Healing Journey 2013: Science and Culture Along the Yukon

On each “Healing Journey” Expedition, Jon Waterhouse uses travel along rivers, recording traditional knowledge from local people, and detailed scientific readings of water conditions and quality using cutting-edge technology. In March and April Jon and team are traveling from St. Mary’s, Alaska along the Yukon River by aircraft and snowmachine. Meanwhile his long-time collaborator John Francis is leading university students on Planetwalk around St. Mary’s… Ohio.


We’re back on the Yukon River – this time in St. Mary’s, Alaska where the Healing Journey was born! My wife, Mary and I arrived here late yesterday evening just as the lights of this lovely village were twinkling to life. Perched on the sloping banks of the Yukon River in Western Alaska, St. Mary’s will serve as our base camp for the next 10 days. Since we flew the nearly 500 air miles from Anchorage in a Cessna 206, we feel pretty fortunate that the weather was beautiful and the 3+ hour flight was smooth. Of course, that’s thanks to our uber capable pilot, David – who is also the CFO of the YRITWC, the non-profit org that I direct. (Only in Alaska, right?) The temperature here now is a whopping zero degrees F, but the sky is filled with dancing green northern lights – the upside to a cold night in the Far North!

We’ll be spending our time here in western Alaska visiting friends in Emmonak, Pilot’s Station, Kotlik, Scammon Bay, Russian Mission, Shageluk and Chevak – all of which are small villages located on or near the lower Yukon River.

There are no roads between these locations and though we will mostly be flying from one community to the next, we have snowmachines here for shorter trips between the villages within a reasonable distance of one another (less than 50 miles apart? Is that reasonable?) We’ll be collecting snow and ice samples from various points on the river – a first for us on the Yukon as so far our sampling season has been limited to summer.

Yeah with this much snow and ice, we're not taking the canoes this time. (Photo by Mary Marshall)
Yeah with this much snow and ice, we’re not taking the canoes this time. (Photo by Mary Marshall)


Another exciting aspect of this trip is that next week we will connect via Skype with our good buddy, Dr. John Francis, aka: the Planetwalker (read his earlier blog posts) as he walks with a group of college students across part of Indiana and Ohio. Each year, around Earth Day, John retraces a cross-country protest walk he took in the 70s after witnessing an oil spill in San Francisco Bay. The walk from one coast to the other took him 7 years – but he stopped riding in motorized vehicles for an incredible 22! We are looking forward to connecting with John and his trekkers via Skype from the rural Alaska classrooms we’ll be visiting while here.

I’m calling this trip a recon mission as we are preparing for next winter’s Healing Journey – a 1000+ mile journey on the frozen Yukon by snowmachine. Not only will we be speaking to Elders and Tribal leaders about the upcoming trip, sharing info about Native water rights and our upcoming tribal summit, we’ll also be connecting with young children in their classrooms, spreading the message of environmental stewardship. I feel a special connection to the people and land here – especially the kids – because this region is where the request was made of me to “go out and take the pulse of the river”. The children here have made a substantial impact on their environment by promoting the banning of plastic bags, and they have never backed down from a challenge when the future well-being of their natural environment is in question.

I am truly inspired to be here. Mary has lived in Alaska since 1975 but has never visited this part of the state. We have many friends here and are both thrilled for the opportunity to connect to a place and people that have essentially changed the direction of our own lives in such a positive way.

We’ll keep you posted as we continue west toward the coast of Alaska! Thanks for reading

– Jon

NEXT: View Map to Track the Healing Journey

Human Journey


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.