The Alsek River: A “Top 10” River Trip
The Alsek River: A “Top 10” River Trip
By: Dave Slover, Alder Creek Kayak & Canoe
Dates of Trip: Aug 21 to Sept 3, 2013
Every once in a while you get a chance to do something out on the edge, a trip that is remarkable, beautiful, memorable; in other words a “Trip of a Lifetime”. When these opportunities come up there can be only one answer, “Sure – I’m in”. Then reality sets in about what you just committed to – time off work, time away from family, significant financial expenses and a whole host of other conflicting feelings. As I prepare for the trip, I know it will be worth it.
We are going to Alaska and British Columbia and the Yukon. What about Bears, mosquitoes, wind and rain? Will spending two weeks with a bunch of other 40 and 50 year old men/boys be worth the experience? Can we pull this off in our Aire Lynx II or Aire Outfitter II inflatable kayaks? Will the Liquor store in Haines Jct. have enough Patron to get our group through the trip?
Two years earlier it was easy to say yes to this trip. We are a strong group full of “type A” adventurer’s, Jon C. is a great organizer and we have done trips together in the past. We get along great. A week off during my busy season would not be that tough… But as the time grew near, a few realities set in. The trip was long; 185 miles on the river, the logistics are challenging; Day 1: Drive to Seattle, Day 2: fly to Juneau on Alaska Air, then take Wings of Alaska to Haines, Day 3: drive to Haines Junction in the Yukon Territory and launch, Days 3 to 13: run the river, Day 13: Yakutat Coastal Air from Dry Bay to Yakutat and Alaska Air back to Seattle, Day 14: Drive from Seattle to Portland. Oops, it is not a 1 week trip but actually 2 weeks. How about that for adding a bit of stress to the work scene and family life?
One of the things that make a trip like this work is spreading out all the planning and organizing duties. One person cannot do it all and still enjoy the trip plus we all have strengths and weaknesses. In other words, put a cop on lead for border crossings, have the geologist in charge of maps, the engineering geeks deal with batteries and electronics, the old hippies in charge of music, an ex-river guide in charge on the water and everyone putting in their two cents on the bear fence. Food is broken out into 3 person teams for each day so you only have to work like a dog twice while on the river. Most importantly give your expedition mates the benefit of the doubt. We all have good days and sometimes we have a bad one. I was happy to fill the role of ex-river guide as it meant that I had very little pre-planning work to do. As a leader on the river all I had to do was coordinate with the GPS and map team to make sure we got to the right camps, lined up with the correct braided channels, found the helicopter portage spot above Turnback Canyon and most importantly got to the Dry Bay air strip at the correct time. By having team meetings every morning it is pretty easy to get the group all on the same page, most of the time.
Here is how the original duties were set up for our trip:
Jon Bank, Logistics
Geof Kitchen, GPS, Bear Fence
John Barge, Kitchen
William Food Lead, Music
Gary Customs, Bears
Peter Maps, GPS, Bear Fence
David Bear Fence
David River Leader, Toilet
Kevin Fire Box, Fire, Tarps
John Live Music
Thomas Live Music
Michael First Aid, Barge, Gas
Eugene Live Music
Jim Repair Kit, Kitchen
Highlights of the trip included but were not limited to the following short stories:
Man Down… Haines Alaska. Recipe for personal disaster – stay up all night on the east coast packing; fly all day, get dehydrated, join the group at happy hour, take 3 shots of Patron’, stand up, get dizzy, fall down and pass out in the hallway at the restaurant. The cook finds you and calls 911. Three hours later you have missed dinner, racked up a big ER bill and are the only sober member left on the team.
Launch to Serpentine. It was 3:00 pm when we hit the water of the Dezadeasch River. The boats are all loaded and pretty heavy but there is plenty of current and the weather, so far, is holding. We have heard about groups taking 3 days to travel this first 11 miles, but we seem to be getting lucky. The water on this stretch gets shallow, braids out and the wind can really blow. By 4 pm we understand what the guide in the bar last night was talking about. We have big wind, driving rain and most of the time we are walking in front of the kayak pulling it along. By 7 pm we are at camp (light until 9:30 pm) setting up the tarps and getting our traditional 1st night dinner of lamb BBQ prepared. Heavy SE Alaska rain with wind battered us most of the night. I am already regretting bringing a small 1 man tent as I try to get in without bringing the rain in with me.
Serpentine to Marble Creek. We have a slow morning as we develop the group rhythm of the daily duties and what this trip is going to take to accomplish. Once on the river we move slowly in the frog water. The wind and rain has let up and we even see the sun begin to peek through. After 5 miles of hard paddling we reach the confluence of the Dezadeash and the Kaskawulsh Rivers which together form the Alsek River. The current picks up as we work our way through 5 miles of braided channels. We have lunch at Lava creek and then back on the water to Marble creek. The main river is very silty and so are most of the side streams. When we see a clear creek we stop and fill all our water storage. Our group of 15 is going through about 10 – 12 gallons per day of clear water. Plus lots of beer, wine and Patron. So far we have seen tracks for wolf, bear, moose but no sightings of actual animals. We have seen Tundra swans, Mountain goats, ducks and a couple hawks.
Marble Creek to Lowell Lake. The whitewater picked up a bit on this stretch. The water is not difficult but it does require paying attention. There are fairly big poor over’s with large recirculating holes backing them up. These features are hard to see in the silty water and in our IK’s the result of going into one is not very desirable. Super G has one dump and self rescue in this section. We get to our camp at Lowell Lake and the majestic view is awe inspiring. Things are big here, we have a 2 -3 mile lake between us and Lowell Glacier, Goatherd Mountain is right behind camp and is 2700 feet above us. Lowell Glacier runs for 30 + miles down the valley from the mountains. When the sun is out team spirits are high and everyone is looking forward to the layover day coming up. In the afternoon we paddle across the lake to the base of the glacier. It takes a full hour to get across the lake but paddling around icebergs and below a 200 ft glacier wall is worth it. The Bandits pull off a perfect Sockeye Salmon with pasta salad dinner.
Lay over at Lowell Lake. We sleep late and wake up to a sunny morning. Most of the group decides to hike up to Goatherd Mountain. It is a steep 6 mile hike up 2700 feet. Well worth it as the alpine terrain is incredible and the views spectacular. We had T-shirt weather and sunshine all day. When we get back to camp we play cards, take baths and I call home on the satellite phone. It is always a weird feeling to be in the middle of nowhere and connect with the daily routine back home. We have a light night of partying as we all know we have to get by Sam’s and Lava North tomorrow. I don’t usually like layover days but today was a real “10”.
Lowell Lake to Fisher Glacier outlet. Today is the whitewater day on the Alsek River. We start off paddling out of Lowell Lake. Paddling around and in between the icebergs makes for a very beautiful start to the day. Once we hit the current the gradient picks up and off we go. We are paddling class 1 and 2 water with ice chunks all around. These ice chunks are an interesting way to add difficulty to a rapid. At Sam’s rapid we take the right channel and skip the big class IV – V waves and holes. While sneaking along we surprise a grizzly bear on the right bank. Once again we get to see the butt of a grizzly; I love it when they run. Next we come to Lava North. We look at three options, run the gut, sneak on the left of the gut or boulder hop down the small channel along the shoreline. Out here in the middle of nowhere we choose the easiest option. It is funny to be 53 years old and cautious. We still see some action today; Craig flips and swims and self rescues 3 times (twice right below Lava North) and Dave W hits a big hole, surfs and dumps then Super G gets caught in a swirly headwall and dumps too. Unless you are right next to the upset kayak (which is usually the cause for the dump in the first place) there is very little we can do for each other. This river is big, Big, BIG! As with all high adventure days we end with a boisterous celebration. This evening I was hiking behind camp and a peregrine falcon flew around and landed on a rock only 20 feet away. A Super awesome day…another “10”. Weather is clear and sunny.
Fisher Glacier to Range Creek. Today we have very busy water all day. Super G, Dave W and Craig all practice their last capsize drills for the trip. The rapids are fun rollers with occasional holes to miss. The reflex waves are powerful and the headwall turns are no place to screw around. We cover 15 miles in 3 hours and camp on river right just below the first island. While hiking I find a huge sandy beach ½ mile down on the right that would have made an even better camp. Folks are tuckered out and we have a mellow evening; everyone is in bed by 9 pm. Today was another dry day but windy and cloudy.
Range Creek to Blackadar Camp. Today was another “10” (yes that makes 3 so far…) Sunny weather, numerous wave trains and rolling waves. The vistas are unbelievable – Mt Blackadar, Tweedsmuir Glacier and the entrance to Turnback Canyon. The yin/yang of this trip is coming up tomorrow. We are in the middle of nowhere but we get a helicopter ride around the 6 mile portage of Turnback Canyon. Since we have the satellite phone and we are low on beverages, we arrange for a resupply. The world is a lot smaller than it used to be and team spirits rise with the arrival of more beer, wine and Patron.
Helicopter portage of Turnback Canyon then Tweedsmuir to Confluence. Dion from Trans North Helicopters arrived right on schedule (with our resupply!), the day is sunny again and we get a beautiful series of three human flights and three gear flights around Turnback Canyon. The morning is smooth and before we know it we are alone again. We gear up and head downstream 20 miles towards Confluence camp. We hit speeds of 8+ miles per hour as we work our way through the braids. The highlight on this stretch is a big grizzly sighting; the bear stands up and contemplates eating Jon C. Luckily he decides against it and heads off into the brush. The scenery here is much more lush and the trees are green. This side of the Tweedsmuir is more SE coastal and less of the alpine zone we were in upstream. The day has a bit of excitement as Craig tries to exit a boiling eddy with trees and whirlpools in it. That’s right flip # 5 for Craig and the team hits double digits as Super G is holding with three and Dave W two. Another “10 day”!
Layover at Confluence. How many glaciers can you count? We count close to 30 from this camp. Another scenery overload at this awesome layover day campsite. The funny story today happens as we repack and organize our food. As we review our menu and compare it to the food we have left and then days left on the river, it becomes clear that we are short three planned meals. Nobody can quite figure out how Jon planned 11 days on the river but Bill only coordinated 10 days. Luckily there are plenty of leftovers and there is no issue at all. We made up an extra dinner, breakfast and lunch out of existing leftovers and nobody went hungry! The weather finally breaks and we get back to clouds and rain.
Confluence to Fireweed. Today is one of those days when getting old sucks. I wake up with a super stiff back. I’m sure dragging kayaks around and using poor posture to lift stuff has contributed to my pain. Thanks to the Bandits I get my gear packed and flop into my boat. We have very foggy weather this morning which makes for a surreal scene. Lunch is a beautiful spot at Fisher glacier where we see the biggest bear print of the trip. I work on my stretching all afternoon at camp and seem to be getting better.
Fireweed to Gateway Knob. I wake up with itchy ankles, actually kankles. Fireweed is a lowland camp and happens to be full of no-see-ums. This is the only camp on the river trip with bugs that were a bother. The trip to Gateway Knob is uneventful, we choose door # 3 which has slow current and is not clogged with icebergs. We had heard of a trip which spent 3 days stuck in door #2 which is still clogged up with ice. This is once again scenery overload; ice bergs, glaciers and Mt. Fairweather. Beautiful. We enjoy our last beer. We spend a couple of hours messing around on the banks of Gateway Knob before heading off to our last camp. The weather and scenery combine to make one final “10”. Number five on this incredible river adventure.
Gateway Knob to Dry Bay air strip. Day 12 on the river. We get up at 4:20 am just to make sure where all the kids are, launch before full daylight, run our last couple easy rapids and then paddle like dogs up the slough to the air strip. Hans from Yakutat Coastal arrives and we take three loads to get up to the Alaska Air flight out of Yakutat. We spend the afternoon repacking our gear and making 40 loads (35 of 49 lbs and 5 of 74 lbs – total baggage cost of $950) to fly home to Seattle. We go from absolute wilderness to a bush plane ride to Yakutat then on to Seattle in a stretch of about 18 hours. Not a “10”.
Seattle to Portland. TK and I try to avoid responsibility as long as possible. We crank the Grateful Dead on the Satellite radio and avoid our phones until just north of Portland. Even though we have been gone two weeks the realities of life grab us quickly and the memories of the Alsek River fade as the responsibilities of life and work return.
A grand journey with good friends, breath taking scenery, memories to last a lifetime and the wheels already set in motion planning the next great adventure up north.
Thank you to the people that made this trip possible:
Suzi and Joey – my special family!
Jon Corriveau – our administrator, extraordinary planner and great friend!
Yakutat Coastal Airways – Hans & Tanya
Trans North Helicopters – Dion
AlaskaRiverOutfitters – Stan and Kate
TheAlsekRiverGuidebook: By Russ Lyman 2004
Links to good maps:
Link to the river hydrograph: