Tagged: Rafting the Alsek River

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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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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Fine Dining on the Alsek River

Readers are asking, “What did you eat?” and, “How were the meals?” On previous back country trips, taken on our own, meals were often freeze-dried, one pot affairs. Tasty, but hardly “quality cuisine.” Not so on a rafting trip run by Canadian River Expeditions. In addition to their logistical and rafting skills, our guides were master chefs, constantly surprising us with a varied menu of wonderful meals.

On offer every morning before breakfast was coffee, fresh fruit and a mixture of hot Red River cereal, granola and oats mixed with dried cranberries and raisins and served with milk or yogurt. That’s the first course intended to get the early risers started. Then there would be an egg frittata served with hash browns, or perfectly poached eggs Benedict with hollandaise sauce, ham and parsley on a toasted bagel or English muffin, or pancakes and maple syrup, or lox with lemon, cream cheese, red onions and capers on bagels, or banana cinnamon muffins cooked in a Dutch oven and served with fresh butter, or “toads in a hole,” or French toast. We never eat such massive breakfasts at home.

Lunch was usually served during a break on the river. We would exit the rafts, go for a little walk, and come back to tables set with cold meats, fish, cheese, hummus, veggies, bread or wraps for sandwiches. Salads were made of tabouleh, penne pesto, quinoa, rotini, wild rice and lentils, beans and cheese, or concocted from leftovers from the night before, such as Arctic char or cooked beef. On one occasion, there were barbecued caribou smokies with caramelized onions and pickle.

After we had set up camp and, relaxing with drinks before dinner, we enjoyed appetizers which could be guacamole, spring rolls, samosas, spanakopita, various dips, crackers and chips, melted Brie or other cheeses, smoked salmon, or any of a range of soups.

Dinners were the piece de resistance: Thai chicken curry in coconut milk; Arctic char and fruit salsa with herbed risotto; Moroccan stew with chickpeas, sweet potatoes, apricots, carrots, and quinoa; Lamb souvlaki with mint sauce, couscous and green salad; hamburgers with all the trimmings; pork tenderloin with apples, maple syrup, couscous and onions. Never the same thing twice. One night Whitey dressed up in a white shirt, Royce and Tyler donned bright-coloured shirts; on order were Mexican burritos with all the condiments. One of the last nights, steaks were grilled to taste over an open fire and served with potatoes and sour cream, and caesar salad garnished with croutons saved from the “toads in a hole” and freshly toasted. 

And then there were desserts. Strawberry shortcake with fruit and whipped cream, then chocolate mousse, freshly-baked brownies, carrot cake, sponge cake with butterscotch rum sauce, delightful delicacies done in a Dutch oven using briquettes. Whether it was the fresh air, the exertion, the skill of the chefs, or the ingenuity of the recipes, the cuisine made our Alsek trip a moveable feast. 

How do they do it? Apparently, much experience, precise planning, and food lockers on each raft including one stocked with meat arranged in order of the meals to be served and frozen solid by the butcher. As the trip progressed, the food lockers became lighter. The kitchen was stocked with a wide range of herbs and spices and all food allergies could be accommodated. All cooking was environmentally impact free, and all waste went with the rafts. Three stars for what they bill as “the finest Riverside dining in the North.”

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The Tatshenshini Confluence to Walker Glacier

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. 

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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.   

 

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Tweedsmuir Glacier and Turnback Canyon by Helicopter

Walt Blackadar, a doctor from Idaho and a pioneer of whitewater kayaking, was the first, and only, person to ever run solo down the Alsek through Turnback Canyon. He did so in high water conditions during August 1971 and, after a near-death experience, he wrote “… don’t be a fool. It’s unpaddleable.” Years after his death, the mountain marking the entrance to the canyon was named Mt. Blackadar.

Moving south on the Alsek into British Columbia, Mt. Blackadar stood out from a distance. We camped at its western base, on the terminal moraine of Tweedsmuir Glacier which was across the river. Here, there were no icebergs and no calving, but plenty of anticipation. The next morning, we would make a helicopter portage over Turnback Canyon, one of the highlights of the trip.

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Up very early, we were packed by 8:00 a.m., had organized the gear for the portage by 9:00 and were awaiting the helicopter. When it arrived at 10:30, the airborne portage began. It took five flights for the passengers, and another five loads of gear packed into cargo nets and long-lined by the helicopter, to cross the canyon. Four and a half hours in total. Initially, two groups of visitors, Royce and Tyler did the traverse. They were then available to inflate, refit, and repack the rafts as the gear arrived on the other side. Those of us left to see the successive transfers of gear were fascinated watching the off-loading of contents when the cargo nets were too heavy, and the problems with the grappling device which kept unlocking and required the pilot to fix it.

We realized how important helicopters are to life and industry in the north, and why they are so expensive to use. Needless to say, the ten-minute helicopter ride on a spectacular sunny day provided great views of the glacier and the canyon. Once Whitey and the remaining passengers arrived, we had lunch and were soon back on the river, rafting towards the peaks of the Noisy Mountains ahead, and to our next camp at the confluence of the Tatshenshini River.

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Running Lava North on the Alsek River

South of Lowell Lake, the Alsek narrows into a large channel with rocks and holes that produce major whitewater rapids which challenge the technical skills of our guides. Their excitement is palpable as they anticipate their chance to run Lava North Rapid, named after the dangerous Lava Rapid on the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon. The plan is that they will run the river in the loaded rafts and we will meet them at the bottom of the scouting trail on the left side of the river.

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They accompanied us hiking through the underbrush on the river bank, scouting the river as we went along. Then they left us perched on the river bank with an extended view of the rapids. Whitey’s instructions were alternatives. If the rafts made it down the river without mishap, we were all to don our life jackets, climb down the hill, and get into the rafts as they floated into the eddy below. If any of the rafts were upended, the most agile of the group (as many as possible) were to get aboard the first raft that came by, leaving their gear behind. The rest of the group was to walk downstream. Any such mishap would need us to return later to rescue the guide who presumably would have swum to shore and to retrieve the gear. The timing was important; in the best case scenario, as soon as we saw they’d made it through the rapids, we were to scramble down the hill and prepare to get into the rafts which would be approaching very quickly.

This is pretty exciting stuff. We waited and then, using binoculars, watched as the guides changed into their dry suits and started down the river. They followed in a row, crossed through the rapids, and arrived without any clear problems. We jumped in and were immediately swept across the eddy to the big wall on the right side of the river where it makes a sharp turn. The fast water continued through more big rapids and major waves as we wound our way in a series of 90-degree turns through a dramatic gorge carved into a huge glacial valley and to our next campsite. That night, everyone slept well, most particularly the guides.

 

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River Rafting Systems

Rafting down a remote river with guides responsible for logistics and pulling oars may seem a somewhat namby-pamby adventure holiday for the travellers along for the ride. Let me assure you that such is not the case. 

The guides know how to get the help they need for a super venture. They do so with great guile, using charm, fear, persuasion and example; whatever it takes to mold 12 disparate and aging Type A personalities into a working team. On this trip, the guides’ combined 70-odd years of experience river rafting awed us all. Even the most obstreperous in the group soon fell into the routine.

Dave “Whitey” Evans, the 54-year-old trip leader (who looks 35), is high energy personified, with the diplomacy of a priest and the agility of a cat. He calls the shots and everyone is happy he’s doing so. In his non-rafting life, he owns a steelhead fishing lodge in the Buckley Valley, near Smithers in central B.C. During the winter, he tags sharks on shark research/movie productions around the world. His partners on this trip were in their mid-thirties: Royce Casford, a carpenter from Squamish B.C. who came originally from New Zealand, and Tyler Dinsdale, a paramedic from Quesnel, B.C. who owns his own local Big Canyon Rafting company. Both have been river rafting professionally since their late teens. All three are very fit, super congenial, and passionate about rafting the big rivers of the Canadian north.

Whitey made it clear at the beginning that we would need to master the “systems” of life on the river. We would be issued tents, each tent would be named, we were to retrieve them from the named riverbags in which they would be stored and return them on breaking camp the next day. That is the tent system. We were then ready for a lesson on how to pitch the tents. The guides do the cooking (which, I might add, was excellent… more on that later), but rafters were encouraged to help with the dishes. The dish washing system requires four dish pans: one to rinse off the residual guck not already scraped into the compost bucket, one for washing, a third for rinsing, and a fourth for dipping in an antiseptic bleach. The dishes were then hung to air dry in mesh nets.

Then there is the sanitation station system. Big buckets linked by an ingenious foot pump, one containing water for washing hands, were to be used, together with Mrs. Meyers biodegradable liquid hand soap, by everyone before meals and after using the biffy. The biffy system consisted of an ammunition container filled with toilet paper called The Key sitting beside the wash buckets. When The Key was missing, it meant that someone was using the biffy and others could not go there. When The Key was returned, the biffy was free. At each campsite, we followed paddles showing the direction to a toilet seat installed on a portable container in a private and, usually, most scenic, spot. The company takes pride in the fact that all waste is removed from the area; the rafters find “the room with a view” never fails to mesmerize.

Using riverbags is another system that takes novices time to master. Our riverbags are 115 litre waterproof bags intended to carry the gear we needed in camp. They were loaded onto the rafts each morning and unloaded on reaching our camp each day. These bags are huge. The most experienced among us had very light riverbags, reflecting the fact that the clothing actually required on the trip (a layering system) could be reduced to one or two changes of clothing. They also knew that river rafters act as stevedores and the less the weight, the better for everyone.

We inevitably found that what we wanted was deep at the bottom of the riverbag. Eventually we realized that the stuff we never used should stay at the bottom, and that next time half as much would suffice. The day bag was a 20 litre bag which we carried with us on the raft, to hold cameras, sunscreen, rain gear, hats, gloves, whatever we required during the day. Again, what started out as a large bag soon dwindled to something more manageable. Manoeuvring on a raft requires a modicum of agility, not helped by trailing a cumbersome day bag. Hiking boots were kept in the boot bag which the guides unloaded whenever we were going on an extended hike.

By the end of the trip, everyone was carrying their share of the load. We took pride in gathering wood for the campfire, unloading the raft, a quick start in the morning, and dismantling the entire enterprise in speedy time.  We were a team and, having finally gotten the hang of it, we would have been happy to stay longer.

(Hover cursor over photos for captions. Click to see larger versions. In carousel, click top left “X” to return to this post.)

 

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Lowell Glacier and Lowell Lake

After our leisurely trip down the Alsek from Lava Campground, we had anticipated arriving at our next camp on the terminal moraine of Lowell Glacier relatively early. Alas, on approaching Lowell Lake, the winds came up…

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The guides tried to oar to our campsite two-thirds of the way down the lake, but oaring was futile. Royce and Tyler pulled their rafts across the ice cold lake, heroic efforts which won the admiration of everyone. Whitey pulled up near the shore, asked us to disembark and lined the loaded raft (without passengers) to the campsite. It was 7:00 p.m. (who keeps track of time on the Alsek?) when we arrived, and it took us two hours to set up camp in the high winds. By dinner time, we were exhausted but happy that we had all risen to the challenge.

We had a lay-over day the next day which enabled some to climb Goatherd Mountain behind the camp and the rest of us to enjoy the vistas. The pictures speak for themselves: a magnificent place. We had an early rise the next day so that we could raft by the icebergs and leave the lake without any wind.

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Rafting the Alsek River

An overview:

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.

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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 AlseLake: 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.

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