Member preview

Drifting

I’m duct taping the map case this morning. It’s just a big Ziploc bag, and it has started to tear.

We use it roughly. Each thing gets strapped down in the morning routine: food barrels are turned sideways, cord threaded through their handles and cinched in a big in-case-it-flips X between the spars. The kitchen box, flat-topped, is cinched down in the same way, but we use the flat top as a map table. The spiral-bound long map gets shoved under the cord and pulled out every time we take a close look or flip the page– so it’s wearing through.

This morning, we’re drifting towards a rendezvous point.

We left the large group before Carmacks; they’re headed home. Rick and me, and Ray and Tom, carry on towards Dawson.

As a big group of six vessels, we had the strongest paddlers as lead boat and sweeper– everybody else between. But as two canoes, we’re less cautious. In the morning, Rick and I– quick with knots, and practiced light campers– we’re ready to go early. We stare out at the morning calm, the current moving by, and think: that could be us. The river could carry us.

You’re not supposed to split up on a river voyage. If two boats go different ways around an island, you might lose each other. You can’t wait for your partners to catch up, in case they’re ahead of you.

But this morning, the sun was out, the wind was low, and we couldn’t resist the urge to get going in the good weather. So we set a point three map pages downstream: if we don’t see you by then, we’ll wait for each other here. The upstream end of an obvious island, just after the end of the long basalt wall.

With the map case fixed, my only objective is to not get cold. We try not to paddle when we know we’re ahead– only steering, no work. So it’s going to be cold until our partners reach us.

It’s too breezy above the canoe, sitting on the seat. My rain gear is thin, and I can feel the heat leaching away.

All my layers on, I tuck my body deep into the bow. I’ve found a way to get below the gunwales, so the constant blow of wind barely brushes over my prone body. I brace my hands on the two sides of the boat, pivot to face backward, sit on the foam kneepads stuck to the hull. It’s a little muddy on the boat’s floor, but I’m mostly waterproof. It’s worth it to stymie the wind’s reaching fingers.

Rick lays out across the stern, his feet up on the food barrels. He’s more exposed to the wind, but also to the sun.

We try to drift a lot: the current carries us at 4kmh on average. The wind blows against us at up to 8kmh. It’s a hell of a lot of work to paddle into a strong headwind, so we hunker down, reduce our profile.

When it’s blowing like that, we have to raft up or steer out of the middle; in the river’s center, we turn sideways. Gusts roll us with alarming jerks in concert with the whipped-up waves.

We’re going 60–70 kilometers per day. It’s far, but light duty unless the wind is really bad. We optimize for time on the water: lunch while floating, few stops. Rick checks our speed with an app: “We’re going 5.2 knots. No, 4.8. If we just drifted, we’d get there in…”

We’ll make camp within six hours without paddling. But we do paddle, so some days we go further; some days we get there early. At this pace, we’d be in Alaska within 20 days of Whitehorse– though we’re not going that far.

“Three months,” Rick says, “if we were going all the way to the Bering Sea at this pace.”

I poke my head above the gunwales, look back upriver. There: a small dot with flashes of yellow at the sides, getting closer. Tom and Ray, catching up. It’s a little cramped down here on the canoe floor, so I lever back up to my seat. Time to paddle.

Previous: Fickle River | Next: Drifting

Like what you read? Give Kelsey Breseman a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.