247 miles paddled
The salmon are running. The salmon are here so the gulls and terns are eagles and hawks are here, circling above my little green boat sounding the alarm, and the bears are surely here as well. The stage has been set and the first act has come alive. The play is called: Planet Earth, The Only World We Know.
A few miles into our day we round a bend and see our Swiss friends’ inflatable canoe pulled up onto shore in front of a small tilted cabin made of corrugated metal. Curious, we pull ashore too. The cabin has no windows, and a large sheet of plywood gets nailed over the front door to keep out the bears. Manuel and Lucas come out of the shadowed doorway, carrying their drybags. They stayed in the cabin last night.
“First dark night we’ve had in almost two months,” says Manuel.
I climb the steps, which are made of haphazardly piled stones, to the cabin that is little more than a disintegrating shed, and step inside a time machine straight into the past.
The room is cool and dim, and smells of woodsmoke. Two rows of bunks are against one wall. On the other side of the room are shelves filled with canned goods both ancient and new, plastic totes of old sleeping bags, two rusted folding chairs and a woodstove made from a steel drum. On one shelf is a binder that holds a sort of register for those who stay here. On the cover is this description:
The first part of the text reads:
“Welcome to Abraham “Qitchuun” Howarth’s cabin
This cabin was built in early 1975 and has been open to family, friends and travelers. It has also been a safe haven for those in need of a shelter to get out of the rain or a blizzard. Please do not hesitate to leave without sharing your experience in this part of the country and/or just a note of thanks. Here is a little bio of our beloved Atahta (grandpa) Abe who was born November 1, 1889 and passed on to be with the lord April 7, 1989. Our beloved brother, husband and dad Enoch O Howarth Sr. was born september 27, 1929 and passed on to be with the lord November 25, 2000. Now that both of the men that kept this cabin alive are gone, they have left it to their children and grandchildren.
Atahta Abe was born at Squirell River, his mother was Uyagaatchiaq and his father was Patkutaq. His first wife was Pauline “Akugiuk” Adams, and his second wife was Lulu “Agnatchiaq” Hunnicutt. Young Abraham and Pauline had eleven children altogether (lists children). Atahta Abe enjoyed camping around the NANA region. He was a fur trader and worked in a whaling crew. When he was 23 he was captured on Wrangell Island by the Russians and was held captive for a year. He was released in Seattle, where he stayed for a while then returned by boat to Kotzebue.”
Inside the binder is a photo of Howarth. He lived to be a hundred. One hundred. He had eleven children. Eleven! On the wall is a brittle note in his handwriting, plus a decorative plate with the ten commandments.
A curling map of the area is tacked below that. People have carved their names into the bunks. This cabin is both the present and the past, in a way that’s so beautiful it aches. Suddenly I’m overwhelmed, and I can’t really say why. This cabin in the vast arctic wilderness, unlocked and open to strangers and built by an Inupiat man who had eleven children, was a whaler and lived to be a hundred, feels like something too real and too vulnerable to exist in the modern world. Like it shouldn’t be here. Like I’m lucky to have seen it. Like it will be gone tomorrow. Nothing and no one is really this free, anymore. Are they? I want to cry. I want to stay in the cabin all day, inspecting each object, reading the stacks of notes in the log book that date back decades and carefully photographing each one. The notes on yellowed pages, written in tidy, careful script. Notes by travelers who stayed here before satellite phones. Who were hiding out from blizzards, getting caught in headwinds on the river, running low on food. Hunting wolverines and caribou. Fishing. All the stories this cabin must have seen. I feel another wave of emotion. Nature… but with people in it. A little cabin built of tin. Someone living here. Living on the river. With the river. As if you can just DO that.
Remember when we all lived with the nature? I haven’t seen it in my lifetime but my spirit remembers it. I can feel it in my cells.
We shove our boats back into the current and jump into them with a splash, rejoining the river. Speaking of headwinds, there’s a headwind today. I’m paddling sometimes just to move forward at all, but that’s ok. My shoulders feel so strong! The sun comes out midday and sparkles the water gloriously. We see our first grizzly! A big bear, fishing on a gravel bank in the sunshine. Not a care in the world… until we paddle past, and then the bear explodes into the brush, disappearing in an instant.
We camp on a sandy stretch of grass just above the river, pitching our tents in the bright hot sun. I hope I sleep better tonight. I’m so tired.