During a flight to Nulato in June of 2018 (Nulato to Unalakleet trip report), I noticed hints of a deep canyon along the Yukon River north of Ruby. I had always assumed that the Yukon was flat, like the Kuskokwim, where I grew up. When I got home I pulled out the maps, found Melozi Canyon, and started googling images to determine if the canyon was boatable. The first photos that appeared were from Fairbanks adventure friends, Wilderness Classic participants, Ed Plumb and Jay Cable. Reading their trip reports I discovered that they floated the canyon after hiking to an abandoned hot springs. That caught my attention! To further seal the deal, I saw my name in one of Jay’s photos. Clearly this trip was meant to be!
Sarah and I managed some classic Alaskan logistics, coordinating with college friend Ken Tape to borrow bear spray, which was delivered to Ned Rozell, who contributed history on the abandoned lodge as well as white gas, which was all picked up by Jack McClure, who met us at the airport. Alaska Love.
In Tanana we were greeted by a headwind that never really let up. We ended up stitching our Alpacka packrafts together with sticks and straps to move more efficiently against the wind. When we got home after the trip I did a set of push ups and then called Sarah over to join me. She cranked out 30 pushups and giggled at how easily they came… neither of us had ever been as good at pushups. So, at least flat water with headwind has that going for it. Our experience motivated Sarah to build more upper-body work into her Summer Strong fitness program.
The Yukon was much warmer than we expected, but otherwise fairly featureless. I appreciated being on the river as a way to connect to the deep history, but other than that, it was a slog. A few days down the Yukon we noticed a plume of smoke on the far shore, and grateful for a distraction. We re-routed the stitched boat to check out the smoke, and discovered a low-grade coal seam that has been burning for several years, including having started a forest fire. Too bad we didn’t have any hotdogs.
After 60 miles, we pulled off the Yukon River at Kokrine Hills Bible Camp. I had identified the camp as the best location to climb out of the Yukon and head to Hot Springs Creek, which we could then float to Melozi Hot Springs. We met Roger at the empty camp, and he let us stay in a cabin to pass a stormy night. Roger is a pilot and preacher that lives at the camp year-round, gardening, hunting, and hosting youth programs throughout the summer. Roger told us where to find a trail to get above tree line (which was exactly where I had drawn my ‘best route’ option based on google earth). We were grateful to follow flagging through the fog on a steep climb.
Morale was low. The Yukon River had been significantly harder to paddle than we expected, and now we were hiking through thick fog, behind schedule. We started discussing bailout options, but felt confident that the worst part was behind us. We could always bail back to the Yukon and float to Ruby, but we weren’t very excited about fighting more headwind.
Just when they needed to, the clouds started to break. We glimpse bare ridges in front of us, and got the sense that the clouds were close to burning off.
The change in weather quickly rejuvenated us. We cruised on excellent hiking surfaces and marveled at granite outcrops that peppered the ridge line. I told Sarah that a real photographer would slow down and set up some pictures, and she proposed we do it. I’ve never wanted to take posed photos before, but playing on the rocks was a blast and we wanted to get fun photos Sarah could use to promote her fitness programs.
I thought it was likely that we would find signs of an old shelter at one of the rock outcroppings, but we did not. We did find an animal shelter, probably black bear, once we left the ridge and started our descent to Hot Springs Creek. Below the bear den the forest transitioned into a surreal caribou-lichen carpet.
We spent the night on a lichen mattress, inflated our boats, and started the float down Hot Springs Creek. We found an old Reindeer Herd Camp that was marked on the map, nothing but rusty scraps of metal now.
We could smell the hot springs before we could see it, but seeing it was more rewarding. The scalding water seeps through and over a cliff of cemented river rocks into the cold creek. Following the model of Ned, Ed, and Jay, we found a tarp at the abandoned lodge and built a tarp pool in the creek so that we could mix cold and hot water. Our slow pace on the Yukon left us with only a single night at Melozi, but we took glorious soaks at night and in the morning in our makeshift tub.
The hot springs are on BLM land, and the resort owners gave up their lease in the 1980’s due to the challenges of making a profit on such a remote location. An entertaining history of the lodge is available in a book by Michael Travis. A short history is available in Tom Moran’s article. Several of the original buildings burnt down in a forest fire recently, but the main lodge is intact, complete with furniture, drawers full of silverware, a piano, etc. It is kind of spooky. Sarah took a copy of Dune from the bookshelves.
In the morning we watched a grizzly bear meander downstream revisiting salmon carcasses. We had seen and smelled many carcasses on the float, in some sections of the river each island-boulder featured a fish skeleton.
We watched the bear during our breakfast, then made a racket hoping to drive the bear back upstream. The bear was not curious about us or the noise, and continued its way downstream. We followed an hour later, but didn’t see the bear again.
Hot Springs Creek joins the Melozitna river, which has three class II/III rapids. We ran into some bear hunters before the first rapid and were grateful for their description of the rapids. But knowing that they got a boat up through them made me confident that we would have no problem.
The bear hunters, all men, were very impressed with Sarah. They flattered her with compliments about how strong she must be, and then offered her a job… as camp cook! I wasn’t quick enough to come up with a retort. I wish I’d said, “Cook? She should be carrying all of your gear!!!”
The first (Class III) was the most enjoyable, with an easy scout/portage option. The second rapid was Class II and over too quickly, and the third was just splashy boogie water at our water levels. We camped on a gravel bar and watched a black bear upstream.
After the rapids the river slows and eventually joins the Yukon. The Yukon is half a mile wide at the mouth of the Melozitna and took about 30 minutes to cross. We found a warm welcome in Ruby, and appreciated the public shelter they’ve built to accommodate visitors. We spent a night in town and swapped stories with other boaters. One family showed us a mammoth vertebrae they found during the float, which made me really jealous. But they were preparing for another month on the water, likely with a headwind for much of it, which did not make me jealous.
This was my third trip on the Yukon in 12 months, and more than anything else, I’ve been surprised by how different it feels from the Kuskokwim. We never really did any hiking along the Kuskokwim growing up unless it was to hunt, which makes me really appreciate the excellent hiking along the Yukon. We received warm welcomes in Tanana and Ruby, and were very grateful to visit their traditional hunting and living lands.
And a huge thanks to Ed, Ned, and Jay, for their information and motivation.