“For me, the value of a climb is the sum of three inseparable elements, all equally important: aesthetics, history, and ethics.”
This was the philosophy of Walter Bonatti, a fixture on most “Best of All Time” climbing lists. And he lived up to his own ideal. He earned renown not only for his first ascents, but also for gauging style on equal measure with difficulty. When his professional climbing career tapered to its natural end in the 1960s, Bonatti turned his attention – and his philosophy – to other types of adventure. One of his more remote exploits took him to the Yukon for a solo canoe expedition down the Yukon and Porcupine rivers in 1965.
This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of Bonatti’s Yukon expedition. Honoring the legendary Italian’s respect for history, style, and ethics, a fellow Italian adventurer and filmmaker followed Bonatti’s remote northern trail. In 2013, Igor d’India hitchhiked more than 4,300 miles across the Yukon Territory and paddled more than 870 miles downriver in a 17-foot canoe. Other than the people and critters he met along the way, d’India was solo.
In a nod to Bonatti’s historic trip, d’India went technology-free. No cell phone. No GPS. No radio. He also slid his canoe into the river with very little canoeing experience: a few hours, tops. His film of the experience, “The Yukon Blues,” was just released in Italy and will be available in the U.S. later this year.
1. Which was the bigger draw for this expedition: BonattiÊ¼s journey or the Yukon itself?
Before my location scout in Yukon Territory (YT), spring 2013, the draw was only BonattiÊ¼s book. I just wanted to see the river and the places he wrote about to find out what was left of the world he witnessed 50 years ago. I had spent the entire winter in Toronto, washing dishes in a burger restaurant, and could not afford flying up north and spending a whole month in Dawson City. But I wanted it really bad. So I hitchhiked 4,300+ miles from Toronto all the way to Dawson. Many things happened during that trip, and even more when I got to destination. I felt like home, thanks to those unique people and the atmosphere. When I left to Italy after three weeks, I felt blue. I was not sure I would collect the money for the expedition, but I knew that coming back to the Yukon was my only goal at that time. Nothing could stop me. It wasnÊ¼t just about a book anymore. It was something I needed to be happy, my next step forward. There is something else. Two years ago I happened to become Rossana PodestaÌ€Ê¼s friend. She is BonattiÊ¼s wife and supported me with great suggestions like a grandma. She became an important person to me but she suddenly passed away just a few months before [I left for the Yukon].
2. In honor of what this expedition would have been like in 1965, you brought no modern technology (phone, GPS, radio). Aside from basic needs, what did you pack?
Actually I always try to have no items that can do the “funny” job for me. Otherwise I would learn nothing. Orientating is one of the biggest challenge in these adventures. I donÊ¼t want to follow a blinking spot on a screen to know where to go. And if I go solo, why would I need a phone to talk to people? It is not only to tribute Bonatti that I had no fancy toys on me. DonÊ¼t get me wrong, I am not a fanatic purist who challenges death [by] playing Indiana Jones. I just ask myself the same question every time: do I really need this gizmo? Can I learn enough by it? Is it worth the weight in my backpack and on my budget? I make my rules and I am free to decide time after time what works better for me. For instance, I decided to have no sponsor (aside Kobalt Entertainment who produced the documentary and co- funded the expedition) but I put on my canoe a little flag of the Non-Profit organization “Sport Senza Frontiere,” that helps disadvantaged kids to practice sports. It was a nice occasion to give these guys some visibility, so why not? About the “luxury items” I had an mp3 player and, in case of serious trouble, I had the SPOT to activate the Search and Rescue. Bonatti would have used it, thatÊ¼s for sure. Again, I can increase the exposure but that doesnÊ¼t mean I have to be irresponsible.
3. How did you prepare physically for this trip?
It is about 10,000 kilometers hitchhiking, because after the canoe trip I hitched back from Fairbanks to Toronto via Vancouver. Also, I could paddle only 870 miles of the planned 1400 miles, because of the extraordinary bad weather of last summer in the Yukon Flats.
I knew I would need to fit a healthy body in a highly demanding environment, so I trained both physically and mentally with equal importance. As far as the workout is concerned, I have been running about one hour, six days a week for eight months, together with a total-body workout (push-ups, abs, swimming, stretching, and so on). I do not lift weights, as I have been doing that in the past and I got sick of gyms. Also, to clean and purify my body before the expedition I have been on a diet based on a professional counselor.
The best training for hitchhiking is hitchhiking. During the 2013 trip to Dawson I got better at deciding in a few seconds whether to trust or not the driver. After a few days spent in cars with strangers I discovered hitchhiking is an exchange of services: one wants to travel for free as long as he can, people donÊ¼t want to get bored. Once [I] understood this and learned the best spots to hitchhike – traveling for free in North America gets fun and nice.
About the canoeing-technique, I have to confess I had a bare idea of what a canoe looks like. I had a few days training in Italy, but mainly about the self rescue procedures. Although every single inch of the Yukon can kill you, it is a floatable river. If you use common sense, if you know when to pull over and wait out the bad weather, if you know the rules of living in the bush, you become part of the “system” and the river will let you through. A few weeks before taking off, I had paddled a few miles on the Klondike and the Yukon with my local friends and it was great. I had the occasion to see what 13 million liters per minute [ed. note: approximately 459,000 cfs], at the speed of 7 mph, look like. Once on my own I would have had to be perfect and my effort constant. You know, I learned to paddle even talking to people, getting drunk on shores, watching the current every day for weeks to see how the tide changes. I experienced the feeling of being ready for the next step: being alone with the river, the only real teacher. The canoe became my friend, my associate, and my floating house. I like this way to increase the exposure in a responsible and cautious way.
4. YouÊ¼ve spent a lot of time alone – from cycling GaribaldiÊ¼s route through Italy to spending 700 hours of sensory deprivation in a cave. How did the solo time – in the Yukon wilderness with very real dangers – differ?
Rent a car in Italy, you will regret you are not in the bush. Apart from kidding, I would not use the term “real danger” just because we are talking about the Yukon and Alaska. I know it might sound superficial, but biking 1300 miles in Italy has been probably my scariest and most dangerous experience so far. Even my way back after the expedition has been eventually risky: that old lady from Czech Republic picked me up in Dawson and drove 80% of time in the wrong lane. I wish I had a valid driving license!
On the river I needed to be focused the whole time because my life depended only on myself and how much attention I would pay to what was happening around. The danger was evident and if I ignored it I would have had troubles. Towns are considered safe places but the danger hides in peopleÊ¼s inattention and negligence. In the cave, the dangers were not only the earthquakes (one happened in the second week), but the feeling of losing the boundary between dream and reality. Alone in the darkness it gets very easy to freak out.
Fear saves your life, but if it is too much or too less, it can kill you. The game is to handle it and that is “the” quest.
5. The Dolomites may have challenging weather, but the Yukon is in a category of sustained, extreme weather all its own. What was your most intense weather experience?
You are right. The weather forecast in the Yukon is like the horoscope: you got to believe that things will happen. This year it was wet and windy, as people told me nearly all over in YT and Alaska. But the real mess has been in the Yukon River flats. Bad weather in that area translates into winds that would kick up to 60 mph gusts in a matter of minutes and storms that could last for weeks. In a sea kayak, you can try to go through under these conditions, but in a canoe it is very different.
With my skills, paddling in a 17-foot Canadian canoe across a 6-mile wide river, dodging log jams and bouncing on 5-foot tall waves could have meant “Russian Roulette.” Close to Circle [ed. note: Circle is a town in Alaska], I got stuck for a few minutes where the river caves in, underneath a fragile permafrost shore. I could do nothing but wait to rush out of there as the gusts stopped. That was not funny at all and a few hundred meters before that spot, the shores were steep and collapsing. Having gotten stuck there would have meant even more troubles. Also the day right after launch, I got stuck for two days on Lake Laberge. I was on the west shore waiting for the wind to die-off. Meanwhile, five racers of the Yukon [River] Quest flipped their boats, on the opposite shore. When you are alone, the constant wind is a torture and you can freak out.
6. Did you have any ‘up close and personal’ experiences with the wildlife?
Wildlife in the Yukon is abundant. Hitchhiking – I think I saw about 20 bears on the roadside, eating the fresh grass of May and berries in August, lots of bison between Whitehorse and Fort Nelson. During the canoe trip bears were just a few. Moose were easy to spot on the river: lots of beautiful cows and calves taking a bath in the cold water during the few warm days. No animal ever got too close to my camp at all.
Anyone can confirm that the most vicious and aggressive creatures are mosquitos, horseflies and seagulls. These birds get really angry even if you are floating 20 yards from their nest and hell! They start stalking you and try to hit you! To wild animals, the notion of “up close” differs a lot from ours. Watching a bear from a distance of 90 yards could seem much to a human, while they would already feel youÊ¼re too close to their food, cubs, territory.
7. Navigating Alaskan rivers is notoriously difficult, when choosing the wrong braid can take you miles out of your way. How did it go for you?
This is true for a couple of Alaskan rivers, but not on the Yukon and the Porcupine. It is nearly impossible to get lost there. When you think you have no idea where you are, just look at the compass, stay calm and look around you. Even lost in the worst slough, donÊ¼t panic, paddle back to the last channel and just leave the boat drift. The river will bring you back to business. Only the big mess of islands between Circle and Fort Yukon was a very hard test for my orienting skills. Without GPS and with old maps, I had to make sure to skip the Halfway Whirlpool, where a set of currents of different directions and intensity could spin Rossana for hours before I could work my way out. If I missed Fort Yukon it would have taken me a while before another village. But again: stay focused, look around you, listen and be patient, youÊ¼ll be fine.
8. What turned out to be the biggest unexpected challenge or revelation of this trip?
I thought after my solo permanence of a month in the cave and after all my adventures, I would have been good in handling my fear on the river. I was wrong. The wind and the waves, the second day on Lake Laberge, made me so nervous and scared that I realized I had to start over – working on my mind. I was close to freaking out, and in the bush it would mean less chances to survive. The power of the mind can be surprising, positively or negatively. When you are alone you canÊ¼t share fear, especially when you face that hard moment when your dreams impact on reality.
It is very easy to stay positive when everything works fine, when you have friends around and you are safe. It is tough finding your motivation after you realize you are weaker than you thought. This is when growth happens. I did not expect to get so frustrated on the third day of paddling. I think it was the hardest moment, psychologically speaking. What I have learned is that sometimes you fear something that is not happening yet. You are afraid of fear itself. If you are the problem yourself, you can also [be] the solution. Through a few hard lessons, I earned my right to paddle further.
When I was forced to quit my expedition in Fort Yukon (the river was “not floatable”) I realized that I cared more about the stories and experiences I had lived rather than the few hundred miles I was missing to “completion.”
9. One of your goals was to examine how the Yukon, the people, and the villages have changed since BonattiÊ¼s expedition in 1965. What did you observe?
Fifty years ago Bonatti had a very lonely journey on an uncontaminated and wild river. The first difference is tourism. Today itÊ¼s not uncommon at all to see groups of paddlers from all over the world, between Whitehorse and Carmacks, floating with guides or even improvisers, who travel on their own just like they would go to Disney World. Sure everybody has the right to enjoy this beauty, but there are rules to respect. Unfortunately, not everybody does.
Although it is not common to see people north of Dawson and quite rare after Circle, in those areas the biggest difference, after 50 years, is the weather. In July the headwinds were constant for days. Bonatti, too, experienced bad weather, but he wrote it was just for a few hours during the day and he paddled overnight with no big deal. Natives told me this July has been like the usual September.
I have collected stories by the GwitchÊ¼in community in Old Crow (Canada), on the Porcupine River. These folks are very worried about the pollution, related to the gold mining industries that pour mercury in the water, and the lack of fish. Indeed, it seems that big corporations are now catching a huge amount of salmon by settings fishnets throughout the Yukon Delta. Result: no fish and contaminated moose and caribou. Fortunately, the Yukon is a huge territory and it will be hard to turn it into a polluted big European, look-a-like river, but when it comes down to people stupidity and greed, you never know what to expect.
10. WhatÊ¼s your next adventure?
Now itÊ¼s time to try and survive the crazy society IÊ¼m just back in and tell this story on a documentary produced by Kobalt Entertainment, which hopefully you will see on TV in USA and North America soon. I already have something in mind for late 2015, but it is too soon to talk about it as it is only an “inception” at the moment. But still, that’s only if an old lady [driving in the wrong lane] doesn’t run me over before I finish editing!
Photos courtesy Igor d’India.