An Elemental Alsek


“Would anyone like rain with their bacon? Anyone? Anyone?” the cook crew offered our final breakfast. With the kitchen rain tarp doing nothing more than directing the freezing rain onto the stove and our Gore-Tex jackets soaked through, I realized this was the wettest I had ever been—short of jumping in a lake. We huddled in the kitchen, all hopes of a fire fully extinguished, and surveyed our flooded camp. Though skeptical of a helicopter’s ability to fly in this weather, we kept our fingers crossed and anxiously awaited the pilot’s response on the In-Reach. This was a trip for the books, that’s for sure!

Nine days earlier, after two and half years of planning and pandemic delays, then two and half days of travel, we stood on the Haines Junction boat ramp organizing gear. Half of our group was at the ranger station learning how to use a grizzly bear-deterring electric fence.

They had also learned two other facts that filled us all with a mix of excitement and caution: the Upper Alsek River, which flows through Kluane National Park in the Yukon Territory of Canada, hosts one of the densest populations of grizzly bears in North America. We were only the sixth group in three years to float through it.

Our plan was to float the Dezadeash River, a tributary to the main Alsek River, then descend the Upper Alsek to the entrance of Turnback Canyon, where we would wait for a heli rendezvous. With its six extremely remote kilometers of Class IV/V rapids, Turnback Canyon has been run by very few. We didn’t plan on adding to the numbers.

Though the logistics of the Upper Alsek were daunting, this UNESCO World Heritage site offered unparalleled wilderness. A wilderness that is changing at an alarming rate, with rapidly diminishing glaciers and snowpacks, unpredictable flows with increasing rain, and ancient ice dams bursting—even a potential complete rerouting of the Alsek’s entrance to the sea. This wild watershed was changing, and the need to see it before these changes were permanent made the colossal effort of planning worth it.

At least, that’s how we initially justified it. Deep down, I knew what really drew us to this wild place: The chance to experience nature in its most natural form. I yearned to experience a place truly removed from humankind and connected to the spirit of the land. A place so wild, so deeply entrenched with nature that the very elements of our planet would absorb us with nothing left but to surrender to the place.

Earth. Wind. Water. Fire.

Lightness. Darkness. Spirit.

Pushing off the banks in Haines Junction, we had no idea our rare journey down the Upper Alsek would be the most intimate and in-your-face encounter with these elements we had ever experienced.

We sat in awe that first hour on the serene and winding Dezadeash, taking in the vastness of the Yukon Plains and the glacier-ridden mountains. It wasn’t immediate, but a headwind soon picked up with such intensity and consistency that it took all hands on deck to keep us moving downstream.

One hour turned into two and then three and on for the rest of the day. Rower rotations started as muscles tired. Progress was slow. Eventually, we made it far enough to feel comfortable stopping for the night. With spirits still high, we admired our wild camp and the enormity of the landscape and comforted ourselves with hopes of no wind the next morning because our desert experiences told us there could be no wind before lunch. But this wasn’t the desert.

“I’ve been looking at that stump onshore for 20 minutes!” yelled Austin while fighting his oars. Desert logic or not, day two proved to be worse. It seemed the wind had a personal goal to erode us off the river. There were parts of the day where we made zero downstream progress. Eventually, a few of us decided it would be easier and faster to trudge in the knee-deep water, pulling the boats with the bow line, passengers and all, than attempt rowing any longer.

“It may be windy, but at least the water is ice cold,” I joked as I towed thousands of pounds downstream. With boats spread out, and blood sugar low, we finally entered the Alsek proper to just as much wind, more current and over a hundred options to choose from among a braided stream nearly a mile wide.

Nearing 8 pm, exhausted and hungry, though with plenty of daylight lingering in the northern summer, we found camp. Everyone sprung into action. Most importantly, a sheltered spot was found for the fire, a crucial element to our life on the Alsek, as basic a necessity as food and shelter.

Our evening and morning fires, using scavenged driftwood, were our source of hot water, cooking most meals, burning most trash and warming the soul. With limited fuel due to the weight constraints of the heli lift, the ability to make fire became intricately connected to our survival in the Yukon. We grabbed pieces of dry driftwood throughout the day, kept lighters handy, stashed backup lighters in dry bags and constantly tended to our burning flames.

Day three had us admiring the elements instead of cursing them as the current picked up, the river narrowed and the wind died away. We looked for grizzly bears, though we never did spot the elusive embodiment of the northern spirit, settling for seeing only their innumerous tracks on every beach. After three years with almost no humans, they had reclaimed the riverbanks but were likely more scared of us than us of them.

The flowing glacier melt took us right into Lowell Lake. We were greeted by the impressive view of Lowell Glacier winding downhill from the flanks of Mt. Logan, the second-highest peak in North America, to its calving terminus in the lake. The magic of the North took hold as we floated into the iceberg-strewn lake, listening to the groaning and creaking of the frozen river as it echoed off 5000+ meter peaks.

A layover on Lowell Lake to hike Goatherd Mountain gave a much-needed day off the sticks and plenty of time to gawk at glaciers. On our second night, the North impressed us even further with a beautiful presentation of Aurora Borealis. Nothing awakens primordial awe like a dark sky ignited with dancing spirits of brilliant color. It certainly had us in good spirits as we got our first taste of rain the next morning. The drizzle built as we paddled through and climbed on icebergs, nearing the ever-rainy coastal range.

Luckily, days five and six contained intermittent dry spells where we took advantage of shorter side hikes, attempted to dry our clothes and enjoyed the last of easy-to-light fires. These days also contained most of the whitewater on the Upper Alsek, including a nerve-racking but clean run through Lava North.

By now, the smell of burning increasingly wet wood had permeated every item of clothing brought on the trip, intensified by increasing humidity and daily sweat. With no clean clothes left, we embraced various ways to bathe, including buckets of hot water, baby wipes, freezing plunges into the river or simply turning clothes inside out. Our efforts felt futile. It was so cold and wet that we stayed in our dry suits until we went to bed, where our personal odor creations embedded themselves in our sleeping bags.

During these moody days, the landscape changed, and our awareness of the earth itself took hold. Mud built up on our boots and bags and the mountainous slopes came careening down to river level. We floated under glaciers high above and appreciated steep and narrow canyons. The river flowed increasingly faster as the channel became steeper as we neared the infamous Turnback Canyon, and the vast, open vistas narrowed, closing in on us. At moments, the terrain combined with dark and stormy clouds, and it seemed the earth would swallow us whole.

Eventually, the clouds descended for good. We would not see anything but rain or mist for the remainder of the trip. We stationed our last camp at the heli rendezvous point, giving us an extra day to explore and break down our equipment. In dry suits, we washed the silty boats with the silty water and pretended to dry them out on the wet rocks on the edge of Tweedsmuir Glacier, the glacier historically responsible for forming Turnback Canyon.

The kitchen tarp went up for the final time. Chairs circled a weak fire, puddles growing in all directions. In the distance, a hanging glacier decorated the face of Mt. Blackadar before disappearing into the clouds. A costume night ensued, complete with a short dance party and a B+ tarp sauna. We went to bed to the music of the ever-strengthening rain on the tent fly.

Our last full day in the Yukon was spent trudging through the quick-sand-like glacial till, narrowly avoiding lost shoes and crossing freezing streams. Scouting the canyon from an overlook above, we were glad to be taking out upstream of the infamous run. Back at camp, we moved tents yet again as the ground flooded. Rearranging piles of gear, I glanced enviously at my cousin’s full PVC sailing slicks, the only thing still waterproof.

After a noble attempt at a fire, we went to bed feeling a growing desperation to leave the Alsek behind. There was nothing to do but wait, to give ourselves over to the power of this place. Then, right after our soggy breakfast, we got the ping on the In-Reach: the pilot was on his way!

I climbed into the helicopter moments before lifting off, not caring about the mud I brought with me. Watching the river below, I thought of our desire to witness this wild place in the throes of climate change and see it before it’s too late. Instead of letting us merely observe, the Yukon had consumed us.

The elements of nature and life were so present that it was impossible not to engage with and respect them. To be dwarfed and consumed by them. Earth. Wind. Water. Fire. Lightness. Darkness. Spirit. They had been with us for our entire journey, challenging and guiding us. Our escort through huge mountains and the vast spaces in between.

They made the tornado of a helicopter landing seem small compared to the unrelenting wind of our first few days. Taught us the vital importance of a simple fire. Innundated us with more water, in all its forms, than I ever could have imagined. My own moments of darkness, whether fatigue, concern for others, hunger, or cold, were countered by the brightness of light and warmth of the soul.

The North had gifted us with good company, warm fires, unbelievable views, and deep inspiration. The spirit of the North with us in all its forms. The trip left me saturated and also, wet. With the landing pad in sight, I reached for my smoke-ridden buff and thought, “Wow, this is the driest I have been in over a week.”


Guest contributor Scott Lacy is a Colorado native, raised on western rivers each summer and snowy slopes every winter. A graduate of Dartmouth College, and former ski coach in the Tetons, today he’s a professional biathlete for the US with a kayaking problem, a passion for exploring remote places, promoting backyard adventures, and raising awareness of increasing water use issues and the importance of clean watersheds.

Editor’s note: Photography courtesy of Scott Lacy, Scott Standley, Jordan Sandford, Anna Reynoso.