In the last 20 years or so, we’ve had the opportunity to float some of the great rivers in the U.S. — the Colorado, Rogue and Salmon among them.
Our search for something different took us to the Tatshenshini and Alsek rivers, which are large glacial rivers in Canada and Alaska, which gave us sunshine, heat, fog, glacial chill, rain and icebergs.
After gathering in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, we drove to our put-in at Dalton Post, a historic trading post. From here it would be 150 river miles to the take-out at Dry Bay, Alaska. All of the significant whitewater on this trip is concentrated on the Tatshenshini just below Dalton Post, so we got most of our rapids experience on the first day.
The highlight of the day was a grizzly bear that swam across the river just after we passed her standing on the bank. We made our first camp at Silver Creek and, after an excellent dinner, we called it a day.
It rained a bit overnight and we awoke to overcast, but dry, skies. Not long after leaving Silver Creek, we crossed from the Yukon Territory into British Columbia. Because of the ever-changing nature of the river, we had to line-in the rafts to make a landing at Sediments Creek, our camp for two nights. We laid over here to hike some 3,000 feet up to Goat Ridge to maybe see some mountain goats. The next day we made the stiff climb to the ridge. The weather fully cooperated to make this hike one of the highlights of the trip. From the ridge, we saw white dots on a far distant ridge that some identified as mountain goats. It was amazing to look out across 22 million acres of raw wilderness and realize we were likely the only people for as far as the eye could see. Awed and humbled, we descended back to camp, seeing one black bear on the way and, if dots are goats, then mountain goats too.
After the hike to Goat Ridge, we were graced the next day with another mild and sunny day for our scenic float to Alkie Creek. Once there, we pitched camp, napped and wandered around (but not too far because of the bears).
In Southern Oregon, “creek” usually means a waterbody that we can either step across or easily wade. In the North, a creek is really a river — usually a cold, swift, turbulent and cloudy one that you’d try to cross at your peril.
From Alkie Creek we floated down to Melt Creek, our last campsite and layover day on the Tatshenshini. The waters of the creek (really a river) nearly double the volume of the Tatshenshini just before it joins the Alsek River. What was magical about camping here was the sense (and the reality) that we were nestled in a bowl, surrounded by spectacular mountain ranges, many supporting huge glaciers. These magical aspects were enhanced by the weather, which was almost “desert” warm and sunny for the two days we were here. Campers started to appear in shorts and sandals. We did manage a short hike, one that went only as far as the fresh grizzly tracks.
After two days of sunny bliss, we awoke to cold, leaden skies. We floated into the Alsek, which is almost a mile wide at the confluence. Below the confluence, we crossed back into Alaska and entered Glacier Bay National Park. The rain held off until we’d reached camp at Walker Glacier and had gotten our tarps and tents set-up. We laid over here to explore the glacier. Twenty years ago, the glacier was easily accessible from this camp. Since then things have warmed and the glacier has retreated almost a mile and a half, so reaching it is difficult.
We made a pilgrimage through sole-sucking mud to a lake formed by the glacier’s liquid and solid remnants. Pluckier campers tried to work their way around the lake in hopes of reaching the glacier but were turned back by inhospitable terrain. Then it started to rain.
The next day, dogged by wind and rain, we floated down the Alsek River to just short of Alsek Lake. Here the Alsek and Grand Plateau glaciers flow into the lake, calving off massive chunks of ice and creating a wonderland of icebergs.
We then rafted our way through the icebergs to Gateway Knob. Icebergs create unique hazards as they can flip or crack in half without warning, causing huge waves and rough water not good for rafts. The rain came and went all the next day, so we were pretty much confined under the tarps, with the occasional foray to see the sights. The highlight of the day was one camper’s polar plunge into Alsek Lake to swim with the bergs.
We left Gateway Knob earlier than usual because the bush pilots weren’t sure the weather was going to hold for a later landing at the gravel air strip at Dry Bay. Poor weather conditions could have meant a flight delay and a wait in the cold and wet conditions for suitable flying weather. So there was some tension in the boats as we floated to Dry Bay. After some passes at 400 feet between the low ceiling and the trees, the pilots zoomed in and landed. Canadian bush pilots rock! Then it was loaded ’em up and zoom back to Whitehorse for hot showers and a group dinner.
All in all, a truly amazing trip, weather and all.
Bruce Hope lives in Medford.
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