Breakup on the Clearwater


Spring is that marvelous time when you blow cobwebs from your river mind and pull boating gear from the shelves, a time when you stop reading Stephen King and lose yourself in flow volumes instead. As Alaskans crazed by cabin fever head out, shorebirds and waterfowl head north.

Despite cross-country skiing twice a week all winter, starting from the porch of our Fairbanks cabin, except when the thermometer dipped below minus 20, I feel ill-prepared for my first river jaunt every year. I learn anew how many Vitamin I pills (Ibuprofen) maintain my knuckles and shoulders. Each passing decade requires upping the dose. And “Muscle memory may be real,” as a writer friend quips, “but it is short term.”

A leisurely float in a canoe is a great way to get re-habituated, with more comforts than backpacking or packrafting and no rapids to drench you. Interior Alaska’s Clearwater seems just the ticket. Twenty miles long, with a low gradient, the Delta Clearwater River boasts crystalline fun, unlike the tannin-steeped, tea-colored or turbid “glacier milk” streams of much of the rest of the Interior. It joins the Tanana at the small town of Delta Junction, the terminus of the ALCAN Highway. Delta Junction is a backwaters brew of Bible thumpers and organic farmers, anti-government types and “Bud and Breakfast” business ventures.

Like any tribe worth its salt, Alaskans have coined a slew of regionalisms that confound Outsiders. For us, “break-up” is not a relationship term but the seasonal bookend to “freeze-up.” It’s the bug-free window before the hordes descend on us in June. It’s the slush month when, rumbling, squeaking, groaning, and grinding, the ice goes out on inland rivers and, traditionally, Alaskans exchanged snowshoes and dog teams for birchbark or canvas canoes. The largest spring-fed tributary of the Tanana River, the Clearwater is one of the first waterways to shed its carapace. On the lakes, it can linger until early to mid-June.

People like Cameron Leonard, the Fairbanks Paddlers leader of this overnight trip, inspect satellite imagery to see if the river is open. Cam tells me how they’ve had to sledge-drag canoes across an unplowed parking lot, how boaters had to camp atop snow, how they’ve manhandled boats up onto ice shelves for landings. He runs the Clearwater almost yearly, as a rite of spring to kick off the season.

We face no such hardships today. On the sun-bathed boat ramp, the normal melee greets us: rampaging kids, dogs in life jackets, Alaskans swilling beer already and sorting gear. Quick to rig and shove off, we get a head start to Cam’s favorite camp on this stretch. With my wife, Melissa, as bowwoman and Cam paddling solo, Don and Tracie Pendergrast power the third boat.

Don drove up to Alaska from Georgia in the fall of 1976, with his boat strapped to the roof of his car but had to wait until the following spring “to find enough [open] water.” An aquatic invertebrate biologist, he became Chief of Interpretation at Gates of the Arctic National Park. Tracie staffed the park’s visitor center in Bettles and managed the artist-in-residence program. They also operate a canoeing school. In his youth, Don canoed class V Appalachian water, threading rapids where they filmed Deliverance.

The river slides emerald over multi-colored cobbles. Fish hang in the depths as if suspended in glass. They could be whitefish or Arctic grayling, a trout relative with a supersize, sail-like dorsal fin. There’s also a fall coho (silver salmon) run bringing ragged, brick-red, hook-beaked survivors of a 1,000-mile journey from the Bering Sea.

We stroke past wickerwork beaver dams and lodges, past wigeons, goldeneyes, buffleheads, and other ducks taking off frantically upon our approach, wings slapping water, whistling after takeoff. Two ospreys hound a raven trickster marauding at their nest, which precariously balances on the tip of a black spruce.

Animals easily become protagonists here in Alaska. Tanana Athabaskans tell stories about Beaver Man, a mythical hero who dreamed the design for the first birch bark canoe. Venturing down the Yukon, he fought monsters and vaporized obstacles, making the world safe for humans. Alaska’s Koyukon Athabaskans know this traveler as “The One Who Paddled among People and Animals.” Upper Tanana elders say he tested bark from different kinds of trees to see which floated best. His creation has been revitalized, and one present-day builder counts northern bark canoes “among the most elegant watercraft in the world…difficult to construct, featherlight to carry, beautiful to see gliding swiftly on water.”

Cam, a lawyer for Alaska’s Department of Natural Resources for a quarter century, values finely crafted boating gear. His showpiece, a golden-red paddle inlaid with blond wood—seven kinds altogether—was fashioned in Duluth, Minnesota, the other canoeing mecca.

The National Weather Service has issued a red-flag warning for this day in early May, with low air humidity and winds of up to 50 mph, conditions that could trigger large and dangerous fires. For the time being, calm reigns. And no mosquitos are out and about—yet. The first ones, lunkers that overwinter and seem clumsy, disoriented by their hibernating, buzz like bees. A pony-size sculpture of spruce, resin, and rebar in the yard of a homestead we pass—its proboscis painted blood-red—reminds us how big Alaska’s unofficial state bird can get.

Turncoat snowshoe hares in Fairbanks have changed from white to brown while Sandhill cranes flocking to the Arctic arrived a few days ago for their stopover at Creamer’s Field, the local bird sanctuary. As another vernal milestone, a tripod on river ice toppled last week; even people who didn’t witness that event cared. It’s part of the Nenana Ice Classic lottery. On that Tanana tributary, in 1917, a group of engineers surveying for the Alaska Railroad bet on when the river would move.

As we prepare for the “liquid sunshine” (rain) of summer, we’re eager to rid ourselves of excess clothing and flesh. We trade parkas for slickers and don “Alaska tennis shoes” (rubber boots) in slush or mud to go into town. We envy boaters on canyon trips wearing sandals and shorts. It’s not our time yet. In compensation, almost seven weeks after the equinox, Fairbanksians one hundred miles south of the Arctic Circle absorb more than seventeen hours of daylight, remedying vitamin D deficiencies and any lingering winter blues.

Gravelly shallows claim my attention. On shore, “green-up” is happening. The hue of asparagus adorns spruce normally scraggly-dull. Loaded with antiscorbutic, young spruce tips infuse ice cream, jellies, teas, salads, and beers with vitamin C lemony hints.

The day has grown blustery when we beach at camp, on an island a river meander has whittled. Its high and dry ground grants both upstream and downstream views. A tree swallow colony dips and reels harvesting a mayfly hatch; a bald eagle above them stands motionless on the wind; a pod of rafts bound for a different takeout at a Richardson Highway bridge strains to round the point. Wind soughs in the white spruces like a rapid or waterfall. Melissa and I struggle with our new, unfamiliar tent.

As dinner is prepared, I catch movement in the trees. It’s a pine marten perched high in a broken tree, mining its mulch for insects or grubs. Our group soon surrounds the trunk, cooing and oohing, peeping with binoculars at the undeniably cute arboreal weasel with the bandit mask. Once in a while, it rests and grooms its lush pelt like a cat. The species is commonly trapped in Alaska (its tail gracing many a beaver-fur hat) but rarely encountered perky, near-at-hand. Even trappers may only see one or two in their lifetime. Inquisitive and clever, martens often dodge the noose. They are omnivorous, like grizzlies and other subarctic foragers (boaters included), chasing voles, small birds, bunnies, and even the nimble squirrels.

In a piece of side action, an osprey clutching a fish in its talons lifts off the river. For a backdrop, chains of geese, swans, and cranes waver overhead, honking to stay connected. The Clearwater may have no whitewater but scenes like this will make it shine in my memory.

Cam kindles the campfire late, with bark scrolls, building it small on account of the wind gusts. I borrowed the canoe and webbing with buckles from him, and he smiled politely at my lame-duck joke about “cam straps.”

After dinner, over tall tales and river yarns, Don offers up cans of “Chuli.” This stout by an Interior brewery was named for the Chulitna, another Fairbanks Paddlers favorite, a river the can’s copy lauds as “fast, silty, slate grey and silent…dangerous and mellow at once.” Like barley juice, Jack London’s “John Barleycorn,” Demon Alcohol, “To some it is liquid death; to others, cascading silk.” I wonder if the brewery’s marketing team is aware of the connotation.

In the dawn chill, I curse myself for having forgotten long underwear. There’s always something on the annual maiden voyage. But, hey, no bugs! Cam has put a blackened coffee pot on the fire and is shaping venison meatballs. Woodpeckers drum in the blessed calm, with ducks quacking approval.

Melissa and I shove off ahead of the rest, to drink in the morning’s tranquility and warm up stiff muscles. Glimpses of the Delta Range further reward us, peaks aglow, still mantled white.

An hour or two of paddling—Who’s counting? Who cares? What’s time on the purling Stream of Consciousness?—delivers the whole group to the Tanana confluence. Khaki takes over at this mingling of waters. Glacial loess lines the banks, and the air is colder. Before long, we reach a transparent current once more: the outlet of Clearwater Lake, another spring-fed source.

We turn for our takeout on the lakeshore. Digging deep, tapping strength and technique that have lain dormant since the previous summer, Melissa and I wend upstream, measuring our muscle against that of the current. I’m overdressed now, breaking a sweat on these 1.5 miles. Cam in the single falls behind. Forced by low flows, boaters have had to line upstream here. That’s why inflatables aren’t suited for this trip. Cam switched from his prized paddle to a plastic one beforehand, afraid he would be scraping the bottom.

On the surprisingly shallow lake, the sun breaks the cloud scrim, igniting swans and black-headed Bonaparte’s gulls. The swans’ trumpeting echoes faintly off the mirror surface. Before we convoy to the opposite shore, Melissa and I lunch on cheese, salami, and crackers presented on the blade of a paddle laid across the gunwales.

At the boat ramp, waiting for the others to return with the shuttle cars, I watch Audubon warblers gleaning in alder thickets, their yellow rumps flashing.

Then I swat the year’s vanguard mosquitos. Welcome summer!

The next day, in Fairbanks, it snows, with fat flakes thick as virulent swarms shrouding the ground.


Guest contributor Michael Engelhard worked for twenty-five years as an outdoor instructor and wilderness guide in the canyon country and Alaska. He is the author, most recently, of the memoir Arctic Traverse and the Grand Canyon essay collection No Walk in the Park.