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The Wildest River in the World…and How It Stayed That Way

“We’re going for Door # 2,” Maria announces. “We think there’s enough space between the icebergs and Gateway Knob.”

We push off and row against the strong current of the Alsek River. A moment later, we’re squeezing a raft between the island and a set of massive icebergs, while the current tries to yank us into a whirlpool of exquisite turquoise water that’s spinning toward the bergs. We back-paddle hard. Then I have a few moments to swap my paddle for a camera. The bergs are the size of small houses. Looking through the viewfinder, I realize that I’m in the poster that hung in the office back in 1992.

The first gig in my river conservation career was an internship in Portland, Oregon. Deskless, I did most of my work in the conference room. On the wall was a giant poster of someone rafting past towering icebergs under leaden gray Alaskan clouds, with the tagline “Tatshenshini Wild.”  Whenever I wanted to procrastinate, I stared at it and tried to imagine being in that sublime and intimidating landscape. Three decades later, I am there. Except today’s sky is blue.

The icebergs come from the Alsek and Grand Plateau Glaciers, which calve them into Alsek Lake, creating a sublime but nerve-wracking iceberg-dodge for river runners. The name “Tatshenshini Wild” came from the Tatshenshini River, where we started our trip 120 miles upstream in the Yukon Territory. The poster came from the hard won conservation campaign that made the area the world’s largest international protected area instead of the world’s largest copper mine. Without that poster, nobody would run this river now.

The Tatshenshini and Alsek rivers begin in the interior of the Yukon Territory and flow through the St. Elias and Fairweather ranges. They slice through the biggest non-polar ice cap on the planet, through mountains over 14,000 feet high, flowing together just before the Alaska border and the coast. It’s one of the world’s premiere river trips, on par with the Grand Canyon, Idaho’s Middle Fork, and perhaps more stunning than either. Permits are highly sought after. In in our twelve days on the Tat, we saw more grizzly bears (three) than other boating groups (one).

Baptism

Moose antlers and yellow dryas flowers, Sediments
Creek. Photo by Neil Shulman

 

A wave grabs the tube of my inflatable kayak harder than I expected. I slap the paddle against the water and pull up on the thigh strap to keep it upright, but I’m a moment too late, and I’m in the water. I flip the kayak right-side up and climb on board, only to get knocked over again. Now I’m swimming through the Tatshenshini canyon, exactly what I didn’t want to happen.

Most of the rapids on the Tatshenshini-Alsek are in the first hour of the trip, six miles of continuous class 3-4 whitewater. With cold water, few eddies to recover swimmers, and lots of trees along the riverbank, swims here are dangerous. Losing gear when the nearest route to civilization is a wilderness airstrip 120 miles downstream is also risky. I’m fortunate to have a good crew. After spending more time in the water than I wanted, I swim for an eddy and hop in one of the rafts; my kayak is recovered and no gear is lost.

Humbled, I get back into the kayak, glad we all insisted on wearing drysuits despite the hot day. We float a few more miles to our first camp.

The next day, we arrive at Sediments Creek, a broad valley that has something rare in this section of Alaska—a somewhat clear trail to the alpine zone. After a bit of a hunt for the trail where it enters the aspen thickets, we climb until we emerge into tall grass and wildflowers overlooking the bend of the Tatshenshini River downstream. There are countless hikes along the river, but most involve pounding through dense thickets, and Sediments Creek offers a much easier route. We take advantage of the opportunity to relax and soak up the view. From the top of the ridge, a mama grizzly and cubs are spotted. Wild Tatshenshini indeed!

 Legacy

Janet Wrege and James Cannava are all smiles approaching the
Tatshenshini’s confluence with the Alsek. Photo by Neil Shulman

 

Below Sediments Creek, the Tatshenshini slices deeper into the mountains. What is water now was a river of glacial ice as recently as six thousand years ago: the riverbed was covered in ice several thousand feet thick. That’s a long time for humans, but basically yesterday in geologic time. The legacy of all that ice means that the river is always changing in ways that easily contuse a river runner.

Like a foam cushion on a chair, the land is still rebounding from the weight of those glaciers. As the land rises, rivers channels shift, and trees grow where maps often show sandy deltas. Loose gravel from all that glacial erosion is unstable, and our rafts have to navigate what resembles a plate of flowing spaghetti. Trees continually float down the river as the loose banks erode. We’re constantly on our guard, rowing hard and squinting ahead to make sure the rafts don’t get sucked down a shallow channel.

By evening we’re tired and anxious to find camp. The first place we check is chock full of crisscrossing tracks of alpha predators—grizzly bears and wolves—with nowhere to give them an easy path around camp. We find a nice gravelly alluvial fan with a view of the mountains, which are getting bigger as we approach the coast. At camp, we watch erosion in action. As we cook dinner, a small rivulet near our camp changes course, soaking some of Janet’s gear. We move our tents to stay dry, only to have it shift again during the night, this time claiming Erin’s boots.

Our unreliable beach is just a few miles above the mouth of Tats Creek. Tats Creek is where Geddes Resources proposed the Windy Craggy Mine in 1988, claiming that one of the mountains held 100 million tons of copper. The proposal contained astronomical numbers: they wanted to pulverize the top 2,000 feet of Windy Craggy peak, which meant excavating 265 million cubic feet of rock by chewing 60 million pounds off the mountain, digging seven days a week, 365 days a year for fifteen years. A truck would rumble along the river every eight minutes to get the ore to a pipeline that would send it 150 miles to port in Haines, Alaska, where it would go to Japan. The acid-filled debris would be piled behind a dam in one of the most seismically active spots in the northwest or—even more absurdly—piled on top of a glacier. Watching our beach change shape during the 35 minutes it takes Maria and Adam to grill salmon, it’s clear that the mine would have meant the death of the most magnificent river I’ve seen.

Obvious Eddies

Camp at Melt Crek, with the Fairweather Range in the background. Photo by Neil Shulman

 

Over the course of icy eons, the glaciers bulldozed rocks into a superfine powder called glacial flour. This fine sediment gives each side stream its own color, from milky white to stunning turquoise to muddy brown. The Tatshenshini itself, gathering all this flour for hundreds of miles, is the color of a poorly-mixed cappuccino similar to Mark Twain’s description of the Missouri River: “Too thick to drink, too thin to plow.” The flour hides rocks under the surface and makes it hard to spot deep water. And it clogs filters, gets behind contact lenses, under drysuit neck gaskets, inside camera housings, and every other place you can imagine…and some you can’t.

The river’s constant change also means information from even a few months ago may be wrong. Our guidebook is eight years old, but when rivulets change courses while you’re cooking dinner, campsites and landing eddies won’t remotely resemble what they looked like back when the Boston Bruins last won the Stanley Cup.

We round a corner to see one of the most stunning vistas of our trip—a 360-degree view of the Fairweather Range, Noisy Range, and Icefield Ranges, with the blue water of Melt Creek flowing into the brown Tatshenshini past fields of purple fireweed. The guidebook tells us to “look for an obvious eddy on river left”. There’s no eddy at all, let alone an obvious one. We careen downstream until we can stop and then walk gear back up to the confluence for a camp where I count fourteen glaciers from the door of my tent. On a walk up Melt Creek, we find big swaths of purple fireweed and yellow dryas, interspersed with the tracks of grizzly, moose, and bear.

Bears and Rain

Our biggest surprise thus far has been the absence of two things: bears and rain. The Tatshenshini is some of the richest bear habitat anywhere. We’d seen three thus far.

We’re here before the salmon run, so bears may be eating berries in the high country. But there’s no shortage of tracks and scat. More likely, humans are loud and foreign to bears, and remoteness and careful management of campsites have kept them unused to human food. The Tatshenshini-Alsek is one of only two rivers to punch through the massive St. Elias Mountains. The low-elevation corridor is a migration route for grizzly bears, wolves, moose, and wolverine, allowing coastal and inland populations to mix and refresh gene pools.

When the Tatshenshini meets the Alsek, the corridor changes in two other ways. The first is size. The Alsek is bigger, and when it takes in the Tatshenshini, it becomes over a mile wide. The main channel moves like a freight train. Catching an eddy can mean rowing or paddling a long way to the shoreline, so you better make your move far upstream. And the mountains are also bigger.

Seeking a hike and a side stream to replenish water, we pull off the main drag. We find ourselves in a series of tight vegetated channels. We’ve gone from the autobahn to a maze of tiny side streets that look more like the Everglades (minus the alligators) than Alaska. Until the mountains come into view again.

And it’s cooler on the Alsek, a sign we’re getting closer to the rainier coast. We start to see coastal birds: Parasitic and Pomarine Jaegers, seabirds that look like darker, bigger gulls, but with the personality of angry street thugs.

Ice

A gull adds a sense of scale to a jumble of hued bergs in Alsek Lake. Photo by Neil Shulman

 

And the glaciers are bigger, though they were plenty big before. Sheer rock walls plummet from peaks to rivers on both sides, with glaciers in every valley: The Sapphire, the Walker, and countless others that nobody’s bothered to name but would be iconic anywhere else in the world. Walker Glacier makes constant banging and calving noises behind our camp. Before its recent retreat, the Walker used to be easy to walk on—thus the name. No longer.

We paddle into the lake to get as close as we dare to the icebergs. All the while, we watch chunks fall into the lake and roll over. While we’re at it, we also collect fresh ice for our coolers and some creative glacial cocktails.

We’re not done yet. The scenery grows from the stunning to the incomprehensible. Past Walker Glacier, we pass the Novatak Glacier’s five-mile wide face and camp on the peninsula above Alsek Lake, where we bushwhack to the lakeshore and gape at the icebergs. The bergs lurk above a low fog above the water, looming like they’re waiting to sink our rafts like the Titanic. The next morning we’ll run the “Channel of Death”: figuring out which of the three “doors” into Alsek Lake has a clear channel through the icebergs. We choose door #2, dodging the bergs to camp in that old poster from 1992.

How the North Was Won

When Geddes Resources proposed the Windy Craggy mine in the 1980s, the tide seemed to be with the mine. The economy was in the doldrums, and the mine promised 2,500 jobs. Mining companies threatened to move to Latin America if conservation requirements got in their way. The Tatshenshini wasn’t well known.

But the proposal had major flaws. In addition to the removing of a mountaintop and building roads, processing plants, and a pipeline to get the copper to Haines, AK, the mountain is 40% sulfide. Combined with airborne oxygen, sulfide becomes sulfuric acid. Piling acid waste atop the Fairweather Fault was risky. A group of Canadian conservationists formed Tatshenshini Wild (now BC Spaces for Nature) in 1989. Along with allies in Haines, they notched an early win, showing that road planning was inadequate.

During the pause in road-building, they took the campaign international. Stunning images by photographer Robert Glenn Ketchum inspired the public. With the major tourism destination of Glacier Bay National Park downstream, the U.S. government became concerned. A study showed that fisheries in Lynn Canal (where the pipe effluent would be dumped) generated $49.5 billion per year, mobilizing Alaskans. Soon 50 local and national conservation groups in Canada and the U.S. were involved, with a total membership of over ten million people.

The final nails in the coffin came in 1993, when Al Gore became U.S. Vice President. One can only imagine Gore’s reaction to piling acid mine waste on a glacier upstream of a major U.S. National Park amidst climate change and atop an active fault. Because of various treaties, the U.S. had leverage. On June 22,1993, British Columbia Premier Mike Harcourt created Tatshenshini Provincial Park, effectively killing the project.

The result is one of the largest protected areas in the world: virtually all of the Alsek and Tatshenshini basin lies within Tatshenshini and Kluane Parks in Canada and Glacier Bay and Wrangell-St. Elias National Parks in the U.S.

Wild, protected places are hard to get to—and even harder to get out of. A day after our iceberg-dodging run into Alsek Lake, we pull aside on a gravel bar on river left. Under the watchful eyes of a few bald eagles, we deflate rafts and unpack gear. We load two bush planes and fly to what feels like the bustling metropolis of Juneau, AK, where we immediately miss the cold air rushing off glaciers, the fireweed bobbing in the wind, and the haunting shapes of ice.

As I struggle with by-now unfamiliar rhythms of civilization, the words of Siguard Olson, longtime advocate for big wilderness, come to mind.

“And so it must be for all of us who have known the backcountry—no little sanctuaries along the fringes of civilization will quite suffice. We must know the wild and all it entails. The bite of a tumpline of the portages, the desperate battling on stormy lakes, the danger and roar of rapids. We must know hunger and thirst and privation and the companionship of men (and women) on the out-rails of the world, for all these things are inseparable. When after days or weeks of travel we modern voyagers find ourselves on a glaciated point a hundred or a thousand miles from any town and stand there gazing down the length of some unnamed lake listening to the wild calling of the loons and watching the island floating in the sunset, there is a fierce joy in our hearts.”

Massive icebergs calved from the Alsek and Grand
Plateau glaciers rise from evening mist on Alsek Lake. Photo by Neil Shulman

Neil Schulman is a paddler, writer, photographer and conservationist based in Portland Oregon. His writing and images have appeared in The Oregonian, Paddling Magazine, The Clymb, Portland Outsider and many other publications. In his “day job” he is the Executive Director of the North Clackamas Watersheds Council, where he’s working to remove an old dam that predates Abraham Lincoln.  You can see his work at neilschulman.com.

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