Recently reading John McPhee’s “Coming into the Country”, a 1970’s look into the people living on Alaska’s Yukon River, and Dan O’Neill’s 2006 followup “A Land Gone Lonesome” put me on a track to consume writing about the Yukon and its people like it was oxygen. As just one of many Americans who has often dreamed of living their lifestyle, I find it simply fascinating. And when I looked for more writing about interior Alaska, I found that I’d only scratched the surface.
In between the times McPhee and O’Neill spent on the upper portion of the Yukon River within Alaska, another traveler and fellow writer ran the river. But unlike the other two, who painted a sketch of the river people between Eagle and Circle, Alaska, John Hildebrand ran the entire Yukon, from its origin in Whitehorse, Canada, to St. Mary’s, Alaska, just shy of the Bering Sea. The monumental task took the better part of a summer and a good deal of help from folks he met along the way as he simultaneously covered ground and gathered stories. Hildebrand shared the story in his 1988 book, “Reading the River: A Voyage Down the Yukon”.
For a time, John Hildebrand had it made. A professorship at University of Alaska Fairbanks, a new wife and child on the way, and a remote cabin in the Alaska bush to spend the summer and satisfy some of the dream to live wild. But soon it all came crashing down, and left him sad and alone. With no place to go and a burning desire to experience the Alaska bush life he’d dreamed of as a young man, Hildebrand took to the river. He’d cover it all, alone, and document his journey over the course of the summer.
It’s hard to imagine the vastness of the Yukon River. Think of being on the same body of water for weeks on end, motoring every day and still not reaching the end. In addition to its sheer size, the Yukon is diverse. Human activity along the river varies substantially, from the almost urban atmosphere in Whitehorse and Dawson City, to long stretches of vast wilderness with no sign of humans for miles, and small villages up on the banks interspersed throughout the river’s length.
In the summertime, the upper Yukon has its recreationists travelling varying distances. In addition, woods folk living on nearby tributaries or villages up or downstream are scattered at fish camps where they catch the winter’s supply of salmon by net or fish wheel. Lone cabins can be found here and there, though not nearly as frequently as in the past. Villages are small mixtures of native Athabascan Indians and white settlers in the Interior, and Eskimos near the coast.
Amongst all of the diversity along the Yukon River, Hildebrand pieced together a common theme woven throughout the stories of its people. The land is scarce and tough, and people are dependent on the river for their survival. It provides transportation and food. It also takes lives and washes villages away.
For better or worse, folks along the Yukon are more closely connected to their environment than most Americans today. Some have chosen this lifestyle and cherish it, while others grew up in it and have known no other way. Like many of us, Hildebrand was neither. Similar to McPhee and O’Neill, he was an outsider who spent just enough time along the river to share another set of stories for all of the dreamers out there who have never been. And in doing so, he worked out a few of his own inner conflicts, a key component to any good solo woods trip.