Coming Off the Alsek River

On the twelfth day, we ended our river trip at Dry Bay, Alaska. Coming off the Alsek River by raft is a major enterprise. Camped by Alsek Lake, we were up by 6:00 a.m., packed and starting across the lake for a last view of the icebergs by 8:15. The wind coming off the glaciers and the icebergs was the coldest we had experienced on the entire trip, so much so that I finally had to pull out my heavy-duty rubber slickers to keep warm. The lower Alsek from the lake to Dry Bay is wide, fast-moving, with some whitewater around a few big rocks and holes. The primary hazards are small icebergs coming downriver at great speed, many carrying rocks and very visible, others primarily underwater. Overhead, bald-headed eagles keep watch from the treetops or fly high above, intent on fishing.

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After a couple of hours, we saw a ramshackle cabin and a truck nestled among the trees, and some buoys indicating fishing nets placed in the water. This first evidence of human civilization we had seen in days drew exclamations of surprise. Then there was a clearing in the forest and our rafts pulled up on a broad rocky shore. Within 45 minutes, we had the rafts emptied of all our gear: day bags, river bags, oars and paddles, life jackets, food lockers, cooking equipment, propane tanks, sanitation stations, pelican cases, tent bags, boot bags, chair bags. Each type of item was piled in distinct locations. The guides untied all the straps and dismantled all the frames. We sorted the straps by length (from 2 – 15 feet) while others carried the now bare rafts up onto the beach, piled them one on top of the other, pulled out their plugs and proceeded to lie on them to help expel the air. Ready for transhipment to the nearby airfield, the guides opened a table and we had lunch.

“Hurry up and wait” is a motto in the army, as it is on rafting trips. In due course, a local woman named Dotty arrived, driving an ancient quad with her black labrador, Peaty, perched in the rear. She was pulling a small wooden trailer with two side seats to hold people and bags, and a second metal wagon for heavy gear. We loaded in groups of four or five and held on tightly as Dotty raced off on a dirt trail through the forest and up the banks, the trailers bouncing in the mud, and us ducking our heads to avoid being hit by tree branches as we passed by. After a short trip, we arrived at the Dry Bay Alaska International Airport.

The airport is a strip cut in the forest, about a mile long, “paved” with gravel, with a turn-around point and a couple of storage shacks nearby. Dotty and her partner keep up the airport.  They live in the area during the summer and retire down the panhandle for the winter. Their primary purpose is to pick up rafting parties coming off the river and to fly fish to a processing plant at Yakutat on the Gulf of Alaska, 20 miles away. The couple also report local flying conditions to the air services. If the ceiling is too low and the nearby mountain tops invisible, larger airplanes cannot land. Fortunately for us, the conditions were fine, and Dotty’s partner used their satellite telephone to contact Air North in Whitehorse and tell them the flight was “a go.” We waited.

An hour and a half later, we heard the hum of the twin-engine Hawker Siddley 748. It soon appeared over the runway and taxied to where the gear was laid out on the grass and where we had been told to stand out of range of the propellers. The airplane was configured for twenty passengers and a major load of cargo. The guides and pilots used the food lockers to create makeshift steps, then hauled and lifted all the gear into the front half of the plane. A smiling flight attendant shepherded us up the gangway at the rear and, before long, we took off. The pilot flew upriver to Alsek Lake and, as a special treat, circled the lake twice so everyone could see the field of icebergs clogging the lake below. From the air, we could see open water at the base of the glaciers, and how the massive mounds of ice and rock beyond spread across the entire expanse of the lake. The pilot then rose above the mountain tops into the clouds and within 40 minutes we were on the tarmac in Whitehorse. A spectacular end to an amazing trip.

My thanks again to photographers John Yip, Eden Bromfield, Terry Cameron and Loraine Hoyt who shared their photos of our trip together.  Their eyes (and their battery power) gave us splendid photos to the very end.  Moral of the story? If you raft the Alsek, bring lots of battery capacity.  You will need it.  

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