New group offers eco-immersion tours of traditional Athabascan culture
Fields upon fields of fireweed surround Hughes, springing up after a series of devastating fires in 2015.
Photo by Kathryn Mackenzie
The first thing I notice about the Koyukuk River region from my perch in the cockpit of the tiny bush plane transporting a handful of villagers, visitors, and supplies to the Koyukon Athabascan village of Hughes are the magnificent splashes of bright magenta covering the mountains. Fireweed, true to its name, has completely overtaken the burned remains of hundreds of thousands of forestland left behind after massive fires raged on both sides of the Koyukuk River in 2015. Once we’ve made our requisite stops along the way from Fairbanks, we finally arrive at Hughes, some 210 air miles and three hours northwest from where we began at the Wright Airport. We step off the plane onto the dirt runway with our host for weekend, Edwin Bifelt (picked up from the neighboring village of Huslia), who has deep ties to Hughes where nearly everyone is related in one way or another.
Bifelt’s business, Zane Hills Capital, contracted with the Hughes Village Council to create a business plan for a “proposed tourism operation,” says Bifelt. “This was the starting point for Koyukuk River Tribal Tours [KRTT]. A challenge we are currently experiencing is sales and booking clients. We believe if we are able to partner with travel agencies and other industry participants, the tour can become sustainable in the long term.” KRTT (krttalaska.com) guests choose from either a three- or six-day immersive, guided river and camping tour designed to introduce visitors to the Koyukon Athabascan way of life through exploration, storytelling, and time spent with locals.
It’s hot in July in Hughes; this particular Thursday afternoon the temperature is a sweltering 86 degrees, making the sparkling river just to the left of the runway particularly inviting. Located below a five-hundred-foot bluff on the south bank of the Koyukuk River, the Koyukon Athabascans have lived here for thousands of years, moving camps up and down river, following the food: fish, moose, and other wild game.
The Koyukuk River with fireweed-laden mountains in the background near Hughes.
Photo by Kathryn Mackenzie
Once we’ve deplaned, we stow our backpacks in the tribal offices and take a walking tour of the roughly three-square-mile village, founded about one hundred years ago along the clean, clear Koyukuk River. Hughes, home to less than one hundred people, is only accessible by air and water. As we make our way from the river up toward the village center, people zoom past us on ATVs, smiling and waving. Children approach us shyly, introduce themselves, and quickly scatter away, back to the playground near the Johnny Oldman School.
Our little group of three visitors plus Bifelt head to the community center, an octagonal building in which the community gathers to socialize, celebrate, perform traditional ceremonies, and conduct business. This day, village First Chief Wilmer Beetus is here along with about a dozen community members and Elders who have gathered to welcome us with a homemade lunch of spaghetti and meatballs, sandwiches with fresh lettuce and tomatoes, chips, and juice; all highly-valued commodities in this subsistence-based community. After we hungrily fill our plates and take our seats at one of the long, plastic tables, Beetus stands to speak.
“This [tour] is something we’ve talked about for a long time and now it’s no longer talk. It’s real. Today we welcome the first of what we hope will be many tour groups to come,” says Beetus, who explains this is a gigantic step for the village that intends to offer tours nearly year round as a way to grow the local economy, offer employment to community members, reduce community reliance on federal funds, and familiarize outsiders with the Athabascan way of life.
After we meet with several members of the Hughes Village Council, Bifelt asks if we’re ready to head downriver to the Bill and Madeline Williams Fish Camp, where we’ll spend our first night. Before we even have time to offer to help load supplies, a group of villagers have tucked our packs away, set up our chairs, and helped load us onto the boat. Our boat pilot and all-around gracious host, Bob Beetus—a longtime Slope worker, hunter, and outdoorsman who is looking to retire in Hughes soon—has just finished checking in on his mother, the oldest woman on the Koyukuk River at ninety-four years, and is now ready to shuttle us down the river. “I love it here. My dream is to just live at the fish camp. It’s so quiet and peaceful. I’m happiest here,” he says.
It’s not hard to see why. The view from the boat is spectacular. From the moment we pull away from the village shores the heat dissipates, and it becomes clear that the river is more than just a body of water to the villagers who live along its beaches. It’s a source of clean drinking water, its shores are home to summer camps, and it serves as a basis for the village’s subsistence hunting and fishing activities.
During the roughly hour-long boat trip, Beetus points out favorite fishing spots and beaches where bears have recently been spotted. About halfway to our destination, we pull alongside a trickling stream from which we fill our water bottles with icy, crisp, sweet water that begins at a glacier up the mountain and is filtered over miles of rocks until it reaches the river (and our water bottles). After we’re thoroughly satiated, we head back out on the river toward the fish camp, the roaring of our motor boat the only sound breaking the quiet on the lazy Koyukuk River.
Upon reaching our destination, we are again greeted warmly by a group of Hughes’ elders, their children, and grandchildren. With the boat turned off, a calm settles around us. The cool breeze coming off the river combined with the twittering of birds and the soft murmur of our hosts discussing dinner lulls us to a semi-conscious state, reminding each of us that we have been up since 3 a.m.
The fish camp is set up and stocked so generations of families can spend the long summer days fishing, picking berries, and telling stories. “We open it back up once it starts to get warm and we set up camp for the summer. I don’t go back to the village unless I have to,” says Madeline Williams, the camp matriarch. “I teach the children, we tell stories about our past, we fish, we enjoy our time here together.”
The Bill and Madeline Williams fish camp sits about twenty feet above the river. It is made up of permanent and semi-permanent structures for cooking, eating, sleeping, and gathering around the fire-pit. “Grandma” Madeline Williams and her late husband (Grandpa Bill Williams, who passed away this past spring) have fished and camped for decades with their children and grandchildren at this camp. Grandma Madeline still holds court at the fish camp, anchored by an open-air wood structure that serves as the kitchen, complete with a stove, large picnic table that could seat twelve, and shelves filled with cooking utensils and food supplies. As we wonder at the view, Bifelt and Beetus set up our tents and Thelma Nicholia, city administrator for Hughes (also a KRTT board member) and family members prepare our first dinner of the trip: barbecued ribs and macaroni and cheese.
Since this is the first “test” tour, the permanent , canvas structures the locals use to sleep in aren’t set up for visitors yet, but soon every tour guest will sleep in a structure that is built off the ground, furnished with cots and soft, cozy sleeping bags, and plenty of mosquito netting. For this trip, each of us sleeps in our own tent, with our own sleeping bags, on a pad provided by the village. After dinner and a little small talk, we drag ourselves to our tents to retire for the evening—typical for an Alaska summer, the sun is still high in the sky and the heat is intense. But it doesn’t matter; within minutes, the day has taken its toll and we’re snoozing deeply.
It takes locals just seconds to cut the catch of the day before hanging it to dry.
Photo by Kathryn Mackenzie
We wake to fresh, cool air and the smell of pancakes on the griddle. Hot coffee hits the spot and we sit around the fire talking about our plans for the day. We’re going to visit the fishing nets placed downstream to see if they netted any chum salmon (lately the river has mostly been producing chum salmon instead of King salmon because of the warm water). Before we leave for the day, we get to spend some time listening to Grandma Madeline tell us tales of the many, many summers she’s spent at this camp with her children, her grandchildren, and dozens of youth from villages surrounding Hughes who visit the summer camp to continue their cultural education by participating in traditional activities such as cutting and hanging fish, Athabascan sewing and beading, and using traditional tools. They are also regaled with stories passed down from generation to generation to help preserve the tribe’s traditional values.
After breakfast—during which Bifelt and Grandma Madeline tell us they saw a mother bear and two cubs across the river while we slept comfortably in our tents—we situate ourselves in the boat and head off to check the fishing nets with Beetus and Hugh Bifelt.
It’s a happy day when the group pulls out several large chum salmon. As they collect their haul, we wander the beaches, spotting evidence of moose, bear, and wolves in the form of footprints in the mud. Beetus tells us how the evening before he saw a moose swimming across the river to get to this very beach. “There must be some good food around here,” he says, pointing to giant moose and bear tracks, nearly side-by-side. “They know this is where the fish are,” he says.
After collecting the chum, we head back to the fish camp to watch the men cut the fish. Within minutes they are gutted, sliced, and hung from wood structures where they spin in the wind, drying in the summer sun. The fish will serve as food for Beetus’ sled dog team, which are about to be brought to the fish camp for the summer. When winter hits, KRTT tour groups will have the opportunity to enjoy sled dog excursions helmed by Beetus.
After more time at the fish camp, our small group heads back to the village to spend some time relaxing and exploring. We visit the school, the tribal offices, the local store, and several homes of Bifelt’s and Beetus’ family members. It’s a true immersion experience and a must-do for vacationers who are interested in learning what daily life in rural Alaska is really like.
Late in the afternoon we pile into the town’s shared pick-up truck and follow Beetus and his ATV up the steep mountain behind the village to wander through the fireweed while enjoying 360-degree views of the entire Koyukuk Valley. It’s a breathtaking experience that starts at the foot of the mountain and continues for miles as we slowly drive up the mountainside, Bifelt and Beetus patiently stopping every few minutes so we can take even more photos of the natural beauty surrounding us. We stop at a plateau with a viewing bench placed at the ideal spot to see the entire region for miles around.
Though we stop here, the road we take eventually ends up at an old mine that KRTT hopes to eventually make part of the tour package. “Once we get this road open all the way back to the mine, we can tour the mine site and even pan for gold,” says Beetus. “We know there is still gold back there, so we think that would be a really fun addition to the tours.”
After a couple of hours of touring the Indian Mountain region, we head back to the village for some lunch and a little R&R. Later that evening we head upriver to view the Hughes Culture Camp, 12 Mile Camp: Grandpa Joe’s Country, and Alfred Attla’s Camp. The river is smooth and calm, making for a lovely evening ride. Every few miles we stop to explore another fish camp, learning more about how the Athabascans have lived along these shores for centuries.
After another delectable dinner prepared by our gracious hosts and presented in the community hall in town, we retire for our last evening, exhausted from another day of exploring, learning, and just enjoying our time with our hosts.
Saying Good-Bye… For Now
The authentic KRTT trip is the ideal vacation choice for anyone who wants to do more than skim the cultural surface of rural Alaska. In the two-and-a-half days we spent in and around Hughes, we learned how the Koyukon Athabascan tribal members have sustained their lifestyle in some of the most extreme conditions in Alaska’s Far North and Interior regions. We learned about the local wildlife, the traditions that are being passed on to each generation, and what role each member plays in this tiny, yet vibrant, community. Though our tour was in the summer, KRTT offers winter tours that include snowmachine and dog sled rides, aurora viewing, and other winter activities in Hughes, where winter temperatures regularly drop far below freezing.
The summertime KRTT tour certainly hit the spot—fun in the sun, gorgeous water, new friends, and cultural education. And though it seemed as if we packed a lot into a short amount of time, our hosts’ laid back demeanor left me feeling refreshed. As we say our goodbyes, I take a second to look back at the village and see everyone is already back to business as usual: children are playing, residents are zooming around on ATVs, and chum salmon are still twisting in the wind. I can see why the first Athabascans settled this land so many years ago; it’s a little slice of paradise.
Kathryn Mackenzie is Managing Editor for Alaska Business.
This article first appeared in the September 2017 print edition of Alaska Business Monthly.