Sampling the Yukon on a 1,500-mile
By Ned Rozell
August 02, 2007
As a half-dozen canoeists paddle down the Yukon River on what
they call a healing journey, they tow behind them a water-quality
probe to check the health of Alaska's largest waterway.
Jon Waterhouse is a member of a six-person team that began boating
from the village of Moosehide, near Dawson City in the Yukon,
on June 22, 2007. The team will continue to the village of St.
Marys in Alaska, about 1,500 miles down river. Waterhouse is
assistant director of the Yukon River Inter-Tribal Watershed
Council and is manning the stern of a canoe that pulls a torpedo-like
water-quality probe through the silt-brown water of the Yukon.
The instrument weighs about 15 pounds.
"It's like towing a boat anchor," Waterhouse said.
"We go about a mile per hour slower than the other canoes.
When they're coasting, we have to paddle."
Matt Hage, Agnes Stowe, Danielle Pratt, David Pelunis-Messier,
and Kevin Solomon from Fort Yukon are in three other canoes.
Bryan Maracle, Karin Williams, Brian Hirsch, and Diana Wilmar
also have paddled stretches of the river with the group.
Brian Hirsch takes
water samples along the Yukon River.
Photo courtesy Jon Waterhouse.
"The Yukon River Healing Journey" started in Canada
and the boaters plan on reaching St. Marys by Aug. 9 to be there
for the Yukon River Inter-Tribal Watershed Council Summit. The
council includes members of 65 tribes and first nations who live
along the Yukon River in Canada and Alaska.
The main reasons for the journey are to promote environmental
awareness and to celebrate cultural ties as the boaters stop
at every village along the way. Waterhouse and others also see
the trip as an opportunity to supplement the group's water-quality
monitoring program by profiling the length of the river as they
paddle. The company YSI sponsored them with a top-of-the-line
water-quality probe, which they tow like a fishing lure from
the back of a canoe. The paddlers download data every night and
reactivate the probe every morning.
"What they're doing has never been done before," said
Paul Schuster, a hydrologist for the U.S. Geological Survey's
National Research Program in Boulder, Colo. Schuster has been
a consultant to the Yukon watershed council for the last three
years. "No one has ever measured continuous basic water
quality parameters for the whole length of the Yukon River."
The probe samples the river every 30 minutes for water temperature,
dissolved oxygen, Ph, and nutrients, such as nitrates and nitrites.
Waterhouse said the instrument works best behind a canoe; motorboats
tend to contaminate readings with the exhaust and turbulence
from their propellers.
Schuster said he is interested to see if the probe can pick up
the changes in the river as it flows through areas with different
geology and vegetation and also human-caused changes from larger
villages, such as Galena.
"If the river chemistry changes as it moves through different
ecologic regimes, we should be able to see it in the data set,"
The instrument is performing well, according to Waterhouse. He
thinks the group will get meaningful scientific information.
"I'm hoping we'll get a good benchmark out of this trip,"
Waterhouse added. "If we don't know what the river's like
now, how do we know what's happening in the future?"
Schuster has spent months on the Yukon and has sampled many great
waterways, including the Colorado River and the Everglades. He
says the Yukon is a hydrologist's dream.
"It's quite possibly the last great uncontrolled river in
the world, with no dams or levees," said Schuster, who along
with his USGS colleagues just completed a five-year study on
the Yukon. "Compared to the other large rivers, the Yukon
is relatively pristine, but future changes in climate and land
use could change that. That's why it's so important to do these
This column is provided
as a public service by the Geophysical
Institute, University of Alaska Fairbanks, in cooperation
with the UAF research community.
Ned Rozell [firstname.lastname@example.org]
is a science writer at the institute.
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