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 combining traditional culture and modern science have taken him from Alaska, to Louisiana, to Sudan, and now back up to where it all began.
By Jon Waterhouse, National Geographic Fellow
First, let me say that the remarkable Yukon River is unique in many ways. Unlike most large rivers in North America, there are minimal man-made restrictions on the Yukon itself, or in any part of its 330,000 square mile watershed. Considering the geography of this massive watershed, with terrain varying from hilly or mountainous to flat tundra, I find this to be pretty amazing. The lack of industry on the banks of the river limits the probability of ‘irresponsible dumping’ or major industrial discharge.
Yet as I write, the mining industry is growing in Alaska and in Canada. Paddling through this pristine environment we can only hope that our message of stewardship will reach corporate boardrooms as plans are made on each side of the border to excavate resources. But for now, these glacial waters are unspoiled and the return of the Healing Journey to the Yukon is a welcomed reprieve from what we face on other rivers around the world.
The people who live along the Yukon are indeed grateful for their good fortune and as we paddle from community to community, we rediscover a way of life that is directly connected to nature and its seasons. In Tanana, we are greeted by residents who are slowly winding down their fishing season and preparing for the fall moose hunt. We learn of efforts to reel in astounding energy costs here and see an example of hydro-kinetic technology (based on traditional fish wheel technology).We spend hours listening to the Elders sharing their stories of days gone by. From the Elders the members of the Healing Journey gain the knowledge of this river that is otherwise unobtainable. This is where our fires are really stoked!
The afternoon in Tanana brings a gathering of youth for our River School. This is always a big draw for the kids we meet on the Healing Journey and no matter where we are, we take the opportunity to help reconnect them with nature, culture, and safety on the water. Many who live along the Yukon do not know how to swim so teaching the importance of safety on the river is our primary goal. Our canoes are like magnets to children so River School is a perfect segue into the scientific aspect of The Journey and we are happy to demonstrate the science equipment we use in the canoes. With the modern technology we enlist for our data collection, inspiring young scientists isn’t so difficult!
Three figures float down the river in a canoe as people have in this area for thousands of years. Photo by Mary Marshall.
At day’s end we are feeling inspired and rejuvenated by the energy of the children and are thankful to the village for a hosting a wonderful potlatch (dinner) in our honor. We depart Tanana the next morning and discover that a mid-day break from paddling and a nice fire on a sandbar is the perfect solution to battling the early afternoon winds on the river. We recount stories and make notes in our journals as we snack and enjoy our surroundings. Insects such as mosquitoes and gnats can be relentless on the Yukon but since we are timing this Healing Journey to coincide with the Biennial Summit in Ruby, we are traveling later in the year and the bugs seem insignificant.
The weather continues to change throughout the day and the Healing Journey adjusts paddling and rest stops to accommodate drizzle and winds. The river flows at about 5 mph here and the high water levels due to recent rains is hiding the sandbars where we had tentatively planned to camp. As we move along, we realize that our search for the terrific stopping points we’d mapped may be more frustrating than we had hoped, but we have experienced this challenge on previous Healing Journeys and are prepared to press ahead when needed. This can make for very long days but the team is ever flexible so we simply paddle on…