Jun 192012

Mountain peaking through the clouds on the Alsek River in the Yukon, Canada

We rise early in a place that doesn’t really have a night, and the new day may as well be a continuation of the one that preceded it. Without the fall of darkness, the sounds of the day do not take pause and so this day must be another part of the same day. The waterfall behind camp continued to roar as we attempted to sleep, the river in front of us maintained its chatter with the rustling tree leaves that danced to the winds, it is still doing so now. There is no telling where we are truly going, how long it will take to get to any particular point, or if anyone should really care about anything more than the idea that, here we are, and that, is that. Time must have been persuaded to vacate the area. Only the second day on the river and already I am losing track of how long this adventure has been unfolding, as though that mattered or had bearing on what will occur as we pull our sleepy heads from the clouds and exit our tent for another glimpse of this beauty that extends beyond words.

We are dwarfed by mother nature, she towers over us, even as we try to ignore her presence

All we have to do as humans is put ourselves into the path of life, where nature has the responsibility of crafting an earth that sustains, feeds, and entertains us, while accepting our abuse. Out here, armed with paddles, rubber rafts, and cameras, we are no match for the strength of spectacle that is employed by the life that surrounds us. We are consumed by immensity and are hostage to its whims, or we can be guests of its graciousness if we choose to see our humble place within it. This method and location of travel is rare, only a few brave individuals dare venture into these parts, maybe this is a testament to the dearth of character among people who are worthy enough to be allowed passage on such hallowed earth. But here I am, forced to take stock of what has put me here. How have I earned the right to make myself present in this cascade of the profound? Do others recognize their obligation to tremble in respect before the grandeur through which they travel?

A bleached white moose skull on a primitive trail in Kluane National Park - Yukon, Canada

Permanent death comes but once, but tiny deaths chip away at lives guided by routine. These types of adventures are opportunities to get off the treadmill, to go out and find that which has not been seen, at least by our own eyes. Most all things that demand our senses be focused on experiencing the unknown, are part of the adventure. One mustn’t place themselves in harms way to know what the horizon looks like from a new perspective, we can also look up, look over, look all around us right where we are. Open our mind to the idea that what we don’t know doesn’t make us stupid, it only suggests that we haven’t given something a try. Tolerance, love, empathy, and inspiring others, these are not weaknesses, they are the tools one requires to work on making ourselves better people. Some day our walk on the trail of life will end, just as it did for this moose. Will the memory of our existence leave behind a beautiful treasure that speaks of what our lives may have been like? Or will the ashes of our memories be scattered like silt into the river that empties into the sea?

Looking west form an overlook of the Alsek with Lowell Glacier in the distance

At the bottom right of this image is a hint of the “Braids” we will thread during this river adventure. Depending on the volume of river flow, the water that is rushing to the ocean will determine how much of the river bed is exposed. It is up to the experience of the boatman to find a channel that will allow our passage without running aground. One does not want to exit the raft in the river to help shift it forward, this water is cold, seriously life threatening cold. And your effort to dislodge the raft may only see it getting stuck again a few feet forward, so it is prudent to know where the best channel is for safe passage. But, the deepest part of the river is not always the most desirable. What happens when a great opportunity arises that would give us access to an overlook where we can see sights such as what we are looking at in this photo? We then take a side channel, a braid, and keep our fingers crossed. Once committed to the narrow route, there is no turning around. In the distance at the foot of the snow covered mountain, we are seeing hints of Lowell Glacier. For the indigenous people of this area, it is known as Naludi.

Greenery in a rock garden near an overlook of the river and mountains in the distance. Alsek River in the Yukon, Canada

Don’t get lost in the expansive vistas though, there is much to be seen in the cracks and crevices too. What is it that entertains my sense of awe to look at a scene that no other human may have ever taken the time to stop and look at? Why must I typically go to a museum to look at patterns that are outside my routine when nature is painted with a vibrant pallet of colors gleaned from the visually stunning world of random chance? Maybe for those who are more desirous of the familiar, these are just some rocks and stuff. To me, this is the work laid down by the hand of nature only found in the passage of time.

Natures petroglyphs found on a random rock along the Alsek River in the Yukon, Canada

And now the cracks. Look close, do you see the face? It is the most recognizable object one might see on this rock, but if you look even closer you might find other motifs hidden in the lines and worn surface. This river valley was once part of a passage that the native people of the coast and those further inland used in order to trade. Hidden throughout this landscape may be the signposts left carved upon the earth from their ancestors, but with less than 200 of us a year traveling this corridor, the chance of finding those artifacts may take many more decades, if we should ever be so lucky to find them at all. I cannot say this is a rock art panel with any certainty, but to my untrained eye I see many things that nag at my curiosity as to what I’m really seeing.

First look at Lowell Glacier on the Alsek River in the Yukon, Canada

We were only on the river a short time before we were exiting our rafts again. This stop will offer us an overlook with a birds-eye view of Naludi (Lowell Glacier). Even with people in the photo for comparison, it is not really possible to comprehend that the base of the mountain on the other side of the glacier, is over three miles (5km) away. I sit here in silence for a time trying to see it all, feeling that I am only seeing the surface of the atom, leaving so much more that will have to remain unknown and unseen. Should I ever return, I will be sure to roll around in the brush like a dog scratching its back, maybe then I will gain greater awareness that I’ve really been here. Looking back at these images, I stand in respect of those who have gone here, and can hardly believe I was in fact, one of those lucky people.

"Closeup" of the Lowell Glacier in the Yukon, Canada

Welcome to the path you dare not cross. From our vantage on the hill and with my best zoom lens, this is as close as I could get to the glacier. This is a place of near certain death. A frozen bulldozer of ice careens forward as it carves mountains into fine sand. It has no concern for those who might venture upon its jagged surface, and while one may get so far in their effort to cross its convulsive trail, their is no guarantee of being able to continue on your way, or to be successful in finding a way back. Not to say there are not clues of those who have tried, as on occasion bodies are found of indigenous people that were lost in the ice. For centuries prior to our arrival, they lived upon these icy lands and traveled its dangerous routes. The large rock formation is known as a “Nunatak.” Somehow these rocks have withstood the abrasive forces of the glacier and forced the ice river to detour around its commanding presence.

Lowell Lake full of icebergs at the foot of Lowell Glacier in the Yukon, Canada

Lowell Lake. Here, size matters. These icebergs are proverbial wolves in sheep’s clothing. First thought in my head upon seeing icebergs was, wow I want to see these up close. That is until you hear one rolling over, thunder explodes from the lake, and strangely enough, you will likely have difficulties even seeing where it happened. How with such a great view can you have a problem seeing it? Some of these icebergs are over 10 stories tall, that’s how.

A ptarmigan bird near Alsek River in the Yukon, Canada

This is our wildlife sighting for the day. Wikipedia tells me the ptarmigan is of the grouse family and that here in North America it is also known as the snow chicken. During the winter, the ptarmigan is white, some of that camouflage can still be seen. With summer in full swing it is turning brownish to blend in with the low brush. It needs this cover to hide from its predator, the golden eagle. These birds are sedentary, which may make them some of our distant ancestors 🙂

Mount Kennedy stands at 14,000 feet tall in Kluane National Park / Yukon, Canada

The good fortune of a clearing sky is that we have this rare opportunity to see Mt. Kennedy in the distance some 40 miles (65km) away, which is also the location where Lowell Glacier gets its start. The mountain is named after President John F. Kennedy, but it was his brother Robert Kennedy who first summited the peak back in 1965.  Sitting up there at 14,000 feet (4,300-m) is memorabilia from the President that Robert left in his brothers memory. I took this photo as we are passing through a small rapid on our way to entering Lowell Lake.

An iceberg in Lowell Lake - Kluane National Park Yukon, Canada

We are on the lake and having our first encounters with icebergs. This deep blue smoothly scalloped chunk of ice has recently rolled over. Under the lake’s surface, the flow of water sculpts bergs just as the weather above wears them down. It is this shrinking underwater part of an iceberg that creates an imbalance that ultimately contributes to the berg turning over. Due to this fragile relationship of which side is heavier at any given moment, there is great uncertainty as to when a shift in the wind or water current disturbs that fragile balance and over the iceberg goes. Inside of me is also a fragile balance of curiosity that wants to throw caution to that wind and make an approach, to reach out and touch these glimmering objects of nature’s art.

Two of our rafts threading the icebergs on their way into Lowell Lake. Kluane National Park Yukon, Canada

The raft I was on was the first to weave its way through the ice gauntlet. This wasn’t easy and required some of us on board to help row, as the lack of current and strong winds make for a difficult passage. Care must be taken when passing ice, it isn’t easy to determine how much of it is submerged and out of view. The workout of dipping a paddle into the water and helping row is great for warming us in the wind. Between the time we passed through and the other two rafts finding their way, the ice shifted, it’s constantly doing so. This brought up an interesting potential situation, while we could easily enter the lake today, by the time we leave, it may not be so easy to do so. The exit could be blocked by an ice jam! Well that could be interesting too, because then we will learn how to portage three rafts, a bunch of gear, and a couple hundred pounds of food.

A small clear iceberg. This is old ice from the bottom of the glacier, it is clear due to the pressures that have formed it. Kluane Naitonal Park Yukon, Canada

This diamond of an iceberg is a floating jewel. I learn that it is clear because it is old ice, this is bottom of the glacier ice. The pressures it is exposed to is what has made it clear. It is in part, these information extras, as to why we requested Bruce Keller to join us, this man is a font of knowledge. He explained how this clear ice forms and how the bottom of glaciers take on an almost malleable plastic nature when under such great pressures. Precisely what was said is sadly lost in the myriad of details that were still and would continue to overwhelm me for the duration of the trip. What else is special about this mini-bergette is that just after taking this photo, Caroline and I plucked it from the frigid water to bring it ashore for cocktail hour. The boatmen had an ice-pick on hand and quickly within reach, you can guess we are not the first travelers to want to use Pleistocene era ice in our refreshments. We chip into our catch to enjoy the oldest ice cubes we will likely ever use to chill our drinks.

The view from our campsite in front of Lowell Glacier in Kluane National Park / Yukon, Canada

Let the tears flow. From right here, our chosen campsite while staying in front of Lowell Glacier, Caroline and I had our first encounter with an overwhelming emotional outbreak that drew the water from our eyes. Sure we could have had a lake side room with a view of the glacier, but it was this site that took my breath away. At this very moment every element within this landscape converged to create the most perfect view that I felt I may ever camp before. A thousand foot waterfall directly ahead, another taller one on our right out of view of this photo, snow covered mountains and the roar of a calving glacier on our left. Could it be any more perfect than this?

Late day on Lowell Lake in Kluane National Park / Yukon Territory, Canada

As it get’s later in the day, Mt. Kennedy is still visible, the sun hovers low over the shoulder. The lake reflects golden tones and the wind ripples its surface in silence. Icebergs travel at electron speeds in comparison to our full-stop halt before perching to absorb this view into our memories. Bruce tells us a story of how on a previous journey down the Alsek at this very site some years before, the group heard a deafening roar, something big calved off the glacier. They had just pulled ashore and were getting ready to start unloading the rafts when they could see a large wave coming their way. The order was yelled to head up the hill to higher ground, in came the wave that thrust their still full rafts 20 feet up the hillside depositing them right where we had setup our kitchen and more than a few of our tents. Now it all makes sense why driftwood is scattered about camp, this must be a rather common occurrence. Was this in any way frightening? Not a chance, by now the sense of adventure is in full swing. I want to be ready for everything, it’s all just incredible. By the way, we had Thai food for dinner. Yep, life is something else away from the treadmill.

Jun 182012

Riverside cascade tumbling into the Alsek River in Yukon, Canada

After two-days of traveling to get ourselves into position, we are ready to launch onto this remote river called the Alsek. We are here with the kind permission of the Canadian government, as it is by permit that we are allowed to raft through Kluane National Park. Coming here is a rarity, less than 200 people a year opt for this adventure through such a rugged, pristine, and faraway place. Juneau is now 245 miles (397km) to the south and Anchorage 613 road miles (993km) to the northwest – we are way out there. Between us and the Pacific Ocean there are no roads, shops, electricity, or flush toilets. We travel as a self-contained mini-armada. After a somewhat windy night, we woke for a quick cold breakfast and were underway as soon as camp could be packed up and stowed on our rafts. Caroline and I joined Bruce on his raft for this “first” day on the river.

Female moose crossing the Alsek River in Kluane National Park / Yukon, Canada

It’s a bit gray out and chilly on the water, so we have all of our toasty rubber gear on. That, sits over waterproof pants, that are on top of quick dry pants, that cover long underwear. The top halves of our body are layered in a similar arrangement, except Caroline and I also have hand knitted hats for keeping our heads warm. Over it all is the PFD; a personal flotation device, that we hope will not be tested for efficacy. Not requiring these extra layers or buoyancy protection, was this female moose that strode right across the river, but apparently was spooked by something on the shore in front of her. We first saw her from a good distance and immediately stopped paddling, so as not to spook her.  As we floated slowly downstream, the moose continued to inspect the right shore, whatever she was seeing, we could not. After the moose caught sight of us, she would shift her gaze from the shore, to us, back to the shore, and then back at us. Finally she called it quits and turned around to return to the left shore. Into the thicket she strode, this would be the only moose we’d see on this journey.

Looking down the Alsek River in Yukon, Canada

About an hour downstream, we start getting our first hints of a blue sky. While sunshine may yet be on the itinerary, this is Alaska and nearly any type of weather is possible, good thing we are prepared. This day on the river has similarities to our first day on the Colorado down in the Grand Canyon. The scope and spectacle is too far beyond our sense of the familiar, it is impossible to relate this to anything previously known. I find myself unable to comprehend the magnitude. I may as well be a thousand days away from tomorrow because that might be the time required to give this some sense of understanding. It isn’t that I don’t recognize water, mountains, sky; it is more the idea that there are no familiar landmarks ahead, there is only the potential for more of the incomprehensible. Oh I’m sure some will fall right in and see this as just so much more of something similar to other experiences had previously, but this is my first time in the Yukon and already I’m aware that there is an infinity of detail surrounding us that I cannot stop to see. There are view points in countless different locations under a billion different weather and light conditions that can offer a trillion different perspectives; the only position I will see this from, is right here, right now, from my spot on this little inflatable raft. Insignificance screams out my name in silence.

Another rainbow on the Alsek River in Yukon, Canada

I didn’t want to post another expansive mountain and river shot right away, especially one that is not all that great, but this one has a rainbow. Not just any rainbow either, this is the shortest, most ground hugging rainbow Caroline or I have ever seen. It is also the second rainbow in two days. Caroline and I have likely been witness to well over 100 rainbows during our travels, shooting stars are another familiar theme. You can bet that we see these phenomenon as notes from the universe that the proverbial wishes and pots of gold are easily found when one is out in the flow of nature.

Clouds quickly come and go around the mountain tops on the Alsek River in Kluane National Park / Yukon, Canada

The weather works hard here, it is like a chameleon that changes minute-by-minute. Due to the size of all that surrounds us, it is difficult to grasp distances and is impossible to guess how far the horizon might stretch out before us. Our place down here on the water doesn’t help establish a good vantage point either, with heavy clouds obscuring what lies beyond the closest mountains, we are left wondering as to what are we missing. There’s this nagging thought that whatever has been missed these first two-hours, will probably forever remain unknown to Caroline and I. Even if we were to return in a year or two, would the river be able to be run or might a glacier block our passage? Would the weather be harsh, rainy, or maybe snowy with the view more limited than what we have experienced so far today? When we go to some place like Disneyland, we can be nearly certain that we will have seen all there is to be seen, should we dedicate our efforts to do so. That cannot be said when visiting places such as Alaska, or the Grand Canyon for that matter. When trapped by the conveniences of highways, groomed roadsides, and finite city centers, our vision and imaginations stop at the boundary of these man-made environments. Out here the only limits are our ability to look deep, not just outside, but also within ourselves.

Looking back up river at two rafts following our lead on the Alsek River in the Yukon, Canada

And then the sky opens to spill sweet sunlight upon all it reaches. Not even noon yet and we are a million miles from where we were. The first mishap of the trip was a personal one for me. My brand new GoPro HD Hero2 that had not filmed a second of footage in its brief life, jumped overboard and died. I cannot confirm its death for certain, the body wasn’t able to be retrieved. It was attached to its suction cup device that will hold tight to objects that are traveling as fast as 150 miles per hour, was probably never tested on the rounded rubber front tube of an inflatable raft ripping along at 5mph. Turning my back, for a split second, the suction cup, the GoPro, a 64GB SD Card, and my brand spanking new LCD BacPac abandoned ship; taking close to $500 out of my pocket at the same time. You see, while the sky can clear and clouds will dissipate, the waters we are traveling are so full of silt, we cannot see a quarter inch into the murk. There is so much silt that it sounds like the bottom of the rafts are being sandpapered. Crispy crackles and pops rise from the raft’s floor. Uh-oh, and so is the water. We haven’t been through a single rapid yet, but I keep on bailing water that is collecting in the front of our raft. Do we have a leak, might my camera be able to float up into it?

Adventure, glaciers, rapids, wilderness, and wild animals, we are here to see it all. Including the blossoming of wildflowers that spring forth to color a landscape that for the majority of the year is cold and hostile. It’s only mid June, but within 90 days, winter will start showing its face and the flowers will be long gone. Fortunately for Caroline and I, Bruce has been on this river seven other times and was able to make a pretty good guess when we might be able to see the wildflowers near or at their peak. His crystal ball worked well.

Wildflowers in Kluane National Park / Yukon, Canada

We have stopped for lunch. Sandwiches, chips, fruit, and cookies are on the menu; standard river fare for a mid-day meal. After stuffing our gullets, it is announced that we are going to venture out on our first hike. I instead, decline. I need to know the silence that exists here. I long for a moment of quiet that so far has not been found. If I could just sit here next to shore, next to these beautiful wildflowers, I am certain I can find the tranquility that I cherish. The group trudges up the hill behind me, their voices fade and I start to listen; for the bear. There will be no bear finding a tasty man-morsel today, I am safe. Then, the quiet begins.

Silent rocks in Kluane National Park / Yukon, Canada

These rocks did not chatter, they did not groan under the weight of earth that sits atop them, they sat motionless, and quiet. I too sat still, because if I didn’t, the synthetic clothes I require for survival here create a racket that would disturb the dead. The quieter it became, the more that silence demanded respect, I obliged. A slight breeze ruffles the nearby leaves, it must be a bear? Nope, it is just the wind reminding the trees that they know how to sing their own song. It has taken three days of traveling to find ourselves 10 miles downstream, but it felt like mere seconds before the marauding hikers crushed quiet like an ant under foot. I left a camera upstream from here, if someone should one day find it, please set it up on river left, really anywhere will do and find a method for connecting it to the internet. A webcam from this shore seems like a  terrific idea to me.

Snow covered mountains, green forest, silvery river, blue and white sky; Earth's rainbow.

There must be homes on the other side of that hill with a well hidden road for commuters to get to and from work. How do people resist living in a place this gorgeous? I suppose 24 hour nights for a good part of winter with vast quantities of snow piled on everything, oh yeah, and the 500 mile drive to work all conspire to dissuade urbanization of these wild lands. That, and the insight of those bureaucrats, environmentalists, and left wing fringe folk who think places like this are worth preserving. Not that its exploitation wasn’t considered, at least in part. As recently as 1993 there was a push to start mining copper further downstream. Studies suggested it would end in total disaster. Not only would it destroy swaths of pristine land, it threatened Dall sheep, wolves, wolverines, and the largest concentration of grizzly bears on earth. Author and boatman Michael P. Ghiglieri has written an excellent piece that goes into detail regarding this boondoggle, you can read it at O.A.R.S. website by clicking here.

Bruce Keller at the oars on the Alsek River in the Yukon, Canada

Meet Bruce Keller; our boatman. Want to know more about this great river guide? Read my book, Stay In The Magic! Shameless plugs belong on one’s own blog, it goes with the territory. As good as he is, he hasn’t stopped the water that is accumulating so fast that I have to bail out the raft every 20 minutes. Now I’m stumped, sitting here the night I’m writing this, I stare at the photo and think about everything I could tell you about Bruce, but there it is just a couple of lines above this one where I’ve said I won’t. Bet I can’t make it to the end of the telling of our Alsek adventure before breaking that devils bargain I’ve created. So, where to go with this? Oh yeah, sitting behind Bruce is John Hoffman and next to him is Caroline Rhodes, the editor of my book titled, “Stay In The Magic – A Voyage Into The Beauty Of The Grand Canyon.” It is the book you are now getting pretty interested in and are considering purchasing!

The miniature flora growing boldly where few men dare to tread. Kluane National Park in the Yukon Territory of Canada

Would you believe these plants have started growing in the silty wet bottom of our raft? I didn’t think so. We are on shore. Camp is set up and everyone except Bruce, Shaun, Caroline, and myself are about to go on a hike to explore a waterfall in our backyard; about a mile away. But before camp is nearly deserted, a call goes out to help empty, de-rig, and roll Bruce’s raft over. Right away the culprit is identified, a big split in the rubber underbelly. How we didn’t go Titanic is beyond me, or maybe it was my steadfast bailing? Fixing a hole in a raft next to a swift moving river turns out to be easy enough, except for the exotic glue concoction that should be bundled with a military grade gas mask to protect yourself from the fragrant aroma of this toxic mix. Turns out that boatmen have all the tools they need for just such a job; beer. While sparing myself brain damage from the noxious fumes, I went exploring in our local vicinity, the picture above is a hint of what I found.

Purple wildflowers that Caroline will look up shortly and share with readers what they are

I have come to form a hypothesis regarding us ‘city’ people finding ourselves in the bigger world of immense nature. We do not truly know how to embrace a world without boundaries. It is as though we have been hit with a cudgel – relentlessly. With our wits bashed clean out of our heads, we lean towards the familiar, we wallow in the mundane. How have I come to this cynical conclusion you might ask? Observation of our behaviors when transported into these vast mind-expanding locations. For some people this is manifested in the talk on the boats where they are quick to drag their “interesting” lives onto the river for all of us to share in. For others, they are able to contain themselves until reaching the shore and the campfire before hell breaks loose; I do not want to know the smallest detail of what TV show these people find interesting – I AM SURROUNDED BY THE ASTONISHING SPECTACLE OF NATURE, and am very happy to be in the moment! Though I should admit, I too suffer from mother nature’s ability to overdose the senses. For me, I turn in. I look for silence, I try to find something to focus on that doesn’t bludgeon me with trying to comprehend the infinite. Already, just one day on the river, and I’m losing my sense of place. So instead of joining the banality of regurgitating stories that can in no way compete with where we are, I try to slow down, to settle in. I laid down on the ground like a kid about to inspect the microscopic fauna and flora below his feet, I wanted to find intimacy with something more easily comprehensible.

A little yellow wildflower that Caroline would love to share with you what it is

What I found was that the universe of the tiny can be more immense than that which is obviously easier to see when looking to the sky and mountains. Down here on the ground another universe exists. The soil is not flat and compressed, it is damp, dark, and teaming with life. Delicate crevices descend into dark shadow where my vision cannot penetrate. From out of those hidden places nearly transparent insects unfamiliar to me, crawl out and just as quickly dip into another hidden cranny. I look closer and find plants smaller than the head of a pin growing between grains of soil and sand. A spider scrambles over debris that has collected over the seasons, there is no telling how long the elements in this microcosm have played host to that and those which live here. Looking for something simpler, I am finding yet more big questions. What is the purpose of all of this spectacle? How does the life that exists here survive through the brutality of a long dark winter where snow and ice are the rulers? What could that process of reawakening feel like if it were us waking from a long hibernation where our lives were suspended until conditions were once again fit for our springing forth?

Your guess is as good as mine as to what this insect is, but it lives in Kluane National Park in the Yukon Territory of Canada if your were interested in trying find out

I am certainly the one and only human being this bug will ever see in its lifetime. Its plain of existence does not require my presence, it is more likely that I am detrimental to its short life. Less than an inch long, there was something beautiful about this creatures life and its place here about 500 feet from shore and the rest of people I’m traveling with. This bug has no limits on where it may roam, it doesn’t pay rent to be allowed to have a place on the surface of the earth to call home. It has learned to find food in its environment without needing to exchange labor for access to a meal. This turquoise suited explorer is able to scale blades of grass a dozen times taller than its length where it can observe the alien human who has barged into its universe. Both of us sit still, not flinching, me imperceptibly breathing, it practicing simple diffusion. So who or what is freer? I’ll have to go home, I couldn’t survive here a winter on my own, while the grasshopper is home. It and its kind will survive – if “we” let it.

Something is about to bloom, but what it is, awaits identification by my beautiful wife whose skills of identification are unmatched in the household of Wise

There is too much to see here. Instead of me finding the familiar or at least the comprehensible, I am no more certain of my surroundings than I was when I came over to this small patch of tranquility. I will remain lost in the fog of vastitude here at Lava Creek Camp and remember how this first day on the river is only but a smaller part of a tiny part. We are but a small element in the larger world that resides in a universe where many of us can seemingly only survive in by focusing our attentions on those things we already know, lest we become lost in the magnitude of possibility where our minds may not have the elasticity to grasp the totality that bombards our senses. At least I will contemplate these things and continue to try to find meaning when stripped of the familiar and my everyday routine.

Jun 172012

Passing a lighthouse on the Inside Passage after leaving Juneau, Alaska on the way to Haines

This trip to Alaska is more than just a vacation, we are getting started on another big adventure. While today is a part of the journey, it is really about getting into place for the action to get underway. This wasn’t a spur of the moment, “Let’s get out and do something,” kind of trip either and NO, we are not here for a cruise! Planning for our introduction to Alaska started last summer with us weighing options between two different rivers and available dates. We ended up opting for the Alsek River over the Tatshenshini River, which is just a mountain range over from where we are heading today. We start early and take a shuttle to the dock where we will board a fast catamaran operated by the Alaska Marine Highway for our two-and-a-half-hour ride up the Inside Passage. Fog obscures the view that we are certain is nothing short of spectacular, but those sights are not to be seen by us today and will require another visit to delight in its certain beauty.

John and Caroline Wise on the Alaska / Canadian border

We dock in Haines Junction and are greeted by Andy from Chilkat Guides. Andy is the company rep I’ve been talking to for the past year about this grand outing. A few minutes later, with our gear loaded on the van, we are on our way to the company warehouse. Some of the other passengers we’ll be traveling with are already here, some are yet to arrive. A few minutes later a big truck pulls up, out steps Bruce Keller, one of our boatmen. This is not just any old boatman either, Bruce was with us on our 18-day dory trip down the Colorado through the Grand Canyon a year and a half ago. He is here at our request, after all, it was Bruce on Day 1 of that Grand Canyon adventure who told us a story about a Tatshenshini/Alsek trip he had been on in years past. The flames of our curiosity were stoked. There’s another reason we wished for Bruce to join us here, but I’ll get to that later.

On the Haines Highway going north

Once all of us guests are assembled, the briefing begins. We are introduced to our other two boatmen, our trip leader is Shaun Cornish who also goes by the nickname “Corn”, next is Martha Stewart – no not that one. Dry bags are handed out for packing our gear into, along with a sleep kit, and fisherman’s rubber overalls and jackets. Packed up it’s time to hit the road in our school bus. Not so fast, we still need heavy rubber boots and felt liners to keep our feet dry and comfy once we get to the river, that and some alcohol. Once that’s done we are ready to get underway and drive north up the Haines Highway. A peculiar situation occurs on this type of river trip; we do not start our river journey in Alaska, but in the Yukon Territory of Canada. The river will take us out of the Yukon and into British Columbia before shoving us across the U.S. border in the middle of nowhere some days further downstream. But we still have to check in with customs, so at the U.S. / Canadian border we first file into the U.S. crossing station and surrender our passports for checking into the U.S. although we haven’t even left yet. Then it’s time to check in with Canada, once more the passports are handed over and we wait a few minutes. We are clear and again are heading up the highway.

Side of the road off the Haines Highway

The trek out of Alaska and the way into the Yukon are well deserving of all the superlatives offered by the many travel writers and poets who have attempted to convey a sense of the beauty that exists within this landscape. Words like “heavy”, “large”, “expansive” quickly come to mind. “Overwhelming” soon tramples the senses leaving me to shake my head in disbelief that I am even here. I want to feel cheated that we are not stopping at every pullout to stand in awe of all of this, but I understand that we are on our way to something really big.

A lumbering grizzly bear makes his way across a meadow off the Haines Highway

Not to say we can’t stop, and after spotting a grizzly bear, well that demands we pull over. Oblivious to our presence and not caring a lick about our need for photos, this famous lumbering creature turns his back on us and wanders away from the meadow it was grooming, to disappear into a thicket of trees. As far as wildlife was concerned this day, the bear would be the only encounter we’d have. Like the bear, we too need to keep on moving.

Roadside mountain and lake view off Highway 3 in the Yukon Territory of Canada

Photographing this environment is difficult.Clouds change quickly and the land is so expansive that getting it “all” into frame becomes an exercise in frustration. If I were driving and getting to a destination in any particular time was not a factor, I would pull over every two minutes to insist that this was going to be the photo that would define our trip. Instead, I frantically shoot photos out of the window of the school bus and assure myself that I am coming back some day to linger while we mosey down the road.

Off-roading in a school bus requires a full 90 minutes to travel but 5 miles on this poorly maintained road to the Alsek River

It’s already 5:00 pm by the time we leave the road near Haines Junction for a bumpy ride down a narrow, poorly maintained scratch into the earth. It will take 90 minutes on this rut to travel just 5 miles. The adventure has now begun. Just as quickly, it nearly comes to a standstill. Flowing water goes where it wants to out here and when it does so in random ways, it can cut banks into the gravel, and that’s just what our bus got stuck on. But we are traveling with pro’s and in an instant, Corn has us off the gravel bar and bumping wildly on our way to our campsite.

On the way to our campsite down a poorly maintained road in the Yukon

Onward we crawl. From this location back in 1850, we would have been submerged below a very large lake. In 1725, Lowell Glacier surged forward creating a temporary 125-year dam that blocked the flow of the Alsek River. During those formative years, a lake over 30 miles long had collected, until in 1850 the glacier broke. When those waters were released, a massive flood scoured the landscape clean, as it made its way to the Pacific about 150 miles downstream. The shoreline of that lake can still be seen in the mountain sides next to our route.

Snow covered mountains in early summer line the primitive road that is delivering us to the Alsek River

We have fallen in love with the terrain. Pinching ourselves will not waken us from this dreamscape. It is now incomprehensible how this can get any better. The idea that we are just at the beginning of a two-week rafting trip down a wild, infrequently traveled river only builds the sense of excitement that tingles the eyes and accelerates the heart with anticipation. As it was with our rafting trip down the Colorado, we cannot fully comprehend that we are so fortunate to be here, but so it is. Shortly, we will exit the bus. Our gear will be thrown onto the sandy soil and we will from that point on, only move further and further away from civilization and the modern world. We are entering a place where few dare enter, a primitive land lost in time, carved during the epoch known as, the Pleistocene. Do not cue Twilight Zone music here.

Setting up camp on the Alsek River in the Yukon, Canada

What happened? Were we afraid that in a space so large we would feel isolated, distant, alone? Maybe the others thought I had made a sound judgement when scouting the location to set up the first tent. I had chosen this spot for Caroline and I because we were camping close to some obvious runoff that had poured over this drainage in the last days and this particular location looked to be an inch or two above the rivulets that can be seen in the bottom of the photo. Still, I wasn’t so sure about my logic and wondered if we should have searched for higher ground, I was sure the others would after having witnessed my poor judgement. No one else pursued that line of thought though, they simply huddled around us. I agonized about moving the tent to find some ‘open’ space, but was certain that would have been perceived as anti-social. On the other hand, who needed a tent when the plan was to stay up all night? To experience a 24-hour day seemed like a great idea, before a full stomach after dinner changed the equation.

Looking downstream on the Alsek River in the Yukon, Canada

This is the direction we’ll travel in the morning. Three inflatable rafts, three guides, twelve passengers, and 184 miles between us and the ocean. What is it that lies in front of us? What kind of wildlife will we see? Will a rapid spill one or more of the rafts and its human cargo into these icy waters? Might we witness calving glaciers or rolling icebergs? Standing on this shore there are no answers, but there is an abundance of curiosity, trepidation, enthusiasm, and outright bewilderment. Today we have placed ourselves at the precipice of adventure whose grandeur exceeds our ability to comprehend even a fraction of what’s to come. It will take months, if not years into the future, to fully appreciate where this river will have taken us.

A double rainbow greets us at camp where the Dezdeash River is becoming the Alsek in the Yukon Territory of Canada

The last act of this momentous day occurred under a rainbow. In the beginning of this day’s recounting I mentioned there was more to the story as to why it was important for us to have Bruce along as one of our guides. It was here on this day next to the Alsek that I presented Bruce with the first copy of my book titled, “Stay In The Magic.” One month following the completion of our November 2010 Colorado River rafting trip I took the opportunity to phone Bruce. Just prior to leaving the Grand Canyon the boatmen told us that the worst part of these big river trips was about to begin, the phenomenon known as re-entry. Upon returning to “normal” life after an extended stay in the amazing, it happens that what was once normal and routine, now seems out of place and peculiar, at best. We were reassured that this passes after a few days. Well there it was a month later and Caroline and I were still deep in the Grand Canyon, and were not making a very elegant departure from the experience we had marveled in. It was towards the end of that phone call that Bruce reassured me that we were truly lucky, that we should enjoy our extended stay in those memories, be happy that they didn’t disappear moments after our return, and that we should, “stay in the magic.” At the time I didn’t know yet that I was writing something that was going to go beyond one of my usual blog entries. As my writing continued and I realized that I was indeed on my way to authoring a book, I voiced a rhetorical question to Caroline one day, “I wonder what I’ll call this if I ever finish it?” Her reply: “What about that phone call with Bruce a couple of months ago where he told you to, “Stay In The Magic!?” And that is where we have stayed, in the magic.

Jun 162012

Today was the grand arrival, we landed in Juneau, Alaska. This is the 50th state for Caroline and I to visit, although there’s a whole lot more to see of this land than the little corner we are exploring on this journey north. Flying in left much to the imagination, as for most of the flight from Seattle our view was that of a heavy cloud cover. Moments after dropping below the shroud I couldn’t contain my excitement and infectiously pulled Caroline into my enthusiasm when I pointed out that I could see a glacier. The original plan had been to land, call the hotel for a shuttle, and maybe get a taxi into Juneau proper for some sightseeing. Scratch that, we are renting a car so we can go have our first encounter with a glacier. Mendenhall Glacier was just up the road, soon we were too.

Mendenhall Glacier

Mendenhall Glacier. Okay, so we’ve now been everywhere in the United States.  We are like children on Christmas day here. Containment of the exhilaration we are feeling would be like trying to contain a cloud burst. A glacier! Not just any old glacier either, one with a name that smacks of English royalty. You don’t need to correct me, I know it’s a medieval English town best known for the Royal Air Force, but today, this glacier is king.

Waterfall next to Mendenhall Glacier

Astonished and overwhelmed. That is our normal when visiting a state for the first time and can’t believe our luck that “WE” should be there. Compounding today’s excitement is the knowledge that we have earned bragging rights of having been to all 50 states. Yes I know I’m repeating myself, but that is just what we do a hundred times while we are standing there, mouths agape, as we ask each other, “Can you believe it?” We may never understand how others, apparently on their first visits to someplace new, maintain such composure? If it wasn’t for our reverence of nature, you can bet we’d be screaming holy expletives at the idea that we are gawking at this spectacle of beauty.

Closeup of the face of Mendenhall Glacier in Juneau, Alaska

Got a kayak? How do we get out there and touch this? Not exactly an inviting facade, maybe even a very dangerous one, but who can resist the idea of cozying up to the face of a glacier? And what of the chance of a calving chunk of ice the size of a convenience store falling off to crush us, and maybe even kill us? Okay, forget the kayak. Short of sharing our mantra of repeating “OH MY GOD!” I cannot convey where we were mentally. Physically, that’s easy: on shore, still with mouths wide open. Good thing arctic terns nest on surfaces and not in cavity nests, as I’m sure one of our mouths might have looked like an inviting place to call home.

Sudeten Lousewort in bloom - also known as fernweed; Juneau, Alaska. The Latin name is Pedicularis sudetica

The Sudeten lousewort blooming in June is also known as fernweed. The timing of this trip to Alaska has not been left to chance, there was intention behind making plans for an early summer trip: to maximize our opportunity to see wildflowers. Of course there were other intentions too, namely a river we’ll be traveling on. That bit of information will be detailed in tomorrow’s blog entry. For now, we are content to explore the area adjacent the glacier.

An iceberg in front of Mendenhall Glacier - Juneau, Alaska

It’s one thing to see an iceberg in photos, on TV, or in a movie, but to see one in person, well that’s like being on a savanna and watching a lion catch a meal. Not that I’ve personally been to Africa, but I can imagine the tension mounting as one is about to witness nature in action, and then it happens, the chase is on. It’s just like this moment right now. Though there’s not much chase, not even any perceptible motion, nor will the iceberg be devouring any fish, beaver, or birds that may enter its zone. Nope, it’s just a giant chunk of glacial ice, moving at glacial speeds. It is the coolest piece of floating ice I have ever been witness to. Come to think about it, besides an ice cube in a drink, or a frozen lake surface, this is the only massing piece of floating ice I have ever seen. Wishes for it to roll over went unheeded.

A seagull over the waters of the Mendenhall Glacier in Juneau, Alaska

Arctic terns were nesting during our visit. These birds are quick flyers and dart in any direction with incredible speed, that’s why I don’t have a photo of one of them, but instead offer you this seagull which was much easier to capture. Couldn’t spot any chicks yet, but for all I know they were right there under our noses. If ever there was an argument for augmented reality, for me it is right here, right now. If Google Glass wants to do me a favor, give me an overlay of information regarding the natural world. I’ve already learned how to navigate the cities I visit, well except for that tiny problem of finding a public restroom, but I really want to know more about the nature surrounding me here today. What is the life span of an Arctic tern, are they migratory, monogamous, swimmers? How big was the Mendenhall glacier 30, 50, 100 years ago? Does the waterfall on our right flow year round? Before I got home at the end of our great north adventure to learn that the flowers above were of the Lousewort family, it would have been great to have a mobile device that already knew where I would be during this trip, and that I would want to know everything I could about the local flora and fauna. Let’s go National Geographic, it’s time to get into educational augmented reality based software!

A fern growing adjacent to the Mendenhall glacier in Juneau, Alaska

Lush, deep green, and dense, just the way I like my women, oops, I mean plant life. Eye candy should seduce you, drag you in to see more, never quite produce the total state of ecstasy one seeks, thus bringing us back for more. Botanical eye candy is like a drug to me. It allows me to better understand the animal that falls into it, writhing and wriggling in delight. Maybe it gets high when rolling deep in the luscious carpet of greenery, just as I am by merely staring at this abundance of enchantment. Hey buddy, want some green stuff? It’s really potent, man.

Water streaming over rocks in Juneau, Alaska

Leave the camera’s shutter open a few seconds while focused on rushing water, and the ephemeral wisps of its splashing droplets take on a mysterious otherworldly feel. It never fails for Caroline to stop at these outflows and plead with me to shoot a long exposure. I oblige her when possible, as I too love this effect. We have a soft spot for these beautiful little streams and cascades, who doesn’t?

A black bear noshing on some fine greenery in Juneau, Alaska

Nom, nom, nom, murmurs the bear while noshing on the fine roadside greenery. With the abundance of what may be his favorite mid day snack, this bear paid no attention to us. Of course I didn’t challenge this safe arrangement by throwing Caroline out of the car to see if she could persuade the bear to perform some antics for us. Had I done that, I am certain I could have captured a picture that would be a hit on Imgur, while the car behind us might have gotten video footage of an idiot pushing his wife into the path of a bear, allowing him the big YouTube score. Now I wouldn’t have really done any of this, but don’t you ever wonder what the thinking is behind some of these profoundly stupid situations people get into before finding minor celebrity on the internet? By the way, I cannot verify if the plant the bear is eating is actually as yummy as it appears to him. Maybe next time I’ll try a mouthful. (Edit: The bear is eating Equisetum, commonly known as Horse Tail.)

Driving north from Mendenhall glacier towards the roads end outside of Juneau, Alaska

The weather wasn’t cooperating in offering us stunning panoramas, so we settled on this “drab” view where snow covered mountains peak out behind low clouds to give us a hint of what exists in the distance. It is as though the full dimension of where we are is only slowly being revealed, and we are perfectly okay with that. Our imaginations fill in the gaps of what we are not allowed to witness yet, our expectations are soaring. The thrill of what is unfolding is electrifying.

A cascade peeks out from under the clouds near Juneau, Alaska

Not all things right in front of our faces are always apparent. On our drive north from Mendenhall the mountains were mostly cloud covered, and there was that bear that grabbed our attention. On the way back south we spot this cascade that had emerged from below the weather. Had it always been there? Of course it has, though this could also be a seasonal occurrence, only flowing with the spring and summer melt. We have to wonder, how many more cascades and waterfalls are we missing? Those thoughts of still hidden gems will make it easier on the days when we need to convince ourselves that a return to Alaska is required.

Caroline Wise enjoying her first beer in Alaska, which was better than the first bear we saw enjoying her!

Time to call it a day. Not that the day is really over; it stays light around the clock here this time of  year, but we were hungry and tired. For a capitol city there weren’t very many choices of where to grab dinner. We tried finding the local dive that might have been owned by a fisherman who only sold his daily catch, but that culinary treasure proved elusive. And so we satisfied ourselves with some nondescript waterside eatery that fulfilled at least two important functions. One, we were able to eat. Two, Caroline was able to enjoy her first beer in Alaska. Tomorrow we get busy.

You’ll find the link to read the following day at the bottom right – keep scrolling.

Apr 182011

Inside the Western River Expeditions warehouse in Fredona, Arizona

Today I drove 326 miles from Phoenix to Fredonia, Arizona and the warehouse of Western River Expeditions. I was up here to deliver the first proof reader copy of what will be my very first book. The person receiving the book was Bruce Keller – Dory Boatman. Bruce was one of the boatmen for Caroline and my Grand Canyon trip last October, he is also the person responsible for inspiring the title of my book, Stay In The Magic. The reason for meeting in Fredonia was that Bruce had come down from Jackson Hole, Wyoming to lead a rafting trip down the Colorado for Western River Expeditions. Interestingly for me, I was able to witness the day-before preparations of what goes into packing a 16-day rafting trip. The trick to packing for one of these trips is not where the tents, sleeping gear, and kitchen is packed onboard a raft, it is where to stow all the food and alcohol, heavy emphasis on alcohol – there was a lot! The yellow cans on the left are non-refrigerated foods and on the right are deflated rafts, water cans, and part of the camp kitchen. The next morning ice-chests would be packed and alcohol purchased.