2.4 Rowing down the Yukon

When I talk to friends about Hayes Perkins, this Alaskan adventure is always one of the first stories I tell:  nine hundred miles down the Yukon River in a row boat in twelve days.


July 7 1908 – July 19, 1908 (12 days)

If you are stuck at Fort Gibbon in the center of Alaska, 900 miles from the mouth of the Yukon, without enough money for fair downriver to St. Michael where you can catch a steamer to Seattle, no job, surrounded by a thousand unemployed men, what do you do?

To begin with, find a companion.  Hayes found Feodor Romanoff, a Bulgarian with soft hands who “says he has a good education, does not need to do physical labor.  He has no other outfit than a small leather handbag, and in this are cosmetics such as a lady has in her boudoir.  Small sort of puff balls, powders and perfumes.”

Then a boat:  Four prospectors pull up in a rowboat from White Horse looking to sell cheap so they can get inland to the diggings fast.  Hayes’ assessment? “Our boat is seaworthy, though rather clumsy.  She is the product of the small shipyard at White Horse….  She is constructed of whipsawed lumber, strips of kerosene tins nailed over the moss filled seams.  She does not leak, and strangely runs well for so heavy a craft.  One oar is hewn out of a spruce limb, the other is a straight stick with a piece of lumber nailed to it.  All round I am satisfied with the boat.”


Lake Bennett Boats

And provisions:  The miners were in a hurry; Hayes worked them a little.  Five dollars bought the boat, together with, “twenty pounds of flour, eleven pounds of bacon and two pounds of prunes.  A coffee pot, a frying pan, two tin plates, some knives, forks and spoons.  What more does a man want on the Yukon?”  Well, Feodor had his cosmetics bag and Hayes had a change of underwear and two blankets.

One of the blankets and a stick found on a gravel bar make a passable sail and the journey starts fast:  140 miles to Kokrines in “eighteen hours and twenty minutes, actual timing.”  Of course Feodor’s hands won’t let him row more than an hour even if he did know how, but Hayes teaches him to steer with an oar when wind fills the sail, so Hayes can get a little sleep.  “Feodor does not realize the seriousness of our position.”  Not yet anyway.

Between Bennett and Lindeman Alaska; not exactly the right place, but the right image

Ten miles below Nulato, 290 miles below Fort Gibbon, out “two days and ten hours,” the wind whipped around to the west (head on) and chopped the river rough as open sea.  Hayes and Feodor put in to a small native village trying to buy some fish.  Hayes, Feodor and the native men find they have only the word “hooch” in common.  “We had none, and they lost interest.”  But a woman from the village who had learned English at the native school at Holy Cross approached with two small children suffering from “the hordes of mosquitoes.”  Hayes gave her some carbolic salve and, when she asked if they had anything to read, could only offer some Salvation Army tracts a man gave him at Fairbanks.  Attention to the children bought them a load of fish, “that we accepted with thanks, but threw over the side when we turned the first bend.”  Cultural differences on how long fish remains edible.

Hayes describes the mosquitoes as truly ferocious.  Here is the once daily drill with the flour and bacon:  “I take the oars and drive for a (sand) bar at full speed.  Feodor stands in the bow, and when the boat strikes the sand, he leaps out, runs to the drift with a bundle of birch bark in his hands and has a fire going by the time I have moored the boat and got the grub box ashore.  We light several fires as quickly as possible, fighting mosquitoes the while.  Then I fry bacon and flapjacks and make a spot of coffee, which we eat while sitting in the smoke.  Then, after cooking enough for the rest of the day we get more bark for the next stop, take the grub box and run for it again.”  Out in the middle of the mile wide river, the mosquitos aren’t so bad, “and when the wind blows we escape them.”

The sun sets for a couple of hours each night but never to darkness.  Feodor is afraid of the Northern Lights; Hayes is afraid of the empty native villages they pass one after another.  He writes, “hooch peddlers float down the Yukon each spring behind the ice.  Then they can sweep up the furs in every Indian village and encampment…  The bootlegger has done his work well.  Selling all their furs to buy booze, there was nothing left for flour and other provisions, so they starved when winter came.”

Above Kaltag, Hayes and Feodor pull ashore at another village escaping the rain.  A native family takes them into a fine cabin (abandoned by woodcutters) but won’t sell them salmon for money.  Furthermore, “something about our appearance aroused their mirth, for without any movement on our part the three boys of the family would laugh loud and long.”  In this instance, a stitch kit was more valuable than money.  Hayes fixed a pair of shoes for a young woman then gave her the tools.  She reciprocated with a well-cooked salmon dinner.

Below Anvik, they meet a priest, “a humble man, living with the Indians as one of them” who could interpret for one of the elders:  “When the Russians were here, they brought us good clothing and other goods, but the price was very high.  Now the Americans bring us poor material, and the price is still high.  The Russians brought no hoochino, but the Americans have ruined our people with it.   During the Russian occupation we were many.  There were four people then to where there is one now.  In a few years we will all be gone.” (Hayes’ quote.)

Now that Feodor’s hands are hardened to rowing, Hayes thinks about making a smudge to keep the mosquitoes off – Maybe a little later, Feodor rows better when he has to move to keep the bugs off.

July 15, eight days on the river and precious little flour and bacon remain in the grub box.  Hayes hears a beckoning from shore and pulls in to find a grey-haired prospector who leads him to a tent where his once gigantic friend lies withered and broken.  “During the previous winter he had been frozen, his feet are now black and gangrened.”  Hayes’ admiration for these hardy men merits exclamation marks:  “But with splendid spirit his partner has cut wood and is trying to sell this [to passing steamships] to pay their passage to the states.  No seeking relief for these self-reliant men!  They are trying against almost hopeless odds to pay their way as they go.”  Despite Feodor’s protests, Hayes leaves half the flour and bacon with the two prospectors.  “It is the right of any prospector to ask for food, for he may be asked himself under the same circumstances.”  Hayes also left the last of the Salvation Army literature with no recorded complaint from Feodor.

Hayes and Feodor left the two prospectors shorter on food but longer on information.  “We were soon in the maze of the delta channels after passing Andreafski, which is 180 miles above St Michaels (sic).  It was fortunate we met the two old miners, else we would never have know which way to go.”  Following the miners’ directions they came to a group of Eskimo men fishing.   One wanted passage north to an Eskimo camp at the Pastolik River mouth for which he eventually paid “a splendid king salmon.”  Perhaps more importantly, the local man showed Hayes a path to the end of the Yukon on the Norton Sound.

The Eskimo men let Hayes and Feodor rest in their shaman house, sold them half cured salmon they’d put up for the dogs and offered them a kind of mulligan stew made from all but the tail and wing feathers of some wild fowl boiled in seal blubber.  “Neither of us could force it down.”  The locals had better food but apparently Hayes had a gold-filled tooth that lead them to believe the two travelers could pay more handsomely than they would.

After more than 800 miles down the Yukon, only forty miles separate the mouth of the Pastolik from St. Michael – forty miles of open sea.  “It has been the worst passage I have ever made.”  A lull had come to the previous day’s storm but the wind freshened immediately after their small boat crossed the “rough bar.”  Hayes hoisted their blanket sail while Feodor lay helplessly seasick moaning in the bottom of the boat.  “The wind blew stronger as we kept on.  Billows broke about us, over us, and for a time I managed to get the now desperate Feodor back to man the steering oar while I bailed for life.”  After 13 hours at the oars, the blanket sail, and the bailing bucket Hayes spied a tall pole “some kindly hand” has placed showing where to tuck safely in behind Egg Island.  Safe from the storm but completely lost:  “Channels, one after another, lead off here and there, and we wonder whither we are going.”

Fortunately the two lost adventurers stumbled across one more kind stranger who knew the river.  In return for the last sweepings from their flour can, the head of a native family gathering berries drew Hayes “an accurate map of our route, placing all the false channels and drawing a line across each.”

After one more short stretch rowing on open sea, Hayes drove hard onto the sand at St. Michael where, “Feodor leaped ashore and without a word cleared up town.”  Hayes sold the boat (“I had gotten a real affection for our boat, a clumsy craft on whose bow someone had inscribed ‘Mary Ann of White Horse’”) for two dollars, gave away their gear, then went looking for Feodor, former half-owner of the Mary Ann, “and gave him his buck.”

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