The Alsek River and its tributary the Tatshenshini, to the east, drain the eastern watershed of the largest non-polar ice field in the world: a massive, mountainous, glacial expanse stretching from eastern Alaska across southwest Yukon to the extreme northwest of British Columbia. Mount Logan, Canada’s highest peak, is in the area, as are many spectacular glaciers.
Tourists aboard Alaska cruises see glaciers calving into the ocean on the coast in Glacier Bay. Visitors rafting the Alsek River travel into the heart of the vast hinterland further north and west, through Kluane National Park, Tatshenshini-Alsek Provincial Park, and Glacier Bay National Park in Alaska, to Dry Bay, Alaska. The entire area is designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and is one of the largest continuous protected parklands in the world. It’s a remote terrain of spectacular beauty where vast glaciers come down to the river, icebergs calve into the lakes on which we travel, and the mountains and valleys reflect the effects of the glaciers’ movement over the millennia.
Indigenous people once lived on the river, dependent on the salmon coming upstream. Ice age glaciers perpetually surge and recede. Lowell Glacier has a history of repeated surges that blocked the river, forming huge lakes which flooded the upper valley of the Alsek. When the glacier receded and the ice bridge broke, the lake poured into the river and caused a cataclysm of water that wiped out the indigenous peoples living downstream. The largest damming event in modern times lasted until the 1850s; more recent surges occurred in 1952 and again in 2010. Tweedsmuir Glacier further south has a similar history, as does Walker Glacier, Alsek Glacier and the Grand Plateau Glacier feeding into Alsek Lake: all glaciers we visited during our trip. Today, no more than 500 people a year pass on the Alsek and Tatshenshini Rivers, a privileged few who get a glimpse of this unparalleled ice age beauty.
We began our trip in Haines Junction, about an hour and a half drive by van from Whitehorse. The Interpretation Centre there has relief maps showing Kluane National Park and the wilderness beyond it. From there, we drove by truck eleven kilometres through the forest, across washed out rivers, through surging streams, to the put-in point at Serpentine Creek on the Dezadeash River. That trip took an hour. Because the winds were blowing the wrong way on the river, that became our first camp. The next day, we rafted down to the junction of the Kaskawulsh and Dezadeash Rivers which form the headwaters of the Alsek, and then onto the Alsek itself. Our river trip from Serpentine Creek to Dry Bay, Alaska was 204 kilometres over 12 days.
Over the next few weeks, I will post more pictures and descriptions of our trip. My thanks to fellow rafters Eden Bromfield, Terry Cameron, Lorraine Hoyt and John Yip, and to Canadian River Expeditions for permission to use some of their photos.