The Junjik River runs south under Burnt Hill, bright with fall colors. Photo by Keely O’Connell
We woke in the tent, dazzled by the morning sunlight fracturing in the frost on the dry fireweed stalks and the tundra moss. With the door unzipped and pegged open—there were no mosquitoes so far north in September—we could look east, out over our feet in sleeping bags, clear across the Junjik River. The Junjik is a clear, shallow river with its entire length in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. It flows into the Chandalar just north of Arctic Village.
That afternoon we wanted to see, just for the fun of it, how far we could get before bottoming out. In my freight canoe, Lyra, we hugged cutbanks, keeping just enough water under the hull to feed the prop. Blueberries on the bank hung limp on their stems, fragile, but syrupy sweet after the hard frost.
The human transition from summer to fall is disorienting in the Arctic: The summer light is endless, and the days run together. As a teacher, I had become used to having no obligations. All through August, I went for runs at two in the morning and took long afternoon naps. I didn’t look at my watch much. Now, in September, I was suddenly back at school, thrust into a rigid schedule, and losing an hour of daylight a week. Measuring time by instinct and the sun’s position had become a risky business, but that’s what we did. I cannot be sure how long we ran upriver that day.
Lyra shot up narrower channels as the Junjik river braided out across the valley. Rounding a bend, we came to a place where the bowl of the mountains brimmed with glitter. The river was hundreds of yards wide but only inches deep. We could go no farther. Geoff beached Lyra on a gravel bar where a herd of caribou had preceded us. Sloshing and splashing, the dog raced up the valley following their tracks.
Time passed. We lingered there, basking in the last light of summer. The sun wheeled until the western mountains pulled long shadows. The singing of the water over the riffles changed keys and turned wistful. Suddenly feeling a pressing urgency, we called in the dog, loaded up, and motored downriver: We all had work the next day, and miles yet to go.
Home down the Junjik River
At twilight we paused just long enough to load the firewood we’d cut that morning and to bundle up in our warmest clothes. Night fell as we sped downriver, and ribbons of steam lifted from the water’s surface, settling as a thin sheen of ice on the deck. My hand tightened on the throttle.
Abruptly, the engine died. For a moment, we floated in the near-darkness. A trickle of green aurora appeared in the sky, and the reality of the situation settled like frost: It might take all night to float home. Teaching in the morning would be brutal. I took a breath and turned the key. The engine shuddered to life again and we all gave a whoop as Lyra pushed up a little bow-wave in the black water.
When my work gloves became soaked from the chilly mist and my hands grew stiff with cold, Geoff took the tiller. I tore open some handwarmers and shoved my aching hands down the front of my bibs.
Albert trained the beam of our spotlight on the water ahead. Still, once or twice, we lost the channel and ran aground. Rocking and shoving with the paddles, we implored Lyra to shake free; the thought of stepping into the water made my toes curl. When she broke loose, we heaved a collective sigh of relief that formed ice crystals on our shoulders.
For a while, Geoff was able to cajole short runs out of her by tuning the choke and the throttle, but the engine invariably failed. Figuring that the arctic cold was too much for the motor, we duct-taped over part of the air intake and won a few more runs, but each time, the engine seemed to labor more.
Finally, it went silent, and this time Geoff couldn’t coax it to life. By the dim light of our headlamps, we paddled to shore. Albert hopped out and tied up. “Should we camp tonight and try to run it in the morning? We’re miles out.” Geoff was rummaging through a toolbox. Kristie pulled on an extra sweater.
“Here,” Geoff popped a sparkplug from the outboard and handed it to me. I began scrubbing the threads. “I think we might be missed if we don’t get home tonight. We don’t need anyone worrying.”
It was decided: We’d keep trying. Geoff turned the key, and the engine roared.
As we lurched downriver in fits and starts, I cut deals with myself to beat the cold. Each time you think the word ‘toes’, you have to do a hundred toe flexes. Ready? I tried not to think it, to distract myself by watching the northern lights unspooling across the sky. Inevitably, though, my mind drifted, and, man my toes are cold—dangit! One, two, three… My feet cramped, but never quite went numb. I blessed my bunny boots.
Albert manned the spotlight. Kristie and I shivered. Once more we stopped to clean the plugs. Once more we lost the channel and had to shove free. Geoff, somehow able to keep his hands from icing to the tiller, drove on, reviving the faltering engine every few minutes.
Just at midnight, we rounded the last bend. The lights of town spilled over the bank where we tied up.
“G’night.” We were too exhausted to say more.
The next day, tired, stiff, and reeking of campfire, we all turned up for work. Kristie had to fly to another village.
“Still got all your toes?” I asked her.
“Same thing next time, but with snowmachines?”
All week we watched the river. On Saturday, I kicked pans of ice away from the propeller shaft so that we could haul Lyra out. By Monday, the ice reached clear to the far bank.
The Arctic swings radically with the seasons. We rode that whiplash in September, luxuriating in the last golden champagne bubble of summer and then, in an instant, shivering as winter coated the valley like a sigh freezing our eyelashes. You could miss a whole season in a blink, so slipping in one last adventure was a victory, even if your feet got a little chilly in the doing.