The Yukon Belle.
First the lake, then Thirty Mile River, and if they wanted to make it to Dawson before the big freeze, they’d have to shoot White Horse Rapids as well. He’d chosen not to mention that to his companions, however. The word was that most men who’d attempted to ride the rapids had died or at least half drowned and given up. No need to frighten them before they got there.
After all, as Jack had told them, he’d been around boats all his life. A little rough water didn’t scare him.
How bad could it be?
FOUR DAYS TO BUILD, and the Yukon Belle was a good boat. Jack saw that, and it made him proud, but he also knew that there was a greater test than Lake Lindeman yet to come. And sometime soon, he would have to tell Merritt and Jim just how treacherous the next stages of their journey would be.
They crossed the lake in good humor, taking turns rowing and bailing. Two of them would row at a time, sitting side by side on the rough plank seat, while the other member of their small team tried to prevent too much water from leaking into the boat. Their feet were quickly awash, but constant bailing kept the water down to an acceptable level. Jack had built several thick struts across the boat widthwise, and their equipment was propped on these, held up out of the water he’d known they would inevitably be taking on. Though it was the first boat he had ever built, he was an experienced sailor, and he was confident that theirs was the best craft currently crossing the waters of Lake Lindeman.
They’d left the horses behind, exchanging them for tools and a good helping of food kept by the boatbuilders camped along the lakeside. Jack had been sorry to see the horses go. They were strong beasts, and he had a feeling that their strength would be missed by the three men.
The lake’s surface shimmered with thin ice.
“We’re breaking through easily,” Merritt said. The ice barely whispered along the boat’s rough hull.
“For now,” Jack said. He pulled at his oar, enjoying the rhythmic movement and the warm strain on his muscles. “Don’t forget, many others have already come this way.”
“We’re doing well,” Jim said. He was bailing, his clothes soaked and his brow dripping sweat. Jack thought he had never seen the schoolteacher so happy.
“As I said,” Jack said, “for now. But there’s hard waters ahead, friends.”
“Rapids,” Merritt said. “We heard about them. We’ll need to portage, then—”
“No,” Jack said. “It’ll take too long, and it’s too dangerous. High cliffs, uncharted land. You know the lay of the land ahead of us? You’ve studied it?”
The two men glanced at each other; then Merritt shrugged.
Jack sighed. “The White Horse Rapids,” he said. “Very rough, very dangerous. A lot of people have tried to shoot them. Some disappear, some wash up dead. Lots turn back.”
“There’s no turning back here,” Merritt said, and Jack was impressed by his confidence.
“But you’ve built us a good boat?” Jim asked. “You know the water?”
Jack examined the Yukon Belle. Water lapped around his feet, and with Jim paused in his bailing while they talked, the level was rising quickly. The bow was sharp, the stern square, but the draft was deeper than he would have liked. The rough boards nailed and tied together to form the hull were already distorting as the timber took on water.
“Yes, she’s a good boat,” he said. And he rowed in silence for a while, silently thinking ahead to the dangers they faced.
The thundering water formed a violently foaming, snaking ridge along the base of the canyon. It was monstrous. The ground shook, the air was heavy with the roar, and spray cooled Jack’s skin like the touch of ghostly fingers. He was thrilled to his primal core, and terrified as well, a blend of sensations that he had experienced before and would likely know again. His soul cried in exultation at the adventure ahead. One day, he knew, such yearning could be the death of him.
There were other people on the riverbank, some in groups, several more alone. They watched the grand and fearsome river, and Jack wondered how long they had been standing here, men and women rooted to the spot by the terror of what lay before them. He had the strange image of them being frozen, slowly turning to stone as the waters crashed by without any consideration of the passage of time. One day, perhaps, the river would shift its course enough to start abrading these statues of humanity, if the spray did not wear them away beforehand. And here they stood now, testament to both fear and determination: They could not go forward and refused to turn back.
Jack prepared the Yukon Belle before the observers. He felt good. He sensed their eyes upon him, and perhaps somewhere in their perception of him as a madman was respect.
“Merritt, you take the bow.” He gave Merritt a paddle. “You rafted in the Amazon, you told me.”
“Then you’ll be our lookout.” Jack could see the older man’s dread, but to pause now would be to retreat forever. “Jim, the oars. Just row, keep us moving, keep the power flowing from the boat to the water, not the other way around. I’ll be at the stern, steering.” He regarded the boat where it bobbed close to the bank. “For now, let’s get all the stuff as low as it’ll go.”
“It’ll get soaked,” Jim said.
“Better that than keep its weight high and let it flip us over.”
The three men worked together, and Jack actually sensed the fear that exuded from the other two turning slowly to excitement. It was something about taking action, doing instead of just standing there watching like the many other prospectors lining the riverbank. But he also thought it was something to do with camaraderie. They were doing this together, and they felt like a team.
When they cast off, the people on the bank began shouting advice. “Keep to the ridge in the middle!” someone shouted, and the same words came from elsewhere. Jack wondered just how many foolhardy people the observers on the bank had seen on their way, and how many of them had ever made it through the rapids to the Thirty Mile River, and the upper Yukon River beyond.
For now, though, such musings were best cast from his mind. The river had them in its grasp, they had surrendered to its direction and fury, and to survive was all that mattered.
At first the water had an oily appearance, fast flowing but unbroken by protruding rocks. The Yukon Belle slipped along comfortably, with Merritt in the front giving calm direction and Jack switching the tiller from side to side to steer the boat. The canyon walls rose around them, the banks disappeared, and the water was funneled into narrower and narrower chasms.
The river raged and roared. The cliffs flashed by, and Jack glanced up to see the shadows of people watching from the cliff edge, or perhaps they were simply the disinterested leanings of trees. Either way, he felt alone with his friends and the river.
They powered through the first violent patch of rapids, the boat slicing through waves and shuddering as it scraped across a shallow patch of buried stones. Jack felt the vibration through his knees and tried not to imagine what would happen if the rough boat was pulled apart by rocks.
“Left!” Merritt shouted, and Jack tried to edge them that way. A domed rock flashed by on their right, the river foaming angrily around its head.
Jim’s eyes were wide with terror behind his little teacher’s glasses, which were spattered with spray from the tumultuous river. He stared past Jack, back the way they had come, and perhaps he was wishing he’d never set foot in this boat. Jack grinned at him, but Jim seemed not to see the expression.
Jack felt his pulse racing, heart thrumming inside him. Every nerve ending tingled, and he forgot to breathe as he concentrated on trying to keep to the central ridge of water. It was fastest here, but it was also the clearest route through the rapids. That was his hope, at least. In reality, he knew that the bottom could be ripped from the boat at any moment.
In those moments, Jack had never felt so fearful and yet so alive. His grin spread farther across his features, so wide that it hurt his face, and he whooped with amazement. For several seconds it seemed as though he had left his body, as though he observed himself from someplace above or behind the world. Though nature raged around and against him, he felt as though he could command it, as if he were not a pawn like Odysseus but the river’s master.
Then he heard Merritt shout and glanced over just in time to see the big man’s arms whipped around and the remains of his paddle flipped up into the air, disappearing behind the boat. The rock that had surprised Merritt and snapped his paddle ground against the boat’s hull, growling angrily as the water pushed them past. Jack hauled on the tiller just in time, and then they were through the rapids, bow turning slowly toward the left wall of the canyon as the waters around them seemed to relax their hold.
“Good God!” Jim said, gasping.
“Damn, that was close!” Merritt said, and he laughed as he slapped Jim on the back.
“Don’t get lazy yet,” Jack said. “Plenty more to come.” And worse, he thought, but saying that would benefit none of them. He had not mastered the wild yet, but he was damned if he’d let it defeat him.
As they drifted down the river toward the next section of rapids, the men had time to appreciate their surroundings. It was a wondrous place. The steep canyon walls were speckled white here and there where snow had built up on ledges. The cliff tops were mostly bare, but in places trees hung over the river valley, as if considering leaping in. Birds circled in the gray sky above, and the sound of the river filled their ears. Here it was a gentler flow, yet still it shushed from the canyon walls and echoed back, a constant whisper that would know no silence. Jack felt at peace in such danger, and he asked himself again, Who is Jack London? He thought he was still a long way from the answer, but it felt as though the river were drawing him closer.
“This place is spooky,” Merritt said from the bow of the boat. He was looking around the canyon, past Jack, then ahead at where they were going, and if he’d been a dog, his hackles would have been up.
“It’s too damn noisy to be spooky,” Jim said. He was cleaning his glasses, wiping the lenses with measured strokes with his handkerchief. “And too cold.”
“Keep your gloves on, Jim,” Jack said. “You’ll need every nerve in your hands when we hit the next rapids.”
“I’m without a paddle,” Merritt said. He kicked the top off one of their food boxes, splitting away one of the boards and carefully bending the nails so that they were not protruding. All the while he was looking around, like prey watching for its stalker.
Jack looked around as well. And as the roar of fresh rapids grew in the distance, realization struck him like a punch to the gut: I’m being watched.
He did not think, We are being watched. This was all him. He felt a great focus upon him, and the more he glanced around in growing panic, the less idea he had of where such attention was coming from. The cliff tops seemed too high, the rough walls of the canyon too far away. He even looked down into the dark waters, half expecting to see the faces of drowned men rising to leer as he rode the river to his death.
“Jack, Jim,” Merritt said. “Here we go again.”
And the river broke its back, drawing the little boat and its passengers into its raging wound.
Perhaps it was the thought of being watched—perhaps it was the unsettling idea that he was observing himself from afar—but every moment of that experience imprinted itself on Jack’s mind like a photograph: the whirlpool, the Mane of the Horse, the wolf.
The wolf most of all.
They plunged into the next set of rapids, working as a team as much as they could, though Jack was aware of their woeful unreadiness for the trip they were undertaking. Merritt sat in the bow, guiding them with his impromptu paddle. Jim shipped his oars and sat awash in the base of the boat, keeping his weight as low as possible. And Jack knelt at the stern, leaning on the tiller, doing his best to edge the boat this way and that. In reality, though, the boat found its own path through the rapids, scraping and gouging past and over rocks. He felt the craft being injured all around him, cracked and battered and split, and the fact that it held together made him proud.
A strange calm descended upon him, that of a man awaiting judgment.
They rose between two large rocks, riding the water where its volume drove it upward, and past the rocks the boat tipped and fell down toward a violent, swirling pool below. Whirlpool! Jack had time to think, and then they were caught. The boat was trapped in conflicting currents, shaken this way and that, and water poured in from all sides. Jim started ineffectually bailing, and had it not been so terrifying, Jack would have laughed. Instead he grabbed on to the boat’s hull, racking his brains for a way to escape. He shouted in terrified exhilaration, but the water was so loud that he could not even hear his own voice. He was soaked to the skin and freezing cold, but something at the heart of him kept him warm.
He looked left and right, and up at the cliffs, and though he still felt eyes upon him, the watcher was elsewhere.
The boat slid sideways. For a second that felt like minutes, it tilted on its side, and Jack expected them all to spill into the raging torrent. The boxes and bags would follow them, pushing them deeper down until the vicious current dragged them across the riverbed, braining them against submerged rocks worn smooth by millennia. As Jack fought the tiller, trying to steer them out of the whirlpool’s grip, he caught Merritt’s eyes and realized that the big man had something of Jack in him—he was resigned to their fate but delighted that they had tried.
Then the Yukon Belle righted itself and turned its nose downstream, curving away from the whirlpool and continuing on its journey. Jack shouted for joy, and this time he heard both his own voice and those of his companions.
They took their positions again, aware that they were not yet out of the fire. Jack was exhausted, dripping wet, and freezing cold. If it hadn’t been for his exertions in keeping the boat aimed toward the center of the river, his clothes would be freezing around his body, and he might even be at risk of frostbite. But rather than freezing, he steamed. It was an odd sight watching vapor rise from his body, but it also gave him a thrill. It was almost otherworldly.