Alsek River Raft Trip 2015

The Alsek River starts its 240 mile (390 km) journey in Canada’s southern Yukon before carving its way through the high coastal mountains of British Columba and Alaska to eventually empty into Dry Bay and the Gulf of Alaska. It is a wild and untamed river that had captured my imagination for years. With Art otherwise occupied it seemed a perfect opportunity for me to arrange a rafting trip to experience the river firsthand and observe and explore some of the vast wilderness that surrounds it.

When it came to choosing an outfitter Chilkat Guides Ltd was an easy choice. Locally owned, they had over three decades of experience rafting in Alaska and on the Alsek River. After meeting up with our guides in Haines Alaska we drove north crossing the US / Canadian border to the village of Haines Junction in the Yukon. From there north along the ALCAN Highway to a turnoff at Bear Creek and a dirt road that paralleled the Dezadeash River, a tributary of the Alsek, that was our final point of departure for the expedition.

The Dezadeash River was broad and flat with little currant to move us downriver additionally strong winds coming down out of the mountains brought progress almost to a standstill. Rafts were lashed end to end to help maintain course and make better headway. After some strenuous paddling we finally stopped for lunch where the Kaskawlish River joined the Dezadeash to form the swifter flowing Alsek. Continuing on the winds persisted well into the afternoon kicking up annoying dust storms from the surrounding sandbars.

From our second camp we hiked up Goat Herd Mountain to a ridge covered in wild flowers to view the Lowell Glacier flowing down from the Saint EliasMountain Range

Our guides were astonishingly good cooks, with a fully stocked kitchen and Dutch ovens for cooking, every meal was a multicourse feast. Their culinary skills lifted everyone’s spirits and provided a perfect opportunity to relax and discuss the day’s adventures.    

Camp four was situated just above Turnback Canyon a steep and narrow section of the river that was unrunnable in our rafts. Shortly after we had arrived we were visited by a large male Brown Bear and we all got together to bang on pots and pans to persuade him to leave us alone. Initially he seemed unimpressed but eventually he sauntered off. Later we hiked a short ways along the side of the canyon and visited the memorial to Walt Blackadar, who at the age of 49 made the first solo kayak journey down this treacherous stretch of river.

The helicopter arrived to portage us around to the other side and on the ride over we had grand views of the sprawling terminus of the Tweedsmuir Glacier. It was the foot of this enormous glacier, pushing up rock and gravel that had narrowed the canyon walls and created the lethal set of rapids that had made this stretch of the river infamous.

After everyone had been safely transported downstream the helicopter brought our rafts and gear slung underneath by a cable. When it arrived we all worked together to re-inflate the rafts and load the gear.

It felt good to be underway again watching the mountains and landscape drift slowly by, nothing but the grandeur of nature for as far as the eye could see. During its run to the ocean the Alsek passes through three sizable national and provincial parks making it one of the largest contagious park systems in the world. The KluaneNational Park and Reserve in the Yukon, the Tatshenshini-Alsek Park in British Columbia and Glacier Bay National Park in Alaska. 

Not surprisingly the Alsek and its tributaries are also listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, so the other nations of the world have an interest in this area too. It warmed my heart reflecting that the beauty of this river will be protected for generations to come.

After passing the Alaska border the river entered Alsek Lake that was choked with ice bergs from the Alsek Glacier and other smaller glaciers that flowed into it. After our guides scouted the way ahead from a small rise we wove our way through the labyrinth of ice to make camp along the lakes chilly shoreline. During the night a huge berg rolled over sending a series of large waves across the lake and depositing chunks of ice high up onto the beach, much to our astonishment the following morning.  

The next day when we finally got clear of the larger bergs the clouds briefly lifted reviling the surrounding mountains of Glacier Bay National Park and at one point even the lofty summit of Mount Fairweather, at 15,325 feet, far in the distance. 

Eventually the river slowed and eased into Dry Bay a large estuary and protected inlet located on the Gulf of Alaska.

Slowly a few signs of human existence came into view.  At our take out location an ATV with a flatbed trailer was there to meet us and carry our bags to a gravel landing strip for an airplane flight up the coast to the village of Yakutat Alaska, and from there to a commercial flight to take us back home.  

Adventure is worthwhile in itself. -Amelia Earhart