Tatshenshini - Alsek River Trip 2007
Along the Tatshenshini and Alsek Rivers
by David Levine
Photographs by Paul Walters (the better ones) and David Levine
(Click on a picture to see it full size)
Kirk got the call to go to Alaska because there are bears living there. "Hey buddy, what are you doing the first two weeks of July?", I asked him. "Would you be interested in a raft trip in Alaska? Lynda doesn't want to go because of the bears."
"Yes, I do!" he said. "It's better than scraping this damn paint off the ceiling."
"Are you sure you can get away?" I said. "I have until Friday to tell Paul who's going with me."
"Count me in! I'm sure!" he shouted. "How often do I get invited on a boat trip in Alaska?"
He had a good point. It doesn't happen very often, though it should. The Tatshenshini - Alsek river trip is perhaps the wildest and most visually spectacular in North America. It flows 130 miles from the southern Yukon Territory in Canada through the northwestern tip of British Columbia and across the Alaskan Panhandle, carving its way past the peaks and glaciers of the St. Elias Mountains. It deserves to be one of the three crown jewels of river trips in North America, along with the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon and the Middle Fork of the Salmon River in Idaho.
Journalist Edward Glave reported in 1890 that "all of the country was suggestive of violence - colossal heaps of rocks rudely hurled from mountain heights, the roaring and thundering of internal forces of glaciers and moraine, whole forests laid low by the fury of tempests."
Each day we float past enormous mountain ranges, the snow covered peaks rising directly from the water's edge. Huge haystacks of shining white cumulus clouds hover over the variegated mountains, broken here and there with shots of canted sunlight. Glaciers hang on the mountain shoulders, snaking for miles out of the rising peaks to end in a corrugated cliff face of translucent blue. Our hikes take us to high alpine meadows, the flowers painted by nature with a palette no human artist can duplicate. The air is so clean and crisp our vision is noticeably clearer. Everything is rendered in ultra sharp contours.
The feeling of infinite, untrammeled wilderness is unequalled. The space is so big, so vast; an echo would die of lonesomeness out here. The incredible beauty and boundless Ice Age scenery tends to bankrupt the English language. Every day we are here we find ourselves at a loss to say much more than, "Wow, look at that!"
After six months of pre-trip preparations by Paul Walters our group convenes in Haines, Alaska, a small coastal fishing village below Mt. Ripinski, in the heart of the Chilkat Valley. Here, the Inside Passage meets the northern mainland and two great landscapes of Southeast rainforest and Interior tundra converge.
The travel to the river's start is a beautiful journey, in and of itself. The 100-mile drive to the Dalton Post put-in takes us past the 48,000 acre Chilkat Valley Bald Eagle Preserve, but we are too early to see the hundreds of eagles that will gather in September to feed on salmon in the Chilkat River.
After stopping at both the U.S. and Canadian customs buildings we cross into Canada. The road climbs to the 3,500 foot Chilkat Summit, an alpine ecosystem with trees, wildflower meadows, and small meandering streams covering the area. Huge ice fields are visible to the west. As we descend we are about to enter the 37,500 square mile Tatshenshini-Alsek Wilderness Provincial Park and adjacent Kluane National Park.
At the river now, our rafts and gear are strewn about the dark gravel bar at Dalton Post (named for the trading post Jack Dalton set up near here during the Klondike gold rush). Everyone has a quick look at the streambed of the Tat, trying to spy embedded gold flakes before starting the boat rigging. A mosquito is swatted for every strap put on, with two taking the place of the flattened one.
Two hours later, everything is in a place that seems suitable for the day's rapids. A flush of positive ions lifts us, though none of us have ever been here in this remote, unfamiliar place.
We walk in circles at the put-in, beginning to be stirred into pack frenzy by the call of the impending river trip. There are no more preparations or abstract worries. To those who know the sensation, there is nothing that tops this marvelous surrender to fatalism. It is the same thrill skydivers enjoy as they step out of the airplane.
We push off from the shore, catapulting the boats into the fast current to begin floating, savoring these first exhilarating moments. We know for certain the experience to come will be identical and different from all the other times we have done this on all the other rivers we've run. Are we heading for an adventure? Adventure isn't only when something goes wrong; it's when something is sure to happen.
We are so far removed we believe in the uniqueness of our fate, impossibly far from what others know as "reality". The thought fills us with pleasure.
The river is lined with quaking aspen and tall narrow spruce trees. Some are clinging to the riverbank edge, barely gripping the soil before collapsing into the river. Our eyes search for bald eagles, moose, and bear, but we see none, yet.
This first day is when we're running the major rapids of our trip. Bart Henderson, for many years a Tatshenshini boatman, told us that they will come quickly, one following another, when we enter the Canyon of the Tatshenshini a few miles after our launch. We all feel an anxious excitement, not knowing what we'll soon encounter.
Our adrenaline rises and our grips tighten as we hit the whitewater. Our concern soon proves to be undeserved, as we are in relatively simple Class III read-and-run rapids, easily scouted from the boats. Technical maneuvering is required in these continuous rapids, but we have time to see and decide what moves must be made to avoid the holes and other obstacles. It is disappointing that this part of the river trip does not notably test our skills, but we are grateful that none of us came close to taking an unplanned swim in the chilly water.
We sit this evening under a blue sky at Silver Creek, our first camp, recognizing there is something in the very nature of the wilderness that delights the eye and soothes our spirit. Back beyond these hills and icy river is a world of stock markets and traffic lights. No matter how much of our lives we have spent there and how acutely we have been tethered to the teeming rhythms of that world, it is now merely an abstraction. It is beyond reach. It no longer touches us.
We all rise early the next morning, none of us wanting to miss a moment of gazing at the scenery. The river today is peaceful and green, reflecting the tree-covered banks around us. It is a quiet, tranquil float on a mellow river winding through the lush forest. The confined geography from yesterday widens into a broad forested valley set among snow-capped mountains.
We're in British Columbia now, relaxing under a slowly moving sun on a warm, balmy day as we serenely pass through Stillwater Canyon to our next camp at Sediments Creek. Our tents are pitched in a luxuriant field carpeted by purple wildflowers.
Here we take our first hike through bear country, walking through thick woodland before climbing a grassy knoll. We talk loudly and clap our hands, intending to rouse a sleeping bear. We want him to know we're coming, to move away from us before we surprise him with our presence. Many aspen trees are ominously scratched and several patches of fireweed have been flattened into nap sites. Bear scat is everywhere. We frequently check that our cans of bear spray are still belted onto our hips.
The knoll is awash with wildflowers, the breeze scenting the air in a subtle way. Our height affords us a view of the entire river valley. Terrain carved long ago by glaciers is above and below us, the river filling in and rounding the lower sides of the glacier valley. We walk slowly back to camp, savoring the expansive view for as long as we can.
As we approach Alkie Creek the next day we examine a tall cut bank consisting of various layers of sand, gravel, and assorted cobble, deposited over many years by the varying glacial melt flows. We take most of the following day to walk up the creek drainage to where the faulted rock cliffs come to the water's edge, halting any further travel for us today. We hear the deep rumbling of the boulders as they roll along the creek bottom. Up ahead a deep green, undulating forest, unlike any we have ever seen, covers the hillsides.
In the mountains far up from where we are millions of tons of moving glacier ice reduce bedrock to specks of grit as fine as flour. The gray, powdery stuff roils the glacial outwash, clouding to a pearly translucence Alkie Creek and the river. As we float to another camp the suspended silt hisses against our boats like brush strokes on a snare drum.
We row our boats past vast gravel bars and many divergent channels. From our boats on the river it is nearly impossible to see which way the main channel goes. There is nothing to use as a reference. One must make a choice as late as possible, which way would be best to go, hoping that the chosen channel will not braid into smaller channels but rather will join another and form a larger one.
Tonight's camp is on a huge delta of glacial vestiges, a gravel bar so broad it defies measurement. We are presented with a 360-degree view of the peaks of the Noisy Range. The mountains have grown around us. They are taller than any we've seen thus far. It is evident that eons ago massive tectonic collisions shaped this land, thrusting up enormous mountains. This is one of those places, like at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, where in the outdoors I find myself dizzy from the enormousness of space. Against the majesty of the surroundings I feel shockingly reduced.
With each day, each mile, a tangible feeling of remoteness grows. We are far away from well-known places now, and we are advancing ever deeper into unfamiliar land.
We bed down at a time that is not natural, since it is still light enough to read. This is not the rhythm of nature to which we are accustomed. At this latitude in summer there is barely night. Semi-darkness falls, with stray cloudlets draped over the treetops in an utterly still sky, creating long, narrow lines of wisp, collecting in random pockets on the hillsides. A haunted moon glows indistinctly up there somewhere, backlighting the sheet of clouds that has closed in overhead as pale neon white washes over the land.
In the morning, almost imperceptibly, the sky begins to lighten. The day has broken oyster gray and overcast. There is no discernible difference in shade no matter where I look, be it above, underfoot, or across the river and beyond. We resist the temptation to call it a gloomy day, but it does have a somber feel.
We float past many glaciers today, on our way to Melt Creek for two nights. Our camp is amidst fragrant sweetpea and fireweed plants, above the light blue creek that drains two glaciers. The water from it nearly doubles the flow of the Tatshenshini.
From our camp, near the confluence of the Alsek River, more than 20 different glaciers can be counted. The sky has cleared, displaying glorious icy mountain views in all directions. Our journey becomes a voyage back in time, a glimpse of how North America looked millennia ago.
We have a large collection of dry firewood, picked during the day from the many gravel bars we passed. The campfire crackles. We are in its snug embrace this evening. We all shuffle position when the smoke shifts and blows in our faces from a faint breeze. We watch a moose tonight, casually strolling along the gravel bar on the other side of the river.
The next morning I'm back in my chair, almost unable to move, watching the water of the creek flowing and mixing into the river, charming me. A lone grizzly bear emerges from the woods on the other side of the river, coming back to feed on a carcass it had buried some previous day. We watch it stand and sniff the air as it senses another group of people on their boats upriver, a half mile away. The bear re-buries the carcass and wanders off.
That night the bear returns. It patrols the entire area across the river from our camp, a few hundred feet away, walking far up and downstream. He frolics in the water, jumping and splashing in many places. We presume he senses fish and is hungry for a fresh meal, the buried carcass no longer of interest to him.
Suddenly, he is swimming to our side of the river. We move to the edge of our camp to have a look downstream at where he reaches land. More wood is put on the fire. We know that some of us will stay up late, tending it, and will not get much sleep this night.
Mort, tall and lean, is cool and relaxed. His face shows a perpetual half-smile, as if he is constantly taking in folly and converting it to mild entertainment. He shrugs and smirks and his eyebrows invert and suggest a helpless resignation to the fates.
The next morning, after everyone has been accounted for, we talk about how close we kept our bear sprays to us during the night, and how close the bear would have to have gotten to us for them to be effective. We break our camp and leave the Tatshenshini behind us.
We soon reach the wide confluence with the Alsek River. The Alsek comes barreling out of the ice and rock valleys to the north and the Tatshenshini River is consumed into it. The river is almost a mile across and increases in volume ten-fold, flowing in swells and rolls.
What a spectacular sight! As the miles pass on both sides of us the hills are majestic, high and steep, covered in shadowy stands of spruce. Beyond, 10,000-foot tall mountains loom, rising starkly from sea level. We again float past high hanging glaciers in wide valleys. Our eyes move to many directions, each with its own unique scene.
This is an immense landscape, big enough to swallow up any of the national parks in the Lower 48. I have a sweeping view of a very big river in a very big country. Yet, in this slowly passing panorama, I am struck by how amazingly small our world has become.
As we've been expecting, nearing the Pacific coast day by day, the sky becomes cloudy and a light drizzle begins to fall. Thus far our weather has been enjoyable, but we knew it couldn't last. Southeast Alaska is well known for its extended stormy weather.
We collect as much dry firewood as we can from the gravel bars, wrapping tarps around as many pieces as we can to keep it dry. Our rain shelters will be set up from here on out, at every camp. Dry firewood will become a valuable commodity.
The Alsek River carries us at eight miles per hour past the Fairweather Range of mountains and a bulldozed swath of forest marking the U.S. and Canada border. We question the importance of marking the border in this large wilderness. Surely the bears and eagles don't need to know which country they're in.
The river is more braided today than all the other days of our journey combined. We run out of water a few times, thus requiring us to get out of the boats to push and pull them down the shallow river to deeper water. Our tall rubber boots keep our feet dry, for the most part, but the icy cold of the water comes through. We are heading for the Nose Camp, a camp we don't want to miss, as it's the last camp before we round the bend of the river and reach the Walker glacier.
We sit under our rain shelters tonight, waiting for the light rain to end. Are we depressed? Hardly. Mort tells us of the time he got fired from a job he didn't like. "I told the boss I missed work because I got high-centered on a bar stool and couldn't get off." We have a good laugh and another pour of the George Dickel.
There are bundles of dry firewood next to our campfire. We envy no one and desire nothing but a break in the clouds. "My only regret," John says, wistfully, "is that I'm not young again." Pass the Dickel, please.
In the morning it's the start of another beautiful overcast day on the Alsek River. We are sitting by a pleasant fire, drinking coffee and listening intently to the absence of sound. Whoever said, "The silence is deafening" was right. We hear it at his spot. Any noise seems to boom louder than thunder.
There is a conspicuous air of excitement while we are rigging the boats for the day's float. Today is the day we'll be rounding the "Kodak Corner", getting our first look at Walker Glacier and camping just a short walk from it.
When we float around the bend of the river, below the point, we come upon one of the grandest vistas in a place prodigal with vistas. It is the view to the south looking up at Walker Glacier. We are certain to overdose on this scenery. This is the "Scenic Overdose Syndrome" that we've been told will happen. If I were the expedition artist on some nineteenth-century exploration, I'd stop here and set up my easel. This is a space that would pull you into the canvas. The scene beckons you into it.
We set up our camp on the gray glacial sand above Walker Glacier. Soon, we are walking to the glacier with unashamed excitement in our steps. We stroll through a stunning meadow of red, yellow, and purple wildflowers where I can't resist lying down in the middle of the flowers and the overwhelming aroma.
At the top of a sand dune we are on an overlook, Walker Lake in front of us and cluttered with icebergs. Strewn on shore along the lake's edge the rocks have swoops, swirls, and curls of granite intrusions, twisted from being subjected to intense heat and pressure deep in the earth millions of years ago.
The scale of everything becomes unreal. On the other side of the lake Walker Glacier flows for miles, twisting downward from its high valley, cloaking the lower cliffs and ending in a splayed tongue hundreds of feet thick at river level. We hear distant thunder from rocks tumbling down the cliffs and huge blocks of ice breaking free of the glacier's end, falling into the lake.
Hiking on the glacier is unforgettable. We easily walk up the huge moraine at the glacier's terminus onto a gently sloping field of ice fractured by deep crevasses. Peering down carefully, we see smooth aquamarine slot canyons harboring rumbling streams cut into the ice by meltwater that disappears into the depths. Inside the crevasses the ice is an eerie, deep blue color. The light entering the ice is subjected to an ethereal conversion. Colonies of moss improbably cling to the ice, growing everywhere.
Hiking upward, the ice crunches underneath our feet as we jump across bottomless chasms to reach the bottom of cascading ice falls. We stare up at the jagged seracs, vertical ice a thousand feet high, appearing to have been slashed by great knives. The cerulean blue color in the seracs is surreal, a color any painter would cherish. Vincent Van Gogh would cut off his other ear to have it.
Paul and I leave the others behind on the floor of the glacier. We continue upward along the glacier edge, climbing narrow ridges of ice covered with boulders. At a height where we could go no further without ice crampons on our boots we can see the top of the glacier extending for miles beyond, rising up to the summit spires. Behind us we have an infinite view of river and mountain scenery. This is a place unchanged since the Ice Age.
Heading back to camp we celebrated our glacier walk by having a drink of melted glacial ice. It must be the purest water in the world. At camp tonight we'll have drinks chilled with 10,000-year-old ice we collected from the lake.
When we pack in the morning and leave camp we await the highlight of our trip, two days of camping tomorrow on the shore of Alsek Lake. Returning to the current of meltwater we pass more glaciers guarded by firm peaks of the Fairweather and Brabazon Ranges of the St. Elias mountain realm. We have lost track of the days and the outside world does not exist. The only reality for us is the wilderness and the endless flowing of the river.
The weather worsens. Clouds descend from the showery sky, obscuring the hills and fogging the river. We search a long time for a suitable camp on a spit of land just above Alsek Lake, praying for the weather to clear.
The clouds, however, are impenetrable, the rain is unyielding, and the wind is strong. We watch a gull fly past us for a full minute, barely making any progress into the obstinate gusts. Wisps of clouds form multiple thin layers along the hillsides around us, tinted blue from the smoke of our fire. We occasionally glimpse Gateway Knob through the fog and clouds downstream from us. It appears satanic and then it disappears into the mist again. I sense we'll be floating into Hades tomorrow.
Two days later we are still here, still sitting under our rain shelters, sipping our hot morning drinks to temporarily remove the chill inside us. We have no choice now but to pack up and leave camp, having already spent one more day here than we intended.
Luck is with us as a commercial group pulls in to shore above us to scout the far-away three entrances to Alsek Lake. If the wrong passage is chosen the way will lead to icebergs blocking the selected course. The guides have a long experienced look and choose one of the three corridors to take around the Knob and into the lake. We watch them stop twice along their way to have another look and confirm the route they've chosen. We watch them progress unimpeded, showing us the way to go.
We re-enter the river into the clouds and mist, departing for a place none of us know, choosing a path to it we can barely see, trusting that it can be done. This is a very dynamic region. A clear channel of water earlier may not be clear just a few hours later. Icebergs in the lake can quickly congregate on the upstream side where the river enters the lake, making the route treacherous.
We reach Gateway Knob and round it, entering the strait known as the Channel of Death, making the turn into Alsek Lake. There is clear passage! We are awed into silence, a quiet flotilla rowing in serene water, confronted by mythic scenery. Icebergs surround us as colossal statues, masses of ice of every size, shape, and texture, sculpted as no human can do. Some are turquoise, some are stark white, and some are mottled black. This is a captivating place. The sights and sounds fill our senses. Our day here will be etched in our minds for years to come.
Distant rumbling explosions reach us from Alsek Glacier across the lake. It is ice the size of houses breaking off, soon to drift with the wind. Closer, pieces of icebergs randomly break off, accompanied by a splash of lake water, breaking the eerie quiet. The remaining berg undulates as it rebalances itself to a new equilibrium point, coming to life for a few moments. We are warned to keep our distance.
We move through the alluring icebergs for an hour to a camp on another beach of fine gravel. It is littered with twisted driftwood. Waves generated from breaking icebergs wash gently onto the shore. All of our cameras are out with us as we roam the shoreline photographing every splendid sight we see so as to supplement our memories.
In the morning we are treated to a dazzling spectacle we could not imagine. The gray sky lightens and the clouds begin to lift, giving way to views of snow-capped mountains ringing the distant shore of the lake. Glaciers inhabit every high mountain valley. Mount Fairweather, rarely seen, appears and dominates the skyline, soaring overhead. Its 15,300-foot peak is covered in ice, floating above the clouds and dwarfing the surrounding peaks in white stately splendor. Icebergs slowly parade in front of us, the play of sunlight on them making a sparkling dance of diamonds.
We hesitate to leave our enchanted camp. How do you leave a place as appealing as this? We want another day here, the day we spent above, waiting for the weather to clear.
Grudgingly, the boats are freed from the shore and we cruise in and out of the iceberg sculptures on a sunny, bright day. The morning is invigorating as we float amid them, exploring their mysterious shapes. We reach into the lake and pick up small pieces of gleaming ice made up of single crystals, examining them closely. The last of our bottle is raised as we toast Alsek Lake, the icebergs, and the rivers that brought us here. Our days rowing Alsek Lake will stay with us forever.
Some icebergs are caught in the river current with us as we reluctantly leave the lake to rejoin the flowing river to travel to Dry Bay, five miles from the Pacific Ocean, and the end of our voyage. We transition from the tallest peaks of the continent to broad forested hills and then flat terrain.
We step off the boats for the final time and bring all our gear ashore, deflate the rafts, and pack up for the next day's bush flight out. Our temper is melancholic, but we are revitalized and purified. This wilderness stimulated us, humbled us, and overwhelmed us. We are now at the journey's end, but the memories will live on forever.
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