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Paddling 600 Miles Through Alaska

On each “Healing Journey” Expedition, Jon Waterhouse uses canoes to travel along rivers, recording traditional knowledge from local people, and detailed scientific readings of water conditions and quality using cutting-edge technology. His journeys have taken him from Alaska, to Louisiana, and all the way to Sudan.  Read Jon’s previous post about this summer’s expedition down...

On each “Healing Journey” Expedition, Jon Waterhouse uses canoes to travel along rivers, recording traditional knowledge from local people, and detailed scientific readings of water conditions and quality using cutting-edge technology. His journeys have taken him from Alaska, to Louisiana, and all the way to Sudan.  Read Jon’s previous post about this summer’s expedition down the Tanana River.
Looking back on this summer’s expedition, the action-packed Tanana kept us on our toes! Shallow waters, sweepers and fast-moving currents were indeed challenging, but this river and its people were very good to The Healing Journey as we paddled along the 600-mile Tanana River from Northway to the village of Tanana, Alaska in our trusty canoes.

Manda and Richard are enjoying a relaxing stretch, which looked to be more like a deep lake with a slight current than the active river it is. Photo by Mary Marshall.


With 12 paddlers at one point and 5 at another, we averaged about 25 miles per day. Making frequent stops along the way we floated along mostly at the pace of the river with speeds usually ranging from around 7 to 15mph, though we did see a few spots with minimal current. Paddling wasn’t always required but our undivided attention surely was as the Tanana is quick and braided. We managed to survive two canoes going over in the current, one near a large rock face and the other under some sweepers. Both events occurred on hot, sunny days with temps over 95 degrees F so we dried out quickly, but getting out of the 45 degree water without delay was vital. Thanks to cargo nets, bungees and handy D clips, our supplies remained secure in the canoes and no gear was lost to the river. Our life preservers preserved, so no paddlers were lost either.

The Healing Journey is about people, environmental stewardship and is an effort to “take the pulse of the river”, so to accomplish this task we collect water quality data and stories from the people who know rivers best, the folks who live on their banks. There are few communities on the Tanana so other than the gatherings in Nenana and Tanana, much of our trip was spent collecting science and observing river behavior and the environment.

Charlie was a focused collector. Photo by Mary Marshall.
 This journey proved to be the perfect opportunity for water-quality testing and the samples were collected diligently each hour by paddler and avid canoeist, Charlie, a high school science teacher from the Boston area. Eric, a 22-year-old Athabascan from Anvik, Alaska, assisted Charlie, as did Anne, an experienced Yukon paddler from Germany. These samples are currently being analyzed by the USGS lab in Denver and the continuous samples we collected via the YSI Sonde have been downloaded, processed, and added to our 12-year study of the Yukon Watershed.
We were happy to discover that many of the multitudes of open sandbars on the Tanana are large, high, firewood abundant and ideal for campsites. Bear tracks were a regular sight wherever we stopped so we typically opted to set up camp just a few feet from the water’s edge, away from brush and wooded areas. Since our gargantuan Alaskan mosquitos tend to prefer the same brush-covered areas as our gargantuan Alaskan bears, we avoided those zones without exception, even setting up our latrines in the open.
A deluxe Healing Journey latrine! Photo by Mary Marshall.


As environmental stewards, we leave no trace of our presence, but we do bring a little noise pollution with us. Except when we are visiting communities, we tend to be fairly noisy while in bear country. Bears usually are afraid of loud noises and we are always respectful of bears so making big noise is a good thing in the wilderness of Alaska.

Joe and Manny watch a cow moose and her calf emerge from the water after crossing. Photo by Mary Marshall.


Interestingly, our campsites were selected for us each and every evening by wildlife. We might go all day without seeing a creature sitting still but in the evenings there was always one visible and waiting to direct us. Most nights, bald eagles would mark our spots for us perched in trees overlooking the ideal location, though one night our guides were a pair of swans standing on the shore of an exceptional sandbar as if waiting for us to check-in. Once a coyote appeared on the point of a long sandbar, and another night a moose stood high on a rocky cliff amid a few spindly birches directly across from a dry sandbar with plenty of firewood. This was an unusual spot for a moose to stand and at first glance he looked unreal.

Silhouetted and perfectly outlined, this moose looked like a black metal cutout – like those of cowboys you might see in farmyards on rural back roads. Photo by Mary Marshall.


Ravens were also terrific hosts for us and as the days passed, we learned to simply trust the appearance of animals in the evenings to provide us direction. We were fooled once, however, by a bald eagle with a dirty head. He led us to a low sandbar that was wet and ridiculously mucky. Quicksand-like mud swallowed us up to our knees and we spent a lot of time and energy wriggling our legs out of this dangerous jello-like muck. Clearly you should never trust a bald eagle with a dirty head.

Nature has a tendency to create beautiful designs in the Tanana River mud. Photo by Mary Marshall.
The downside of the attractic designs is that they often indicate trouble. Photo by Mary Marshall.


Alaska’s rivers are impeccable examples of how pristine the natural world can be. With minimal litter or pollution, I am reminded while here of what environmental stewardship is. Periodically items blow out of boats unnoticed by the boaters, but intentional littering here is rare. Manny found a plastic bottle and a couple of beer bottles (and since the Healing Journey is drug and alcohol free, we harassed him regularly about the empties in his canoe). One day Anne returned from a stroll around the large sandbar where we camped struggling to lug a large white bucket. Mary met her half way to help carry the weighty 5-gallon container. The label indicated that it was butter cream frosting from Sam’s Club. Most likely it fell off one of the barges making its bi-monthly delivery of groceries to the villages. In order to haul it out in one of our canoes we agreed that emptying it was a no-brainer considering the weight and balance factor, right?

Bad decision! I think it must have been purchased decades ago. The smell of rancid butter filled our nostrils as we pried open the lid and relieved the large container of its smelly contents. Digging a deep hole in the sand, we buried the sugary, frosty muck, hoping it would all dissolve before an unlucky bear with a sour stomach and a severe toothache in his future arrived to dig up dessert. Fortunately we had a bottle of planet-friendly dish soap and a long handled scrub brush in the canoe. This came in very handy at that moment as the smell of the empty, resealed bucket was still overpowering.

Here Ellie and I free Olga and Anne from the goo that is Tanana mud. Photo by Mary Marshall.


We photographed a plethora of insects we found on sandbars, in the clear creek areas where we collected our drinking water, and occasionally in our canoes.

Colorful caterpillars abounded. Here Eric and a bright specimen examine each other. Photo by Mary Marshall.
Here is a frustrated spider and an undeterred caterpillar. Photo by Mary Marshall.


We watched a sand spider attempt to defeat one of these slow-motion crawlers and we were amused that several attempts to jump onto the caterpillar yielded no good results for the dejected spider. The fuzzy-looking spines of the caterpillar provided the precise protection nature intended as the spider was rebuffed repeatedly and the caterpillar continued his crawl nonchalantly across the mud.Another spider appeared on Manda’s paddle and we watched it for a long while as we sat collecting water. Eventually the ambitious arachnid put its rear end in the air and shot a line of silk straight out and away from all obstacles. Then airborne it was, with no attachment to anything but it’s fine, silky line acting as a sail! Once the paddlers had seen this, they started watching intently for these comical little sailors and would see them sailing past us at every turn.

In Nenana we stopped for a wonderful gathering where we were given jars of jam recently made by these happy kids during Spirit Camp. Photo by Mary Marshall.


Yum… The gift of homemade jam by the kids of Nenana was the perfect compliment to Ellie's Campfire Stick Biscuits! Photo by Mary Marshall.


Though our time in Nenana was short, the terrific people there fed us well and gave us a comfy place to sleep in their lovely Cultural Center beside the river. Jean, a Nenana Elder, gave us some sage advice about the Tanana River, reminding us that for fresh, silt-free water we can dig a shallow hole in a sandbar and the sand itself will filter the water coming up for us naturally. We did not have to employ this technique because the Tanana has many clear water tributaries, but it’s a great method to keep on file. Jean has lived on the river her entire life and knows it well. We were lucky to meet her, her daughter, Skooch, and her 5 grandkids while in Nenana. We have plans to visit them again this fall when we drive back up to Denali.

A few of Charlie’s former students are interning at Denali this summer with the Student Conservation Association (SCA) so we decided that while in the neighborhood we should stop in and pay them a visit. I arranged that our truck be in Nenana when we arrived and we piled in and headed for Denali Park. Once inside the park we drove the 15 miles to the Savage River, where we were told the students were working on refurbishing an old trail. We ended up connecting with them in camp and were delighted to be able to sit and chat with these students and their ‘trail leaders’, Hannah and Lily. The camp kitchen tent with its nice little woodstove kept us toasty on this cool day.

Here we are with a team of awesome SCA Students (with leaders, Lily and Hannah on the far right) at Denali this summer. Check out the Student Conservation Association at Photo by Mary Marshall.


I learned that each year high school students are selected by SCA to work on public lands around the country. What a terrific program for teens passionate and dedicated to learning about conservation. The SCA provides hands-on conservation services opportunities through internships in our National Parks, Preserves, Refuges, etc. Meeting these exuberant young people was a real treat for us.

Near Tok we discuss the next stretch of the river - and I defend my old paper maps. Photo by Mary Marshall.


In our early planning stages of The Healing Journey I had marked several locations of creeks for us to obtain drinking water on my 1952 USGS maps (acquired from the great guys at Alaska Geographic). I was teased often about my preferred form of map ‘technology’. I marked a spot called ‘Baker Creek’ and we were intrigued that though we had never heard of it, the maps indicated it was a good-sized community in the 1950s. Of course that didn’t mean it still existed. We had already discovered many sloughs on the maps had filled in with time and grown over long ago.

Despite being harassed constantly for my 60-year-old maps, we successfully found Baker Creek and crept in. As we paddled slowly into this quiet, hidden streak of clear, deep water to replenish our drinking supply, we noticed tree roots clinging to eroding shores and dead sweepers lining the banks. Amid the dense woods and brush we noticed a long abandoned beaver house. It was eerily quiet as we glided past a large, lifeless white she-fish floating ominously on the surface. These sights set a creepy mood and quickly we were joking about future news stories of the missing paddlers who mysteriously disappeared on the Tanana.

As we rounded a bend we saw in the distance a large expanse of cut grass and several old abandoned-looking buildings. The place seemed to be completely uninhabited but for the distinct buzzing sound of a saw. This scenario really excited us but after all the exaggerated melodrama about this little side-trip we approached with exaggerated caution. A large homemade dock sat empty and quiet in the still, dark water of the creek as we made our way up to get a closer look from the property’s edge. The sun shone through the birch trees and lit up an old log cabin, worn and dilapidated. As we got closer the sound of the saw became louder and we noticed things hanging from posts all around the buildings, and more scattered about the yard.

Then we realized what we were seeing were flower baskets, brightly colored lawn gnomes and Welcome signs. Suddenly the foreboding, abandoned camp we had envisioned and speculated about looked more like a scene from a Disney cartoon. So much for our dramatizations of cannibal hillbillies and ax murderers…

We yelled out, “Hello!” and the saw stopped. A tall blond guy in Carhartts appeared from inside one of the old buildings and soon we were on the lawn chatting up a storm with Jack, the caretaker of this great old site. Come to find out he’d beat a trail up to the Far North from Florida decades ago to make himself a life of mining and trapping in Alaska.

Built in 1903, Jack explained the property had been in the family of the current owner, a Navajo woman, for over a century. This is a rarity in Alaska since properties of such age are few and far between. (As are Navajos.) Jack gave us a grand tour of this lovely homestead and proudly declared, “During the last party here we had that little creek out there filled with 42 boats!” What a great stop this was. We will stay in touch with Trapper Jack from Florida, and hopefully someday meet the woman who has spent her life in this amazing place.

The village of Tanana sits less than a half a mile up the Yukon from where the Tanana flows into it and for us, hitting the slow, smooth Yukon after several weeks on its hyperactive cousin was like entering a Zen garden. Because the village of Tanana is so centrally located in the Yukon Watershed, this was the Healing Journey’s third visit there and I can count on the community always to be a warm and friendly host.

Racks of drying fish were a common sight along the Yukon in Tanana. Photo by Mary Marshall.


Our arrival in Tanana came during a significant salmon harvest and the many drying racks along the riverbanks were full and bright orange with drying fish. What a great sight to behold! The fish management challenges along the Yukon have been ongoing for years and recent summers have seen drying racks underused often. My conversations with tribal leaders during this visit revealed deep concerns over the health and the future of the salmon. The Healing Journey is about the people and their environment and this is exactly why I’m here. I see my job as a conduit between these people and a solution to their concerns about their river. I’m honored they trust me to help.

On a lighter note, with each Healing Journey we host a River School for the community kids, teaching them about our canoes and river safety. The kids in Tanana are river-savvy and they really gave instructor, Charlie, a run for his money. Andrea, age 8, was determined to NOT return to shore once out in the canoe with him and watching her repeatedly push back off as Charlie attempted to land the canoe had us rolling. He’s used to dealing with high school and college-aged kids and this young, precocious little girl literally had him going in circles. But he handled her with humor and a bit of trickery and eventually she was back on the beach with us, posing for the camera. Young brothers, Michael and Joe – pictured below, are capable paddlers and experienced river travelers.

Charlie is a true canoe enthusiast and having grown up with canoes, he took great pride in hosting the kids of Tanana in our River School. Photo by Mary Marshall.


This young paddler was determined not to return to shore once out in the canoe. Watching her repeatedly push back off as Charlie attempted to land the canoe had us rolling. Photo by Mary Marshall.


The picnic we hosted upon our arrival in Tanana was great! We saw several old friends and made many new ones. Paddler Anne has paddled on the Yukon several times and was eager to see friends she’d made on her prior trips through Tanana. Her first stop was the Elder’s Center where all the residents she’d met previously are living still, doing well and excited to see her. Jackie, 76, was quick to offer Anne and Mary his shower and they were quick to take him up on that! The guys had to make our way to the public showers in the community Laundromat, and I’m happy to tell you they were spotless.

“Clean water is important to our community and culture.” The people of Tanana have a deep love and connection to their rivers, the Yukon and the Tanana. Photo by Mary Marshall.


The high level of environmental stewardship in Tanana is inspiring. This is a community of people who truly care about each other and want a healthy World for their children and future generations. The Elders there were welcoming and happy to talk with us about their two rivers and their personal histories of living with them.
This is a community of people who truly care about each other and want a healthy World for their children and future generations. Photo by Mary Marshall.


The Elders there were welcoming and happy to talk with us about their two rivers and their personal histories of living with them. Photo by Mary Marshall.


We enjoyed our time spent with the wonderful people of Tanana and feel that ending there was the perfect conclusion to this Healing Journey on the Tanana. This place is a prime example of what inspires the Healing Journey and it is this inspiration that encourages us to spread our message of environmental stewardship, helping the people we meet to reconnect with the natural world and with each other, all over the globe.

So now that we are back in the city, having stowed our tents and paddles let me take a moment to lament the realities of returning to ‘civilization’ after a month on this wonderfully remote Alaskan river.Sleeping at night under the stars with only the sounds of the river whooshing by and the occasional splash of a large mammal swimming across it is heaven in my book. Hearing a couple of owls chatting during the night is icing on the cake. Now, again in the saddle of the city and all of the sounds that come with it, I am slow to adjust and a bit rebellious about doing so. As a matter of fact, if I were 5, I’d be waving my fists in the air, tears streaming, stomping my feet dramatically, eventually falling into an exhausted and pitiful heap on the floor. Yep, my protest of having to come back indoors would be extreme.

But that’s ok. The Healing Journey is ongoing and this winter the Healing Journey will head back out onto the frozen Yukon River via snow machines to collect snow, ice and water samples for more testing by the USGS. Typical temps during February on the Yukon are around 30 below so this event will put a new spin on our effort. Our trip will take us to the villages of Russian Mission, Marshall, St. Mary’s, Pitkas Point, Mountain Village, Pilot Station, and Emmonak for visits with residents to learn about the changes they have seen occurring in their communities during winter months on the Yukon. You can enjoy that ride from the warm comfort of your laptop.

Meanwhile, photographs and stories from the Tanana paddlers will be posted at, so check them out when you can. – Jon

This place is a prime example of what inspires the Healing Journey and encourages us to spread our message of environmental stewardship, helping the people we meet to reconnect with the natural world and with each other, all over the globe. Photo by Mary Marshall.


(FYI: With regard to our previous post, we received an email from our young friend from Japan, Masatatsu, and he has completed his Yukon paddle and is now in Lima, Peru preparing for his Amazon trip! We wish him a terrific journey and safe travels!)

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Meet the Author

Jon Waterhouse
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.