Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Tatshenshini & Lower Alsek

The Tatshenshini and Lower Alsek is a remote132-mile wilderness stretch of river that flows through the Yukon, British Columbia, and Alaska. The trip starts at Dalton post in Kluane National Park, cuts through the St. Elias Mountain Range in Tatshenshini-Alsek Park, and ends at Dry Bay in Glacier Bay National Park. My dad was on the wait list for seven years so we celebrated when he got a private permit for July 2014. My previous Alaska experience was a summer working in Glacier Bay National Park 17 years before, and I'd been itching for an excuse to go back ever since. 

I was just as excited to share another trip with the crew I grew up rafting with: My dad, Uncle Prentis, Auntie Sue, and John and Connie Law. These people are responsible for sparking my interest in kayaking which changed the course of my life. We also had Dave and Sue Skovgaard on board (both experienced river runners who I met through their comical emails during the planning process). Monica Gokey also signed on without hesitation (she's one of my favorite people to kayak with and we've done many international trips together). The nine of us met on an early ferry from Juneau to Haines and headed up the Inside Passage to round up our rafts and another kayak. 

My dad, uncle, and aunt with the Fairweather Range in the distance

This trip was my first experience paddling huge volume, braided, glacial rivers. We had a nice medium flow which was around 94,500 CFS (Alsek R. at Dry Bay) when we got to the takeout. The first day through "The Canyon" was my favorite river section. It was continuous class III wavetrains and reminded me of my backyard run, the Lower Hood River in Oregon. The size of the river grew substantially every day and although there were few distinct rapids, the current was always moving fast. We quickly learned that it was easy to blow right past campsites if we weren't paying attention. When we reached the Alsek, the scale of the river was so big that from camp we could almost see our next destination 20 miles downstream and it would only take a couple hours to get there. 

I can't pick a favorite camp. During our 12-day trip we stayed at Silver Creek, Sediments, O'Connor, Towagh, Melt Creek, Walker Glacier, Fireweed Point, and Alsek Lake. They were all beautiful. We had short days on the water and three layover days, so there was time to soak it all in. 

The weather was variable. I brought everything from my bikini to my warmest down winter jacket and ended up wearing both of them on the trip, even on the same day. It was a huge benefit having raft-support which made it possible to bring plenty of warm clothes, shelter, good food, and beverages. It also allowed me to paddle a smaller kayak so I brought the Axiom 8.5 and loved it! It was perfect for cruising through boulder gardens in the canyon and surfing giant green waves all the way down the Tat.

I'll admit, I was probably the reason we didn't see much wildlife. I was nervous about the large animal tracks we saw weaving down the shorelines. I didn't go anywhere without bear spray and I was dedicated to making as much noise as possible everywhere we went. We did see flocks of bald eagles, plenty of small critters, a mountain sheep, and a distant black bear. Personally, I was content just inspecting the gigantic moose and grizzly tracks without actually having an encounter with one of them. 

Black bear at the Tat/Alsek Confluence

Usually if I'm hiking on a kayaking trip it means I'm portaging with a 70 lb. boat. Luckily that was not the case on the Tat. Hiking on a trail without a boat is actually pretty fun. We climbed the overlook at Sediments Creek and got a great view of the river valley below. The Knob hike above Alsek Lake was a great vantage point to appreciate the mass of iceberg sculptures, and the trek onto Walker Glacier was probably the most unique hike I've done. The one I would scratch off the list is the bushwack up Melt Creek. Somehow the mesmerizing glacial blue water convinced us it would be a good idea to crawl through thick alders and devil's club for 5 hours. That didn't turn out so well though, especially when swarms of mosquitoes found us.

Fresh glacier ice for our coolers and cocktails 

The guidebook accurately describes Alsek Lake as the "Grand Finale" of the trip. We had been told that a recent earthquake caused a significant amount of ice to break off the surrounding glaciers and fill up the lake. We scouted our options and sure enough the main channels were completely blocked by giant walls of ice. The alternate route was to take a shallow channel on river right that had just enough water for us to pull the rafts through without derigging. Another party pulled into Alsek Lake about an hour after we got to camp and it was the only time we saw another group on the river. 

My dad scouting the entry into Alsek Lake

Camping at Alsek Lake was a highlight of the trip. All night we could hear the boom of glaciers calving into the lake. The next morning was cold and we launched early for a foggy paddle past giant icebergs as we continued down to Dry Bay. We had some challenges after we blew past the obscure channel that marked our takeout. With the help of a fisherman and a quick satellite call to redirect our flight to a different airstrip, we managed to avoid missing our plane. 

There are no roads to Dry Bay so we had the flight out to look forward to. It was hectic as we rushed to derig the rafts and load the plane. Three of us were returning to Haines with the gear while the others headed home via Yakutat. It was sad to part ways after the greatest river trip of all time, but we said our goodbyes and climbed in the plane for a scenic flight over Alsek Lake and some massive icefields. Glacier Bay was just as awesome as I remembered and it was such an incredible visit. I'm hoping it won't be my last!