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Porcupine River Expedition

Hilo Moreno Cela

I have always wondered what makes us embark on a trip and I believe that the bottom line is the stories. There is nothing as ancient and related to human nature as listening to stories. A story and a wish inevitably lead you to a map. It can be whether a flat and cold map like those from planes’ magazines, or a wrinkled yellowish and colorless one with a mystery X written on the center. A map is a wish waiting to be fulfilled. Once a line has been drawn on the map, everything else is easy: you have just to follow it.

The Grand North

My wish comes from adventure stories in the Grand North. Stories that many have hidden deep in their minds, waiting to be told. Authors such as Jack London, movies like The Bear or White Fang awake an abstract feeling of adventure, where cold, wild beasts, deep forests and the fight for survival all blend together. An old, distant idea, but with a familiar feeling as if already lived through it; something dormant in our genes, with a tendency to wake us up during the night, while  cozy under the warm light of a lamp, curled up on a couch with a book in our hands. A book that takes us to distant places with a simple, precise map described within it pages.

It’s for these reasons that I have a desire to explore Alaska and Yukon, where I have spent a couple of years working for a company based on adventure trips. Last summer, the third one in the Yukon’s river area, my plan was different; I wanted a trip that lasted longer and took place in a remote, hidden location. I would travel with an old friend of mine, David Requena.

It took a lot of time to prepare this adventure, spending several months working on designing a feasible itinerary through an almost unknown area. The traveling expenses in the North of Alaska and Canada are really high as there are few roads and you need to travel either by air or by water.  Therefore, I focused on the two main and most famous highways of North America: Dempster Highway and Dalton Highway. I would connect both through several Yukon River’s tributaries, starting from Eagle River, then crossing through Bell River, cruising all of the Porcupine River and into the Yukon River by the Dalton Highway.

On our fourth night, we found a river bank where the carcass of a devoured caribou lined the shore. The guts remained a few meters away from the body as though they had been removed with surgical precision.  The bank of the river was littered with the several hundred paw prints from wolves roaming the area.

Eagle River

Our journey started on Eagle River: a long, narrow, low flowing river. It provided us with several close encounters with elks; we were even able to admire a massive bull crossing from one shore to the other, ignoring our presence. On our fourth night, we found a river bank where the carcass of a devoured caribou lined the shore. The guts remained a few meters away from the body as though they had been removed with surgical precision.  The bank of the river was littered with the several hundred paw prints from wolves roaming the area.  A week later, we reached the confluence of Bell River. This river has higher and faster flow resulting in a brief journey to the confluence of the Porcupine River. This area is the hunting preserve for the Gwich´in, an Indian nation belonging to the Athabascan linguistic family. Its most populated nucleus is Old Crow, which is in the middle of our route, close to the Alaskan border. 

On the tenth day of our trip we were very close to the village and it seemed that night we were going to sleep under a stronger roof than our tent. The day was completely clear, with no clouds on the horizon.  In the afternoon a head wind began to blow. We spent three hours rowing with all our might to find out that we had barely advanced and had even been going backwards. Soon after getting close to a big bend, the river divided into several channels with gravel islands in between. The river got high and we decided to stop there until it settled down. Suddenly, from nowhere, a man with a rifle in hand approached us. We stood up and understood only one word he was yelling, “dinner”. He took us to his camp and introduced us to the rest of the party, three men totally devoted to hunting and fishing. They invited us to dinner, lit a fire and gave us fish and berries. This was the last encounter with Gwitch’in hospitality that we enjoyed during our entire trip. The next day, with no wind blowing and the sun beating down on our heads, we entered Old Crow just after noon.

Old Crow

The stages after Old Crow are the most famous of all the Porcupine River due to their landscape. A narrow gorge slices through the region, creating a chasm between Canada and America. The gorge is named the Rampart House, an old village and  trading post, where in the early 1900s, white business men and missionaries lived together among the Gwitchin people in the same place where the boundary with Alaska is. Nowadays, it is unoccupied and during some summer days, a crew from Old Crow tries to remodel and maintain it. We got there in just one day of journey from Old Crow and after more than 13 hours rowing. We spent the night peacefully in a wooden cabin and woke up late and rested the next morning.

The summer ended and fall came unexpected that night to Ramparts. A gelid breeze went around the river and in the gorge, hidden from the sun; the cold and humidity penetrated our bodies. The Porcupine River doesn’t have any rapids, but the times when the river is high, there are some sections where you can find little rapids with high waves, easily dealt with. We arrived in the afternoon to one such section, as I navigated the boat into the rapid, the waves were far too high for our heavy canoe and the water came in flooding in within a few seconds. Just as we were about to capsize, we were able to get to shore and empty the canoe. This hiccup wasted a mere hour and we continued our journey pretty quickly to the end of the Ramparts.     

On our fourth night, we found a river bank where the carcass of a devoured caribou lined the shore. The guts remained a few meters away from the body as though they had been removed with surgical precision.  The bank of the river was littered with the several hundred paw prints from wolves roaming the area.
Yukon

The day was drawing to a close and the temperature began to drop, as we spotted a new section of rapids directly ahead of us. The foam was collecting on the surface and sparse rocks appeared like small menacing stone islands. As always happens in these cases, everything happened quickly. In just the blink of an eye we found our canoe sideways and run aground, taking on water. It was too cold to stop and fix the damage on it, so we changed our clothes and continued our journey. At the end of the day we arrived to a place to settle down in our tent, a long beach close to a cold and crystalline creek. There we found the fateful discovery: we started to check the canoe after emptying it and found out two big holes that went through the hull as well as a big scratch that broke the interior surface of it. The next day we started working on how to repair the damage. We first cut a plastic bottle in small pieces and melted them to make them mold to the curve shape of the canoe; then we adhered them to the canoe, covering the holes. It was drizzling rain the whole time. We protected the fixed parts with duct tape. We all know there isn’t any appreciated repair without duct tape.

Later in the sunset we saw a smoke column in the forest and two boats tied up at the entrance close to the river. We jumped to the shore and started heading towards the smoke, dressed in our wet clothes, to what seemed to be a house. As we got closer, a big bearded silhouette wearing a hood came out of a cabin in the dark. We were shaking due to the cold and started telling him what had happened to us. His name was J, he was a trapper and invited us to his place for three unforgettable days. That night we met H, his wife, and we enjoyed a dinner of salmon and rice by the fire where our equipment was drying out. Three days later and after having made a better repair of the canoe, we continue with our journey again.

During the days we spent in the cabin, the forest turned yellow and red, the wind was really chilly and frost at nights were frequents. It was the beginning of the rains. Five days later, the water in the Porcupine turned to a Brown whitish color and its water level became five times higher. We had arrived to the Yukon River.

Yukon River

From now on, the river current grew and moving forward long distance each day was much easier and faster. At this point the wind turned into a big handicap for us. The mountains disappeared and the meanders were so abundant that they got lost in channels and parts of the river  seemed more like big lakes than streams, and the wind creating huge waves.

This part of the river is known as Yukon Flats and is a shelter to hundreds of bird species as well as other animals. The weather here could be defined as really dry, being  the area with the least precipitation in the Yukon River. In fact, it just rains a few days a year – and we had all of them. It wasn’t a pouring temporary summer storm that goes leaving everything soaked as it passes.  We experienced a constant, endless rain with big drops falling heavily to the river like hail stones. It was a rain that filled the canoe and drowned out our converstion. Hours passed in silence with the only sound of rain falling over the river and the constant pace of our rows as we pressed on to Beaver village.

The day was drawing to a close and the temperature began to drop, as we spotted a new section of rapids directly ahead of us.  the foam was collecting on the surface and sparse rocks appeared like small menacing stone islands. As always happens in these cases, everything HAPPENED quickLY, in just a blink of an eye we found our canoe sideways and run aground, taking on water very quickly.

The rain came again displacing the wind, so we were able to advance a long way during the days. Camping on the sandy islands, sitting by the fire in the evenings became our routine. The fourth day, after leaving Porcupine, we came to a strange place after an agonising rainy day. It was an apparently abandoned hunting camp. We were able to make fire, get our clothes dried and enjoy a relaxing dinner sheltered from the pouring rain by the wood walls. A little bit later, and in the middle of the night, we woke up to find the muddy shores of the river were disappearing due to the erosion of the river from the heavy rain. Our canoe was then much closer to the shore, so we decided to move it further back. You should never lower your guard in situations like this. As confident as I am, I started walking to the dark and muddy shore, without any frontal light or my anti-bear device. And it was at this moment a bear came as close as few meters from us. A never-forget lesson that made us retrace our steps and return to the area armed and with flashlight in hand. But the bear had already run away leaving many paw prints around our canoe.

The next morning, our final day, turned to be bright and sunny. We continued downstream and in the distance we could see a line of mountains. These mountains marked the end of the Flats on our map and signaled the start of a new section of the river, the wildest and farthest from any kind of civilization in Alaska. Its beginning meant our end point for this journey, the Dalton Highway crossing the Yukon River.

After turning the last meander, the river straightened. It was crowned by a dark and strange object over the water. It was obvious that piece, erected by men, didn’t fit in this natural puzzle. This object became a bridge after a couple of hours. A huge hanging bridge; with moving components that eventually slid over it lighting its pillars and some buildings in the extremes of the bridge. With the sun almost hidden in the water, we crossed under the pillars of the bridge. A group of elder American people stared at us in surprised while putting their beer cans on the ground. The bridge resounded after all the huge trucks crossing and a broken unearthly low horn sound muffled in our ears as we were getting out of the canoe.

Hermenegildo (Hilo) Moreno is a mountain guide and house husband. He works during part of the year in the Spanish Antartic Station Juan Carlos I. The rest of the year he travels and lives with his wife in Ogden, Utah, at the foothills of the Wasatch Mountains.

Find out more about his recent and forthcoming expeditions via his website: www.hilomoreno.com

Thanks to Pilala Jiménez Dufol and Jorge López Mendía for their translation of the story from Spanish to English.

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