Alsek Rivers. British Columbia. Alaska
Alsek Rivers, Tatshenshini. Vast glaciers. Immense spires. Untrammeled wilderness. A lake filled with icebergs. All this (and much more) awaits on the Tatshenshini, perhaps the most renowned of Alaska’s many rugged, runnable rivers.
“The Tat is a river of immense proportions, both in terms of rock and water,” began poet and guide Melanie Siebert. “It’s intimate at the outset, then makes its way through massive coastal mountains hung with incredible glaciers, then this immense glacier-carved valley, and finally Alsek Lake. At the confluence with the Alsek, the river is three miles wide, a massive pulsing muscle of a river. You feel at times like the glaciers receded just yesterday—you get a sense of the geological powers at work, a cycle of destruction and rebirth. The contrast between the rugged mountains and the wildflowers in the valley is intoxicating.”
Alsek Rivers. The Tatshenshini begins its course to the Pacific in British Columbia and rolls north to the southwestern Yukon before returning to British Columbia and joining the Alsek, which reaches the Gulf of Alaska at Dry Bay. Most groups that run the Tat will begin on the Klukshu River near Dalton Post, Yukon. From here, it’s 160 miles through the world’s largest biological preserve to the take-out. Most groups will allot eight to ten days on the river to leave time for exploratory hikes and general wonderment. Melanie shared some of her favorite moments from the many times she’s floated the Tat.
Alsek Rivers. “The second day on the river brings you to the Tatshenshini Canyon, a beautiful stretch of Class III white water and fun, thrilling chutes. It’s quite narrow, with lots of twists and turns and some nice must-make moves. It’s an exciting start. Over the next few days, the river builds very quickly, like a symphony with the different instruments entering. While we’re in the valley section of the float, there’s a good day hike I love to do to a spot called Sediment’s Creek. There are some great views of the Alsek Range from here, and you’ll often see mountain goats up in the crags. They’re incredibly agile creatures.”
Downstream, Alsek river begins to braid up. Some of Alaska’s totemic animals—including moose and grizzly bears—are often encountered (at a safe distance!) on the gravel banks; bald eagles are almost as common here as pigeons are in Manhattan. If you get clear weather, the peaks of the St. Elias Range—including Mount Logan (19,551 feet) and Mount St. Elias (18,008 feet)—come into view. As you approach the confluence with the Alsek, the river becomes surrounded by glaciers; at one point, twenty-seven different glaciers are in view. Melanie likes to make camp near Walker Glacier. “It’s a massive waterfall of ice, pouring toward the river,” she explained. “We camp on a terminal moraine. You can feel the cold draft coming down off the ice. You can hike along the lateral moraine and get out on the glacier itself. It’s a chance to get close to this eerie, otherworldly ice, with incredible crevasses, water holes, and seracs. All the while, the water is slowly flowing beneath you.
“At the confluence with the Alsek, there are so many braids that it’s like a vast network of different rivers. This is another great spot to see bears as they fish for salmon. Eagles are on hand to scavenge. You see the whole food chain in action. The guides have a game that we play during this section called Spawning. The river is moving fast and has a silty steel-gray color from the rock flower (or glacial till). It’s hard to tell how deep it is, and it’s easy to get pushed up on the gravel—that is, ‘spawned.’ If you spawn, you owe the other guides a case of beer when the trip is done. When we get close to Alsek Lake, we’ll pull the rafts over and hike up a scree slope to suss out the channels going into the lake. You don’t want to pick a channel that’s clogged with icebergs.
“One of my favorite camping spots on the trip comes on Alsek Lake. We stay on an island, and there are glaciers circling the lake, including Alsek and Grand Plateau, which stretch several miles. The glaciers are constantly calving, sending huge slabs of ice into the lake. You’re in this incredible presence of thundering glaciers. Thanks to the calving glaciers, the lake is full of massive icebergs. I like to spend two nights at the lake so we can have a day to row around and explore. To me, the icebergs seem like living beings, strange avant-garde sculptures. As they melt, the icebergs turn over, exposing a glossy blue underside. They can turn over quickly, so we keep a healthy distance. There are lots of smaller chunks of ice in the lake—we call them bergy bits. There are times the bergy bits are so thick, you feel like the camp can get locked in by ice. I have to say that the bergy bits are perfect for margaritas. You can release a burst of ten-thousand-year-old air into your drink.” From Alsek Lake, it’s a short float to the Pacific. Here, peaks like Mount Fairweather soar more than fifteen thousand feet into the air. Alsek Rivers.
While Alsek Lake may be Melanie’s favorite camp spot on the Tatshenshini expedition, one of her favorite memories hails from another campsite upstream. “We were staying at a place called Milt Creek, and I had set up my tent close to the edge of the creek’s bank. The creek funnels off a glacier, and that night, the water was rising. As I was sleeping with my ear to the ground, I could hear the booming sound of the boulders rolling along the creek bottom. The sound was being transmitted through ground, the song of the shaping of the landscape via the water.”
Alsek Rivers. Melanie Siebert grew up paddling Canadian Shield rivers. She has guided for Nahanni River Adventures since 2000. Her book, Deepwater Vee, which was a finalist for a Governor General’s Literary Award, features a suite of river poems subtitled with the GPS coordinates of some of her most memorable spots on the rivers she loves—the Nahanni, the Tatshenshini/Alsek, the Burnside, and the Thelon. In the winter, she teaches creative writing at the University of Victoria and works as a volunteer counselor at Citizens’ Counselling Centre. In the spring of 2013, she was the writer-in-residence at the Berton House Writers’ Retreat in Dawson City, Yukon.
If You Go to Alsek Rivers:
Getting There: Whitehorse, Yukon, is the beginning and ending point for most Tatshenshini trips. It’s served by several carriers, including Alaska Airlines and Air Canada.
Best Time to Visit: Trips are conducted from June through early September.
Guides/Outfitters: There are a number of outfitters who lead trips on the Tatshenshini. Canadian River Expeditions offers trips on the Alsek as well as the Tatshenshini.
Level of Difficulty: For guided trips, the paddling is classified as beginner level.
Accommodations: Canadian River Expeditions lists some recommended hotels in Whitehorse for the beginning and end of your trip.
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