Ice broke on the Yukon River at 11:15 a.m. on April 23 and Gena Howald promptly headed north.
It was the earliest breakup of ice on the river in recorded history. The premature thaw allowed the Victor, Idaho, resident to begin what would become a 52-day journey three weeks early.
The trip idea was eight years in the making and one she wished she had taken sooner.
Howald and her father Robert C. Howald began devising a plan in 2008 to paddle a section of the river, just months after he was diagnosed with prostate cancer.
Her dad was outspoken early on in the diagnosis about taking the trip. During his younger days in the military he was stationed at Fort Greeley in Delta Junction, Alaska. He always wanted to return and float the mighty river that stretches 1,980 miles across Alaska and the Yukon.
Father and daughter prepared for the trip by spending several days on the Missouri River in Montana and honing their skills on Leigh Lake and String Lake.
But soon the cancer tightened its grip and their focus shifted toward the disease. Howald battled for nearly eight years before succumbing to the cancer in July 2015 at the age of 73. The trip never took place.
“I needed to kind of spearhead it, and I never did,” said Howald, 44. “For me personally there was a lot of guilt there. I should have grabbed a hold of him and said, ‘Let’s go be pirates.’”
She received an email from her father in 2011 with a passage from Mark Twain. The quote read, “Now and then we had a hope that if we lived and were good, God would permit us to be pirates.”
Howald didn’t discover the email until she was scrolling through her inbox while preparing her father’s eulogy.
“Regrettably, I never read it,” the paddler said, “For had I read it, I would have certainly made the Yukon River trip happen for him while he was alive. I think it was his way of suggesting we do the trip.”
Soon after her dad’s death she decided that she would do the trip on her own, take care of unfinished business and grieve the death of her father. However, she had no intentions to do a section of the river. Her plan was to paddle the entire Yukon.
Howald was in her vehicle heading towards the Yukon on May 5 and she began paddling May 18. She picked up her Mad River Journey 15.6 canoe in Whitehorse, Canada, near the eastern headwaters of the river. Her father was a pilot and she painted “Capt. Bob” across the side. A photo of her dad sat beneath the bow of the boat and a pirate flag flew above it.
Howald was comfortable on the water but she didn’t have experience with anything that remotely resembled this large undertaking. She took a two-day course when she arrived in Canada that taught her whitewater canoe lessons and schooled her on precautions she needed to take for big, open water.
She spread a portion of her father’s ashes at the headwaters of the Yukon and set off alone, not knowing what was in store for her.
“There was so much emotion in it,” she said. “It was one part adventure and one part emotion. I felt really fortunate that I had the opportunity to really go and grieve the loss of my dad.”
Howald ventured off into one of the most remote waterways in the world, rarely coming across people like herself.
“It was only the indigenous people who were in the fishing boats or skiffs,” she said. “I never saw anybody on the river. There was one guy in a kayak.”
The gentleman in the kayak was coming from the Tanana River in Alaska. Their visit didn’t last long.
“He told me, ‘This is going to sound kind of crazy, but I have people after me,’” she said.
The fugitive was the least of Howald’s worries. Severe carpel tunnel and tendonitis in her wrists and elbows made for gritty paddling when the river’s current slowed from 7 mph down to almost nothing around the halfway point.
A portable electric fence helped keep her mind at peace while searching for sleeping spots that weren’t littered with fresh grizzly bear tracks.
She battled headwinds throughout the majority of the trip. The wind pushed her off the river on four occasions and she was forced to take rest days. She fought storms that generated 4- to 7-foot standing waves.
She was able to avoid most of the drunks who harassed many of the remote villages along her route. The early drinkers, though, could not put a black eye on her experiences with the generous people of the many salmon fishing villages.
“People would take me in, they would feed me, they would let me take showers, they would let me do laundry,” she said. “They really embraced me and that felt really great.”
Howald was given supplies and salmon meat by many of the people she encountered. The smoked and dried fish was so good that she said it was worth the risk of attracting bears.
Three-quarters of the way through the trip Howald had an encounter with a man that brought her to tears.
He was a bush pilot and had been a hunter and a trapper in Alaska for 40 years. He was curious to know what brought Howald to the middle of nowhere on a section of the river with little current and even fewer people. She told him about her father and the man responded with four words that turned the two strangers into friends.
“I have prostate cancer,” he said.
His name was Alex. He was 73, the same age of Howald’s father when he died.
“He started crying and I started crying,” she said. “Then we walked around my canoe and just held each other. The connection I made with this human being was phenomenal.”
Alex has chosen to refuse treatment and will spend his final days flying, hunting and fishing.
Howald had started the trip for her dad and for all men with prostate cancer. Now the trip was about Alex as well.
Howald started a blog about her trip and received a lot of support from friends, family and those battling prostate cancer.
One man followed her trip closely. His name was Don. He had prostate cancer and he knew Howald’s dad through a website forum for prostate cancer victims. He called Howald when her father died and they kept in touch ever since.
Howald said she became Don’s “give it to me straight” person.
“It wasn’t, ‘You’re going to be OK,’” Howald said. “It was, ‘No you’re not going to be OK, but I’m here for you.’ That’s what our relationship was.”
While Howald was on the river Don died at the age of 60 after a 10-year battle with the cancer. The trip was now about her father, Alex, Don and all men suffering from prostate cancer.
Her journey finished at the Bering Sea on July 8. She spread the remainder of her father’s ashes at the mouth of the river and made her way back to Idaho.
Her trip was complete but she inspired many along the way. Her blog is filled with messages, many of which are from complete strangers, who have chosen to donate to one of four prostate cancer charities listed on her site, PiratesOfTheYukon.com.
She hopes to continue to spread awareness about the disease while inspiring those who are fighting the cancer to continue to live life.
“You’ve got to make time to adventure,” she said. “Otherwise you’re totally consumed by a disease or condition. Even though you may be terminal there’s still something to living life while you have the ability.”
Howald still regrets not taking that float with her dad. But the remorse has diminished over the past month since she completed the nearly 2,000-mile trip.
“I feel like a huge weight has been lifted off of my shoulders having completed that trip for dad,” she said. “I knew that if I quit there would be consequences, mentally. I would have unfinished business.”