In summer 2016, Ulli Mattsson and I paddled two thousand kilometres through Alaska, following the Yukon River from the US/ Canadian border to the Bering Sea.
The longest free flowing river in North America, it is one of the most remote parts of the planet. It was the first river to be travelled by Pleistocene hunters, and the last to be travelled by white explorers. The Yukon's watershed is over 99% forest and tundra, its population less than 0.1 person per square kilometer. And it is also the longest salmon run in the world, fish travelling more than three thousand kilometres to reach the tributaries of their birth.
The purpose of the trip was to explore how the recent and rapid decline of the king salmon has been affecting the many people and the ecosystems that depend on it. I had been in Alaska several years previously, and had written about how the fishing ban had been impacting the communities around Bethel. Now I wanted to travel the whole of the Yukon River, canoeing downriver at the same time that the salmon would be running up it, to explore how entwined the fish was with the people and the places that it passed.
It is wild country. Most villages have no road access, and except for the occasional flight the river is the highway: snowmobiles in winter, skiffs in summer, with long months in between the seasons when the ice is rotten or still forming, and travel is impossible. For the most part the population is Athabascan and Inuit, peoples who have depended on the salmon run as reliable protein for many thousands of years, and are now starting to question what it means if that run were to vanish for good.
But despite the villages, and the occasional cabins where individuals live remote lives in the bush, we knew that there would be weeks at a time when we would see no one. Self reliance was key; more crucial than any trip I have planned before. I knew that the tent would be at the heart of that. With Alaskan summers being notoriously volatile, we needed something that would be suitable for whatever we might come across, as well as affording us the extra comfort that we would want during several months lived on the river.
We landed on the Campfire Tent from Frost River, and it was perfect.
Its beauty was in the variation that it offered. In hot June days of 30 degrees centigrade, when the sun scarcely sets and it is dry for weeks on end – the interior of Alaska is a desert by definition– we could open all the flaps up and allow the breeze to blow through. The canvas kept us cool and shaded in a way synthetic tents cannot do. As much as we could we slept on sandbars in the middle of the river, far from where we might stumble on a bear. There was fresh water from the creeks, piles of drift to build a fire, vast space and total silence. Camped on an island, watching a 2am dusk that merges into a dawn, watching a moose swimming a channel to the far shore, we felt very lucky to be there.
As the trip went on and we approached the Arctic Ocean, we increasingly found ourselves dealing with driving rain and sleet, and battening the tent down. Our first storm came at the end of July, which is pushing autumn in the north. The cumuli had been building all day, the wind picking up the waves. By the time that we moored for the night the sky was so black it was blue. Camped on a soft mud bar, we had to weight the guy ropes down with stones, with float barrels, with anything we could find. You could hear the rain coming from miles away across the river, like horses. We lay in the tent with the rain hammering the roof, the sides taut and straining, but warm and dry inside.
It rained without cease for two days. We sat in chairs beneath the canopy, we cooked beneath it, lived beneath it. We carried a piece of corrugate that we had pulled from an old cabin, and when the weather was cold, we used it to reflect the heat of the fire into the tent, us in our sleeping bags, our wet clothes hung in the porch. Having spent many a day rain bound in tents before, and knowing the inevitable cabin fever that sets in, the luxury of the extra space to move about was something that we very much welcomed.
The locals loved the Campfire Tent. It reminded Alaskans of the wall tents they had lived in when they built their cabins. The old-timers remembered time pre-statehood when they had packed similar designs. Camped on the beaches in the villages we passed through, it was never long before we drew a crowd, watching us set up, giving us pointers on the guy ropes. And crucially, it was protection from the bugs. Not just from the mosquitos, but from the miniscule no-see-ums which could slip through the holes in the bug nets we wore, but couldn't make it inside the tent. I had been told that a naked man, tied down, would last four hours in Alaska. This felt unscientific, but it proves a certain point. Many evenings, the tent was the only sanctuary.
I am more accustomed to hiking, and unused to the space that a canoe provides. But having the space to carry the Campfire with us made for a completely different experience, a tent that felt more like a home, even in the remotest of locations. I'm itching for the summer and more canoe trips, and to get it out again.
- Adam Weymouth is a freelance writer who has worked for a wide variety of newspapers and magazines, including The Guardian, The BBC, The Atlantic and Lacuna. He is currently at work on his first book, Kings of the Yukon, about the salmon and the canoe trip, to be published by Little, Brown in 2018. More of his work can be found at www.adamweymouth.com & @adamweymouth