I had anticipated the kayak trip for a full year.
The four days I had spent the previous year on the Yukon River, with my friend John, had been a spur-of-the-moment accident. I’d never been in a kayak before and had to borrow half the gear I needed from another encouraging friend.
The four days was restful and adventurous, and thoughtful and amazing.
I joined John at Tatchun Creek, just past Carmacks, and we leisurely made our way to Dawson.
The days went something like this: get up, have breakfast, pack-up, paddle for a half-hour, snack, float and talk, paddle another half-hour, have lunch, float and nap, snack, paddle another half-hour, float and talk, look for a place to camp, set-up camp, eat dinner, crawl into bed, talk (me) and snore (him), sleep, then start all over again.
I love the Yukon River. With its seven-mile-per-hour current, we did not paddle more than two hours per day.
I got inspired. Not just by the river, but by the adventurous spirit of my paddling buddy. He had done so many things, not the least of which was climbing on the highest mountains in the world.
We made plans for the next summer. It would be a longer trip on the Yukon River, all the way from Dawson City to the pipeline crossing in Alaska, the other side of Fairbanks. It would be 500 miles.
That winter was my introduction to working out at the gym. I worked on the exercises that would strengthen my arms. I knew that, on this longer trip, just floating and paddling two hours per day would not cut it.
Over the winter, I bought some of my own gear: neoprene booties, gloves, some foam bits to mount a kayak on a vehicle and a few other odd things. I rented the same yellow, 17-foot Tyee kayak I had used the year before, loaded it up onto the back of John’s camper with his red C-1 ocean-going canoe and headed to Dawson.
The first day, I had spent trying to keep up with John, changing my paddling form probably a hundred times trying to find just the right movement so that my elbow didn’t hurt.
The second day, it was my wrist and a whole new set of positions to try out as I tried, more successfully, to keep up with John.
The third day, it was my shoulder. It took half the day to work that out. By day four I was able to paddle without pain.
We often slowed when the scenery demanded undivided attention, drifting with the current, either alone or with the boats rafted together.
On the second day, something special happened as we rounded one particular bend in the river: we came round a tight left-hand turn in the river. We could see a set of cliffs on the left-hand side of the river lining the long right that followed.
Actually, we could feel the cliffs before we noticed them.
It was subtle, at first – just a quiet, soft feeling – calmness just slightly outside of the realm of normal.
Instinctively, we stopped paddling so as to approach and pass more slowly, and to experience this new sensation.
The cliffs were beautiful, maybe 30-feet high and showing the folds of centuries of layers of rock cut away by centuries more of river flowing by.
The feeling grew as we got closer; subtle calm was replaced by heavy thickness and warmth like warm caramel sauce pouring over hot-pudding holiday cake.
The energy made me feel even better than those first tastes of that cake did when I was a kid. But this energy was emanating from rock, not a mother’s kitchen.
I tried as long as I could to stay near those cliffs, without success, as soon the strong Yukon River current swept us past and I could feel myself being pulled reluctantly away.
I can’t really explain the feeling. I like to think that, right at that spot, the earth was offering a small gift to us for taking the time to follow the path of the river and be aware enough to feel her rock breath.
I haven’t been back to that spot, but it doesn’t really matter. All I have to do is stop for a moment and remember and I am back there, feeling the caramel roll over me, gifted again for taking the time to slow down and accept it.