Two in a Red Canoe: Our Journey Down the Yukon,
By Megan Baldino and Matt Hage, Published by Graphic Arts Books, 120 pages, 2005, $18.95, (softcover)
The Yukon River is huge, scenic and full of historic and economic significance. But it is so remote and daunting that few travelers ever see much of it.
Television newscaster Megan Baldino and photographer Matt Hage joined the ranks of those intrepid travelers, and they share their adventure in “Two in a Red Canoe.” This accessible travelogue features Baldino’s reminiscences, Hage’s photographs and excerpts from both their trip journals.
The two met in Fairbanks, where Baldino came to work for a television station and Hage took pictures for the newspaper. She was a city girl from the Chicago suburbs; he was a lifelong Alaskan who lived in an unplumbed cabin. But when they met, sparks flew.
“I fell instantly in love with his charming manners, handsome looks and outlandish sense of adventure,” Baldino writes. “Maybe I fell too hard. Just two months after we started dating, we started planning. Not a wedding but a 2,000-mile journey down the Yukon River from Canada to the Bering Sea. The impossible had just become possible for me.”
Hage was eager to photograph the remote villages and landscapes of the great river. Baldino, more tentative, wanted to share the time with him and explore the land.
On June 9, 2001, they put their sturdy red canoe, Lucille, into the water at Lake Laberge in Canada’s Yukon Territory.
Although both looked upon the trip as a romantic adventure, it is plain that Baldino was more naive about what they were doing. Despite her recurring “bearanoia” and the very real physical discomforts and frightening water conditions encountered, she rose to the occasion and persevered.
She writes frankly about the bad days of the trip and exultantly of the great days that made them glad they came. Just when they would get discouraged, the weather would clear or kind strangers would intervene to remind them what a glorious place they were visiting.
Baldino and Hage described the river as the perfect balance of wild beauty, cultural history and wilderness challenges.
Punctuating the isolated stretches, they found its banks dotted with fish camps, remote cabins and venerable villages. Their descriptions of the hospitable, interesting and helpful people they met are highlights of the book. After weeks afield, the travelers came to appreciate hot showers, mattresses and books as luxuries.
Adding to the text, they include information about the history of people along the river, especially relating to the Gold Rush legacy of the Yukon and the unique pasts of its villages.
“Two in a Red Canoe” is abundantly illustrated, and it is only fair to give Hage’s photographs equal weight alongside Baldino’s narrative. His images combine the notorious splendors of northern scenery with the humble intimacy of rural life or the duo’s campsite.
We see a young man, stripped to the waist as a friend trims his hair in Stevens Village, or Baldino, hunkered down with a book next to the fire on a damp day. Add in ghost towns, wildlife and glorious sunsets. His photographs from fish camps are especially evocative. Families work and play on the river, while the orange flesh of salmon cures in the lavender haze of a smokehouse.
The young couple left the river at Pitkas Point in mid-September, foul weather and looming schedules stopping them a frustrating 60 miles from the ultimate destination of Emmonak. Hage flew back to the delta region the following summer to take pictures of the final stretch.
And yes, they did get married, having proven their mettle to each other through the long and sometimes distressing journey.
“Two in a Red Canoe” does not attempt to present the last word on its subject matter.
Because the book reflects a single summer on the move through a vast region, it is, inevitably, only a cursory examination of the Yukon River and its people. The biographies of the villagers and sourdoughs, the secrets of the landscape, explicit advice for travelers and issues such as fish-stock health do not make it into this slim volume.
What the book does provide is an impressive adventure in a splendid setting, told with enthusiasm and skill. Its photographs are handsome enough to earn a place on the coffee table. The dashing young sweethearts sharing the adventure of a lifetime only add to the book’s considerable charm.
Shana Loshbaugh is a writer and former Clarion reporter who now lives near Fairbanks.
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