The Great Porcupine Canoe Trip

4 Feb

By Carl Coon

It was mostly Bill who arranged the Great Porcupine Canoe Trip. The idea grew out of a game of one-up-man-ship between the Millers and the Coons. Careful readers of this account, if there be any, will recall a certain canoe trip on the Allagash River in Maine that the Millers and the Coons took in the summer of 1977. Each side wrongly assumed the other knew what it was doing but we survived. Bill retaliated with the canoe trip down the Yukon River from Whitehorse to Dawson that we took in 1980. When Jane and I were elevated to our embassies in the subcontinent I one-upped Bill right back, with a trip through the Terai jungles on elephant back. That happened during our first Christmas season, and Bill took it as a major challenge. The Porcupine River trip in August of 1984 was his masterpiece, taking upwards of three years to prepare, and it ended the competition once and for all,  as it was clear we were never going to top it.

First, a word about the Millers. Jane had known Luree in Bombay back in the early ‘60’s, when Jane was assigned to our Bombay Consulate and Bill was too, as the press and information officer. The legendary Marilyn Silverstone was also there and the three women, Jane, Luree, and Marilyn formed an indissoluble bond, fastest of friends. Bill, as Luree’s spouse, was already attached to this triumvirate and I joined it when I married Jane.

The Alaska connection was mainly through Bill, born and raised in Fairbanks, but also through Luree’s uncle, who had been a legendary bush pilot in Alaska during the thirties. Also, Luree had spent a couple of years driving a truck around Alaska roads in the postwar period. Since marrying Bill, Luree had not only become a mother of three, but an accomplished writer, with several books to her credit. She frequently contributed travel articles to the Washington Post. She was one of the sharpest people I’ve known, as well as one of the most agreeable. They made a good couple; Bill was the more overtly adventurous, while Luree was more practical.

Valerie La Breche came along for the ride. She grew up with Luree in Seattle and had made a career out of travel, often hiring out as guide-counselor or such.

And then there was Bir, already well-known to readers of my essays and Autobiography. Cheerful, resourceful, Jane and I had reached the point we could hardly imagine undertaking a long camping trip without him. Plus, we were taking him home to Washington, DC anyway. His number had finally come up and my Embassy was able to give him a completely legal immigrant visa.

When we got to Anchorage Bir was there waiting for us, cheerful as ever and looking forward to a new adventure. It had occurred to us that he might have had a bit of trouble in Tokyo, given the fact the Japanese Red Army was shooting the place up at the time. No, he had sailed right through, big smile, no problem. He even had his kukri, the Nepali hillsman’s constant companion and the Gurkha soldier’s favorite weapon. What?? He says he never left the transit lounge but even so, you’d think somebody would have noticed before they let him bring his kukri on another flight. Anyway, we checked that up as one of the first serendipitous events of the trip. We were going to need a lot more good luck, as we shall see.

Bir and Jane and I flew from Anchorage to our rendezvous in Fairbanks where we joined the other three. Then we drove to our launching pad at Circle Hot Springs. That “pad”, the Circle Hot Springs Hotel, was one of the most unusual caravanserais I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen ‘em in more places than most. Bar straight out of Hollywood except that some of the patrons were for real; there was still some prospecting, and I actually saw one grizzled prospector come in and buy a round for everybody there, paid for with a little sack of newly scratched up gold.

Bedrooms furnished in plush velvet like a fancy bordello. And then a crazy swimming pool fed by hot springs so you could actually swim in it when the air temperature was twenty below (as we did on a later trip). Outside, behind the hotel, were acres of second-hand refrigerators and washing machines and similar junk waiting for buyers that I gather never appeared. The owner, a brother of Bill’s, was a bit of a nut about such equipment. I gather that Bill, the youngest of a family of nine(?) children, was considered one of the least eccentric, which explained quite a bit about the hotel, not to mention Bill himself.

Bill had arranged our flight to Old Crow with a couple of his old bush pilot friends. The first flight carried most of our gear. Then we all piled into a small seaplane with our two canoes strapped to the landing floats and, grossly overloaded, wobbled northeast and finally splashed down next to the beach beside Old Crow.

Jane describes a certain sinking feeling when our plane left us on the river bank with a small mountain of stuff including two kayaks yet to be assembled. I agree with Jane about the sinking feeling; I had one of my own, a sense of my god what have we gone and done? But there was no time for reflection, we had a lot to do and the day wasn’t getting any younger. Our first task was to assemble the two kayaks which had come knocked down in the first flight. Bill and Bir and I did that, with some difficulty, while Luree visited Old Crow to say hello to an Athabaskan Indian named Steven Frost, who had been a friend of her father’s. Then we packed our gear and boarded, two each in the canoes, and Bill and Luree had a kayak apiece.

We were able to get a few miles down the river that same day, since it was still early August and the days were still very long. Setting up camp and preparing supper was a breeze with Bir along and the rest of us enjoyed our well-earned tot of scotch.

We had a couple of peaceful days on the river, and then entered a canyon where the bluffs rose directly from the shore, leaving a dearth of campsites. It was getting late so we picked the best spot we could find, a narrow strip of beach, and set up camp.

I woke up early the next morning, stuck my head out of the tent, and found myself eyeball to eyeball with a large and healthy looking caribou, horns and all, looking back at me with a curiosity very much like my own. I suppose if I had asked him what he was doing there he could have replied that this was his turf and what the hell was I doing on it? Anyway, after we had each recovered from our initial surprise he ambled toward the river and I looked around.


There were hundreds of the brutes, lined up nose to tail in a column stretching from the water’s edge up a very steep trail to a high ridge where the early light outlined them, still nose to tail, in a line that ran along the ridge for as far as the eye could see.

I grabbed my camera and took a few snaps as the herd continued its stately pace into and across the river. The current was strong enough so they landed on the opposite shore well downstream from where they had started, but then I noticed an exception, a caribou swimming the wrong way, toward me. It struggled ashore near me and I noticed it was dripping blood. I looked across the river and saw the cause, a very large brown bear that was climbing back on the bank from the river, having evidently failed in an attack on the caribou standing in front of me. The bear looked at me, stood up on his hind legs, and barked. It sounded like a cannon, a staccato explosion that echoed up and down the canyon. People started piling out of their tents and the party was on.

Earlier on, Bill had assured Jane that grizzlies couldn’t swim, but that didn’t cut much ice when we saw the grizzly run downstream several hundred yards, then plow across the river like a motorboat. Bir, ever practical, started to build up a roaring fire. The ladies hit on the idea that noise could scare the brute off, and started banging pots and pans. I ducked back in my tent and readied my shotgun, a round of bird-shot up front with a round of double aught buckshot backing it up. I reflected that maybe I should have brought my .30 caliber hunting rifle, but then, I didn’t want to hurt the beast unless I had to, and this way I might scare him off.

That’s what happened. When the grizzly reached our bank he charged straight for us, growling and cussing at us and carrying on like a whole tribe of banshees. I never have been able to decide whether he intended to slaughter us or was just trying to scare us off, but if the latter he succeeded admirably. He may not have made his own mind up either, but when he heard my bird-shot whistling over his head he made a command decision, pivoted like a pro football quarterback, and beat it back to his point of entry on our bank, hardly slowing down at all. Without pausing he swam back to the other bank, and then tore up to the point where he’d started, across from me. After a few more barks he ran straight up the cliff-side behind him and disappeared. A few minutes later a slightly smaller grizzly with two half-grown cubs appeared on the opposite bank where he had been, and watched us in a fairly unfriendly way while we broke camp and hit the water.

I found the whole episode deeply satisfying. For the first and probably the only time I had won a protracted argument against Luree and Jane, not to mention Valerie. The subject was guns. From the beginning of our planning, I was determined to bring one along and they were determined I should not. Who did they think I thought I was, a poster boy for the gun lobby? Guns were immoral, hunting was immoral, just having a lethal weapon sullied the whole idea of pristine wilderness we sought. I persisted, they insisted, we were still arguing when we got on the river, and I still had my trusty old twelve gauge pump-action shotgun, barrel off so it would fit in my bag.

None of us joined the gun lobby but we all agreed that it was a good thing I had that infernal device with me. Furthermore I have the only photograph I ever took that Marilyn has considered up to her standards. I took it of the other five watching that big grizzly bug off back across the river. Marilyn likes pictures that show real people undergoing real emotions and when I took that snap my fellow travelers qualified

Jane had another notion about bears that Bill had encouraged, namely that they didn’t like the smell of mothballs, so if you wanted to protect your tent or campsite against their depredations the thing to do was put a ring of the smelly little objects around the protected area. After several more days of camping on the river that idea was discarded along with the bears can’t swim idea. We got up one morning to find very fresh grizzly tracks around our tent, within the magic mothball circle.

That morning also marked Valerie’s conversion on the subject of my snoring. I now use a respirator but in those days I allegedly made quite a racket at times when sleeping soundly. Valerie had her own little tent and for the first few days parked it as far from the one Jane and I used as possible, given the confines of the site. The morning new grizzly tracks appeared around our tent, similar ones appeared around hers, and from then on we clustered our tents in a tighter configuration, noise be damned.

About halfway down to Fort Yukon there’s an abandoned settlement called New Ramparts and we stopped there for a rest day. For the first (and only) time during our whole journey down the river, we met other humans. A large canoe with a small outboard put-putted around a bend and in it was Luree’s friend Steven Frost, with son, wife, and a freshly killed caribou.

It was a family outing and a kind of celebration, with son having made his first kill. Frost and son beached and with all of us watching, butchered the caribou. They did a beautiful job, quick and clean, and presented us with a sizable chunk of steaming fresh liver. To round out the menu they also gave us some bannock bread, a relatively imperishable local version of the staff of life that is very hard.

Bir, whose teeth leave much to be desired, pulled out his little metal skillet and some wheat flour and made some chappatis. Frost was fascinated and so was I. Here were individuals from very different cultures and places exchanging technological information about how you can make grain edible, with each technique probably dating back to the Neolithic. This kind of exchange must have occurred many times in the remote past, as one of the main ways culture gets diffused and civilization advanced. Remarkable, to see it happening here, under our eyes. And they each thought it was pretty remarkable too. It was a case of mutual admiration, as this picture suggests.

One of the advantages of canoeing down a big river is that usually you don’t have to worry about getting lost.  Just go with the flow. Tributaries sneak up behind you, and half the time you don’t even know they are there. This was true for us about 90% of the way down to Fort Yukon, but as we got close to our destination the Porcupine morphed into something like a delta, with a host of branches peeling off from the main stream, some of them big enough to pass as the main stream itself. It’s not too difficult if you are sitting at a desk looking at a map, but if you are facing a bunch of islands all looking alike, sitting in the front of a canoe with your wife the ambassador in the back, yelling at you to say which way do I go, dammit, right or left, and the current is rapidly taking you past the point of no return, it can get hairy.

I was the designated navigator. I would cheerfully have turned the job over to Bill but he was solo in a kayak. And we were supposed to rendezvous with Mary and Barry Morris, local representatives of the Alaska Commercial Company (successor to the Hudson Bay Company) at a very specific time at a very specific point in this delta or archipelago of little inlets and islets that our mighty Porcupine had morphed into. One false turn and we would have been up a creek, literally, or, even worse, downstream from our target. But we hit it without a false turn, and at just about the agreed hour. I felt as lucky as if I had won a national lottery. Serendipity squared. Jane sent an ardent prayer of thanks to Lord Ganesh. Our new hosts were almost as surprised as we were, as they had fully expected a long and quite possibly fruitless wait. They fit us and our gear into a large pickup and drove us back to civilization, or at least to one of its more remote outposts.

Our new hosts at Alaska Commercial were congenial and took good care of us. They had the travel bug themselves and after we went home they took their jeep and drove it around much of the world. We rested up for a day or two and flew home. End of an era.

And what an era it was! For three years Jane and I had been caught up in a social whirl in two overpopulated countries, especially Bangladesh, one of the most overpopulated of all. We were suffering from a surfeit of people. And then, like hardy Swedes rolling in the snow after steaming themselves in a sauna, we went cold turkey into wilderness, seeing nobody at all except for the one day we met Stephen Frost. It was shock treatment and it worked. On the ride back from our rendezvous to ACC headquarters we rode like Okies in the back of a pickup truck. The rest of the way home we were ordinary tourists like everyone else. Sic transit gloria mundi.

But we did have our memories, and Luree had a hell of a good travel story to write-up, which she did, and the Washington Post published it, which was a help later on persuading skeptical friends that it all really happened.

********************************************

Carl Coon recently died at age 91. He was a retired United States Ambassador, a composer, an author and essayist. This is an account of one of his life adventures. Carl lived with his wife Jane in Rappahannock County, Virginia overlooking a bend in a river.

Bruce’s Notes: Carl Coon was a good friend and one of my Personal History clients. We worked together on his Autobiography. The first volume – People of Earth: The First Forty, was published in October. We hope to have the second volume ready to publish later this year.

Bruce Summers is Personal Historian and Life Story Coach for Summoose Tales, +1.703.503.8834, summersbw@gmail.com. Bruce is a former direactor of the Association of Personal Historians. He is a founding member of the Life Story Professionals of the Greater Washington Area.

See also:

Advertisements

3 Responses to “The Great Porcupine Canoe Trip”

  1. cyclingrandma February 5, 2019 at 2:43 pm #

    Nice! I’m sure the family is happy to have his story.

    Like

  2. Pete February 6, 2019 at 3:52 pm #

    Thanks you for sharing this adventure with us.
    I lived near Livengood in Northern Alaska for 14 years and fished regularly off the Yukon but never got cross off my bucket list a trip to the Porcupine and its rummer-ed monster Pike.

    Like

    • bwsummers February 6, 2019 at 6:12 pm #

      Carl and his wife did saying the fishing was great. They did not mention monster Pike:) Most of the same group also did a canoeing trip on the Yukon River in 1980. Carl’s good friend Bir is rumored to have had such a good time catching fish in the Yukon, that they had to beg him to stop, the fishing was too good, but they ate really well.

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: