The Stikine and LeConte Wilderness, located near the town of Wrangell Alaska, was created by an act of Congress 1980 and contains a total of 448,926 acres. This enormous wilderness area includes the Alaska portion of the 379 mile long Stikine River and its expansive river delta. It also includes a sizable portion of the Stikine Ice Field that flows down into the LeConte Glacier, Alaska’s southern most tidewater glacier, which in turn deposits its icebergs into LeConte Bay. A fascinating mixture of both fresh and saltwater waterways that was perfectly suited for exploration by kayak.
Upon our arrival in Wrangell we were rocketed up river on a jet boat piloted by Eric Yancey of Breakaway Adventures. In no time at all we found ourselves miles upriver dropped off on a sandbar by a shallow tributary stream that was but a short paddle to our first camp site. It being early in the month of May there was still snow on the ground in many places, good thing we brought warm clothes and a heavy sleeping bag.
From our first camp we hiked over to Chief Shakes HotSprings and along the way we encountered a chorus of frogs that was hopping ever so slowly in the chilly morning air. So we also slowed down to observe and to avoid trodding on our small green neighbors. When we arrived at the springs we were surprised by another local resident a good sized Black Bear that had also come to the springs to soak off the morning chill, though thankfully in the runoff stream below and not in the tub with us! We spent the rest of the day soaking in the hot mineral water and soaking up the beautiful surroundings of the Stikine River Valley.
Camping along the Stikine River we observed a different range of flora and fauna than the surrounding coastal rainforest of Southeast Alaska. This large river valley has allowed the weather systems, plants and wildlife of interior boreal forest to pass through the high Coastal Mountain Range all the way to the rivers estuary. Traveling down river during the day we observed a forest of cottonwood trees and willows as well as the tracks of wolf and moose in the muddy sandbars. That night in our tent a nearby wolf pack kept us awake with their eerie group howls that would raise the hairs on the back of our neck.
Trout fishing in the tributary streams along the way provided a welcome change to the dried and canned food of our daily rations. More importantly however living off the land not only supplemented our provisions but it connected us in a very real and tangible way with the natural world that we had come to experience. That evening at dinner we offered heartfelt thanks to the Creator for this delicious meal!
We had hoped to slip through the slew into Shakes Lake for a peek at the Shakes Glacier but we were too early and the lake was still completely frozen over. Instead we made camp on Limb Island before passing into the North Arm of the river that runs between the Wilkes Range on the mainland and Farm and Dry islands in the delta.
Navigating the extensive tide flats at the mouth of the river required us to wait for high tide before making a dash to the deeper waters of LeConte Bay. Even with the rising tide in our favor the opaque silty waters of the Stikine River made staying off the submerged shoals and sandbars difficult. We carefully scanned the water’s surface looking for the smallest telltale ripples to avoid being grounded and stuck fast on the muddy bottom.
Large ice bergs floating down the bay from LeConte Glacier greeted us when we arrived at Camp Island. We knew from previous experience that finding our way through these ice choked waters to the base of the calving glacier would prove to be the most challenging and dangerous part of our trip. Our main reason for concern was that this vast expanse of ice was constantly in motion both from the surge of tidal forces and the strong winds called williwaws that could come slamming down from the mountains above without warning. To make matters worse the fjord’s steep shore line offered few options to pull out and come ashore. Open leads through the ice along the sides and in between the bergs allowed us to weave our way through this maze but if the ice shifted faster than we could maneuver we could potentially be trapped and or crushed between the grinding blocks of ice.
Luckily the winds were calm and by late evening we had arrived at the end of the bay. We sat for a moment in our kayaks and marveled at the deep mountainous gorge and listened to the thunderous crash of new ice bergs being born. We had hoped to make camp on a narrow rock ledge a safe distance from the calving glacier but when we arrived we were surprised to find that this one and only available pull out and camp site was occupied by a gray muzzled old brown bear who showed no interest in sharing his unique piece of property with two interlopers. Darn that bear! As night fell we were faced with the daunting prospect of retracing our route at night through miles of icebergs to reach another place to camp. But what at first seemed like a disaster turned out to be one of the most exceptional and certainly most surreal experiences we have ever had paddling. Under clear skies and a full moon lighting our way the surrounding ice began to sparkle like a million diamonds turning the once oppressive surroundings into a glittering crystal wonderland of light and color.
Hours later we eventually found a place to camp near the mouth of Bussy Creek. We had been paddling all day and night and were thoroughly exhausted by the time we crawled into our sleeping bags. It was well into the afternoon of the following day before we were up and going again and when we cleared the last of the ice we breathed a sigh of relief to finally be beyond its grasp.
Nature it seemed was not done teaching us a few important lessons however because a few days later we misjudged the outgoing tide and found ourselves forced to camp in the sedge grasses a mile or so from Sergief Island. The spot was scenic enough with a vast panoramic view of the Stikine Delta but grievously exposed to the wind and rising tide. Our luck however held, yet again, and the tide stopped just short of flooding out our camp. Another close call for sure, from then on we both paid much closer attention to the time and our tide table when we were out on the water.
The Stikine River Delta is one of the best places in Southeast Alaska to observe birds migrating along the pacific flyway. For instance, during the time we were there in May, the spring shorebird migration can average up to 350,000 birds a day. The delta is also home to one of Alaska’s largest concentration of bald eagles, up to 1500 that arrive during the salmon runs in the late summer and fall. Brenda and I were awestruck by the swirling flocks of thousands of shorebirds that would move in unison over the water sometimes just feet away from our kayak. For the migrating birds the sprawling delta serves up a nutritious banquette of fish in the rivulets and streams and marine invertebrates in the muddy tide flats that at low tide seemed to stretch to the horizon.
Early in the morning we left the shallow muddy waters of the delta behind to end our journey by Chief Shakes Tribal House located in the deep water harbor of Wrangell Alaska. For thousands of years the Wrangell area was the ancestral home to the Shtax ’héen Ḵwáan of the Tlingit Nation who used the waters of the Stikine River as a rich source of food and as a transportation corridor through the Coast Range to trade with tribes of the interior. With the arrival of Europeans the village of Wrangle became an important center of the fur trade and commercial fishing. Today Wrangell has a population of about 2400 with an active economy that is based largely on commercial fishing, tourism, ship building and timber. In the time remaining we walked the streets and chatted with a few of the locals of this charming town before getting on the Alaska Ferry for the long ride home.
“What do you call an unforgiving land whose beauty can be fatal? The people of the Stikine River Valley call it home.”- Wade Davis