One of the most beautiful campsites on the trip is located where the Tatshenshini river joins the Alsek. After Turnback Canyon, the Alsek becomes wider, the vegetation more coastal, the air colder, and mists (if not rain) more common. The Noisy Mountain Range rises to the east and, across the river, is a breathtakingly beautiful panorama of mountain glaciers to the south and west.
We bathed in quiet channels off the river, and saw big bear footprints in the sand. The guides put plaster of paris into the prints to make casts to take home. The Alsek River is prime grizzly bear habitat and we had detailed instructions how we were to react if we ran into bears. Probably because of the noise we made and the fact that we stayed in a group, we saw few bears. One of our longest bear sightings was at the put-in after the helicopter portage when, across the river, we watched a large grizzly ambling along the bank preoccupied with eating berries from the bushes. On an earlier occasion, we saw a large sow on her hind legs, but only briefly.
Neil Hartling, the head of Canadian River Expeditions, joined us at Turnback Canyon. He was carrying a set of photographs taken by surveyors in 1906 who travelled the Alsek River from the Confluence to Dry Bay, surveying the mountain tops to map the location of the U.S.-Canadian border. We were able to compare our own views with the 1906 black and white photographs, arranged in dioramas, which showed how the river has changed and how the glaciers have retreated over the century. It is hard to imagine how those early surveyors accessed the rugged terrain to do their work.
Travelling west, the river braids into many channels which are constantly changing. Some carry through, others lead to a dead end. Here, the navigation skills of the guides are on high alert as misreading the currents could lead to a costly mistake. After passing the cut in the forest marking the border between British Columbia and Alaska, we arrived at Walker Glacier, named because the glacier was so accessible to the river and, historically, travellers walked on it. Although others have hiked the glacier, ours was an overnight stay at Walker and we did not. Our layover day would follow at Alsek Lake, perhaps the highlight of the trip, which I will describe on Tuesday.