This is one of our favorite pieces, from Craig Childs, one of our favorite contributors. We’re happy to share it again, as part of an opening of our extensive archives. – Ed.
When I was a kid, I used to go outside and pretend I was the only person in the whole world. It wasn’t so much that I wanted to be alone, but I wanted the land to be alone, untouched.
Sometimes I’d look up at the cottage cheese texture sprayed on the ceiling of my bedroom, and I’d imagine I was in the sky looking back down at an enormous mountain range. There were no roads or towns in this fanciful geography. It was unexplored, obscured from any knowledge. I’d place myself inside of these mountains, and there would begin my journey.
The first big trip I took was a thousand miles of river from Yukon Territory into the flat Alaskan interior above the Arctic Circle. It was when I was in my 20s, in the early 1990s. I did this with a college buddy; we’d been river guides in the Lower 48, and this seemed like a good shot at going farther on the globe than either of us had ever gone. It was perhaps that childhood desire I had to slip off the edge of the map and be in a land that stretched beyond my own imagination.
Where the Yukon flows north of the Arctic Circle, it looks like a jug of water spilled across a table. We’d been paddling for the last 600 miles, and here, the river was 20 miles wide in places, an anastomosing mess of braids and channels weaving around countless marshy islands spindled with black spruce.
This far north, the sun was making circles around our heads, making it hard to tell one day from the next. Like a tilted hula hoop, the sun’s course barely touched beneath the horizon before climbing into the next dizzying day.
On the Yukon Flats, I preferred the bow, while my partner, Todd, took stern behind me. Being in front, I didn’t have to look at the back of his ball cap, or the strapped-in jigsaw puzzle of gear filling our canoe. Instead, I saw only the river spreading in all directions, maybe a few towering cumulus clouds and the dark skim of forests on faraway shores.
You’d see a glimmer, and pull binoculars to spot a Native fish-wheel turning slowly like an underwater windmill. We never saw the people who would come by boat every several days to check them.
We checked maps every few hours, trying to distinguish islands or elbows in the channel. The flats of the Alaskan interior where human sign has been found are a notoriously difficult place to navigate. Get into the wrong channel, you could end up winding 30 or 40 miles out of your way. Some of these tangential sloughs end in log jams where flood-driven trees are plunged into each other, no way around.
On this clear day, looking across the river’s sun-shot surface, Todd picked up his binoculars.
“Somebody’s over there,” he said.
I sat up, he handed me the binoculars. Over the ripple of sunlight on water, I could see a figure standing alone and shirtless. He’d pulled his canoe onto a bare, cobble beach. There were no trees anywhere near him, making it appear as if he were standing on the very curve of the planet.
His skin was darker than ours. He was waving with both arms, not frantically, but hoping to catch our eye. We picked up paddles and turned across the broad current to reach him.
The man stopped waving and put his hands on his hips, watching us. I could see his black crop of hair grown in all directions, no beard though. He wasn’t Athabaskan or Inuit. Coming closer, we could see he was Japanese. He waved with one hand, calling out, hello!
The man said he had been lost for many days.
As we glided up to his island, the man stepped into the water in laceless sneakers and grabbed our bow, pulling us up to shore. I jumped out in river sandals and helped him, as Todd climbed over gear from the stern.
The man said he had been lost for many days. He said his name. I tried to repeat it, and he laughed. Todd, tried next, and the man laughed again. His English was broken and scant. He communicated that he was paddling his canoe to the Yukon Delta and the Bering Sea, clear on the other side of Alaska. I never knew what his name actually was.
Todd pulled out our folded maps, opening them to the snake ball of the Yukon Flats, blue-river geography wending all over the place. Gesturing with a compass, we pointed the man toward the middle of the river miles away. The man looked around, scoping the circular horizon for some way to remember which way was which. He didn’t even have a compass.
It had been days since we’d seen anybody else. There had been some women on the river above here, back in the mountains before the flats. Sun-tanned and gritty, hair knotted up, rifle butt sticking up from their gear, they said they were heading for the sea, too. On different channels, ahead of or behind each other, we wouldn’t see them again.
Coming into the flats, bears seemed to be taking more interest in us, not so accustomed to being hunted. The country was becoming wilder, and this Japanese man struck me as the definition of adventurer, if not slightly ill-prepared. He said he’d robbed a couple fish wheels for food, which I advised him against, though at least he was ingenious enough to pull it off.
We undid straps from our canoe and opened our stores to him, moving half a brick of Velveeta Cheese and a leathery stack of homemade jerky into his supply. He ate with a smile, tearing off jerky with his teeth. He informed us that he’d bought a bucket of salmon eggs at a village weeks ago. He pulled from his canoe a white 5-gallon bucket that smelled like rotten fish. Todd and I looked at a crusty, blood-red film coating what looked like hundreds upon hundreds of small, red eyeballs. He scooped with his hand to freshen the supply, bringing up shinier, redder eggs from below. He offered the handful to both of us and, slightly horrified, we each took finger scoops.
They tasted awful.
“Mmm,” we said, smiling.
From our gear, we pulled sheets of dried paper-thin seaweed we’d been eating as a source of iodine and A and C vitamins. The Japanese man’s eyes widened as he laughed saying, “Ah, nori, nori!” It seemed unbelievable to him that we had nori, something from Japan. Even the packaging was partly in kanjis. Laughter encircled us.
This is what happens when you meet another traveler in deep country. You come together, offer food to share, and point at the horizon saying what you know.
Higher on the river, back in the mountains that petered out after entering Alaska, we’d seen more floaters. Todd thought I’d been a curmudgeon because I rarely wanted to say hello to anyone else. He’d paddle us over to a raft, a pod of canoes, kayaks, or some crazy floating spectacle fashioned out of wood planks and 55-gallon drums, and I’d be silent in our canoe with the brim of my wide Guatemalan sun-hat pulled down to hide my eyes. I didn’t want to see other people. I wanted the river to feel as isolated as I ever dreamed of. It was different meeting this solo traveler lost at the edge of the world.
When Todd and I pulled away and the Japanese man stayed on shore, waving goodbye, I felt as if I had found the middle of nowhere I’d sought since childhood. I was in the crenulations of a texture-spattered ceiling, exploring country unknown to me, bigger, more empty than anything I had seen before.
That was only the beginning.
Craig Childs is the author of numerous books, a National Public Radio commentator, and frequent contributor to Adventure Journal. You can read more of his work at his website, houseofrain.com.