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On the Trail of Poppa's Alaska

The final 50 feet we traveled with Keith proved disastrous. It was 10 days since we'd begun, and following a long afternoon on the western side of Windy Gap, we'd finally come down to Beaver Creek—its name a modest one for a surging river more than 100 feet wide, its banks lined with trees brought down during spring flooding. Between our packtrain and a meadow on the riverbank lay a wet gully maybe five feet wide. We stopped and waited as the horse Keith was riding gingerly slipped down the near slope of the gully, then scrambled up the far side. His second horse, however, attached by a short leash to Keith's saddle horn, decided not to walk but to jump. He made it, barely; the catastrophe began when huge Dolly, the third horse in the string, found herself at the brink of the gully without enough rope and was forced to jump. Dolly wasn't built for jumping, and I winced as I saw her front legs make the far bank, and then the huge weight of her pack boxes pull her backward, into the gully, as her rope snapped. The huge animal lay on her back in the mud, neighing pathetically as we looked on in horror and Keith looked on in disgust.

"Get down there and hold her head up so she don't drown," Keith barked at Hans, who soon was up to his thighs in mud. Keith ordered us to cross the gully at a narrower spot and bring our horses to him. Then, with his horse in the lead, he fashioned a multihorse tow system, tying the rope at the end to Dolly's harness. "Git!" he cried, whacking the rearmost animal, and the chain of horses strained forward. With a sucking noise, Dolly was slowly brought free of the muck, tilting forward in a motion I thought would break her. Then she popped out and was pulled up onto the bank; in a few seconds she was on her feet. Keith had brought her through, with not insignificant discomfort. Dad and I could relate.

Our adventure began in earnest when we boarded the raft at Beaver Creek. Even as Dad and I floated off, waving to Keith and Hans, we realized that our vessel was inadequate for the job; only eight feet long, it was barely big enough to hold both us and our gear. To sit on the sides, as planned, was absurd—even with the raft fully inflated, water rushed in, and on shallow stretches we scraped the river bottom. The first afternoon, my plastic paddle came apart from its aluminum handle, and just as we finished taping it together we noticed that the rear half of the raft was slowly sinking into the creek. We made a beeline for the shore to fix it.

But despite these worries, we felt a sense of freedom, for we could start and stop and sleep as we liked. We could eat a leisurely breakfast, pause for fishing, bathe in the evening (chilly!), and focus on each other's company.

And talk about Poppa. My favorite picture of him was taken somewhere along Beaver Creek (see ). Nineteen years old, my grandfather stands on a big log raft between Ashby, the cook, and Morton, the packer, who man the sweeps at either end. Behind them is the lost-horse fiasco; ahead are three weeks (more, for all they know) down an uncharted creek that they hope will reunite them with the mighty Yukon, and civilization. Morton and Ashby look strained. But my grandfather, during one of the most trying times of his young life, wears a big grin.

My father was like Poppa in many ways. Dad loved travel and the West and adventure, too—after all, he was game enough to try this harebrained journey. And accounts: in the back of Poppa's diary was the penny-by-penny expense list his father had required him to keep ("leggings 1.25, hdkchfs .25, tip .10, drayage and wharfage on trunk, .75"). My father had asked the same of me at college.

Now, though, as we aged, roles were starting to shift; my father was ceding certain kinds of authority to me. How to handle Keith, for example: I had done the discussing, then the yelling. Which way to approach the rapids we encountered as the river meandered north, where to set up the tent—these, now, were my decisions to make. But in return, I had to keep my father well.

Animals occupied our attention as we drifted: a cow moose standing directly in our path (as nervous about a meeting, thankfully, as we were); a wolf that slinked off a gravel bar as we approached, then reemerged to appraise us as we drifted away; eagles that dive-bombed us. Our presence caused a herd of some 30 Dall sheep drinking at the river to dash uphill. Bears eluded us, though each time we stopped at soft sand it was marked with their prints.

Smoke continued to rise from the forest. Later we learned that 13 fires were burning along the western flank of the White Mountains as we floated by, some just a few acres large, some several square miles. They were part of a natural cycle, and most would run their course in a few slow-burning days—but the smoke they produced was dramatic. More than once we were unable to see across the river; twice we saw live flames licking the riverbank and a landscape of blackened, smoldering trunks beyond.

Finally, eight days down Beaver Creek, we saw our first sign of human habitation—a cabin, Keith Koontz's original homestead. We dragged our ailing raft from the water and looked around. The present owners had posted a sign on the door (next to strips of grizzly hide placed there to scare bears away) asking visitors not to stay in the cabin, but inviting them to use the smaller one a hundred yards away. We explored this offer and found it very much to our liking. It would be two and a half days before our plane arrived, and now we wouldn't have to spend this time in a tent dodging mosquitoes. Instead we read, fished, photographed, cooked, and talked. My father and I are poorer for the distance we live apart. These days in Alaska were money in the bank.

Poppa, to conclude his trip, had floated two more weeks down Beaver Creek. Lack of wind and the slow going made his party easy prey for insects, and their food dwindled to practically nothing. Finally, though, they reached the Yukon River, and were soon pleasantly ensconced in the stateroom of a steamer aiming for the Lower 48.

Our exit from the wilderness was more sudden. Outside early on the appointed day, we didn't have to wait long for our plane—and a sweet sight it was, for even with Keith's landmark to guide us, we were not absolutely sure of our whereabouts. The short, wide-winged plane buzzed over our gravel bar three times before setting down. The pilot didn't want to risk taking off with a fully loaded plane from this little strip, so he ferried us one at a time downriver to a safer gravel bar. He could have told us to sit upside down and we would have done it, so glad were we to see him.

Yet, as we shot over the mountains toward hotel rooms, cold beers, and hot showers, I felt a loss: the skills we had honed for Alaska would not be needed now. Dinner no longer would involve catching a fish. It would be weeks or months—perhaps forever—before I would spend this kind of time with my dad again. And part of me would yearn to be back on my grandfather's trail.

Your Own Wilderness Tour

Alaska is challenging and exciting enough without a difficult guide (the author's was hired through the Fairbanks Chamber of Commerce). Here are six reliable, Alaska-based companies that offer guided expeditions.

  • Alaska Discovery (5449-4 Shaune Dr., Juneau, AK 99801; 800/586-1911). Expeditions of 2‚20 people, by sea kayak, canoe, and raft, throughout Alaska.
  • Alaska Wildland Adventures (Box 389, Girdwood, AK 99587; 800/334-8730). Small-group tours at Denali National Park and Kenai Peninsula.
  • Adventure Alaska (2904 W. 31st Ave., Anchorage, AK 99517; 800/365-7057). Excursions of four to eight people in south-central, southeast, and interior Alaska, the Inside Passage, and the Yukon.
  • Northern Alaska Tour Co. (Box 82991, Fairbanks, AK 99708; 907/474-8600). One-day and multi-day excursions on Prudhoe Bay, the Yukon River, Arctic Circle, and Inupiat Eskimo villages.
  • Denali Raft Adventures (Drawer 190, Denali Park, AK 99755; 907/683-2234). Day or overnight rafting trips for groups of all sizes on the Nenana River, at the eastern boundary of Denali National Park.
  • Arctic Treks (Box 73452, Fairbanks, AK 99707; 907/ 455-6502). Backpacking, rafting, and base camping in the Arctic regions for groups of four to nine, including families with children.

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