Because sometimes you just need some quality time together off the beaten path.
Because sometimes you just need some quality time together off the beaten path.
If you would like to read this story sequentially starting with Day 1 – Click Here!
Chapped, worn, dirty, bitten, and on more than one occasion wet, cold, nervous, excited, and astonished. This is it, the last day on the Alsek River, a bittersweet moment. There’s an awkwardness to finding the vibe on a river trip, as there are new routines, new people, and an environment that stands large and new right before all of your senses. By the time this last day comes along we have found our stride and are certainly not ready to leave. But we are near the end of the river, to go further would mean venturing into the Pacific Ocean, next stop, Russia, maybe China!
Before we leave the river we have one more set of rapids and a few miles to run, we savor every moment. Shortly before reaching our takeout, we pass these cut banks where the river over time has encroached on the forest and has removed the supporting soil. Interestingly though, we have an incredible opportunity to see just how plants are able to weave together the soil to create the glue that binds the forest floor into a cohesive unit. This is why there is so much risk of flooding and mudslides following a severe fire, especially on mountain sides. In some areas on the cut bank, trees continue to grow at odd angles, appearing as though they could fall into the river at any time, and yet the carpet of plants holds firm and the trees live on.
The flat gravel bank looms large as it became apparent that it would be where we were going to make our exit. The emotions of the moment rage, but have to be contained as we have lots to do. We immediately start emptying the rafts of everything before we open the valves and start to deflate them. A local family arrives with trailers being pulled behind their all-terrain vehicles – known as quads. They help us load up our personal gear and within an hour of landing, we are following a primitive trail through the woods to a landing strip. We don’t have to wait long before our bush pilot arrives in his small plane. Joining us on our flight out of Dry Bay, Alaska today are a couple of guys whose original plans had been to backpack the Alsek, but were foiled by the immensity of the Tweedsmuir glacier. Lucky for them, a passing helicopter took pity on their portage attempt and hauled them out. Security out here doesn’t seem to be much of an issue, there were no full-body scanners or even x-rays. In quick time we were rumbling down the gravel runway and peeling away from the trees.
We are flying parallel to the coast heading north to Yakutat. In the distance we can just make out the Brabazon Range. It is a solemn moment up here in the sky watching the world we have known for the previous two weeks disappear. Lucky Shaun though has stayed back at Dry Bay, he will accompany the rafts on a different flight back to Haines Junction where he will turn around and do this all over again with a different group. I dream of being a boatman in another life.
In a few minutes we’ll land in Yakutat. I have no interest in being in “Yak,” but it is where we must land to catch our next flight. We’ll stay overnight, as my original plans had been filled with the excitement that we would have one more day in the wild to allow us to acclimate to reality before reentering the alternative reality called urban life. Getting a hot shower also seemed like a great idea, but the foreignness of others and the weirdness of being in a hotel was all too overwhelming. Tomorrow morning we will board a flight to Anchorage where we’ll have the better part of the day for exploring before leaving Alaska at midnight. The memories of where we just were are laden with emotion, life once again has taken a turn and connected me in ways to our Earth I never could have imagined prior to embarking on such an amazing journey.
Waiting for the lake tsunami that never comes. It’s five minutes after midnight, everyone else is asleep while Caroline and I try to cherish each and every second we have left here in Alaska. This will be our last full day on the Alsek. Those clouds on the right are hiding Mount Fairweather, which according to Wikipedia stands at 15,325 feet (4,671 meters) and is one of the world’s highest coastal mountains. We’ll not see Mount Fairweather on this trip, as the weather didn’t allow it. Something for us to come back for.
Four o’clock in the morning, perfect time for a perfect sunrise. Looks like we might be having a sunny day here on the lake.
By 7:00 a.m the clouds are moving in, fingers crossed they will burn off. Funny thing about how the weather goes, it nearly always seems to have been perfect for the situation where ever Caroline and I find ourselves traveling. If it’s raining, well that rain added something that made the place all the more special. Yesterday it looked like winter had closed in on us, but still there was incredible beauty to be found. I wonder how many people go into vacation wishing for great weather and are disappointed when they don’t get? I for one am one of those who wishes for it, and then am pleasantly surprised by how all weather is great. Suppose it’s better than being in that situation where one will never again experience the weather.
Midday and overcast. But it still looks great to me!
Wandering around checking out the wildflowers when guess who decides to show up? The sun, that’s who.
To those of you who might really be appreciating the details I have been bringing to you here on my blog regarding the Alsek River: I am accepting donations that will allow me to spend a few months and half a dozen back-to-back trips down the river so I can share even more with you. I should be able to pull this off with about $25,000. Got an extra grand you can spare?
We have left camp to row out onto the lake. The weather is beautiful and there are icebergs to inspect. In case this photo is too abstract, it is the lake surface with the mountains in the distance reflected in the water.
The majority of our group have opted to explore the mosquito infested island in the lake, this is perfect because we can now explore the lake in near absolute silence.
Just as it fell from the glacier, this iceberg still carries with it the rocks and dirt it had accumulated over the decades as it slid closer the waters edge.
Something rolled over not too far from us. It was at first a thrilling moment of wow, the low rumble, the craning our necks to find where the berg that just tumbled was, but nothing to be found. And then the tension started. From the wave created by the invisible iceberg rolling over, the ice between us and the rollover started crashing into each other. The sound of multi-ton massive chunks of ice can be more than a little unsettling. I start to wonder if this won’t trigger other bergs to roll too, and here we are right out in the middle of them all.
Strange and almost familiar forms can be seen in the ice, it’s almost like finding animals in the clouds.
We try to find a path through the ice to go visit this 8-story tall massive iceberg, but our passage is blocked. Floating on the lake, drifting through icebergs, this is nothing short of spectacular.
How this rock still clings to the edge of this iceberg appears to defy gravity. I’d like to know how long and from how far this rock has traveled. Soon it will sink to the bottom of the lake and we may be the only people on earth in the entire history of our planet who will have ever seen this particular rock. It now joins the history of observed rocks.
The weather isn’t perfect, but it does add dramatic effect here on Alsek Lake. The other interesting aspect regarding the play of light, everything changes with the intensity of the sun or the shadows cast by the clouds. Look to the left of center, the ice is deep blue, five minutes before it was merely pale blue.
Just like the rock above, this piece of ice seems to have mere days left before it becomes an independent mini-berg.
Bruce is our guide out here, or should I say, man letting us drift all over the place? If you’ve been even slightly intrigued by these images, let me suggest that you contact an outfitter and take yourself on a trip down the Alsek or maybe even the Tatshenshini, both rivers bring you to Alsek Lake! It’s cheaper than going to the Antarctic.
We sat here a while listening to the drip, drip, drip of the iceberg as the sound echoed out of the enclave. If only I could share the delicate sound with you, it alone would convince you that you too need to visit this remote corner of North America.
Silty water and sun, everything I need to see art. The qualities of water, of wild water, is something we will see very few times in our lives. Unless we are at the ocean, most water that humanity will encounter has been sequestered – it is in a sense, dead water. But on free running rivers, we see the turbulence, convulsion, elasticity, and randomness that changes by the instant. There was a time not too long ago that any of us would have been far more familiar with the flow of this life sustaining liquid.
Stumbled upon this freshly turned over iceberg. Could this be the piece that created the wave? We can’t know. No matter because at least we get to witness this incredible deep blue undulating and curved ice sculpture that elicits our ooh’s and aah’s.
We continued floating and checking out the icebergs until it was time to turn back to shore and get busy with making dinner. Shaun stayed in camp today in order to get some things prepared for our departure from the river tomorrow, hopefully he has also started cooking. After the visitors to the island left their mosquito encounter, they paddled out onto the lake and joined us as we enjoyed the discarded ice that Alsek Glacier tossed into the lake.
On the previous evening I guessed that the drift wood on shore came from lake tsunamis, tonight I get proof. While wandering around waiting for dinner, I was about 100 feet from shore when I noticed these exposed roots of plants that appeared to be growing well out of the ground. Then I figured it out, this is where the water drained off the ground and pulled the surrounding sand with it back to the lake leaving these roots high and dry. Even on this scale, these details are nothing less than fascinating. Of course this could also simply mean the lake level was higher at some point, but lake tsunami sounds way more dynamic – thrilling even!
Spending our last “night” around the campfire. Tomorrow will be difficult, but tonight we warm ourselves next to the flames and admire the surrounding. What an incredible day, and an incredible journey down one of the few remaining wild rivers left on Earth.
What many of my photos can’t show you, is the scale of the environment around us. Everyone knows Alaska is big, but they often don’t realize how big until they have an opportunity to visit. The raft in this photo is about one-quarter of a mile away (402 meters), as you can see we are dwarfed by our surroundings. We waited around this morning before departing camp, “Maybe the weather will clear?” Nope, it’s overcast and laying down low.
As has been the routine during this journey, we need drinking water and what better place to collect it than from a mountain stream crashing into the Alsek? We pull up, drive-through like, and while holding onto some tree limbs, our boatman leans out dipping a 5-gallon canister into the fastest moving water until it’s full. We let go and drift way and then the next boatman takes our place filling his can and so on until we have enough water for the day. I wish I could share with you how amazing it is to drink fresh water that is untreated, -stored, -piped, -filtered, or otherwise touched by mankind. It is cold, fresh, and even a bit daring. How many of us don’t know what fresh water is, aside from it flowing out of a tap in our home? And so when we have this golden opportunity to get our first taste of “free-range” water, there is a moment of apprehension in which we play back the fear-mongering news about how all of our natural water sources are now polluted, are becoming rarer, carry microbes that can make us sick, but here we are taking water from mountain streams every day and living to tell the story. Next time I’m in Alaska, taking a drink from a fast moving cascade of falling water will be my first indulgence.
Here we are just seven days away from the 4th of July with all the ambiance of winter surrounding us. This is deceiving as everything can change around a corner, and it often does. I consider myself lucky having had this view, should every day have been sunny, I would have left the Alsek with no idea what the area might look like during the months travelers cannot venture into this area of Alaska. Instead, I will have had a glimpse of those long winters that begin in late September and run through late May – with the added benefit of daylight!
Sure there is the wondering of what lays hidden above the shroud, intrigue even, but this leaves us with the mystery that only the imagination can fill in. For me, maybe there’s a Yeti just out of sight, probably not, but you can’t see above the clouds to verify it wasn’t there.
Out of winter and into spring time, or is it now summer? We pulled ashore on a narrow beach to share some lunch. Our landing serves two purposes though, the second being this is a great location for a short hike that would let the boatmen scout the entry into Alsek Lake.
I know this is nothing more than rock, but how often in our urban lives do we see signs of a wild nature that used to be the earth we live on? I leave this here as my reminder that the details found in nature are not always easily explained, nor do they obey any laws of conformity or symmetry. I wonder how many of my fellow travelers took the time to see these details. From my observations, close to none.
This is the most beautiful flower ever discovered off the Alsek River in Alaska. It was surrounded by strawberry plants that later in the season attest to it’s beauty by growing what must surely be the sweetest berries in all Alaska. The paw prints of a mighty large grizzly let us know that this patch belongs to a particular bear who must be awaiting their maturation, we choose to not wait for him.
The riot of color that bursts forth after viewing so much monochromatic landscape has been known to cause lasting damage to the eyesight of those not prepared for such an abrupt reintroduction to the palette of hues and tints that can be found in Alaskan wildflowers. A welder’s mask would do those folks well here.
Over the hill and out of the blooming fields we catch our first look at Alsek Lake. I would have shown you greater breadth, but maybe you don’t have the experience of seeing the immensity of nature in one fell sighting. So try these bit of bergs mirrored in the stillness of the lake, admire the blue ice cube in the background, and be dazzled by the reflection of the mountain tops that are just out of sight.
The majority of our group has taken off. The doors to Alsek Lake cannot be seen from this perspective, another lookout with better overview is required, and that is where they left to. In order to enter the lake there are three “doors” that can be used. The first door is also known as, “The Channel of Death.” You can enter through Door Number 1, but it’s not the best choice. Once taken, there is no way out besides getting through the lake. You risk encountering big icebergs, and if they block the way, well there is no portaging over them. The next choice is Door Number 2, better, but not ideal. The door you want to use is Door Number 3, but, and you knew there was a but, Door Number 3 is a shallow channel. Not only might it be too shallow to run, on a previous Alsek trip for our boatman Bruce, the first two doors could not be taken and Door Number 3 was still frozen over – portage time.
No, this is not a self-portrait, though I would like to have sat next to the iceberg filled lake and grown like moss on a log. We agree to meet the rest of the group back at the beach we stopped for lunch at. Time to go.
We are passing through Door Number 3 on calm shallow water. We admire the landscape while Bruce finds the deeper channels.
This is how shallow the water is, mere inches deep. It’s possible that in a day or two, or maybe in the previous days, this channel may have been high and dry, today luck is on our side.
Here’s Shaun having successfully exited Door Number 3 that’s right behind him. In the bucket and mounted on the back of the raft is some sorry wet wood that will be used for our fire should we not find sufficient supplies once we land.
As you can see surrounding our tents, there was plenty of driftwood in this camp. Moments after shooting this photo we heard a loud rumble in the lake but could not make out what rolled over. What we could see was a large wave radiating out and towards us. I was ready to head for the hills when we saw that the low lying area of the lake in front of us diverted the wave left and right. All of a sudden it became clear why there was so much drift wood on this shore – when really big stuff rolls over, the wave must be so large that it washes over this shore and deposits its collection of firewood here for easy access to the campers who call this home. Great, now how am I supposed to sleep knowing a lake tsunami could wash in over night?
Caution: Merge Ahead! Mist is seen in the distance rising off the waters of the Tatshenshini River, the combined rivers are about to get mighty big. The ‘Tat” as it is popularly known is about to be consumed by the Alsek. On any other day we might have seen other rafters paddling over there as those who opt to travel the Tat end up joining the Alsek. Fortunately there isn’t much traffic through here so no need to worry about collisions with other rafters or rush hour creating long waits to continue the journey downriver. By the way, see all that snow? It is almost July!
Time to collect firewood, as our trip leader, who knows this river well, isn’t sure we’ll be successful further downstream. Our landing is an island, behind us is the Alsek and in front of us the Tat – this is the riverbed of the combined rivers. It’s a peculiar notion that maybe a few days ago this area was fully submerged or that in a day or two it will once again have the waters of the Tatshenshini/Alsek spilling over it, but today we will scour it for driftwood.
This is our trip leader, Shaun Cornish. Like most boatmen, the guy is a difficult read. One characteristic I have found in the small sampling of boatmen I’ve encountered is that they all seem to possess a sense of brooding. I’m most likely wrong about this, as they are probably just so different than those of us who call big cities home, that they fall into a category of people most of us are unfamiliar with. After all, who else among us in our daily adult lives have so much responsibility for nearly everything we do? These guides into the wilds hope to see us travel safely, they feed us, look after our waste, are usually up before us and go to sleep well after we do. Their decisions and the chemistry of their personalities will dictate many factors of how we will adapt to our environment and those around us. The load they endure and the torment of their bodies to work for us, who are almost without care, is admirable, but may also go unseen by those who are not in tune with the sacrifice these hearty characters offer. I doubt they see themselves as anything special, they are slaves to the beauty of a place that mystifies and inspires them to their core, and so take solace that there are those of us who pay for them to once again visit these lands that defy understanding.
We are now in Alaska! We are also apparently heading into a place known as – The End Glacier. It appears that this is the end of the trail because from our perspective, there is nowhere to go up ahead. The suspense is growing, just where does the river flow? What we do know right now is that it’s also really cold out here, so cold that up ahead where you can see a thin layer of mist rising off the water, well in fact that mist is coming off an ice sheet. Suspense gives way to nervousness as we approach the ice sheet, it’s well over a foot thick and initially I can’t see a break in it. This could be serious as at any step along this journey, if we find an insurmountable obstacle we can’t navigate around, that’s the end of the trip! We’ve heard the stories by now of crazy portages where passengers and crew can spend a day or two hauling gear over rough terrain, just so they don’t have to quit their adventure before it’s really over. As you’ll see in the coming photos, we made our way past the ice sheet and found a way through, and without a portage over the ice or mountains. And which way does the river flow? Book yourself a journey into the amazing and find out on your own – you won’t be disappointed.
No photo, no words, no video can convey the feelings of passing under these towering snow covered mountains that rise up almost right next to the river. The raft cruises along at about 9mph (15km), we might as well be on the Autobahn at these speeds or maybe there are drugs for dilating time to suspend one’s self in extended minutes that would appear to be hours or days where the imagination is allowed to linger in the splendor. This is the same problem I found in the Grand Canyon, when presented with this kind of spectacle of beauty, the mind aches to consume every last vision of what it’s trying to grasp, but this is too much to take in with one viewing – oh to be a boatman.
There it is, our next stop – Walker Glacier. Think about what you are seeing, those are full height trees in front of the glacier. We are looking at a mountain of ice, and tonight, we camp in its shadow.
We landed, unpacked, set up camp, and immediately left for some serious bushwhacking. Through the muck and into the intertwined knot of brush we cut a path trying to find our way to the glacier made invisible by this thicket. It was all going well until on the other side of these trees when we came upon a steep embankment of gravel that my vertigo rebelled against. Neither the mind or body wanted to overcome this bit of daredevil dance on the loose rocky earth. Again I was foiled by the anxiety brought on by vertigo. I’d like to tell you how shitty it is to be stopped in my tracks and not being able to experience the next great part of this adventure, but I’m more at ease with the situation. You see, I look at it like this, “How much is enough?” Every moment of every day out here is nothing short of stupendous. I live in constant delight, and if this, that, or something else is allowed to be the defining moment of this journey, then I miss out on recognizing that everything up to this point was worthy of the greatest accolades one could offer. When the icing is already 1000 feet deep, what’s another inch?
Now while I couldn’t get over my fears, that didn’t stop my wife! It took a lot of strength to turn my back on Caroline, knowing that she would be crossing this rock slide I couldn’t manage, but I did not want to deny her the excitement of what might be her only opportunity to walk on a glacier, and she was happy she did. This photo was taken as the rest of the group was crossing over the lateral moraine before connecting with the glacier. A moraine is the deposit of dirt and rocks that the glacier pushes forward or to the side as it extends.
Once out on the glacier, Caroline said it was like walking on air. While difficult to see in the photos, looking down you could see through the ice. Shaun warned the group to not jump around, no horseplay, do not step on snowy patches, and stay together. Yes, that’s a stream running over the glacier.
In some places you can take peeks deep into the heart of the ice: crevasses filled with with ice melt. Impossible to gauge is how deep these channels are; one thing that is easy to surmise: falling into the freezing cold water and trying to crawl out on the ice would be tricky business. My knees buckle at the idea of standing on the edge of these intriguing blue slices on Walker Glacier.
This is how moraines are made, what earth and rocks that haven’t fallen to the side of the glacier will likely be taken all the way to the river. This giant golden boulder may have landed on the glacier thousands of years ago, next year it might not be found again, or maybe it will remain about where we left it, the glacier will determine its fate.
Look close around the small patch of moss, that is not soil, those small rocks and the hint of dirt are sitting on top of glacial ice, it’s just enough for life to take hold.
This is the reason you don’t stand on the snow, you never know what it might be hiding. There is no bottom down there, none that can be seen anyway. How deep does it go? Are the depths filled with a pool for freezing water? Maybe a river is flowing down there? Lucky us, no one on our trip slipped to find out. Caroline filled a bottle from one of the glacial streams with water so I could have my own Walker Glacier encounter. We dined on fajitas and talked late into the night. This was also my coming of age regarding the burning of the football. I finally got it right! In river speak, the football is the brown paper bag of used toilet paper that sits next to the toilet. Toilet paper creates bulk and we have very limited space; not only that, it also creates weight and at the end of the trip everything will be flown out – everything. Except what can be burned. And so, at the end of the day, when all of the passengers have gone to sleep, the last boatman awake collects the brown paper bag. Picking it up wearing rubber gloves, the gloves are pealed off and wrapped around the bag full of TP – until it almost resembles a football. Now with no one else around to smell the burning shit and latex, the football is punted, passed, or tossed into the fire. But this is also where I still need some work on my river skills: while I can roll the ball around to cook away the ugly concoction, I have not yet mastered the Fire Donut. Shaun has attempted to teach me the art of creating the ring of embers which in boatman theory arranges the remnants of our campfire into a perfect form that almost guarantees that by morning only ash will remain. We aim for efficiency to travel wisely, to travel lightly, and learn the sage lessons these people of the river can offer us night owls.