Yukon Territory to Alaska: Rafting the Tatshenshini
A half-moon sculpture at Walker Glacier – photos
by Linda Ballou except as noted
Yukon Territory to Alaska: Rafting the Tatshenshini
“Raven Brings the Sun”
By Linda Ballou
When my mother told me that at the age of 70 she was going to raft the Tatshenshini River, I didn’t think much about it.
She didn’t mention that the headwaters of this river in the Yukon Territory of Canada flow free for 140 uninterrupted miles through a 24-million-acre roadless wilderness that encompasses the largest non-polar ice field on earth.
Nor did she hint that ursus horribilis — big honkin’ grizzlies — thrive on these salmon-choked waters. Not a whisper about the apartment-building-sized icebergs calving off the twenty glaciers that descend into the river that can explode into a thousand sparkling shards causing waves big enough to tip a rubber raft.
She didn’t chatter on about sucking holes and monster hydraulics where the Tat merges with the Alsek River to form one massive river four times the size of the Colorado. What she did say was that the guides were real good cooks!
The “River Wild”
Now that I’d signed on to follow in her pioneering footsteps, I was not at all sure of the wisdom of this decision.
The inherent dangers of bobbing for eight days in an 18-foot rubber raft on a river that goes from a 15,000 CFS (cubic feet per second) joy ride to a heart-thumping 100,000 CFS flow when it meets the Gulf of Alaska with some of the most wicked weather ever recorded, have been overridden by the desire to know the “river wild” in all its untampered grandeur.
Rafting on Alsek Lake – photo by T. Joyce
Sure, I know the mist-laden air combined with fierce winds can bring on teeth-chattering chills. But I could get lucky, like Mom, and see Mt. Fairweather, the 15,300-foot monarch of the St. Elias Mountains, piercing indigo blue skies, flowers in riotous profusion and a startling array of wildlife — all without mishap.
My ten fellow adventurers ranged from first-time camper to veteran river runner. Their age spread was 16 to 74. Apparently, anyone can take this trip if they can handle being without a cell phone for a week and sleeping in campsites littered with wolf, bear and moose tracks.
Our three Chilkat Guides expertly maneuvered our oar-boats through a gauntlet of white water that tests rafters on the first day out. They avoided big holes and steered clear of bounces that would have been part of the fun in a warmer clime.
The glacier silt-laden water of the Tat averages about 34 degrees. You don’t want to become a swimmer. I held tightly to a strap as we blew through a chute framed by jagged buttresses. After a few smacks in the face from big waves and a bit of bailing water out of the bow of our boat we settled into a peaceful glide.
Fireweed in the Secret Slough
Life on the River
I put my feet up on the tube, leaned back on piles of dry bags and pulled out my bino’s to do a little birding. A chatty kingfisher took to flying along with us. Sightings of bald eagles fishing along the river became commonplace. A brownie ducked into the alders as we trundled by.
‘Sweepers,’ fallen trees along the shore downed by beavers, were to be avoided.
Life on the river revolves around the movements of the curvaceous gray lady wearing a magenta sash of fireweed along her banks, locating campsites with the best views and a breeze to keep bugs at bay, and above all else — the weather!
The coastal Tlingit Indians of Dry Bay used the river corridor as a trade route to the interior. They believed that Raven, the creator of all things, was responsible for bringing the sun to “the people.”
Having grown up in Haines, the prettiest little town in all Southeast Alaska, I know that all of life here is weather-driven.
I purchased a “Raven Brings the Sun” T-shirt at the onset of this journey. I intended to sleep in it, eat in it and pray in it for good measure. So far, a tender dome of blue overhead and a scintillating breeze rustling the leaves of birches and cottonwoods lining the shore were my reward.
A meadow at the Silver Creek camp
A day’s layover at Secret Slough, just before the confluence of the O’Connor River, meant that I would have take a break from “ having to do nothing” to enjoy a Sunday morning breakfast.
Our guides set up the spotting scope so we could watch game on the braided gravel plain on the other side of the platinum Tatshenshini. Fast-moving clouds drifted about jagged peaks streaked with silver avalanche chutes for our dining pleasure.
We spotted a momma moose with a calf tagging along behind. They were in a hurry, because about a 1,000 pound brownie was hot on their trail.
Artic terns fluttered over the river in search of beak-sized fish while a couple of tuxedoed magpies circled our camp hoping for an easier meal.
World Heritage Site
In the early 1990s plans were afoot to shave off the top of Windy Craggy Mountain, near the confluence of the Tat and the O’Connor, to get to one of the world’s largest copper deposits. A bridge was to be built across Monkey Wrench Rapids with a road along the Tat to the O’Connor drainage and eventual connection with the Haines Highway.
Hikers at Walkers Glacier
Trucks carrying toxic cargo were to rumble over this road eight times a day. The tailings lake, a noxious brew of chemicals, was to be situated squarely on what is the most active seismic area in America.
In 1993, then-Vice-President Al Gore and Canadian Premier Mike Harcourt joined forces in the fight against this folly. The silver lining of this struggle was the formation of this World Heritage Site big enough for bear, wolves, moose, wolverine, lynx, and Dall sheep to roam.
Back on the river we merged with the O’Connor and were lifted to an energetic ride through an ever-widening world. We entered a corridor of snow-laden mountains defiant in their proud beauty. Each day on the river became bigger, grander and more overwhelmingly soothing to mind and eye.
The Music of the Ice Spirits
We parked at camp near Walker Glacier. After a ramble through a wildflower meadow spiked with crimson Indian paintbrush, yellow beach pea and purple geranium to a ridge overlooking Walker Lake cluttered with glowing bergs, we arrived at the snout of the glacier itself.
It has receded a mile since my mother’s visit twenty years ago. We crunched across the back of the glacier hopping foot wide crevasses, stopping long enough to let a mature black bear make his way across our path.
The famous Chilkat guides cooking with the
Fairweather Range in the background
Back in our trusty rafts, we navigated Death Channel that opens into Alsek Lake where we bounced off berg bits on our way to our camp at Gateway Knob.
The booming voices of ice spirits being freed from the calving Grand and Alsek Glaciers became our eerie music for the night. For a finale to this epic journey, Raven brought the sun shining down upon frosty Mt. Fairweather poking into azure skies.
As we lumbered into Dry Bay on the back of the swollen river, I had to say that Mom was right. Those Chilkat Guides are real good cooks!
IF YOU GO:
Alaska Airlines for flights to Juneau
Alaska Marine Highway System
LAB Flying Services for bush flight from Juneau to Haines, Alaska
For an informed adventure read The Complete Guide to the Tatshenshini River written by Russ Lyman, Joe Ordonez and Mike Speaks available on Amazon.com
Linda Ballou is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles specializing in soft adventure travel who has written for numerous national magazines as well as the L.A. Times. She is collecting stories for her travel anthology Lost Angel Walk About.
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