River Trip Journal 8


I love the lessons in succession that are so evident in the flats. One bank is cut away and the other grows. Trees fall into the river, sandbars build, grasses take hold, then willows, then cottonwood and spruce.

Today, we weathered a nasty thunderstorm. Geoff built us a temporary shelter by sticking a log into a pileup of driftwood and staking a tarp over it. Before the storm, we had a strong tailwind and, for a while, a “following sea” on particularly long, straight stretches of river where there was fetch enough to build up white caps. We surfed a little and wallowed in the troughs between waves. The smoky haze from distant fires lent the dark clouds some camouflage, so the storm almost crept up on us. Lightning scares me, and the sound of thunder on the river (when we can hear it – usually the engine has to be off). This storm with its wind and heavy rain scared me. We built a fire under our tarp – there was plenty of wood – and watched the rain froth in the river and bounce off the beach. Our fire was just enough to make sure that we never felt the lightning was the brightest thing in the world.


Now we are camping with a group of canoers. There are nine of them. They stopped in this slough to shelter from that same storm. We continued on from our temporary shelter and stopped here to chat after the storm. They are making a documentary and are currently one month into their two-month trip.

River Trip Journal 2



We are in Manley Slough and the sun is beating down gold and gorgeous on my neck and shoulders. We are gliding in a flurry of interrupted water through the reflections of the blue sky and the vivid green banks. Geoff is driving and Daazhraii and I are napping and writing, respectively. The water in the slough is still and translucently brown, like black tea with a little summer sunshine lemon zest. It has its own smell, swampier and thicker than the dusty-smelling Tanana.


I had the very best bath of my life this morning. Daazhraii and I went for a run on our sandbar-island, dodging the wet, thick sand around the puddles and aiming for dry ridges and crusty flats. When I got back to camp, I waded into the Tanana to rinse the sweat off my face and found myself grinning and wading deeper. The water was refreshingly cool, but not cold. Lemonade with mint. Gin and tonic.

Geoff was sitting in the boat with the camp stove, making coffee. He passed me the soap and put an extra pot of clean water on to heat. When it came time to rinse my hair, I held onto the gunwale and he poured clean, warm water through my hair where I stood, waist deep in the river with the sun on my back.


We dodged thunderstorms all the way from skeeter camp yesterday. My favorite part of rain and near-rain is the smells: waves of spruce or ginger-sticky cottonwood that pass low and startling over the water in the thick, humid air. We felt so lucky, dodging all those storms yesterday. We kept an eye on the dark clouds. They billowed up from behind the mountains and swept down on us time after time. We put on our rain gear again and again when a direct hit felt inevitable, and again and again we floated on, untouched, in a bubble of sunlight.


River Trip Journal 1


6 am

On the Tanana

We got a nice break in the clouds this morning, and nearly baked alive in the tent under the fly, so we got up and stripped it off. The mosquitoes had thronged in the night and were poised on the screens. There were more of them than I have ever seen in one place: they looked like pepper on a heap of mashed potatoes.


We left Fairbanks two days ago on 7/1. Our hope is to be in Fort Yukon by 7/10, but I have some doubts: we are moving slow and not getting the miles per gallon that we wish we were. The boat, Lyra, is lovely. She rides high and steady, though she handles like a soggy washtub downriver. So far, we’ve been traveling all downriver, making a steady ten miles per hour or so when under power. Upriver? Who knows. We haven’t really tried it.DSC06288


The first night was perfect. We were on a sandbar in the middle of the river, protected from skeeters by the lightest breeze. We were able to leave the fly off all night and watch the hours-long rosy sunset morph into a sweet peach sunrise.


It began sprinkling in the morning and didn’t let up until afternoon, when we packed up and left. We cruised for a while, but big scary clouds threatened. At first, I wanted to stop and wait it out, but we decided to push on, and it wasn’t too bad. The rain was only really heavy for a few minutes and there was no lightning near us.

We passed under the railroad bridge in Nenana last night just as the northbound train crossed. We waved to the passengers. A nice fellow in Nenana gave Geoff a ride the gas station there. He visited with us on the bank for a while before we left to head downriver. Just down from Nenana, we passed the loading area for the barges. Huge parcels were positioned on the bank and marked with the name of the destination village and the weight.


When the storm clouds began looking really inevitable and menacing and the wind picked up, we decided to stop. There was a huge wood pile on the shore opposite this point, so we collected some good driftwood for a fire before making camp. The tent is right beside a game trail, and our beach has been visited by a brown bear and a cow moose with a calf quite recently. I like to walk the beach and read the mud newspaper at each new camp before bedtime. It makes me feel a little more at home, knowing who has been around. We got dinner and crawled into the tent just before the heavy rain started.


This morning, we heard before we saw a chevron of ducks flying right overhead. Geoff said they sounded like a swarm of bees.


Revisiting Winslow Homer

Yesterday, Sean and I went to the MFA in Boston. I love art museums, (though I can distinctly remember being bored to tears by them as a kid) and I could have spent much, much longer exploring the maze of galleries and exhibitions.


Sean in 8’x12′, an awesome piece about personal space and sprawl and scale in Mumbai

I loved the Megacities Asia exhibition and the gallery of Chinese furniture and the model ships and the very peaceful Buddha in the temple.

We also took a tour of the Americas wing and there paid a visit to some of the paintings of Winslow Homer.  It was impossible, today, not to think of his paintings as we brought Islander down the Penobscot from Winterport in a drenching rain and pea soup fog.


“Look anonymous and heroic, Mom, I’m taking a Winslow Homer picture”


The Fog Warning, 1885

As we ran out with the tide, sliding through water still but for the constant bulletholing of raindrops, soaking slowly in the heavy, warm rain, Dad described the grey landscape of fog and water and sky almost the way I have been known to describe the snow and sky and mountains: it’s a thousand shades of gray, dissolving sound and land and the boundaries between this world, the next, the sky and the sea.

DSC04892DSC04887DSC04894It’s beautiful out there, even on days when the horizon breaks down and water soaks into the sky.

A counterpoem from last week: Sleeping Inside

Tonight I slept
on the couch under the front window
and the rain blew in

I had taken my hammock in
Not wanting it to shred in the forecast winds
Not wanting to sleep light in dark rain

I woke up in the lightning night
With the rain soft and cool on my face, so glad
that the sky came to find me

Silly Pigs

Due to user error, the pigs are taking refuge from tonight's storm under our front porch. We can't lure them out into the rain to bring them back into their enclosure. They get to sleep extra cozy tonight, but be prepared pigs, we come at dawn!

Due to user error, the pigs are taking refuge from tonight’s storm under our front porch. We can’t lure them out into the rain to bring them back into their enclosure. They get to sleep extra cozy tonight, but be prepared pigs, we come at dawn!