By Jeff Rennicke
Pride may go before the fall, but it can also be tangled in a current. We were young then, optimistic dreamers and drinkers of Rhinelander beer. One night in our dorm room around a case of the stuff, we put a compass to a map. Where in North America could we get farthest from a road? All fingers pointed to the Yukon.
A few months and many Rhinelanders later, a busted-up VW bus pulling a homemade canoe trailer skidded to a stop on the streets of Mayo, Yukon. In those days, Mayo was it–as far north as you could go by road, a ramshackle collection of rusty chainsaws, toothless miners, and lost hopes. And through it all flowed the Stewart River.
On the map, the Stewart was a blue line meandering as easily as our dreams. In the harsh light of an Arctic spring day, it was a torrent, a mud-colored muscle. We planned to paddle upstream 250 miles, portage the Arctic Divide, then drive 500 miles downstream to the Beaufort Sea. Through the misty beer haze of a dorm room, it had all seemed like wild adventure. From the streets of Mayo, it looked stupid. A drift log the size of our van swept by in the current. We should have laughed and left. Instead, we began unloading gear.
Six skinny college boys and their canoes caused quite a stir among the citizens of Mayo. The entire populace–35 humans and 367 sled dogs–gathered at the river to watch. Now it was a challenge. With the over-the-top ceremonial bravado that only slightly intoxicated college boys can muster, we drank a final toast from a bottle we found rolling around under the seats, blew the whistle, and we were off.
All of us had canoe experience, but none of use had ever paddled a canoe upstream. After a few strokes, we understood why. It was unnatural, like pissing into the wind. But pumped full of machismo and stale beer, we dug in, foaming the water with our paddles.
That’s when I heard the laughter. We had not moved an inch upstream. We were, in fact, losing ground. To the locals it was the funniest thing since Old Red fell asleep in the outhouse and froze to the seat. Even the dogs were laughing.
We pulled harder and managed to round the bend, out of sight and earshot. There we camped. Day One of a 750-mile trip, and we’d made less than a mile. At this rate, it would take several years to finish the expedition.
Slowly, we discovered ways to negotiate the river. We gave up trying to overpower the current, learned how to exploit eddies, how to use slack water to slip ahead, and we began to cover good distances. But it took that long first mile from Mayo and a crowd of laughing onlookers to get use beyond the tight horizon of our own arrogance and into the rhythms of the river.
Back in Mayo, I bet they still talk about those tenderfeet who went upstream and never came back. They probably think we are still up there, nose to the current, still padding hard and going nowhere.
Midwest Editor Jeff Rennicke, a former rafting guide and author of two books on rivers, swore off cheap beer long ago.