ALASKA: Adventures on the Yukon

In Notes From the Set by Rod Santiano1 Comment

Note the size of the red sled.

I don’t even know where to start.

Right now I am in the comfort of my hotel room in Fairbanks, AK feeling very grateful to be warm, alive, and connected to the internet. I’m only five days into the shoot, but I can say that the worst is over.  I hope.

I am shooting a documentary up here for a few weeks and the first thing we covered was the preparation and departure of Vern Stickman and his epic run down the frozen Yukon river to raise awareness for suicide prevention. Vern’s son committed suicide a few years ago and, expectedly, has devastated his family’s life. As part of his own healing process, he has decided to do this run from his home in Tanana to “nearby” villages to speak to the youth about suicide prevention and healthy living choices.

The plan was to document Vern’s preparations for the run, the commencement of it, follow him on the trail for the first day, camp out with him overnight, and then his departure from the camp as he continued on his trail. We would then head back to civilization and meet up with him when he arrived at his first major destination at the village of Ruby.

Day 1 of Vern’s run

For a while we didn’t know if we were going to even have a snowmobile (or, “snow machine” as it’s called up here). I’m still not sure what we would have done without one. Needless to say, a snow machine was arranged for us to use.  I can’t tell you how grateful I am for this. I honestly don’t think we would’ve been able to keep up with Vern—what with our camera gear and the need to get ahead of him frequently to get shots of him running.

Another big concern was that we would be traveling through wolf country.  We had no cell phone coverage, no GPS, no one else around except for the times we would re-encounter Vern for a shot. It was a real possibility that wolves could be encountered. Vern had a gun. Chris, his support “team” had a gun.  We did not have a gun. We did, though, have an ice axe and bear spray. Josh Ligairi, the director, brought them with the awesome plan that, if we were to be in any danger, I would spray the perp with the bear spray while he would charge and attack with the ice axe. Great plan, right? LOL Um… yeah. We were a bit concerned every time we stopped to set up a shot and had to wait for Vern to catch up for the shot.

Getting our snow machine stuck in the powder was scary and then having it clunk the rest of the way was nice, too. Somehow, the machine never ran the same after this first incident. You know, just that extra bit of confidence we needed to know that we would survive this adventure in the middle of nowhere with no communication.

On the frozen Yukon River

I was dressed sufficiently warm, but even still, my fingers and toes were frozen not very long into this adventure. We shot Vern most of the day as my toes became increasingly painful. But, for the most part, it just became a given and I was able to function and bear the pain. Unfortunately for me, I have terrible circulation and it made for significantly increased torture for the rest of the day. By the late afternoon, there were a few more miles left on the first 21-mile leg of the run, I had reached my limit and just couldn’t go on anymore.  The pain in my feet was so intense that I could barely walk.  Thankfully, Josh wasn’t insensitive to my plight and we headed to the cabin on our one-seater snow machine. There were quite a bit of prayers being said by myself to just get to the cabin.

The cabin was the most welcome site. I got off the snow machine and hobbled straight inside where a fire had already been started. My feet were literally ice cold and stiff.  I could barely move my toes at all and the pain was virtually unbearable.  It took about half an hour for my feet to defrost enough to move and not be in intense pain. This can’t be good, right? All this with two thermal-type socks, toe heaters, and below-zero grade shoes. I don’t know what else I could’ve done to prevent this other than having used the type of shoes that we saw other people wearing called “bunny boots.” Apparently those are the only ones that you can really use in that weather. Now they tell us.

Well, sleeping in a cabin was a MUCH BETTER OPTION than sleeping on the Yukon in a tent in -20°F with already frozen feet! I can’t tell you how many prayers of thanks I gave to God for this blessing! Wow. Yeah. Oh, we did a time lapse of the cabin and got a little bit of northern lights action going.  I got to see the northern lights! It’s been on my bucket list, but I had never really thought about how I would ever really get to see it. :)

Bucket List Item: See the Aurora Borealis… Check!

As an added bonus, at sunset/twilight, I got to see Jupiter and Venus like I’d never seen them before.  Super bright among the other stars in they sky.  It was very cool.

Now the trip back to the village was a comedy of errors. Vern and Chris were continuing on with their trek while Josh and I embarked on our own trek back to Tanana on our own. Here were our concerns:

  • Do we have enough gas to get back?
  • Are we going to take the correct way back?
  • Are we going to encounter wolves or bears?
  • Are we going to die?
  • What if we get into trouble, then what?
  • Who will know to look for us if we get into trouble?
  • Will our snowmobile survive the trip?

But over all of these concerns was the big one at hand. How are we going to get our gigantic bag of gear back home with the child sled we were provided with. The gear bag was a huge hockey duffle bag full of stuff.  We also had two camera bags and two pairs of snow shoes. The sled we had was about 75% the size of the bag so it didn’t quite accomodate the load. Oh, and we didn’t have much rope to pull it with.

After jimmy-rigging the whole system, we headed back to Tanana.  Not 15 seconds into the trip, we hit our first problem.  We missed the packed-down part of trail a bit on a turn and ended up stuck, deep in powder.  We couldn’t get the snow machine out and our only help had just left a minute before. The engine started smoking and smelling bad as we attempted to get out.  Finally, we dug out as much of the snow around the snow machine as possible and I hopped on again and gave it another try.  Josh yanked on the front ski to help as I gunned it and we got it out.  Phew!

Then we went on our way again.  Not 30 seconds after that, I signaled Josh to stop driving because our load was swaying all over the place behind us.  Our rig wasn’t working and the bag was slipping off the little sled.  After some adjusting and re-doing of knots, we tried again. It lasted only about a minute before I had to signal Josh to stop again.  One of our ropes had snapped and the bag was falling off again.  After some more re-engineering of our rig and fortifying it with a vinyl strap we pulled off of something in our bag, we went on our way again. This time, it worked!

We went on for a while. Everything seemed great until Josh stopped the machine again. It seemed like we had possibly taken the wrong way.  Josh thought that we were going around a little island and that we would meet up again with the correct trail, but the island was huge enough that we didn’t know anymore if we were going around an island or if we were going up the wrong river! Josh wanted to turn around but I didn’t want to get stuck in the snow again by trying. So I convinced him to just keep going at least a little longer, at least to a certain point we saw in the horizon. We went and luckily encountered some guys that were riding in the opposite direction.  We signaled them to stop and asked them if we were on the right path to Tanana.  The man said, “Tanana?! You’ve passed it way down there!”  I knew he was joking, thankfully. They then told us that we just needed to stick to the trail for another ten miles and we’d be there.  Phew!

You’ve GOT to be kidding me!

So we finally get to the point where there was a Y-type intersection that we knew would take us to Tanana.  So we stop because Josh wanted to get a video clip of us driving across the frame in our snow machine (the last shot in the video above). So I go off and set up the shot, hit record and make my way back to Josh. We get all ready to ride and I pull the starter cord and the cord breaks from the handle and zips right back into the engine like a spaghetti noodle being slurped up into its mouth. YOU’VE GOT TO BE KIDDING ME! Mild panic starts to set in. But before we can get too panicked, Josh figures the cord must be in the engine somewhere.  So we open up the hood and search around for it.  I finally spot it.  It’s only two inches short of disappearing into the engine block.  We pull it out, thread it through the opening of the dashboard, put it through the handle, tie a new knot, close up the hood and pull the cord to start the engine again.  SNAP! Instant replay of the cord being sucked in again!  Repeat as necessary.  We pull out the cord again and, this time, tie a really tight knot using brute strength and pliers… But wait… we forgot to put the cord through the handle!  LOL  So now we have to untie our freshly tied super tight knot, string it through the handle again, tie a new strong knot and try again.

At last, we got the engine running again.  But by this point, it had been about 10 minutes or so and the camera had been running this whole time. The Canon 7D only runs about 12 minutes before shutting off the recording. So Josh took a turn making his way aaaalllll the way back to the camera to restart it.  Oh, but now the camera won’t record.  After a bit of yelling back and forth about what could be the problem, we figure out the card just ran out of memory.  Josh doesn’t have a new card.  So I tell him to just erase the last take.  The last take was only one second.  More confusion… turns out there was only one second left on the card after the previous shot had ended. Anyway, blah blah blah. He gets it running again, he gets back to me, we do the shot, stop, get the camera, and head back on our way.

The last bit of the ride was relatively smooth, except for the fact that now our sled rig has deteriorated in stability and is going crazy behind us. I figure, screw it.  It’s still attached.  We’re almost back. As long as it’s still attached, I’m not gonna worry about it. But then the strap that was anchoring the other straps broke off the sled and the back of the bag started falling off. So we stopped again and figured out another way to secure the bag to the sled (or was it the sled to the bag?). We got going again for the last mile or so of our journey. We finally get back to where we were staying and the crazy journey was over.  I was so happy. Not an hour later we hopped on our chartered plane back to Fairbanks.  We barely made it in time.  All things considered… I call it a miracle. :)

So I am hoping that the rest of our trip will be quite tame compared to those two days.  So far, it has been. We are coming back here in the summer and the fall.  I’m guessing those trips will be less insane.  But you never know.

Goodbye, Tanana! See you in the summer!


  1. How fun! Well, actually, sounds like while you were going through it, it wasn’t that fun, given you were freezing and all the little hiccups. But now you have a good story to tell, which is another part of the Athabascan culture. Glad you guys had guardian angels probably blessing and assisting you the whole way. Pretty entertaining to read about all the mishaps though. See you again this FAll. Don’t forget headnets!

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