In late July and early August of this year, I went to Alaska to swim 250 km in the Yukon River, from Eagle to Circle. These two small villages are among the few settlements located on the riverbank. There are roads leading to them from Fairbanks, Alaska’s largest interior city (32,000 people), making it possible to reach the destination by car. The Yukon River is three times longer than the Vistula, with average flows seven times that of the Vistula. It flows through the Canadian territory of the same name and across Alaska to find its outlet in the Bering Sea.
Why the Yukon River?
I have been doing adventure swimming in lakes, rivers and seas for many years. Gaining more and more experience, in 2017. I felt that I was ready for a trip to one of the great rivers of the north. Only a few swimmers attempt to swim the routes of large rivers, plus they tend to concentrate on latitudes that provide greater thermal comfort. For me, the Yukon River was and is synonymous with water that no one has tried to tame, where I can find wild animals moving freely over vast, unpopulated areas, living without much human pressure.
Preparation – the Yukon River is a real challenge
Such an expedition requires good planning. The basis is to build contacts in advance in the area being visited. It takes a lot of time to find out what conditions actually are in a given place. Imagine if someone wanted to cruise the Vistula River and asked Varsovians about navigational details or dangerous sections. Many of them, even if they are in contact with water, will give us information passed from mouth to mouth, but never verified in practice. It works similarly in Fairbanks. I learned, for example, that the turbulent flow and the huge amount of silt with which the Yukon River would drown me.
The expedition included lifeguard Adrian Ucinski from the Sosnowiec City Hospital, Tomasz Wozniczka’s film crew, that is, in addition to him: cameraman Michal Zuberek and Piotr Sadurski, photographer, archaeologist and builder of traditional river boats. His job was to “read the river,” directing our canoes so that the filmmakers could do their work and I would be on the right trail. We had with us airtight containers to hide food from bears away from camp, freeze-dried meals because they don’t take up as much space as other foods, water filters, bear gas and a satellite phone, just in case. In an emergency, help could only come by air from Fairbanks or Anchorage.
Sports – swimming in a river in Alaska
There is no requirement to ask for a “swimming permit” in the river. However, adventurers are encouraged to report expeditions so that if they go missing, they will know where to begin their search.
My experience consisted primarily of swimming in the Vistula River, which I swam the entire river in sections with swimmer Lukasz Tkacz, and during the Alaska trip, I actually compared everything to adventures in the Vistula. I assumed that the Yukon River should “work” similarly, only the scale may make some phenomena more violent. Near Eagle, masses of water squeeze between the rocks, into a gorge that is sometimes not even 500 meters wide. This makes the river flow fast, up to 12 kilometers per hour. As we stood above the Yukon River, the waters were dropping from a medium to low state. It is difficult to imagine a high state in this place. The surrounding area bears traces of spring melt, moving masses of ice and mud.
However, the water, the color of coffee with milk, is clear and odorless. The fine sediment in the current is imperceptible to the swimmer. Conditions at the start, however, can stress out more than a few people. Further downstream, the Yukon River takes on a braided character, flowing in a channel, or rather numerous channels and meanders, skirting countless islands.
In the section to Circle it reaches 4 km in width. Spilling over a huge area, it behaves much like the Vistula. Paradoxically, once you get used to the conditions, you may have a greater sense of security than in Polish waters. The Yukon River was not regulated, so you won’t run into remnants of concrete “spurs,” thresholds or other objects submerged in the river. It also has huge bays and floodplains devoid of current, swelling as the water increases. There are also sections with an opposite current. These phenomena make us think that leaving the vast floodplains around the Vistula River alone could reduce flood risk, and that this could be a better idea than cross-fencing the river.
The variability of the current caused me to swim at a rate of 7 kilometers per hour, so you could say that I “got” 4 kilometers per hour for free. Additional difficulty arose from the need to sprint across some sections to get to the right trough or island. I would get into the water in the morning, around eight o’clock; we would camp in the evening, around nine o’clock, on one of the many islands to spot approaching bears beforehand. I took a small snack break every hour and a half. There was another longer one – lunchtime. I did most of the route in crawl, and the whole thing took me 4.5 days. The Yukon River was a challenge for me, but incredibly beautiful and worth the effort.
The landscape of this section of the Yukon is made up of endless dwarf spruce forests that get lower and lower as you approach Circle. Taiga is turning into tundra. We were very lucky that during our trip we didn’t hit the fires that raged not so far away, given the spatial relationships in Alaska. If we had wanted to sail a week later, reaching the Yukon might have already been impossible. Roads were cut off by fire. Fires are natural phenomena, but have increased in recent years due to climate change. The snowmelt comes faster and the forest dries out harder. In some areas spruce no longer grows back after fires, and its place is taken by deciduous trees: poplars, birches and willows.
The Yukon River is warmer than it used to be, and for a long time when I swam it was 19°C (periodically 12-14°C). This probably causes a decline in salmon ( overfishing in the Pacific Ocean may be another factor) and affects the economy of indigenous peoples. Only once, just outside of Eagle, did we run into fishermen. The net is cast for several seconds, then pulled back to cast a few meters away. Fortunately, we didn’t encounter a grizzly, although we saw a lot of fresh bear tracks.
“White-headed” eagles circled above, and in the water loud and expansive beavers did not shy away from human contact. In addition to what the body swimming in the water remembered, the eyes will certainly remember the vast panoramas, which consisted of endless mountain ranges illuminated by a special light. Especially in the evening, we had to wonder whether it was still the sun accompanying us or already the moon, whose fullness is more complete than at lower latitudes.
What remains after such a journey? What kind of inspiration? We can explore our adaptations to life in nature. A long-distance runner discovers that he is capable of covering up to 100 kilometers without resting, a rower that he can move efficiently with a piece of wood even across the ocean. We can accept the cold to a certain extent, staying in low temperatures, and a diver can pull paua clams from a depth of 10 meters all day because he has the diving response of mammals. Such experiences cause us to regain an ancient bond despite living in a technicized world, the awareness of which can translate into respect for the nature around us.
Since the Neolithic Revolution, when man began to develop civilization, this process was accompanied by alienation from nature, which he began to subjugate, and stopped “negotiating terms” with it. Most of us think that life has become much easier. But is this really the case, and don’t some of the effects of the development of civilization pose a threat to us? Maybe it’s time for reconnection – discovering the nature within us to become part of what’s around us again? Being in Alaska, meeting indigenous peoples, but also white Americans living close to nature, it is probably easier for us to change our perspective and paradigms that carry no long-term benefit.
You can read more about swimming in the article: “Wild swimming. Transformations“.