A dozen or more glaciers in view. Doing 9 mph against a 20 mph upstream wind. Being rocked to sleep alongside a creek by boulders rolling down its bed. Rowing among icebergs. Waking to an earthquake tremor. Starting every side hike with “Who’s got the bear spray?” Making cocktails with centuries-old ice.
I give you the Tatshenshini-Alsek.
The planning for the trip started seven years ago. Trevor Fulton and I were working here at NRS. Neither of us can really remember how we latched onto the idea. I think it was seeing a description in a coffee-table book, but I could be wrong. Whatever.
We put in for permits; it’s a waiting list like the old Grand system. Trevor moved on to help manage the University of Idaho Outdoor Program, but we kept plotting and planning. This was the year, and we got our first choice of dates – July 18. The permit date is the takeout day; you can take as long as you want to do the 140 miles. We opted for 13 days, starting on July 6.
We toyed with hauling up our own boats and food, but the miles and time and complexity of crossing the border with everything convinced us to rent. We chose Alaska River Outfitters in Haines, Alaska as our supplier. Between them, Stan and Kate Boor have guided over 100 trips on the river. They know what works, and they provide complete boat and kitchen packages, plus tasty, easy-to-prepare menu selections.
We had a great crew, a bunch of river-savvy, outdoor-loving, fun folks. Pam, one of the lynchpins of NRS Customer Service, and I started at NRS the same day, she the youngest and me the oldest. I’ve spent lots of river time with Jenni, ace NRS purchaser, and husband Brian, river guide and former NRS wholesale rep, who’d just earned his PhD.
From Colorado, my buddy Arthur, with whom I’ve shared many a riverside camp and one memorable mountain. Trevor’s lady friend Whitney, who keeps him out of more trouble or gets him in more, not sure. His father, Dick, a longtime rafter with a fishing problem. Ryan, river guide and director of the Montana State Outdoor Program, and fiancée Rebecca, who’s studying the Yampa and Green River watersheds, from Montana. Drew, river guide and Professor of Adventure Education at Green Mountain College in Vermont. Nate and fiancée Karen (seeing a pattern?) from our nation’s capital; they’re not spooks but they have their fingers on lots of pulses. Nadia, nurse and director of Desert Mountain Medicine, currently moving to Wyoming. Liz, formerly here in Idaho, now living in Alaska and doing field research in Glacier Bay National Park, our ultimate destination.
The group converged in Juneau on July 4, and then straggled onto the Juneau-to-Haines ferry at 7:00 the next morning. We got orientation on boats and food from Stan and Kate that afternoon and loaded the trucks.
As we waited at the Canadian border post to be processed through, a black bear strolled across the highway ahead of us. Welcome to Yukon Territory!
Stan supervised the loading of our five rafts and we were off. The size of the river at this point reminded me of the Middle Fork or Selway. Two miles below the Dalton Post put-in a young grizzly swam across the river ahead of us. Most of the rapids are in the first 12 miles, a healthy stretch of Class III fun.
Soon we left the Yukon for British Columbia and entered Tatshenshini-Alsek Provincial Park’s over 2,300,000 acres. When we reentered the U.S., we’d be in Glacier Bay National Park, with over 3,200,000 acres. So much wilderness and most of it only readily accessible via the rivers.
The guidebook uses the terms SOS (Scenic Overdose Syndrome) and “eyegasms” frequently, and truthfully. The scenery started out great and quickly grew sweeping and awe inspiring. Snow-capped peaks, rolling green mountainsides and rivers of ice just kept on coming. The Tat itself widened out, picking up lots of water from the frequent side streams. Once we entered the Alsek, it got really big, often over a mile from shore to shore.
The flows are swift and cold. Glacial silt colors the water so you can’t see even an inch or two below the surface. Braided channels are the rule, with close attention required to avoid grounding on gravel bars.
Due to the speedy current, we didn’t have to spend long days on the water. It was easy to plan our two layover days; we could have taken more. There was plenty of time for great side hikes; a couple of which took us up out of the valley for some long, sweeping views. Days were long and nights were short, so if we were eating at 8 or 9 pm there was still plenty of light for dishes.
Moose and mountain goats were among the larger mammals we spotted. Bald eagles were often in view, and many different upland and water birds kept our birders busy. One disappointment was not spotting any large brown bears. We speculate that seasonal food choices had lured them away from the river. We did spot a couple of black bears on side hikes.
Some in the group had one close encounter. They hiked up a narrow trail to a place where the alder thicket opened up to provide a grand view of icebergs. When they came back down there was a fresh pile of bear poop in the trail. Needless to say, it was a nervous hike back to camp.
Near the end of the trip the river enters Alsek Lake. Alsek Glacier calves into the lake, and the glacier had been particularly active. The huge lake was choked with icebergs, from small to enormous. There are only three ways to enter the lake, and two of them were blocked by ice. One of the trip’s highlights was rowing out through the bergs and marveling at their myriad sizes and shapes. A seal was spotted poking its head up near the ice.
Above and below the lake, we kept exclaiming that we’d “won the weather lottery.” Although we’d had a couple of rainy days earlier in the trip, the closer we got to the coast, the better the weather became. Known for gale force winds and days of horizontal rain, the coastal ranges can try boaters’ souls. A guide we encountered, said one of his compadres has guided the river for 4 years without ever seeing 15,325-foot Mount Fairweather. We were treated to two days of viewing this imposing white-clad giant. The mountain was named by Captain James Cook in 1778. He was obviously also blessed with great coastal weather!
From the lake, it was a short trip to the Dry Bay takeout, racing small bergs that had escaped the lake. Pat Pellet offers a four-wheeler shuttle service moving people and gear to the airstrip. Due to land uplift, except in very high water, it’s no longer possible to float near the strip.
Hans Munich, Yakutat Coastal Air, took four of us and the rental gear on a spectacular ride back to Haines above utterly wild terrain. The rest of the crew flew to Yakutat. Liz went back to busting brush while studying plant succession as the glaciers retreat, and Trevor and Dick stayed on for a week of fishing. The rest of us wended our way back to the Lower 48 through various combinations of ferry and airline.
We left the Tatshenshini-Alsek rivers having renewed old friendships and created new ones; knowing we’d been blessed with one of the premier river trips in this part of the world, or any other.
Enjoy these photos from the trip, courtesy of Pam Rogers and Jenni Chaffin. If you’re planning a trip and would like more information, drop a line to email@example.com.