their birth, navigating, it is now believed, by their sense of smell. I was on a four-month journey, paddling downriver at the same time as the salmon were swimming up it, to explore the reasons for the king salmon’s sudden, massive decline, and to see how that decline was impacting on the many people, and on the ecosystems, that depend on it.
It is two days to the western end of Teslin Lake, where, beneath a bridge, it becomes the Teslin River. There is a diner here, and I stop for eggs benedict and coffee. As I get back on the water the weather shifts, I can pinpoint the very moment. The wind swings round to blow from out the north, gusting blackly across the water. The pressure drops out of the air like a stone, the clouds pile up, and then, for some days, it rains.
The Teslin River moves quickly once it strikes out from the lake. The river’s speed is shown in its reflections, a rushing lacework of mirrored clouds, 10 miles an hour, 12. The surface roils like cauldrons. Beavers rise beside the boat and, startled by my presence, slap their tails and duck beneath again. I slap my paddle back at them, the biggest beaver on the river.
The offshoots from the main stem are like a primer of northern words: Log Cabin Slough, Muskrat Creek, Little Salmon River, Fish Hook Bend, Mosquito Gulch. Many other places on my map are named for the first white men who settled here, and speak to the diverse provenance of the prospectors who came into the country: McGregor Creek, Von Wilczek Creek, O’Brien’s Slough, Johnson’s Crossing, Erickson’s Woodyard.
I stop one night on the beach at Mason Landing. In the woods back from the river, out of the rain, there are a cluster of collapsing cabins, built a century ago, following the discovery of gold on Livingstone Creek. Mason Landing would have been the quickest way in: a float down the Yukon River from Whitehorse to its confluence with the Teslin, poling the boat upriver to here, and then a tramp through the bush to Livingstone. Once there was a roadhouse and a stable here, a small trading post and a telegraph station. The police delivered the mail from Whitehorse twice a week. That is to say, in 1902, it was significantly easier to make contact with the outside world than it would be for me to do today. My quickest way to get a message out would be by paddling to Carmacks, about four days away.
The buildings are fading back into the landscape now, overgrown with wild rose, sagging beams and fallen timbers. They look less manmade, more a peculiar constellation of natural elements. The roof of one is so thick with moss that it looks no different to the forest floor, and a 30ft-high spruce projects from it. On tin beaten into flues and back plates for the wood stoves, thick with rust, I can still make out the brand names of the products they once held.
All down the river are remnants from a time when the Yukon thronged with human life. Old gold-mining paraphernalia; the remains of roadhouses every 20 or so miles that were the stop- off points for travellers, rhubarb and raspberries still growing in their gardens; mooring rings drilled into rock. On Shipyard Island, the steamer Evelyn is rotting where she stands. Finding it among the trees is like coming upon some ancient Inca temple: 130ft long, as tall as the spruce, with accommodation for 85 first-class passengers. Her hull splintered, the floorboards fallen through, the names of lovers scratched into her boiler. I walk along the upper decks, peering into cabins.
It is at Shipyard Island, two weeks into the journey, that I finally join what is, by common consensus, the main stem of the Yukon River. Flowing from Whitehorse, it is swimming-pool blue, so clear one can see fish, but here the Teslin muddies it, and until it meets the ocean it will not run clear again. “Yukon” is a contraction of the Gwich’in phrase chųų gąįį han, which translates as “river of white water”. It is a milky, soupy brown. The silt, rubbed from distant mountains, whispers at the hull, and if you dip your paddle and hold your ear to the shaft you can hear it clearer still, as though the river is deflating. Each new tributary, many of which are big rivers in their own right, adds to the load of silt, so much so that by the time I have passed the eponymous White River it runs so murky that you cannot see deeper than a single knuckle beneath the surface.
The high-cut banks give way to basalt cliffs, their lower slopes thick with juniper and the vivid pinks of fireweed, now pushing out their first flowers. Fireweed is known as summer’s hourglass here, for the creep of blossom up its stem can be read as a gauge to the proximity of winter, so that even now, in the endless light of early summer, there is the foreshadowing of its end. And the river widens, too; at points it is maybe half a mile from one bank to the other.
Gaudíesque hoodoos, wind and weather carved, loom high above the river, hazed by ravens calling madly. One afternoon I see a wolverine, swimming crosswise to the current, like a piece of drift with a mind of its own. It climbs out of the river and shakes itself before it sees me, and darts into the scrub. A wolverine! When my grandparents moved into the house they live in now, they found a walk-in store cupboard covered with scratch marks on the inside, as though some beast had been kept in there. From then on it was known as the Wolverine Cupboard, although as a boy I heard it as “wolvering”, a verb. What sort of terrible creature could have wolvered this cupboard, I wondered. It has forever been an animal mythic in my imagination. And no less mythic for now having seen one.
Finally the weather clears and falls into a pattern of hot mornings and a slow build-up of cumuli that become distant storms by the late afternoon. Off, over the mountains, I watch the lightning and one evening – perhaps an hour or so after a storm – a pall comes down over the river. The air smells of wood, like new planks on a hot day, and the river assumes an air of total stillness. Everything beyond the closest bluff is misted blue, receding lighter to the mountains, pale against an even paler sky. The smell of smoke comes stronger and catches in my throat. Then the day takes on a shade of sepia, shot through by the low sun, the exact same colour as the water, and I float through it as though through a dream.
Later, in this murk, I hear music. I can see neither bank and cannot place where it is coming from. It is ethereal, far off, as though Sirens are calling to me. Eventually, I convince myself that it is the engines of the planes that are bringing water for the fire. But still, as I drift through this dimensionless space, they seem to harmonise within me, and come from every place at once.
An edited extract from Kings of the Yukon: An Alaskan River Journey (Particular Books, £16.99). To order a copy for £14.95 including UK p&p visit The Guardian Bookshop or call on 0330 333 6846
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