In late August, 13 good friends and I took inflatable kayaks down the Charley/Yukon Rivers in Alaska’s interior. The Charley River is one of the most beautiful rivers in Alaska. It drains from an area of 5,000 -6,000 foot peaks in the high Yukon-Tanana uplands and Ogilvie Mountains. With no glacial sources it runs gin-clear all the way to the Yukon. We drank right out of the river we paddled with no filters necessary.
Unusually high rainfalls in July allowed us the rare opportunity to launch from the far upper reaches of Three Finger Creek, 114 miles from the Yukon. This tributary of the Charley offers the only fixed winged access to the upper source, and it took two days and nine bush flights from Circle Hot Springs to drop our team at the Yukon’s source. The landing strip was nothing more than an area of rough tundra marked by a piece of flagging tape. With the most dangerous part of our trip complete, the flights and landings, we started moving downstream on a creek running only 10 cfs. For two exhausting days we pushed, pulled, waded and occasionally paddled to cover the roughly 20 miles to the Charley. Once on the Charley, the river was mostly Class III rock gardens with a maximum gradient of 67 feet per mile in a section we dubbed “Rock Alley” just above the Copper Creek confluence. From Copper Creek down, there was plenty of water with frequent Class II rapids. We paddled several new channels created by the July floodwaters and our lead kayaks spooked out several Caribou and a few large Grizzly Bears, one of which was feeding on a dead Caribou in the river. The steep canyon walls yielded several grazing big horn sheep sightings, and the infamous peregrine falcon was a constant companion. The fishermen in the group caught Arctic Grayling on spinners and flies and, at night, we sampled their delicate white meat over the evening fire. It is always a pleasure to see more wildlife than humans, and on the Charley, we saw only three big game hunters.
On day eight, we reached the brown waters of the Yukon flowing at 190,000 cfs. At the confluence, we were greeted by Park Rangers from the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve. After confirming that we were NOT a guided group, our ranger friends shared with us their secrets about the final 70-mile paddle to Circle City. On our final night on the river, camped on an island in the middle of the Preserve, gunfire ripped the air from a distant cabin and bullets whizzed over our heads. Suddenly, the river dynamic changed from a pulse rate of 55 to 155. Several minutes later, but for what seemed like hours, our new ranger friends appeared miraculously out of the brush bearing automatic weapons. It turned out they were camped a few hundred yards upstream and had heard the whole thing. I’ve never been happier to see law enforcement. The Alaska Troopers were called in and our assailant was arrested on 14 counts of Assault 3, a felony.
Throughout the 12 days on our Alaskan adventure, we received just two hours of rain. We had bluebird days that were followed by nights where temperatures dipped down to 19 degrees F. The cold night froze out Alaska’s state bird, the mosquito, and bright fall colors lit the rivers during the day while the Northern Lights danced with us late in the evenings. Replete with a couple of guitar-yielding members, we sang everyday and night on the river. Our theme song: “Their Ain’t No Blues on the Charley”… expect for maybe bullets.