Living in a dreamscape: How one couple forged a future on the Yukon River

Lynette Robers and Steve Ulvi in front of their homestead in Yukon-Charley. (Photo: Steve Ulvi/Project Jukebox)

When writer John McPhee arrived on the Yukon River in the mid-1970s, he encountered men and women living as far from civilization as they could manage. He profiled many of these people in the third section of his book, “Coming into the Country.”

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One of the people McPhee met during this time was Steve Ulvi. For a decade beginning in 1974, Ulvi and his soon-to-be wife Lynette Roberts lived hundreds of miles from the nearest city in a cabin they built near the Yukon River. When asked how they did it, the couple answered without hesitation:

“Stubbornness,” Roberts said.

“I was going to say the same thing,” Ulvi said.

The two arrived in Alaska when Ulvi was just 23, and Roberts, 25. They were college dropouts and hippies — although they prefer the term “counterculturalists.” Inspired by the works of Henry David Thoreau, Edward Abbey and Dick Proenneke, Ulvi envisioned a simple life connected to nature.

Roberts had no such vision — but she was in love with Ulvi.

“I wasn’t going to let him go alone,” said Roberts. “If I was welcome, I was going to go.”

Things weren’t easy at first. They scraped by in a 15 by 15 cabin with Ulvi’s brother. There weren’t as many animals to hunt as Ulvi had guessed. And, Ulvi said, there was something else about the country they weren’t entirely prepared for:

“Winter is the dominant feature and it drives everything else,” Ulvi said. “That was something that no matter how much you might read about it or how much you might think about it, there’s nothing that prepares you for that, day in and day out.”

That first un-glamorous winter — broke, cold and sick of being the only woman around — Roberts got fed up and left. She ended up in Tok, not having the money to go further, and picked up work at a cafe. But after getting a little space and time to herself, she went back.

“I think Steve was quite shocked to see me because he thought I was gone for good. But it just didn’t seem right that I would leave for good,” Roberts said.

Over the next ten years, the couple learned to trap, planted gardens, built up a dog team, and made their own clothes. Eventually, they had two children. Roberts said living in the bush made them a stronger family. Over the years, she came to love living there as much as Ulvi.

“It became my life, and I was there because I really wanted to be there, not just because that’s where I was,” said Roberts.

John McPhee encountered Ulvi and Roberts two years after the couple’s arrival, when they were just getting the the hang of things. In “Coming into the Country,” McPhee introduced Ulvi as a “cinematically handsome man” helping another river dweller, Dick Cook, load up a canoe with supplies. It was spring, and the Yukon was roiling with giant chunks of ice. McPhee was standing on the riverbank when the two shoved off — and watched as a massive ice floe hit their canoe:

“Blood ran out of Cook’s face. His skin became as pale as the floes in the river. If more ice were to strike the canoe now, it could crumple it up like an aluminum can. Ulvi wrenched the bow free and shoved the canoe backward. Once more it floated among the ice,” the book read.

When he reflects on his near-death experience in the icy Yukon, Ulvi said McPhee played a bigger role in the scene than the book lets on.

“Dick Cook loved to talk and, of course, McPhee’s job was made easier the more somebody talked,” Ulvi said. “So I’m in the bow, [and] McPhee and Cook were talking and talking and talking. I think that what happened is that Dick just got a little frustrated and just kind of gave us a little shove with his paddle and we slid down the ice floe into the water at exactly the wrong time.”

Even though McPhee’s reporting nearly saw Ulvi meet a frigid end, he is full of praise for “Coming into the Country.”

“He captured it exquisitely. I just can’t say enough about how well he did at capturing those feelings, and that sense of change,” Ulvi said.

Ulvi only gets a few mentions in “Coming into the Country,” but he was swept up in the changes McPhee chronicled in his book. In the 1970s, oil started flowing down the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. Soon after, Congress inked the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act.

“I call that the great partitioning of Alaska, occurred in the ’70s and into [19]80,” Ulvi said. “And in some ways, I also feel that that was the end of old Alaska.”

Many of the “river people” McPhee had profiled found themselves living in a National Preserve. After years of successfully avoiding government interference, they started to receive trespass notices and began clashing with federal officials. At first, Ulvi and Roberts stayed out of it because they had settled, with permission, on Native land.

But in 1981, Ulvi took a job as a park ranger for Yukon Charley National Preserve, and so began, he said, “many years of controversy, of not being able to attend local parties without the topic coming up.”

People who had built cabins on federal land now needed permits to live there; those permits were gradually phased out. Hunting and trapping were allowed to continue, but new rules and limits were enforced. Ulvi said he understands why some people were upset and he doesn’t agree with how all of the regulations were carried out. But in the end, he also doesn’t think the Park Service deserves all the animosity it got.

“I’ve often said, you know, you can get in more trouble stepping on a person’s dreams than you will stepping on their reality,” Ulvi said. “And Alaska is a dream landscape.”

Because the area is a National Preserve, Ulvi said, that dream landscape has been protected. Today, visitors can come to Yukon-Charley National Preserve, take a canoe down the river, and enjoy a wilderness that’s mostly unchanged from when Ulvi and Roberts arrived in 1974.

And, Ulvi said, that’s something to be proud of.

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Elizabeth Harball is a reporter with Alaska's Energy Desk, covering Alaska’s oil and gas industry and environmental policy. She is a contributor to the Energy Desk’s Midnight Oil podcast series. Before moving to Alaska in 2016, Harball worked at E&E News in Washington, D.C., where she covered federal and state climate change policy. Originally from Kalispell, Montana, Harball is a graduate of Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

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