Dear Koyukuk River

Koyukuk River by Eleanor Yatlin

I grew up on the Koyukuk River in Huslia and Bettles/Evansville. I have lots of memories of being in fish camp in the summer and taking rides in the fall. In November, Che Wilson (Māori) spoke at the Tribal Governance Symposium in Fairbanks. He described the river near his homelands and said, “I am the river, and the river is me.” Since then, I’ve been thinking about what the Koyukuk River means to me.

Dear Koyukuk River,

I float on top of you. I land on your sand bars and cut banks. Sometimes it’s easy, and I hop out and start walking. Sometimes it’s hard and I am immediately start climbing up the bank. Sometimes I carefully walk through drift wood to avoid tripping.

You are my Zen. My spirit goes to you when I need to getaway. I imagine driving along you on a warm summer day. A warm breeze offers relief from the heat and mosquitoes. I sometimes imagine relaxing on the sand bar or swimming in streams, and it is better than any tropical beach. I carry you in my heart, always.

For 1,000s of years, you have given and sustaining life to animals, plants and humans. You are a tributary of the mighty Yukon River and it feeds you, bringing fish from the sea. You, in turn, feed other rivers, streams and creeks. You turn into a superhighway in the summer.

My dad, uncles and brothers read and remember your channels to navigate. We fish, hunt and gather up and down. You connect us to your brothers from the north and sisters of the south.

You rise and fall with changing weather patterns. Huge ice chunks push up onto the shore during breakup.

Memories are eternal. Dad speeding around with his young kids. Or speeding up the sand bar so we could wash the boat. Mom pulling fish from the net and carefully washing fish before gutting them. Grandma dipping her T-shirt in the cold water and putting it on to get some relief from the hot sun. Watching sunrises and sunsets from the banks. Getting water to bring up the steep cut bank. Washing my hair. Driving little driftwood boats along the shore. Running my hands through the water. Swimming and spending time with my siblings and cousins. Checking the fish net and pulling out fish. Watching fish jump or a beaver tails flapping. Running down the bank when we hear a boat around the bend.

-Angela Gonzalez

P.S. I love you.

I could keep on going with memories and stories from the Koyukuk River. However, I thought I would ask my friends and relatives to share their love of the Koyukuk River through words and photos. They describe their love of the K-River a lot better than I can!

Nouyak Hamilton of Alatna/Fairbanks said, “I love the Koyukuk river, because it is home to my soul!!! There is no better feeling than being on the river, but when I’m home….it’s a completely different feeling. It makes my heart smile, and I feel it in my skin.”

The Koyukuk River by plane in winter. Photo by Doreen David
The Koyukuk River by plane in winter. Photo by Doreen David

Doreen David of Huslia said, “I love the Koyukuk River and the area around Huslia because I was blessed to have been born and raised here. Our parents instilled the love of the land and animals into us. Not only to respect our traditions, who we are, but to take care of and nurture the areas around us. That we shouldn’t be scared of nature, our land, the cold or dark, but should learn to live and survive in it. Dad and Mom traveled by boat and snow machines up river almost every summer and winter with me and my siblings while we were growing up. First by hand made boats and wrapped in animal skins in snow machine sleds. We traveled by snow machine in all directions around us, enjoying stories of dad traveling by dog teams to the areas we were at, and to this day I love traveling by snow machine. I love the knowledge that our parents passed on to us from their parents, and knowing that was passed on from generations to us. It’s like a book that me and Russell get to keep adding to and get to pass on to Jakob, JesCynthia, and Jordan. I am, and always have been, very proud to be a Koyukon Athabascan because our parents showed us where we come from, how strong we are, and how to survive. I really hope there is no roads into, or around Huslia, for a LONG, LONG, LONG time. I believe this will ruin the most important things we need to survive here.”

Linda Demientieff of Allakaket/Fairbanks said, “I love the river because I could see the bottom and look at the rocks. One of my favorite memory is lying face down on the ice and watching the fish swimming by.”

Ryan McCarty of Hughes/Fairbanks said, “My favorite thing about the Koyukuk River is the annual salmon run. If the water is low, you can see them swim by. My favorite memory is probably from the fish camp. My late older brothers made a bench on top of the bank. So, every night at sunset we can sit and watch it. My dad would say, ‘When the sun sets at a certain point we will move back to town.’ He used a tree across the river on the hill far away as the marking point.”

Koyukuk River near Hughes. Photo by Ryan McCarty
Koyukuk River near Hughes. Photo by Ryan McCarty

George Carlson Yaska, Jr. of Huslia/Fairbanks shared a memory. He said, “One of my favorite memories was eating the first chum salmon of the season at Grandma’s fish camp, which she had allowed us to use for a few years. I can still taste it after these so many decades later.”

Michelle Moses of Alatna said, “I love the Koyukuk River because we can still drink it. I love Grandma Kitty. She’s the one who showed me that said, ‘Yes, this river will not harm us just by drinking it.’ And without the ‘Ambler Road’, we will be able to continue drinking the Koyukuk River water.”

Russell Moses with Russ Jr. and Cece. Photo by Michelle Moses
Russell Moses with Russ Jr. and Cece. Photo by Michelle Moses

Til Beetus of Hughes/Fairbanks said, “My favorite memory on the Koyukuk River is of the love you feel among all the people. Also, because it is the best to float down to Hughes on a hot summer day. Finally, if you float long enough you end up in Huslia and they have the best dances!!”

Wanda Moses of Galena/Fairbanks said, “I love the Koyukuk River because it would sustain our needs every fall growing up we spent two weeks living off the river and if we were lucky we would hang and smoke our catch. We would eat fish, grouse, ducks, porcupine. I can just smell the fall high bush berries and see the wind dropping the leaves…”

April Williams of Koyukuk/Galena said, “I love the Koyukuk River because she provides for us and allows us to continue our traditional way of life, that we will continue to teach our children.”

John Williams teaching his son, JJ, to fish along the Koyukuk River. Photo by April Williams
John Williams teaching his son, JJ, to fish along the Koyukuk River. Photo by April Williams

Tina Albert of Tanana said, “I love the Koyukuk River. When I was prego with my oldest, I was up Alatna River picking blueberries and hunting up mom Kitty’s land in Southfork. Moose hunting down Old Man [slough], geese hunting back Chalatna [creek], beaver trapping, fish camp. Enjoying it. Across from fish camp traveling 100 miles round trip marten trapping back in the day. It reminds me of Tanana River. I grew up visiting Manley, Cosna, back Island Lake moose hunting, Cosjacket, Old Cillage, fall time, Harper’s Bend, fish lake,16-mile Yukon River fish camp. Hay Slough picking lowbush cranberry, and dipnetting for white fish. My dad trapped, also Bertha loved trapping marten and rabbits behind the house.”

Sheryl Meierotto of Evansville/Two Rivers said, “I love the Koyukuk River because it is home. One of my favorite memories is sitting with my late brother, Brett Stevens, on his bench watching the river flow by.”

A bench at the Koyukuk River at Evansville. Photo by Sheryl Meierotto
A bench at the Koyukuk River at Evansville. Photo by Sheryl Meierotto

Alisha Vent of Huslia said, “I love the Koyukuk River because it is one of the few places left untouched, we feel truly peaceful on it. I don’t know about my favorite but most memorable is going back to Huslia in fall time and it got too late and cold. Late Uncle Albert and a bunch of us stopped by a bank and started preparing grass? ‘We’ll sleep here for the night.’ I was young and thought he was joking. Woke in morning from our sleeping bags in the grass field with frost all over. My only experience siwashing out.”

Shirley Lee of Evansville/Fairbanks said, “I love the serenity of our little river. I have fond memories of swimming in it, boating to Oscar Slough to visit the beavers and picnic, ice fishing with Mom and Aunt Dora (Tobuk), watching the ice go out in the spring…”

Sharon McConnell of Evansville/Fairbanks said, “My favorite memory of the Koyukuk River is laying on the bough of our boat as a youngster gazing for hours at the clear river water and listening to the birds chirping and bees buzzing overhead. I have a large rock collection too from the many walks I took along the river bank. Truly heaven on earth.”

Justine Attla of Huslia/Anchorage, said “I love our Koyukuk River because it’s where I was born and raised. It’s HOME and it’s ours. Late aunty Angeline said it was so. My fave memory is in ole fish camp across from mouth of Huslia, with great grampa Olin and 3-4 families. There used to be lots of little blue birds, little red birds. Story: each spring, our elders used go out to the river bank, pray about the river, for good fishing, for safety. There was tea made, little lunch, poeples visiting, how exciting, then nights, there was volleyball right on top of bank, extra exciting, mostly adults played. But us kids watch and didn’t mind, because it was so, so exciting. Everyone hollering, laughing, etc. We played marbles and hopscotch off the side…nightly gathering…no TV, phone or internet, so our poeples used to really be able to visit…TELL STORIES to each other, another fave past time…”

Dorothy Williams of Huslia shared a picture of her driving a boat. Her dad is behind her in the photo. She said, “It was fun! This was a few summers ago, my mom, grandma, my dad and Brandon were floating really far down river looking for my late grandpa Alvin.”

Dorothy Williams and her dad, Joey Williams driving along the Koyukuk River. Photo courtesy of Dorothy Williams.
Dorothy Williams and her dad, Joey Williams driving along the Koyukuk River. Photo courtesy of Dorothy Williams.

Pearl Henry of Huslia/Fairbanks said, “I love the Koyukuk River because it is our water of which is our Livelihood for Ts’aateyhdenaake Kk’oonh Denh (Huslia) and all who are connected to it. All of our grandparents and great-grandparents told stories of the many traditions. This amazing river kept our elders alive: Great-grandpa Chief Henry, Great-grandma Bessie Henry, Grandpa Mathew, Grandma Daisy, Grandma Alda, Grandpa Sidney, Grandma Angeline, Grandpa Richard, Grandma Eliza, Grandma Big Sophie, Grandma Anne, Grandma Sophie, Grandpa Billy, Grandma Emily, Grandpa Tony, Grandma Rose, Grandma Catherine, Grandpa Steven, Grandma Madeline, Grandpa Cue, Grandma Edith, Grandpa Johnson, Grandma Bertha, Grandpa Lloyd, Grandma Amelia, Mom (Darlene), Dad (Thomas), Aunt Selina, Uncle Hudson and many more. With all the love and knowledge that flowed through these Elders and our Aunts and Uncles that were and are here today… We have a few Elders that are still with us and we really need to visit them, keep them cared for as we do so very well and soak up all the knowledge that we can. The water and land surrounding the Koyukuk River flows through our veins and is embedded in our hearts. We love and cherish this incredible river and all beautiful people for the good memories. No one is perfect, we are all equals, and we have to stick together to do good and be good to our children, so they will continue to thrive. Living healthy and respecting one another is valuable. May the Great Spirit of this beautiful Koyukuk River and the nature of Alaska flow through us all forever=).”

Rose Albert's painting is inspired by interior Alaska. Find her at Nowitna River Studios. Courtesy of Rose Albert
Rose Albert’s painting is inspired by interior Alaska. Find her at Nowitna River Studios. Courtesy of Rose Albert

Solo Yatlin of Huslia/North Pole said he loved going to Ring Beach near Bettles/Evansville. He also said, “Loved grayling fishing at Wild River.”

My mom, Eleanor Yatlin of Huslia, said “Staying in our camp here in Huslee and staying in that cool camp below Bettles, traveling on the River between Bettles and here by boat and sno-go.”

Darlene Bifelt of Huslia/Fairbanks said, “I remember spending summers in fish camp. Dad would leave to work on the barge as a River Boat Captain for the summer. Mom took the family including all of our sled dogs to camp to go fishing. Our family worked together every day checking the fish net twice a day. Even though it was hard work we made it fun. While the older siblings checked the net breakfast and later lunch was prepared. When the tubs of fish were brought to camp, we guessed how many fish there was, this made it fun & interesting! Our youngest sister was about two or three years old and her job was to hang the fish backbones. One day when we were winding down she asked, ‘Where’s all the back bone around here?’ Every now and then we’d see a black bear across the river and we felt safe because our dogs were tied up on the beach. We had one or two tied in the woods behind our tents. Even after working all day taking care of fish, in the evening we would use sticks, fish line and hooks to catch white fish. It was fun to scale and learn how to cut them. Mom and my oldest sister, Char, would cut the good eating fish and everyone else worked on fish for the dogs. It was super easy to care for the dogs too because they were on the beach. It was quick to cook up fish for them with the water and fish being in close proximity. Same for giving them water every day. It was a treat to get visitors in the evening from a neighboring camp. What a great memory, I wish my kids and now grandchildren could experience that peaceful, hardworking way of life.

Johnnie Yatlin of Huslia/North Pole said, “One time we were going down to south fork from Bettles. The kicker stopped, so Harvey was working on the motor. Anyways it was late fall so the water was kind of high and I was paddling so we would stay away from the sweepers on the bank. I was unable to get away from one. I grabbed it. It almost pushed me into the river. I let go of it and it hit a cage we had it was full of chickens. Harvey dodged the sweeper. The chickens were sinking. Harvey was like, ‘Oh my chickens nooo.’ I looked at him and said, ‘F* your stupid chickens,’ and I almost got thrown in the river. Hahahahaha he just laughed and so did I.”

Rose Albert's painting is inspired by interior Alaska. Find her at Nowitna River Studios. Courtesy of Rose Albert
Rose Albert’s painting is inspired by interior Alaska. Find her at Nowitna River Studios. Courtesy of Rose Albert. Photo by Jeff Schultz
Family gathered for a swim on Lydz' beach down river from Huslia. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
Family gathered for a swim on Lydz’ beach down river from Huslia. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

My niece, Lydia Yatlin of Huslia/Fairbanks, said, “My favorite memories are when I was about 8 or 10 and we were on Lydz’ beach and it started raining. Grandpa said, ‘Come Lydz, get on my lap’. He covered me and he and we saw lightening it was cool. Here’s another one. I was about 6 and we were on Lydz’ beach again and Vanessa’s kids were there and Jojo’s kids were there and your kids were there. All the kids were swimming in the little tide pools. We all had fun.”

Tanya Yatlin of Huslia/Fairbanks said, “Sitting at the riverbank in camp in the evening while it’s quiet and calm. Little breeze blowing by, birds chirping here and there. How the weather can change in a second. Once mom and dad, Mae, Lydz and I were all in Lydz’ Beach checking the fishnet and relaxing. One minute it was sunny and warm and the next second, it was pouring rain. Dad and Lydz were sitting on a camp chair converted with a life jacket, mom was sitting in another chair with her extra shirt over her. Mae and I had to stand there for a few minutes getting soaked. Our fronts were soaked but our backs were still dry. It lasted only a few minutes and we didn’t have time to run for cover. Growing up swimming down the bend from camp…before it caved and broke through. We would swim a lot while keeping cool. We would tip the boat and splash it with the water to clean the fish slime off.”

Esther McCarty of Ruby said, “I love the Koyukuk River because that is where I was born and raised. That is where the white fish taste sweet and the moose meat taste sweet from the fresh river water that runs over the gravel bars. It you stay up early in the mornings, you can see the sun come up and hit the tops of the hills. You can see the beautiful sunsets in the evenings. You can feel how peaceful it is and be content just by sitting on the river bank watching the river flow by. The sense of peace is overwhelming and the silence. That is where I get regrounded when I’ve been away for too long. The Native language that I speak with family and friends is food for the soul, the traditional memorial potlatches are very much a big part of healing when you have loved ones who have passed. I can go on and on, but the Koyukuk River is where I can do just about anything from renewed energy and spirit.”

Hazel Beatus of Fairbanks said, “My favorite memory was when late Uncle plowed the river side of the field. I went for a walk, about where the path to the bar, there were flowers. By the time I got to town, I could barely stretch my arms and only picking one of each variety and they were big! Our table was covered, Mom was little surprised.”

Enaa baasee’ to everyone who shared their memories and stories! It is a blessing to grow up on the Koyukuk River and on the land. It can be blissful and unforgiving, but it sustains so much life. You can learn so much about life and survival, and be connected to ancestors at the same time.

6 thoughts on “Dear Koyukuk River”

  1. Angela thank you so much for sharing the great memories that the Koyukuk has given you and so many of your friends. Many of the stories shared remind me of time spent at our Deshka River cabin many years ago.

  2. Pingback: Athabascan Woman Blog: Dear Koyukuk River | Alaska Womens Network

  3. What lovely memories – so well written. I’m reminded how much the people love their rivers. Mine is the Tanana and going up with my dad and family finding gallons of cranberries. I surprised my family by bringing my cast iron dutch oven and making a delicious soup in September at berry camp! Thanks Angela!!

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