Life and Times of a Big River: An Uncommon Natural History of Alaska's Upper Yukon

Life and Times of a Big River: An Uncommon Natural History of Alaska's Upper Yukon

by Peter J. Marchand


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When Richard Nixon signed the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act in 1971, eighty million acres were flagged as possible national park land. Field expeditions were tasked with recording what was contained in these vast acres. Under this decree, five men were sent into the sprawling, roadless interior of Alaska, unsure of what they’d encounter and ultimately responsible for the fate of four thousand pristine acres.
Life and Times of a Big River follows Peter J. Marchand and his team of biologists as they set out to explore the land that would ultimately become the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve. Their encounters with strange plants, rare insects, and little-known mammals bring to life a land once thought to be static and monotonous. And their struggles to navigate and adapt to an unforgiving environment capture the rigorous demands of remote field work. Weaving in and out of Marchand's narrative is an account of the natural and cultural history of the area as it relates to the expedition and the region’s Native peoples. Life and Times of a Big River chorincles this riveting, one-of-a-kind journey of uncertainty and discovery from a disparate (and at one point desperate) group of biologists.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781602232471
Publisher: University of Alaska Press
Publication date: 05/15/2015
Pages: 200
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Peter J. Marchand is a field biologist who studies forest, tundra, and desert landscapes. He is the author of Autumn: A Season of Change, Nature Guide to the Northern Forest, Life in the Cold and The Bare-toed Vaquero. He lives in Penrose, Colorado.

Read an Excerpt

Life and Times of a Big River

An Uncommon Natural History of Alaska's Upper Yukon

By Peter J. Marchand


Copyright © 2015 University of Alaska Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-60223-248-8




July 2, 1975, in a mail plane en route to the village of Circle. Tossing about on the updrafts of a clear day over the Yukon-Tanana uplands, I am intent on the landscape scrolling under me, a complicated mosaic of forest and muskeg, of meandering rivers and cut-off oxbow lakes, of rounded alpine summits and old caribou trails. To my regret, however, I am greatly distracted by a problem I have never encountered before. My pilot is falling asleep.

I could have driven to Circle. The village was connected to Fairbanks and the outside world by a 160-mile, pot-holed gravel road, and the villagers boasted of being the northernmost point in the U.S. that could be reached by car, but it would have been a long day at the wheel after a long trip from the south, and my party was waiting.

Besides, I like to fly. It gives me a much better perspective of my world. I would spend enough time on the ground later, getting to know the land in all its gritty details. So I caught a ride on Air North's mail run and found myself in the company of a pilot who apparently was so bored with his job that it was all he could do to stay awake. That or he'd had a pretty rough night. He was a big man who seemed to slouch naturally — both he and his plane had a very unkempt look — but now he slumped in his seat a little more, crowding the door as if trying to get comfortable for a nap. The two Athabaskan women who had climbed silently into the back of the four-seater don't seem to notice, or at least care much, but I am having a hard time ignoring the situation.

I try conversation above the unmuffled drone of the engine. The pilot isn't making it easy.

"Fly this route much?"


"How often?"

"Three times a week."

"Been doin' it long?


"Few years?"


On it went, one drawn-out syllable at a time. I was beginning to wonder if it was me. I'd had a conversation like this on my last flight, too, on the plane up from Seattle. Attempting to be sociable, I tried to make conversation with the guy seated next to me.

"What brings you to Alaska?"


Then tolerantly he asks, "You?"

"I'm a forest ecologist working for ..."

It ended right there. Pipeliners and ecologists mix about as well as oil and bay ducks, and the conversation was finished before it had a chance. The man's eyes glazed over and he turned back to the window. I could have explained myself, I suppose — that I was a scientist, not an activist, interested in how natural systems worked — but I knew there was no recovering from that one. I decided to let it go. If the label "ecologist" was going to raise a flag, then I was learning, starting at that very moment, not to call myself one. Not in Alaska anyway.

My pilot was getting visibly irritated by my questions, but the annoyance seemed to be working. Grudgingly, he straightened himself up and lit a cigarette. I let him have his peace and went back to watching the land.

From this vantage point, the Yukon-Tanana uplands bumped on as far as I could see in every direction, low, rounded hills deeply dissected by numerous creeks, the thin forests of spruce fingering their way up the drainages and lower slopes like dark-green dye bleeding into the lighter grey-greens of the matted tundra above. Unspectacular by comparison with the Alaska and Brooks Ranges that define this great interior, the upland summits were little over four thousand feet in elevation. Yet they ascended well above the treeline, where thus bared and devoid of any mark of human habitation, they were given to an impressive desolation, the softened appearance of the alpine tundra deceptively gentle- looking from the air.

The incessant work of freezing and thawing was evident everywhere. In this country where winter temperatures drop to forty or fifty below and often stay there for days, ice becomes the principal element shaping the land, and this through brute force. When water confined in the small pores of soil and rock freezes, it moves mountains, creating a wondrous assortment of landscape patterns not found at temperate latitudes. Not always obvious on the ground, I could see clearly from the air rings of stone arranged through the differential sorting of large and small rock. Countless cycles of frost heaving had lifted the larger stones to the surface of the soil and then nudged them away from centers of frost activity until they joined others to form irregular nets over the broad summits. On the slopes, waves of saturated soil creeping with imperceptible slowness under the mat of vegetation oozed downhill in conspicuous lobes, like heavy frosting on a cake. In the boggy lowlands, large polygonal patterns appeared through the dense cover of moss and shrubs, like the cracks of a drying mud puddle greatly enlarged. Frozen ground, contracting repeatedly under the extreme cold of winter, broke into deep fissures, and every summer melt-water from the surface filtered into these cracks to refreeze, gradually forming thick wedges of ice that defined the polygons.

The undulating hills beneath me were part of a geological formation that stretched from the confluence of the Yukon and Tanana Rivers all the way to the western Yukon Territory. Born from numerous episodes of marine deposition throughout the Paleozoic era, their sedimentary cores were tectonically deformed in the Mesozoic, covered again by nonmarine sediments, and finally subjected to the erosion and Ice Age permutations of more recent geologic times. Under the present cloak of subarctic vegetation, these layered rocks contained one of the richest assemblages of fossil plant and animal remains to be found this side of the British Isles. This was truly one of the greatest libraries in the world; an archive of 600 million years of earth history.

As we skimmed over Twelvemile and Eagle Summits, the land dropped off below us and then submerged gently into an expansive and uninterrupted forest of spruce, stretching forty or more miles toward a dark and level horizon. To the north and quite a ways distant, I caught now and then the white glint of light off water, at first scattered in small reflections, then gradually lengthening into thin strands. In another fifteen minutes or so, the strands themselves began to intertwine in disconnected segments, disappearing and reappearing from a featureless background. Then, ten more minutes over the last fold in the landscape, the picture suddenly snapped into focus. The strands connected in their entirety, braiding into a river of startling magnitude.

Straight ahead, the village of Circle materialized out of the spruce muskeg, tucked into a quiet bend of the Yukon away from the tangle of meandering channels and sandy islands. Only a few miles upstream, the great river flows out of its rocky confines to spread out over the country in a confusion of land and water known as the Yukon Flats — sometimes twenty miles or more across — that extends all the way to Fort Yukon and two hundred miles beyond. In this maze even the river seems to lose direction, wandering aimlessly back and forth in endless search of its own course, creating in the process an unsolvable puzzle of the landscape with pieces of constantly changing size and shape. Finding your way in this country can be the ultimate challenge; the first story I would hear in Circle would be of the fisherman from the Lower Forty-Eight who ventured out from the village for an afternoon of angling only to get hopelessly lost, emerging from the bush somewhere down the Steese Highway two days later.

My pilot banked a slow arc over the scattered houses at the north end of the village to approach on a light southerly headwind. He set the twin-engine Piper down easily on the gravel runway and taxied up to the oil drums and gas pump at the far end of the strip. In the small group now gathering outside the post, I spotted two of my party.

Nothing less than an act of Congress had brought me to Circle. In 1971, four years before our rendezvous on the banks of the Yukon, legislators in Washington were grappling with a tangle of long-standing aboriginal land claims in Alaska, trying to create some semblance of territorial order on a frontier that most lawmakers knew only from the newspapers. The roots of this congressional confrontation could be traced all the way back to 1915 and the first organized expression of concern by Native leaders over the Anglo invasion of their Athabaskan homeland. Ironically, it was two whites, Judge James Wickersham and the Reverend Guy Madara of the Episcopal Church, who called for the meeting with the Athabaskans, ostensibly over concern for the Natives' threatened way of life. The Tanana Chiefs Conference went largely unnoticed then, but it set a precedent, and their ancestral voices would again be heard half a century later.

This time it was the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers who, in 1954, stirred things up with a proposal to dam the Yukon where it narrowed through the Ramparts below Stevens Village. The scheme would have inundated nearly 11,000 square miles of boreal forest, essentially the entire Yukon Flats area, home and subsistence grounds for Athabaskans of seven villages. So the Native leaders organized again and this time found themselves with many allies. The ensuing debate quickly settled on the question of who owned the undeeded land and who had the right to make decisions about it. The Athabaskans finally gained recognition and the dam was defeated, but then oil was discovered at Prudhoe Bay and the stakes changed. With eyes on a trans-Alaska pipeline to quench an insatiable thirst for petroleum in the Lower Forty-Eight, the whole nation became interested in the land ownership issue.

Thanks in large part to their earlier experience with the Corps of Engineers, the Natives were well organized for their next fight. By this time, they were getting plenty of help from their northern neighbors, too. Public outcry over an Atomic Energy Commission proposal to excavate a deep harbor at Cape Thompson, home to the Point Hope Eskimo (through means of an experimental atomic explosion, its potential impact on the Natives dismissed as causing no more disturbance than the excavation of thirty million cubic yards by conventional methods), and the arrest of two Iñupiat hunters by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for putting eider duck on the dinner table (in violation of a new Migratory Bird Treaty with Canada and Mexico), focused considerable attention on the land issues in question. With far more in the offing than preservation of cultural tradition, however, just about everybody got into the act, including conservationists who argued passionately for the protection of some of the last unspoiled land on the continent. The political bargaining finally ended in 1971 when Congress wrote into law the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, which decided, at last, the jurisdiction of much of this wild land.

In trying to appease everyone, Congress found itself in a bind, not fully aware of what it owned and not wanting to give away anything it might later regret. So it satisfied the conservationists for the time being by writing in a provision that one hundred million acres or so of designated lands in Alaska should be studied for possible inclusion into the national preserve system. One of those designated lands was the area drained by the Charley River and neighboring tributaries of the Yukon: a vast tract of interior Alaska boreal forest and tundra, over four thousand square miles, inhabited by perhaps no more than two dozen homesteaders — though no one knew for sure — and without a single road penetrating it. I was part of the study team, headed into that empty map for two months to conduct the first systematic biological inventory of a forgotten place.

Garrett and Bruce met me with robust handshakes. "Glad you made it! We weren't sure whether you'd be on the plane or not."

"Great to see you guys. Yeah, I got lucky. I went straight over to Air North as soon as I landed in Fairbanks and reserved the last seat. I hoped I wouldn't have to spend more than one night in town."

"Good flight up? We heard there was some weather coming in after we left Seattle."

"Smooth all the way. Are Mark and Eduardo here?"

"Yeah, they're walking around somewhere. Should be back any minute. They had a bit of a problem a couple days ago, but they'll tell you about it."

We chatted energetically, bouncing brief quips back and forth, watching the pilot wrestle his cargo out of the rear compartment and snatching up my boxes and duffels as he dropped them on the ground. Having come in on the previous mail flight, Garrett and Bruce were awaiting only my arrival, and having quickly exhausted the sightseeing possibilities in Circle, were anxious to get on the river. We each grabbed an armload and shuffled over to the trading post.

Circle was a quiet village of about seventy residents, fifteen or so Anglo and the rest Athabaskan, hanging on primarily as an outpost for river travelers and a handful of homesteaders along the Yukon. The trading post was not the weathered, hand-hewn log building I had imagined, but rather sported the prefabricated look of the 1960s. The simple facade of unnaturally uniform logs was distinguished only by two unpainted aluminum doors at opposite corners of the storefront. A sign over the left one identified it as the "Yukon Liquor Cache," and over the right, the "U.S. Post Office, Circle City, Alaska." Both doors opened into the same room. The smaller print on the outside advertised groceries, gas and oil, souvenirs, raw furs, ice, and tire repair: the basic necessities here. But the sterility of the building's manufactured look and uncluttered business facade belied the interior warmth and social importance of this little outpost in the bush. Frank and Mary Warren, the owners, provided just about every service that was needed in the country, from hot meals and showers to emergency radio and air taxi service. Inside, the post was crammed full of essentials: flour and sugar, oarlocks and ammunition, dishpans, gold pans, frying pans, fish lures, dip nets, and black rubber boots (size large). But canned goods were the specialty — canned milk, meat, fruit, fish, crackers, jam, peanut butter — goods with indeterminate shelf life, destined for long storage in isolated cabins and high caches scattered throughout the bush; dependable goods to stave the hunger of frigid nights on the trapline, if the bears didn't get them first.

Here was a lesson in elementary provisioning — just basic goods at land's end prices. But it was also a reflection of a way of life that was decidedly Spartan. If not far from the influence of mainstream America, it was at least far from the marketplace, and it showed not just on the shelves but in a general air of resourcefulness that pervaded the post. When I asked matter-of- factly if the post had a pencil sharpener that I might use, a gruff clerk cast a stern eye at me, tongue-tied. I could tell he was searching for choice words, but he spared me and instead politely asked if I weren't carrying a pocket knife. Of course I was, and was immediately embarrassed by my question. And I knew I had been let off easily by this woodsman. I thought about this often in the days ahead; it was a simple incident, but an important one. That little jolt did much to arouse my sensitivities to the cultural place.

Outside, the day was bright and the air warming rapidly. Bruce, Garrett, and I loitered in the sun with coffee cups steaming, waiting for Mark and Eduardo to show up. Our conversation had mellowed considerably from the excited pitch of our first meeting, turning mostly to logistical queries of one or another as we scuffled a little nervously in the gravel.

"Mark say anything about the base camp?"

"Guess they found a good spot. They got everything set up."

"Have you checked out the boat?"

"Yeah. Looks okay. Not the prettiest boat on the river, but it floats."

"Enough room for all this stuff?"

"Hell, you oughta see the pile of gear I've got."

Our mood was decidedly less festive now as each of us pulled back into our own thoughts, running through mental checklists for the umpteenth time in anticipation of our momentary departure. We had prepared ourselves as best we could for this day, yet as we stood now on the rough-cut edge of the Alaska bush, many anxieties welled to the surface. Our mission was to collect as much information about the natural history of the upper Yukon and Charley River area as we could, but our collective experience was skewed heavily toward the academic, and we knew we would be tested in the coming weeks.


Excerpted from Life and Times of a Big River by Peter J. Marchand. Copyright © 2015 University of Alaska Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ALASKA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Prologue. Traveling heavy
I. Circle
The work of ice
• Library in stone
• A proposal to blow up Cape Thomspon
• Village on the edge of wild
II. Flat Water
Five men and a dog
• Dancing forest
• Kutchin under siege
• Salmon for Swedes
III. Kandik
Mosquito wars
• Sagebrush saga
• Reindeer to the rescue
• Bear stories I’d never heard before
IV. Nation
Circle’s unwelcome committee
• A river running slush
• Pygmy shrews and a giant club moss
• Permafrost permutations
V. Charley River
Lost in the clouds
• Searching for Garrett
• The high price of squirrel meat
• An experiment I never want to repeat
VI. Headwaters
Thieving pikas and singing voles
• Fortymile caribou
• Tales the three-rings tell
• Truth is a chameleon
VII. The Years After
Death without reason
• Mother of all summers
• Plants on the move
• Changing fortunes of moose and men

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