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Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve

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Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve Overview

The handful of intrepid explorers who forge into Alaska's Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve earn a chance to see the stark contours of nature in the raw—what nature writer Barry Lopez calls "the shape of wilderness." In this land, wildlife is at home on the landscape, not a novelty for gaping tourists. It's a place where you'll be put to the test, where the price of failure is harsh but the potential rewards are deep and abiding.

Life in all its flintiness persists along the banks of the Alaska's Yukon and Charley rivers, in a wilderness largely unscarred by the wheels of modern progress. The preserve provides a safe haven for the peregrine falcon and calving grounds for the 30,000-strong Fortymile caribou herd, as well as peerless paddling territory for adventurers looking for unspoiled waters. Situated between the communities of Eagle and Circle, Alaska, on the eastern edge of the state, Yukon-Charley is about the size of New Jersey, but is home to only about 30 full-time human residents (compare this to the Garden State's 7.5 million).

Unless you want to follow the footsteps of Chris McCandless of Into the Wild infamy, don't consider a trip here without top-notch backcountry skills and a commitment to extensive preparation. There are no maintained trails, just a few game trails and miners' paths, and scant facilities. Self-sufficiency in all respects must be your guiding rule for wilderness travel here.

Paddle a Subarctic Waterway
The Yukon River is the major artery through the preserve and the principal means of travel in the region. The river is broad and flat with no rapids, making it an ideal destination for a variety of watercraft. The journey from Eagle to Circle is 158 miles long. Visitors who float approximately 30 miles a day and camp each night usually take around five days to reach Circle. Quiet visitors are likely to catch glimpses of moose, black bear, and fox along the banks. Paddlers will also encounter some historic ghost towns, remnants of the region's mining days. For a more rugged paddling experience, the Charley is a steep, spectacular plunge from approximately 4,000 feet at its source to approximately 700 feet above sea level, where it empties into the Yukon. Average float time from the headwaters of the Charley at Gelvin’s airstrip to the Yukon River (approximately 75 miles) is six days. The entire Charley River watershed is protected within the boundaries of the Yukon-Charley, offering a rare glimpse into a truly pristine ecosystem.

Howl with the Wolves
The wolf population in Yukon-Charley Rivers is estimated to have ranged between 42 and 86 wolves during March 1993 and March 1996. The large populations of caribou and moose with which they share the preserve are their primary large prey, along with the occasional Dall sheep captured at higher altitudes. Wolves make every effort to avoid contact with humans, which makes sighting one from the ground a very rare experience. The ranges of several wolf packs, however, have been identified along the Yukon and Charley Rivers. Paddlers and hikers camping along the river or in the river bluffs may have the good fortune to hear the midnight howl of these majestic creatures, which carries for miles across this quiet landscape.

Hike the Alpine Uplands
Ambitious hikers will view the lack of trails in Yukon-Charley as an opportunity rather than an obstacle. Think of it as a chance to blaze a path where very few people have ever trodden. Historic mail trail areas do provide the opportunity to hike, but fires during the 1999 and 2002 fire seasons have severely limited these areas. The best month for hiking here depends on whether you prefer warmer temperatures or fewer bugs. The balmiest time of the year is July, with average highs in the 60s to low 70s (though subfreezing temperatures are possible any time of year). If you come in the summer, your best bet is to head above timberline—about 3,000 to 3,500 feet—where you'll find fewer bugs, less brush, and less chance of surprising a bear. According to locals, March is actually the best time of year for those planning on exploring the preserve on foot. Besides offering respite from the infamous Alaskan mosquito, March days here last a luxurious 12 hours and are almost always sunny. You also avoid the mud of the April thaw and can plan a cross-country trek over the frozen Yukon, which still lays deep under ice.

Fish in Crystal-Clear Waters
Though the silt-laden Yukon makes for less than ideal angling, its side streams are another story. The quarry in these unsullied waters is Arctic grayling, whose flashy dorsal fin and iridescent sheen make them a prize catch. You'll also find whitefish in these tributaries. The largest species of whitefish found here is called sheefish. These sizable specimens can reach 25 pounds in the Alaskan interior, and their fierce fighting abilities (not to mention great flavor) make them worthy adversaries. Waiting in ambush in the sloughs are a bevy of predatory pike and lingcod—these beasts are battle-ready and waiting for your challenge. Don't forget your steel leaders!

Spy an Endangered Falcon
Protecting the peregrine falcon was perhaps the main motive behind Congress's decision to designate the Yukon-Charley region a national preserve. This once plentiful bird of prey was decimated by increased pesticide use in the 20th century, and Alaska is one of the few places in the United States where it continues to live in abundance. Since the Yukon-Charley region gained federal protection, the falcon population increased dramatically, so much so that it has been delisted from the federal government's endangered species list. High bluffs above the Charley River are these birds' preferred nesting spot; they are recognizable by their characteristic long wings and tail. If you spot a circling bird, watch closely: Peregrines prefer to catch their food, usually smaller birds, by dramatically swooping down from above. Diving peregrines have been measured at speeds of almost 200 miles per hour.

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