Surreal Icebergs at Alsek Lake

Our final campsite on the Alsek river was on the southwest corner of what is called Gateway Knob. This is a distinctive rocky knoll overlooking Alsek Lake which divides it from the river. We had been told that Alsek Lake had more icebergs than had been seen on the lake in decades and using the lake to reach our campsite would likely be problematic. When our guides got out in the right bank of the river to scout ahead, they confirmed that, indeed,  the lake was clogged with icebergs and they needed an alternative route.

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The alternative was to continue on the right side of the Knob and look for a channel that would be deep enough to allow the rafts to pass. The river water was low at this point, full of sandbars, with gravel apparently crossing from one side to the other. Without a navigable channel, we might need to portage our tonne of gear to the campsite, or roll the rafts on two foot by eight foot inflatable tubes (thwarts) over the gravel, a rare experience.

After the first scouting, we pulled forward to where the sandbar seemed impenetrable. Whitey jumped out to scout ahead yet again, while the rest of us waited. Portaging Turnback Canyon by helicopter is one thing; portaging a tonne of gear ourselves for several hundred metres would be something else again.

Fortunately, Whitey found a very narrow channel on the extreme left of the river, right at the base of the Knob, which he deemed passable. And so it was. All three rafts moved forward slowly, we ducked our heads to avoid being hit by the trees overhead, and then we were in the open, on Alsek Lake heading for the nearby camp.

We had a two-night lay-over at Alsek Lake, enough time to climb the Knob for a view of Alsek and Grand Plateau Glaciers looming over the east side of the lake, and to raft among the icebergs.

As we were close to the coast, there was a mist over the lake. With the mist, the scene was totally surreal. “A cathedral,” as Whitey called it. In the sunshine, the mist lifted and we saw a most amazing spectacle: a lake full of huge icebergs. White, sapphire, turquoise, black, and grey, some were carrying heavy boulders. The icebergs had calved off the glaciers and piled upon and beside each other, constantly moving. On occasion, the icebergs would roll over and over, causing a thunderous roar across the lake and a tsunami of waves along the shore. One could find chunks of crystalline ice washed up on the shore. An absolute wonder!

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