Tumyaralleq “The Old Road”

by Ben Schmidt

Ben Schmidt and his son are out on a river trip. photo by Ben Schmidt

Thousands of years ago, as humans first ventured into North America, most of its northern lands were covered in ice. One exception was a series of waterways now known as the Yukon, Kuskokwim, and Tanana rivers.

These rivers created a low elevation corridor deep into the icy interior of Alaska and then formed what is likely the oldest road in our continent. For millennia, they served as dog sled trail in winter and canoe trail in summer. Obsidian from coastal Alaska has been discovered in Upper Tanana village sites confirming its ancient importance.

The route was used continuously by people until recent times. Yup’ik and Athabaskan traders, Russians, USPS, gold miners, and fur trappers all took their turns at traversing and improving it.

In the 1930s, the Army Corp of Engineers had plans to dredge a canal across the portage section making the route a permanent part of Alaskan infrastructure. World War 2 changed much of our world and this little corner of Alaska was no exception. That, combined with the introduction of the airplane to Alaskan Bush spelled the end of the route’s importance.

This summer, beginning July 3, we plan to retrace the steps of so many Alaskans and complete the route from Fairbanks to Bethel. Fairbanks marks the upper extent of river barge travel and Bethel marks the end of ocean going vessels. It’s about 900 miles and we hope to do it in two weeks.

Ultimately, I would like to see this become a canoe race commemorating Alaska’s diverse culture and history… but there’s a lot of water to cover before that happens.

You can follow Ben Schmidt and his paddle partner Jonathan Morgan on their journey at the Alaska Paddle Co Facebook page.