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.
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.