Trading Rush Hour for the River

Far from the hustle and bustle of arriving at a meeting in the city, members of the Healing Journey paddle along the wide Yukon to approach an inter-tribal council. Photo by Mary Marshall.


NG Fellow Jon Waterhouse’s  “Healing Journey,” began in 2007 with a simple request by the native elders and tribal leaders living in the Yukon River watershed for him to “go out, take the pulse of the river.” Since then, his journeys paddling down rivers, combining traditional culture and modern river-health science have taken him from Alaska, to Louisiana, to Sudan, and now back up to where it all began.

In this post, Anna Switzer from National Geographic and Dave Smith of the University of Redlands share their thoughts after joining the Healing Journey at Tanana, Alaska.

By Anna Switzer and David Smith

Flying in to Tanana, we got our first glimpse of just how big the Yukon River is.  No map could really prepare us for its scale as we stared in awe out the windows of the small plane.  During the moments when the clouds parted, seeing the meanders and islands was simply phenomenal.  When we landed, the paddlers met us and it was great to finally meet the rest of the crew.  We had our dinner in the rain, battled a few mosquitoes, checked out the maps, and looked forward to starting our paddling the following morning.

After a good night’s sleep in the tent, we loaded the canoes and headed down the river.  The weather was cloudy at first, but got warmer and sunnier as the day moved along.  It was a wonderful change from home in Washington, D.C. where the temperatures are hovering around 100+ degrees!


Smoked Salmon and Crystal Clear Water

Our first stop was the “camp” of 85-year-old Roy Folgers. He welcomed us with some of his smoked salmon strips which tasted particularly good after seeing his traditional smokehouse at work.  We toured his property which surprisingly boasts solar and wind energy, and we discovered that Roy is a renowned mandolin player! We helped carry wood and napped in the sun, and enjoyed the dog and the beach.

Our second stop and visit on the journey was at the Kokrine Hills Bible Camp where we explored the property and filled our water bladders at the crystal clear creek there.


Hardships and High Hopes

The Healing Journey turned to solid adventure on the third and last night we were out. The constant drizzle of the last few days caused high water, hiding all the sandbars so that about 1am we, somewhat drearily, decided to at least pull over on a small rocky shore to have a fire. The fire provided us with a bit of a respite and a place to warm ourselves and boil some water for oatmeal.

Some of us slept, some didn’t… one paddler had the most interesting position curled around her Magnum 44 (photo to come later!).  Another volunteered to stay awake and look out for bears.  No harm came to us–or to any animals either–during our few hours of rest and we began paddling again sometime around 5 am. Bleary eyed but excited to reach the gathering of 70 Tribes and First Nations in Ruby,  Alaska, we paddled through some of the most dramatic scenery yet. The cliffs came alive with the calls of Peregrine Falcons.

The journey was indeed healing for us–even though we came for just the last four days.  The scenery, the company, the stories, and most of all, the pace of the river remind us of the value of getting out of our normal routines.  Thank you, Yukon River Inter-Tribal Watershed Council for inviting us!


A Final Note From Jon Waterhouse

The Healing Journey has arrived for a gathering of 70 Tribes and First Nations in Ruby, Alaska.  I look forward to posting news and photos of this gathering. Mary and I will continue down the Yukon River in the days to come. Stay tuned!

Changing Planet

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Meet the Author
Jon Waterhouse’s destiny was foretold the moment he pushed his canoe off the bank of the Yukon River and started to paddle. That incredible 2007 canoe trip, which he christened “the Healing Journey,” began with a simple request by the native elders and tribal leaders living in the Yukon River watershed to "go out, take the pulse of the river." Waterhouse’s journey raised awareness of the importance of environmental stewardship, combined traditional native knowledge with modern science, and helped rebuild intimate connections between Yukon communities and the natural world. The journey soon stretched far beyond the Yukon and led the Native American down rivers and through cultures in distant parts of South America, Russia, Greenland, Africa, and New Zealand.