Were a raven to lift off from the tidal flats at the head of Southeastern Alaska’s Lynn Canal, point his beak due east and catch a thermal updraft to carry him high above the intervening mountains, his flight would take him—in just fifteen miles—to a view looking down on the headwaters of not only one of the most famous, but one of the most remarkable rivers in the world.
One might assume that waters arising in such proximity to the Pacific would soon find their way to that close-by ocean. But no. As if above anything so ordinary and predictable, and as if disdaining to be defined as an indistinct, minor stream, finishing its course while still insignificantly small, it instead is seemingly determined to take charge of its own destiny, do something unique, and make a name for itself. So this unusual river immediately does an astonishing thing: it turns its back on the nearby Pacific and chooses a roundabout way to an entirely different, faraway sea.
This photo of Yukon is courtesy of TripAdvisor
The course it takes before it discharges its mighty flow into saltwater is a path equal in distance to almost one-tenth of the entire girth of the globe. In doing so, it becomes the tenth-longest river in the world, the fourth-longest in North America. (Depending upon which headwater is chosen as its beginning it may be measured to rank third or fourth.)
The Yukon River does not gain its distinction as one of the world’s foremost drainages based upon its length alone, but because of its volume: It drains some 327,000 square miles, the entire heartland of a vast subcontinent. Along its 2,100-mile course to the distant sea its swelling tide gathers numerous other mighty rivers, themselves hundreds of miles long. Some, most notably the Porcupine, Tanana, Koyukuk, and Innoko flow a great part of a thousand miles and drain basins vast in their own right.
As if controlling a guessing game and presenting deceptions to throw contestants off, it travels mostly north by northwestward along its 700-plus-mile length within Yukon Territory. After crossing the international boundary into Alaska, it continues that course another 250-plus miles as if it were heading for the Arctic Ocean. Just as it bisects the Arctic Circle and one is convinced—as were some early explorers—that its destination must surely be the polar sea just 300 miles farther north, it throws a curve: it turns abruptly west and southwest and does not deign to join even the saltwater of its choosing until it has flowed another 1,200 miles across the Great Land. Then and only then does it finally submit its volume to the patiently waiting Bering Sea.
Fifteen miles as the raven flies, just a portage as a man walks of a mere 32 miles through the mountains from saltwater, only that short distance to reach a passageway equal in length to one-tenth the circumference of the earth. Cleaving as it does the heart of the Yukon Territory and Alaska, it presents access to the vast interior of the entire northwestern subcontinent as a navigable summer waterway and a frozen winter thoroughfare.
The great river has not only made a name for itself because of the length it achieves and the volume it gathers on its way to the sea. Among the rivers of the world, it is a river of preeminence, the ring of its name yields to no other. Throughout history, few of the earth’s waterways have gathered such fame, been the scene of such adventure and kindled such imagination as this river of glory and romance—the Yukon, the legendary “Thoroughfare of the North.”
Note: I have lifted the above post from a chapter in my upcoming revised edition of Volume I of TRAILBREAKERS (Blazing the Last Great Gold Rush Trail in North America).