August 10 Once a commonly used part of the Yukon-Kuskokwim portage, the Talbiksok River is largely an unknown to me. Is the current fast? Slow? Are there beaver dams across it? Countless fallen trees blocking it? Or will it be a complete piece of cake? I don’t know. I am, however, confident that I can successfully paddle up it if I’m persistent.
It doesn’t take long to reach the mouth of the Tabliksok. It’s banks are muddy, and trees far above the current water level are scarred from slabs of ice during past spring breakups. There is debris from dead trees and brush and beaver chew marks. Here, the current is light, but the river has a creepy feel to it.
The mood brightens when the river bank is covered by green grass. I get out of the kayak to admire mysterious turquoise and orange colors lining the water’s edge like spilled paint.
Back on the water three animals are splashing in the river, fifty yards ahead. Otters! One of them spots me and I can all most hear their collective thought: “Lets go check him out!” They swim remarkably close to my kayak, snuffling loudly and looking at each other, apparently trying to come to a consensus on how close is too close.
It’s a great day for wildlife. A red fox trots along the shore. He sits down to contemplate me, looking slightly bored.
I also see a cow and calf moose, eagles, a porcupine, ospreys, eagles, ducks and countless shorebirds scurrying along the shore, probing the mud for food.
I don’t get any help from the wind today, but there is usually almost no current, nor is there beaver dams or sweepers blocking the river. Very lucky.
It is raining lightly as I camp in long, wet grass under young cottonwoods. Countless gnats, or no-see-ums, or whatever they are, swarm me. Hundreds follow me in as I dive into my tent. I methodically crush them where they gather near the peak, then give the bug netting a good spray of DEET to help keep them at bay. I hear a few distant, muffled shotgun blasts. It’s the first day of duck season. With all the big river bends I only made 14 miles as the crow flies.
August 11 I’ve been paddling about forty minutes this morning. There’s a cabin on my right with the same type of window frame that I saw on the cabin I passed yesterday. Probably an old building got torn down in Russian Mission, and a family salvaged a bunch of windows to put in their line of trapping cabins. But then I see an eagle’s nest and something is triggered in my mind. Wait, there was a cabin near an eagle’s nest yesterday, but they were on the other side of the river. I pull out my mapping GPS and for a moment am totally confused, then it hits me. Sometime at the end of yesterday I must have been sitting in my kayak, looking at a map, and my kayak slowly turned around without me noticing it. Same cabin, same nest, that’s why they’re on the other side of the river! There wasn’t enough current to tip me off. BUMMER! Not the type of mistake that I make very often, but totally my fault. Nothing to do but turn around and paddle 45 minutes back to last night’s camp.
The river has a friendlier feel today, more birch, grassier banks, more higher ground. There’s lots of blue-winged teal, ospreys, and enormous white swans, as well as eagles.
I cook lunch over a wood fire. Birch bark has got to be the most perfect natural fire starter. Way better than paper, it burns hotter and more tenaciously and will light even when wet.
The big hairpin loops of the river make for slow forward progress. Near the end of the day I watch for an especially long, narrow loop that I’ve previously scoped out on the map. [Northernmost bend on the below satellite photo.] When I get out to scout I find it to be thick brush and poor camping. On a second scout it’s easier going. I walk thirty yards up to a the top of a narrow, grassy ridge and see the other side of the river loop a short stone’s throw away. I have to search to find a small opening without wild rose thorns, then set up in the wet, tall grass. Not an ideal campsite, but the good part is when I carry my stuff to the river tomorrow I’ll have cut off a mile of paddling. I’m amazed to find I’ve only come seven miles from this morning’s campsite!