The Tatshenshini River is a powerful torrent that flows from its headwaters in Canada’s Yukon Territory for 120 unchecked miles to the Gulf of Alaska. It is the main artery through the pulsing heart of one of the world’s largest wilderness areas that encompasses the Kluane, Glacier Bay, St. Elias-Wrangell and Tatshenshini/Alsek Preserves. We put our three 18-foot rubber oar-boats on the back of the gray, silt-laden lady and turned our fate over to the river gods at Dalton Post. Tall buttresses crowd the first stretch of the river into a chute, creating a series of roller coaster waves that landed squarely on our bow.
“Bail! Bail! Bail!” came from veteran rafter Margaret who held tightly to my life vest as I bailed for all I was worth. Meanwhile, the bow of our raft was filling with water. “We’re going to sink,” Margaret hissed. A bit over-reactionary I thought, as my rubber boots slid out from under me and I found myself doing the splits on the wet plastic floor of the raft. I fell backwards, sitting down in the mounting water, and gave way to hysterical titters that rendered me helpless.
“Get a grip” came from an irritated Margaret.
A calm stretch between the Eye of the Needle and the rolling rapids of M&M Falls allowed me to tidy up for the next round. This frothy fun, lasting about an hour, exposed me as being the weak link on this eight-day run that has no turn back option. The river soon calmed to a steady six knots. We spotted a Brownie on the shore that ducked into the alders as we passed by. Feathery horsetail fern filled the under story of the spruce and hemlock forest, while clumps of frilly cow parsnip, lupine and magenta “River Beauty” decorated the shore.
The ten guests sharing this adventure with me were a fit family of four from Vancouver, a gentleman traveling with his two grown sons from Texas, guide Brian’s mother Debbie from the Olympic Peninsula, Ann, a school teacher from Delaware who had never camped before, and Margaret, a 74-year-old local who has hiked, rafted and kayaked all over southeast Alaska. Cameron, our lead guide, is a nine year veteran of this challenging river. Jeremy cut his rafting teeth on the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon. He told me that the Tatshenshini is one of the top three rivers in the world that every boatman must run. Our third guide, Brian, works for the Department of Fish and Game when he is not on ice-age wilderness adventures. Permits to run this river are limited. About 500 people are allowed down the river every year during the short summer season. One company is allowed each day so that groups are well-spaced and with any luck will never see one another.
In 1976, Bart Henderson, owner of Chilkat Guides, was the first commercial outfitter to explore what river rats call the Tat. He fell in love with Haines the starting point for this trip, made it his home and has led expeditions in the region ever since. No one knows the nuances of this shape-shifting river that begins as a 15,000 CFS (cubic feet per second) flow that gathers velocity and volume from tributaries as it takes the traveler though the largest non-polar ice field in the world, better than Bart. By the time it reaches Dry Bay in the Gulf of Alaska the river is a braided channel five times the size of the Colorado River.
Twenty years ago, Bart invited my mother, who was 70 at the time, and a few of the other seniors from Haines, to join him on this scenic glide. The average age of the guests on the Tat is 50, but anyone can come providing they can navigate getting in and out of a rubber raft, walk and are able to sleep in campsites littered with moose, bear and wolf tracks. My mother holds this trip as one of the highlights of her 45 years in Alaska. When I was growing up in Haines, men went into the woods for food, not fun. Bears in the woods meant I was not to hike alone. This trip was a chance for me to “get out into it” safely with guides dedicated to helping me see one of our last remaining wildlife corridors for myself.
After a couple of days of relaxed floating though the warmer inland forests of cottonwood, alders, and spruce under tender blue skies, we took a day off. That meant sleeping in, a Sunday morning breakfast with a second cup of coffee and setting up the spotting scope. We camped at the confluence of the O’Connor River and the Tat on a sheltered beach with a scintillating breeze that kept the bugs at bay. Shafts of light spotlighted the granite mountain with three avalanche chutes veining its side on the far side of the braided river channel.
The swooshing sound of the glistening platinum water of the Tat racing by with the occasional screech of an eagle wheeling overhead was all that was heard. Motorized craft are not allowed on the river. There are no roads and therefore no vehicles or dwellings of any kind. An enormous effort is in play by park officials and rafting companies to keep the impact of humankind down to zero. The sound of a jet high overhead seemed an intrusion upon the blessed absence of noise pollution.
Our small society soon shaped into a companionable band of fun-loving folk who understood the need for personal space and shared the awe inspired by our surroundings. We watched a moose and her calf hurriedly make their way across the gravel bar on the far side of the river. Shortly behind them, a thousand pound grizzly was on their trail. In this vast region bruin can roam free without bumping into mankind. Signs of grizzlies that can get to be 1,500 pounds and the smaller black bear are everywhere. Salmon choked streams provide high protein reserves needed for them to survive the long winters. Scratches on trees, logs shredded in search of insects, meadows upturned for berries and fresh scat were often seen on our day hikes on centuries old bear trails. Bears step in exactly the same spot on their trails to their dens, creating indentations in the ground that look like they could belong to Big Foot. Stretching to step into the paw prints marking the trail, I felt the bear’s enormous stride and sensed the powerful presence of Ursus Horribilis.
We headed up a rock slide formed by a creek charging through barren scree slopes to join the Tat far below. I spotted a black bear with two cubbies about 100 yards away. The cubs, as curious about us as we were about them, stood on their hind legs so that they might get a better view of the aliens that had entered their world. Canadians do not allow firearms in their national parks. We were armed with bear spray and a safety talk by our guides. There are no recorded incidents of bears attacking groups in our numbers. Wandering off alone or getting too close for that National Geographic shot is not advised.
This river corridor is also home to moose, lynx, wolves, wolverine, golden and bald eagles, mountain goats and Dall sheep. A myriad of smaller animals like pika, hoary marmots, beavers, snowshoe rabbits and a dazzling array of birds thrive here as well. What a travesty it would have been if Geddes Resources Limited, a Canadian mining company, had gotten its way with this pristine wilderness. In the early1990s plans were afoot to shave off the top of Windy Craggy Mountain 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 Haines Highway that would take the ore to the nearest deepwater port in Haines. Trucks carrying toxic cargo would rumble over this road every eight minutes. The tailings lake, a noxious brew of chemicals created by mining, was to be situated squarely on the most active seismic area in America.
The battle against the billion dollar corporation by fifty environmentalists groups went relatively unnoticed in the lower 48. Thankfully, in June of 1993, then-Vice-President Al Gore and Canadian Premier Mike Harcourt joined forces in the fight. The struggle served to galvanize this World Heritage Site into 24-million contiguous acres encompassing and surrounding the Alsek-Tatshenshini watershed. This priceless legacy for those who worked to preserve the waterways, forests and solitude of this magnificent region is proof that there are rewards for those who care.
Next day found us maneuvering roiling hydraulics where the O’Connor River and the Alki Creek merge with the Tat as it increases in strength and magnitude on its rush to the sea. We zipped along at a faster clip, catching wave trains and avoiding raft-sucking holes for 35 miles. The brooding snow-streaked peaks of the Fairweather Range, floating in white mists sitting on their shoulder like a gossamer gown, are on the left side of the river, and the dry, desolate south facing peaks of the Noisy Range are on the right. We could hear the hiss of the rocks rolling beneath our boat in the strong current as we hurtled through this corridor of unrivaled grandeur.
At “Palm Springs North,” a surprise beach where we found dry channels of sand, we tore off our river gear that consisted of rubber boots, a pair of heavy rain pants and a jacket over long underwear with layers of fleece on top and a life vest to stretch out on the warm sand. Delicious! After lunch, we merged with the mighty Alsek where the river takes on that name, becomes about a mile wide, and is flowing at about 65,000 CFS. Two thirds of this journey is in Canada with a large part of it in British Columbia. We stopped to gather firewood where the international border between the U.S. and Canada is marked by a swatch cut into the trees. A marked increase in prickly devil weed in the increasingly lush forests was the only distinction I could see between the two countries.
For Mom, Walker Glacier was the highlight of this journey. Of the twenty glaciers muscling their way through the mountains to the river it is the most accessible. It also marks the beginning of soggy, coastal weather patterns. A blanket of fog, dubbed the Iron Curtain, always hovers over the valley carved by this river of ice which has receded a mile since my mother visited 20 years ago. A civilized stroll through a wildflower meadow brings you to a ridge walk along berg-choked Walker Lake at the terminus of the glacier.
Once upon the glacier itself, I was struck by that fact that it is dotted by living moss. We hopped foot-wide aquamarine crevasses and crunched our way around water pools and rivulets sculpting pathways though the living-crust of the river on the move. When we turned to leave the swirling turquoise half moon face on the snout of the glacier, we saw the figure of a mature black bear silhouetted against the purest white. Humans are neither prey nor predator to the bear in the natural order of things, so he was indifferent to our presence. I felt privileged to be in his world as he sauntered across our path in unhurried strides.
Death Channel, where no one has died – yet, leads to Alsek Lake, where the Alsek and Grand Glaciers calve off apartment sized icebergs to drift across cobalt blue depths. “Who opened the freezer door?” Ann wanted to know. The temperature had dropped twenty degrees in as many minutes. The thunderous voices of calving bergs made it easy to understand why the native Tlingit Indians believed spirits lived in the ice. I was nervous as we floated in our tiny rubber crafts through clusters of berg bits. Icebergs can be dangerous as the bottoms in the water melt faster than the top in the air, causing them to flip. One could shift and tip us, and we could end up swimming in 32 degree glacier melt. Cameron expertly navigated through downed logs and icebergs and got us safely to Gateway Knob, our camp for the night.
Moments after we had popped our tents, and settled down to yet another scrumptious meal prepared by our guides, a berg the size of a cruise ship about 100- yards away from our camp decided to flip. A thundering boom echoed into the mountains, followed by a sparkling spray of water as the mast came crashing down, creating a monster wave. To cap things off the clouds parted exposing frosty Mt. Fairweather, the 15,300-foot monarch of the region, bathed in the celestial light of an Alaskan summer’s eve.
The last stretch of this monumental journey through diverse bio-regions is lined with the velvet green pleated peaks that reminded me of the Napali Coast in Hawaii. The swollen river lumbers into Dry Bay and the Gulf of Alaska at a formidable 100,000 CFS flow. Foaming waves of the shining Pacific greeted us as hundreds of seagulls circling overhead crying out with mad laughter. Thoughts of Lewis and Clarke and the joy they must have felt when their senses were livened by the scent of the sea came to mind. I silently thanked my mother for inspiring me to come here and apologized inwardly to Margaret for laughter under fire.