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An Adventure on the Yukon River with Artist-in-Residence Lindsay Carron

Madelyn Smith, 2018 Directorate Fellow

    In July 2018, the Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge welcomed Artist-in-Residence Lindsay Carron as she traveled to the Alaskan interior. This was Lindsay’s third summer creating original artwork for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to promote Alaskan Refuges. Acting Refuge Manager Nathan Hawkaluk, Lindsay, and I, a Yukon Flats summer intern, planned to spend eight days on the Yukon River experiencing the natural wonders and Native culture of the refuge. The final product of this adventure will be a beautiful piece of artwork exploring the interconnectedness of Yukon Flats’ plants, animals, and people and the earth on which they depend, rendered in ink and colored pencil on a historic topographic map of the area. 

    On the first day of our journey, Nathan, Lindsay, and I lowered the brand-new jet drive boat into the Yukon River at the village of Circle at the end of the Steese Highway. Lindsay immediately noticed how vast the sky was, perfectly blue with voluminous white clouds towering over us like floating mountains. As Nathan started up the engine and we began to cut a wake through the river’s calm waters, Lindsay made her way to sit at the bow of the boat and observe the endless tree line of spruce and birch passing swiftly by.

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    We boated for several hours before arriving at Fort Yukon, where the Refuge Information Technician, Julie Mahler, was no where to be found. After a leisurely break by the boat ramp and a few peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, Nathan assured us that we could find Julie at her camp nearby, a cabin built by Julie and her husband on the Porcupine River. A short, twenty- minute boat ride brought us to a lovely log cabin with a sod roof surrounded by a large garden, outdoor cooking space, and tents set up for Julie’s cultural camp, where she teaches children from several villages subsistence and Gwich’in language skills. Lindsay was ecstatic to meet the first of her subjects to be featured in her final drawing.

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    In Lindsay’s words, “Julie has kind eyes, a strong body, and perfectly salt and peppered hair beautifully braided and twisted into a bun… She’s a no-nonsense woman with a brilliant smile and a great sense of humor, earned through years of tireless work with her hands and pure will on some of the roughest, wildest land in the world. She hops off her four-wheeler, her pistol swinging from her hip, and you know she means business. But no harm. All with great care. After snapping a few gorgeous pictures of her as the sun started to dance lower in the sky, she bashfully smiles and shuffles side to side. She’s not used to this. And the artwork that will come from this is bound to be stunning.”

    We spent the night in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s cozy Fort Yukon cabin, then motored out to an expansive gravel bar on the Porcupine River. We spent the morning wading in the cool water, enjoying the clear skies, and listening to the occasional crash of earth or a tree falling from the river’s eroding banks. Lindsay created an expressive sketch of the gravel bar with a weathered, sun-bleached piece of driftwood in the foreground. The wooden branch mirrors the wavering line of the bank that threatens to release more land into the river at any moment. 

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(Lindsay Carron/USFWS)

     After spending the morning enjoying the refuge’s scenic beauty, we made our way once again to Julie’s cabin. Lindsay and I helped to cover her garden with dried grass to keep the weeds down and retain moisture in the soil. We then preoccupied two of Julie’s rambunctious grandchildren with a game of tag while Julie instructed her two teenage grandsons who were repairing the roof of the outdoor cooking space. After a few failed attempts at fishing and a hearty meal of ground beef and vegetables boiled with pasta, Lindsay sat down to do her first sketches of Julie’s portrait. Julie reminisced about the many years raising her family in an even more remote cabin in the Alaskan bush while Lindsay attentively recorded the details of Julie’s bashful smile, twinkling eyes, and long, braided hair.

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    Our last day in Fort Yukon was spent doing some maintenance on the gravel driveway of the cabin and meeting with Nancy James, the First Chief of the Gwichyaa Zhee tribal government in Fort Yukon. In the evening, Lindsay and I walked the streets of the village and spent some time with locals who were curious about our purpose in town. Julie invited us to hop on the back of her four-wheeler and took us racing through the ATV trails on the outskirts of town, during which Lindsay and I collected a stubborn layer of dust on our hair and skin that would remain with us through the end of our trip.

    The next morning, Lindsay hopped on the local radio station to broadcast a public message about her project and Nathan loaded up the boat with our refilled fuel tanks, large ice chest, and bags of gear. We pushed off from the Fort Yukon boat launch and continued downriver to our next destination- Canvasback Lake. The wind that day was a force to be reckoned with, but we endured the bumpy ride and pushed through to the calmer waters of the lower mouth of Birch Creek. We continued up the creek, startling a cow moose laying in the river and enjoying our first glimpses of the waterfowl for which the Yukon Flats are nationally important.

    Nathan pointed out the break in the tree line that indicated the trail which would lead us to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service administrative cabin on Canvasback Lake. We secured the boat to a convenient tree, sorted out the gear we would need for the next few days, and hoped that a curious bear wouldn’t disturb our vessel while we were away. Nathan explained that the trail had been originally cut for snowmobiles in the wintertime, so the conditions weren’t exactly ideal for overland summer travel. Nathan and I pulled on our hip boots while Lindsay prepared to brave the waist-deep slough in just hiking boots and leggings. We trudged through the deep water and traversed a primitive trail that opened up into a meadow bordering a small, peaceful lake. Nathan showed us how to inflate and assemble the two packable boats and paddles. We strapped on our waterproof gear bags and forced the boats through the stubborn reeds along the bank. After hopping into the shallow boats, we paddled a short distance before getting out, pulling the boats through a stretch of grass, and braving the stiff, unyielding reeds once again to access Canvasback Lake.

    Canvasback is a deceivingly large lake, spotted with islands of golden reeds and filled with underwater aquatic vegetation perfect to nourish the newly fledged chicks of migratory birds. We paddled to the boat dock of the small cabin. It is nestled in a stand of magnificently tall spruce trees, their scrawny tops precariously swaying in the wind. After pulling the boats onto land, we used the clever pully system to lift the cabin’s shutters and flood the inside of the small structure with warm light. Lindsay and Nathan cooked chicken sausages over a fire while I enjoyed some veggie burgers on the cabin’s expansive deck, which is almost as large as the cabin’s interior.

    The next day was spent simply enjoying the landscape. Lindsay and I hauled an enormous moose skull onto the deck and spent several hours sketching it and the tranquil lakefront behind it. We took a quick paddling trip around Canvasback Lake, which turned into a strenuous bout of exercise as strong winds pushed us to the far east side and we had to fight our way back. We realized that it was, in fact, the 4th of July, and we felt very patriotic that night as we roasted moose steaks over the fire and savored the experience of wildness in America’s public lands.

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(Lindsay Carron/USFWS)

    We awoke at the Canvasback Lake cabin on day six of our adventure and prepared to return to the boat. On the trek back, Nathan discovered his thigh boots were punctured and I lost balance and fell backward in the water, leaving us both as soaked as Lindsay. Luckily, our boat was unharmed. We quickly dried off and began our journey to the village of Beaver. A long morning of boating brought us to Beaver’s modest boat ramp in the midafternoon, leaving us a few hours to prepare for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service open house planned for that evening. While Nathan began preparations for the event, Lindsay and I met with Rhonda Pitka, the Chief of Beaver’s tribal government, to tell her about Lindsay’s work and solicit her input. 

    At 4:30 pm, the daily commercial flight touched down at Beaver’s gravel airstrip and we happily greeted coworkers from the Fairbanks office as they flew in to help staff the open house. We set up tents, tables, children’s activities, and a charcoal grill. Lindsay delighted the children of the village by painting their faces into wolves and foxes, while I helped them make dragonfly beaded keychains. Other staff members flipped burgers and led archery and a variety of wildlife-themed craft activities. The event left everyone with full bellies and smiles on their faces. We felt accomplished that night as we took down the event canopies and set up our tents to enjoy some well-earned rest.

    The seventh day of our trip was a day filled with salmon, something Lindsay had been searching and salivating for throughout our entire journey. Lunch was enjoyed with Clara, a village elder who invited us to share a meal of fresh salmon delivered to her that morning. She cooked it simply in an electric pan with a little oil and water. It was unseasoned, yet the most delicate, flavorful salmon I have ever tasted. Lindsay took the opportunity to sketch Clara’s wise, lined face as she recounted stories about moose encounters and her old fish camp along the river.

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    In the evening, we settled back into the familiar puzzle of gas tanks, ice chests, and backpacks in the boat. Nathan steered us to backtrack upstream to Paul Williams Sr.’s fish camp where salmon were being smoked as provisions for the frigid winter months. As we neared the location of the camp, we paused at a fish wheel where we watched Paul and his son lift a thirty-pound king salmon from the large, rotating trap and deposit it into their boat. As they were working, a second, smaller salmon was scooped from the water and slid into the trap’s wooden enclosure! We were enamored by this rare opportunity to see a traditional fishing structure at work, providing sustenance for a people who had relied on this construction for many years.

    We followed Paul the remaining short distance back to his camp. After securing our boats and climbing the dirt steps neatly cut into the riverbank, we came upon several small clearings. Scattered tents and a tidy outhouse surrounded a central smokehouse, fish processing table, and a cooking and seating area sheltered by a tarp awning. Several strategically chosen trees had straight branches secured between them to act as drying racks for the long, fatty strips of pink salmon. An AmeriCorps volunteer named Deborah weighed and measured the fish as part of her project collecting fishery data for the Tanana Chiefs Conference, an organization representing the 42 villages of Interior Alaska. 

    We watched, entranced, as Paul’s two sons sliced open the freshly caught king salmon, removed bulging egg sacks containing thousands of vibrant, orange roe, and deftly portioned and sliced the various salmon cuts for optimal drying. The salmon strips were rinsed in river water, then soaked in salt water for about 15 minutes before being draped over the branch drying racks. As we tasted bits of raw salmon roe and meat handed to us, Deborah explained to me that we were experiencing one of the last truly wild Alaskan salmon runs. She emphasized how rare it was that the forefathers of these fish had traveled the same thousands of miles from the Bering Sea in search of their natal streams and that their populations were not augmented by hatchery fish.  

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   As the salmon were divided up, fish heads, fins, roe, and extraneous scraps of meat were tossed into a cast iron pot, covered with river water, and boiled over the fire to create a hearty meal. A whitefish was wrapped in aluminum foil and baked next to a pot of continuously boiling coffee and a strip of half-smoked salmon. The men who had been working all day piled their plates high with boiled and baked fish meat. We savored the fresh meat and traded stories from our respective backgrounds. I shared tales from back home in Louisiana and was peppered with questions about the absence of my Cajun accent and if I knew the stars of the popular television show “Swamp People.” As the sunlight finally began to wane in the midnight hours, we transferred the salmon strips into the smokehouse to protect them from hungry animals in search of an easy meal.

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    The next morning, Deborah cooked fluffy pancakes, scrambled eggs, and greasy breakfast sausage to fuel the full day of fishing ahead. We packed away our tents and sleeping bags and thanked our hosts for their generosity and hospitality. As we said our goodbyes, Deborah mentioned how she missed the Cajun spices she typically cooked with. I happily left her with my Tabasco sauce, pepper jelly, and Tony Chachere’s seasoning blend and felt warmed by the cultural exchange, now made mutual. As we motored away from Paul’s fish camp, I knew that our short time spent there was a memory that would stick with me for a lifetime.

    We spent our last few hours on the river taking in the sights and enjoying snack breaks on wide, inviting gravel bars. When we pulled into our final destination where the Dalton Highway meets the Yukon River, I was both saddened to be ending our journey and relieved that a shower was finally in sight. We enjoyed sharing stories about our adventure with the refuge employees who were there to greet us, load our boat into its trailer, and bring us back to Fairbanks. From there, Lindsay continued on to Anchorage and then Togiak National Wildlife Refuge, where she continued to enjoy the adventures that Alaska’s public lands have to offer. We look forward to the final artwork she will create to celebrate Alaska’s wild, expansive public lands protected for posterity by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

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