Jun 272012

On the Alsek River with a raft ahead showing the scale of our surroundings here in Alaska

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.

Collecting fresh water from a mountain stream crashing into the Alsek River in Alaska

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.

Snow covered mountains where the snow reaches the riverside on the Alsek River in Alaska

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!

Glaciers fall out of the mountains like cactus grow out of the desert. Next to the Alsek River in Alaska

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.

Wildflowers off the Alsek River in Alaska

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.

Checking out the amazing rocks off the Alsek River in Alaska, because life isn't just about flowers and glaciers.

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.

The most beautiful flower ever found next to the Alsek River in Alaska.

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 wildflowers burst forth in colors that damage the eyes. Next to the Alsek River in Alaska

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.

Icebergs mounted in glass on Alsek Lake in Alaska

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.

One of the glaciers entering Alsek Lake in Alaska

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.

We too would like to sit atop a log and grow like moss here in Alaska

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.

Passing through Door Number 3 into Alsek Lake in Alaska

We are passing through Door Number 3 on calm shallow water. We admire the landscape while Bruce finds the deeper channels.

Wildflowers growing right out of the water on ground that is just inches higher than the earth around it that the lake now covers. On Alsek Lake in Alaska

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.

Exiting Door Number 3 is Shaun Cornish and his raft full of travelers. On Alsek Lake in Alaska

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.

Our campsite on Alsek Lake in Alaska

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?

Jun 262012

Merging from the Alsek River with the Tatsenshini River in British Columbia, Canada

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!

On the riverbed of the combined Tatshenshini/Alsek rivers in British Columbia, Canada

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.

Trip leader Shaun Cornish guiding us down the Alsek River in British Columbia, Canada

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.

Rowing into a dead end, it is impossible to see where the river goes from our perspective. On the Alsek River in Alaska, United States

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.

A hanging glacier can just be seen under the thick cover of snow here on the Alsek River in Alaska, United States

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.

Our first sighting of Walker Glacier on the Alsek River in the state of Alaska

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.

Bushwhacking through the muck and thick growth on our way to Walker Glacier in the state of Alaska

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?

Approaching Walker Glacier on the Alsek River in the state of Alaska

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.

A stream running over the Walker Glacier off the Alsek River in Alaska

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.

Deep channels of flowing water cut into the glacier. On Walker Glacier off the Alsek River in Alaska

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.

Debris finishing its ride to the river on the glacier. On Walker Glacier off the Alsek River in Alaska

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.

Moss growing on ice at Walker Glacier next to the Alsek River in Alaska

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.

A giant deep crack in the ice where to fall in could mean certain death. On Walker Glacier off the Alsek River in Alaska

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.


Jun 252012

John Hoffman about to heli-portage the Tweedsmuir Glacier and Turnback Canyon on the Alsek River in British Columbia, Canada

Taking a momentary pause in rafting, we are ready to fly. That’s John Hoffman in the front passenger seat, he’s not our most junior member on this trip, as a matter of fact he’s just north of 80 years of age. We are about to start the helicopter assisted portage of Turnback Canyon and along the way we’ll be offered a bird’s eye view of the Tweedsmuir Glacier. After landing on this beach two days ago, we hauled our gear out of the river and started prepping things for our portage. Yesterday the finishing touches were done and now here we are. Just an hour ago there was some uncertainty if this was actually going to take place this morning as some heavy fog had moved in over night. And then the familiar sound reached us before sight of the chopper did, time to get serious. Our rafts, gear, food, toilets, tables, and trash have all been placed on the netting; hopefully we haven’t exceeded the 1,200 pound external weight limit the helicopter can lift safely. Sure enough, we did exceed it. After a shaky moment of hovering, the pilot put the gear back down, landed, and we scrambled to lighten the load. As some of us unloaded a heavy box, the helicopter remained busy and moved a load of passengers to our landing site where they would be ready to start reassembling our rafts. We required three flights to move everything and everyone. Caroline and I took the last ride and I shot a video from the same place the other John is sitting in the photo; I’ll post that some day soon.

On the Alsek River in British Columbia, Canada

We were back on the river right away. In the time it took to make those three flights, the others who had gone first had already put our flotilla back in working order. Long live the Richter family, they were workhorses on this trip and maybe one of the most well-adjusted families I have ever met, they were also the ones who portaged first. I should point out that this was Caroline’s first helicopter flight and a big mental hurdle for her. Years prior she had told me that besides bungee jumping, she would never ride in a helicopter. Lucky for us, her curiosity and intense desire to be introduced to Alaska in such exotic circumstances allowed her to get over her fear and approach this with some enthusiasm. After the flight, as you can guess, she was amazed, ecstatic even.

Crystal clear water on a tributary of the Alsek River in British Columbia, Canada

It’s early afternoon and the morning gray hasn’t burned off. We were warned that once below the Tweedsmuir we would be entering the coastal range and that the weather might turn. Well, at least it isn’t raining. As is the situation nearly every day, we need to collect fresh water, it was this side stream that was chosen for us to gather from. On other days we had taken water from rushing streams that met the Alsek, today we learned of a new level of quiet, as all of a sudden the raging river behind us felt as loud as any freeway. We are now floating on glass.

Rock, moss, plant - because it just looks cool. Off the Alsek River in British Columbia, Canada

After the rush and intensity of the morning in order to have a flawless portage, it was nice to just hang out. Lunch was passed around from items we could easily put our hands on, it was our version of drive-thru junk food. After eating we simply drifted along, chilling out, watching the moss grow.

Floating on glass off the Alsek River in British Columbia, Canada

Hey military-industrial complex, forget about putting drones over our cities, my vote is to have solar powered drones hovering over places like this with a live camera sending hi-def video to my computer so I can sit here and watch the seasons change when I’m not in some of the world’s most beautiful places.

The weather is turning for the worse as we ply the Alsek River in British Columbia, Canada

Here we are in the Noisy Range with a great opportunity to learn why it’s the Noisy Range: a landslide in the distance roars! We know it was a landslide because of the cloud of dust kicked up after it had finished falling. As loud as it was to us on the river, I imagine it was a deafening roar within a mile of its location, we were probably about 7 miles away. Meanwhile the weather appears more ominous, so far so good.

Mountain side peaking out between low clouds along the Alsek River in British Columbia, Canada

With the clouds hugging the mountain sides that reach right to the waters edge and the broad expanse of silty river, not only do I feel out of season, I also feel as though I’m in the Triassic age. It wouldn’t much shock me to see a pterodactyl descending from the sky in an attempt to pluck one of us from a raft. Should it actually happen, I’m cool with that, because I couldn’t be any more comfortable with life as I am while on this river. We row forward, not often though, as the current carries us along at a good clip. There is a silence of mind that accompanies me on this journey, with occasions of awe breaking through the wonder. Oh how I wish I were still floating on that river under those clouds while astonishment overwhelmed my ability to own every last sighting of the amazing.

Purple flowers near the confluence of the Tatshenshini and Alsek Rivers in British Columbia, Canada

After being lost in the infinity of mesmerism, I am soon brought around to full attention with the task of pulling into camp. Bear scat, paw prints, and wildflowers greet us.

We make camp at the confluence of the Tatshenshini and Alsek Rivers in British Columbia, Canada

In the distance you can just make out the Tatshenshini River, we are camping at the confluence with the Alsek. Visibility progressively deteriorates and drizzle is now falling on us. Expansive sunny landscapes were not to be on today’s menu. What was on offer was a pot of hot yummy tomato soup and a giant bowl of fresh popcorn that made a perfect accompaniment to the soup. Tonight we do not dine alone – mosquitos by the truck load have joined us. Ugh, where’s a strong wind when you need it? The walk to the toilet is a two person operation if you are so lucky, one to take care of their business, the other to fend off the pests. Before dinner a bunch of us will go out looking for extra fire wood.

Water droplets collecting in the damp environment next to the Tatshenshini-Alsek confluence in British Columbia, Canada

Nope, no wood down here. Just me and these tiny water droplets.

A cluster of mushrooms looking dandy next to the confluence of the Tatshenshini-Alsek Rivers in British Columbia, Canada

Firewood is in the tree line – with the mosquitos. Out in the open it’s just me and the microscopic world of the pretty, everything else is hidden in the fog. Following dinner and a baked brownie dessert, it’ll be Caroline and me hidden in the tent delighting in the world of exploration we have been traveling through. As I move to finish writing about this day, I can’t help but think about how strange it is that while anyone reading about this trip to the Alsek will be able to see the same mountains, the snow, clouds, river, and trees, Caroline and I will forever be the only people on earth who will have ever seen this mushroom cluster. That makes me intensely aware of how rare this experience on the Alsek truly is.

Jun 242012

A small chunk of glacier breaking off the Tweedsmuir Glacier in the Tatshenshini-Alsek Provincial Park British Columbia, Canada

Wow, this is our first in-person viewing of a chunk of glacier calving, and it was amazing! We could hear the ice starting to crack and pop before it broke away from the larger ice face. In the photo on the left it was already falling by the time I was able to raise the camera with the hopes of snapping an image. In a fraction of a second it was crashing into the river, a few more seconds and the scene returned to serenity, as though nothing ever happened. On the list of things one would wish to see on such an adventure, check off witnessing a calving.

Hiking towards Turnback Canyon with the Tweedsmuir Glacier straight ahead in Tatshenshini-Alsek Provincial Park British Columbia, Canada

The plan for today is for us to hike into Turnback Canyon. I should point out that there are no man-made trails here, at best we can follow animal trails, most of the time we are simply heading in the general direction of where we hope to end up. I may be repeating myself here, but as much as one might think they have a pretty good idea of what the terrain looks like from any particular vantage point, it only takes one step around a corner to surprise us how much we couldn’t see.

Thin layers of rock across from the Tweedsmuir Glacier in Tatshenshini-Alsek Provincial Park British Columbia, Canada

My best advice for someone visiting this part of North America: Don’t only be overwhelmed by the magnitude of the environment, take time to find the details that are easily missed when seeing the bigger picture. As is the norm when Caroline and I are hiking in a group, the majority (if not all) of the other hikers are well out of view half-way to some perceived destination. Meanwhile, our destination is every inch of terrain we are so lucky to stop at and appreciate.

A small aquamarine pool hidden in a small cove about 30 feet (10 meters) above the Alsek River in Tatshenshini-Alsek Provincial Park British Columbia, Canada

This small and tranquil aquamarine pond sits about 30 feet (10 meters) above the Alsek River in a small cove. If only the water wasn’t in the 30’s, it would make a great swimming hole for us (the Canadian members of our group did not share our reservations and used many an opportunity to jump into icy ponds and coves). In the distance ahead we can see the rest of our group heading up a steep rock-face, we move quickly to catch up. Once in their footsteps I realize that I’m not going any further. My vertigo and imagination start screaming at me, “Hell no, I ain’t going up that!” One misplaced step and the fall will deliver me into the freezing cold Alsek some 60 or 70 feet below at the head of No-TurningBack Canyon. I can see it clear as day in my mind’s eye: I race forward, bobbing up and down a few times as I struggle to fight the strong current before entering into the death churn of that narrow passage – end of story. But not mine today.

A chunk of ice starting to calve off the Tweedsmuir Glacier in Tatshenshini-Alsek Provincial Park British Columbia, Canada

Just as I resolve myself to stay back and Caroline offers to hang out with me, that familiar snap and pop pulls our attention directly across from us. Some small piece of ice drops off from high on the glacier, and then another piece. Before we could gasp, we watched the following sequence that was over in seconds.

The Tweedsmuir Glacier calving into the Alsek River at Turnback Canyon in Tatshenshini-Alsek Provincial Park British Columbia, Canada

The Tweedsmuir Glacier calving into the Alsek River at Turnback Canyon in Tatshenshini-Alsek Provincial Park British Columbia, Canada

The Tweedsmuir Glacier calving into the Alsek River at Turnback Canyon in Tatshenshini-Alsek Provincial Park British Columbia, Canada

The Tweedsmuir Glacier calving into the Alsek River at Turnback Canyon in Tatshenshini-Alsek Provincial Park British Columbia, Canada

The Tweedsmuir Glacier calving a giant piece of ice into the Alsek River at Turnback Canyon in Tatshenshini-Alsek Provincial Park British Columbia, Canada

Our eyes are bugging out of our heads! The dumbest and most obvious thing to say after witnessing such an awesome event is, “Did you see that?” We must have sat there another half hour just waiting for more ice to join the rubble pile at the foot of the glacier. The small ice boulders are the size of SUV’s while the larger ones are as big as houses, or bigger. Looking across the river the thought crosses my mind, what if we’d been out on the river with some hot-dog boatmen who might satisfy idiots like me wanting an up -close look at the glacier to get a real feeling for the size of the behemoth, and then CRASH: buried under the worlds largest snow cone.

John Hoffman returning from his hike in Turnback Canyon on the Alsek River in the Tatshenshini-Alsek Provincial Park British Columbia, Canada

Fellow passenger John Hoffman helps give scale to the size of the Tweedsmuir that is across the river behind his left shoulder. It was far to the right in the photo where the glacier calved and just behind John on the steep slope up where I stopped my hike in to Turnback. For hours we sat along this path waiting for the others, content to listen to the river race by, and still hoping for more ice to fall.

The hike back to camp near the Tweedsmuir Glacier in Tatshenshini-Alsek Provincial Park British Columbia, Canada

On our way back to camp. Still, the views are indescribable.

Rock details in the Tatshenshini-Alsek Provincial Park British Columbia, Canada

You start to realize that everywhere you look, you see a level of intricate detail that astounds the senses. This is going on every waking moment, is it any wonder when trying to find the words to explain the impressions, we run short on verbal abilities to share just what it was we saw while on this journey?

Sunset in Tatshenshini-Alsek Provincial Park British Columbia, Canada

Back in camp we ate. Most talked around the fire. I stared out at the river and imagined the overwhelming infinite amount of details that I find here every day, plus the other infinite amount I cannot yet see. Then I add the details of the rest of the earth I may never visit, combined with the heft of the universe and soon I am a grain of silt in the river before me.

Jun 232012

Exiting the S-Curve rapids and leaving the Yukon in Canada on the Alsek River

Woke up to a damp tent. Turned out that the lowland Caroline and I had originally setup on was not a great location, as the area must have had a low water table which couldn’t be seen on a casual glance. By morning the field had some obvious pooling going on. Lucky for us that we noticed some mushy spots where small amounts of water were collecting and decided to move our tent to higher ground before we went to sleep. After breakfast and packing up camp it was time to get back on the river as we had a good amount of river miles to cover today. First up we had to finish the series of s-curve rapids, here we are near the end of them.

View from hillside overlooking the Alsek River in the Tatsheshini-Alsek Provincial Park in British Columbia, Canada

Welcome to the Tatsheshini-Alsek Provincial Park in British Columbia, Canada – we have arrived. We were two hours down river from last night’s camp before we pulled over to take a break, have lunch, and go on a short hike. Not much to see here, besides the stupendous view, snow spotted mountains, spectacular colors of early summer, and the wild Alsek River slicing through it.

On the Alsek River in Tatsheshini-Alsek Provincial Park in British Columbia, Canada

And back onto the river. Somewhere here on our journey down the Alsek we learn that some of the turbulence of the river comes from the heavy load of silt that it carries downstream. What happens is that as the silt settles on the river bottom, it builds up temporary berms until the force of the flowing water collapses the underwater hillsides and water crashes down into where the silt had been. We of course will never see this action, as the water is so turbid and full of sediments that as our rafts glide down the river, their rubber bottoms amplify the sandpaper-like sounds of a trillion grains of former mountains that scratch at our boats.

River left on the Alsek in Tatsheshini-Alsek Provincial Park in British Columbia, Canada

Every view is magnificent, every angle worthy of a photo. Deciding which images to share with you is more difficult than choosing the words to describe where we were and what we did.

A hanging glacier on the face of Mt. Blackadar in Tatsheshini-Alsek Provincial Park in British Columbia, Canada

This is the first hanging glacier that we’ve seen on this river trip, it is one of the faces of Mt. Blackadar. From Wikipedia: A hanging glacier originates high on the wall of a glacial valley and descends only part of the way to the surface of the main glacier and abruptly stops, typically at a cliff.

Mount Blackadar in Tatsheshini-Alsek Provincial Park in British Columbia, Canada

I am looking back up river at Mt. Blackadar, named in honor of Dr. Walt Blackadar. Back in 1971, this adventurous doctor became the first known person to have run a kayak through Turnback Canyon, which is what we will be approaching shortly. We’ll stop well before that canyon, as it is not possible for rafts to successfully navigate the four miles of river that squeeze between the Tweedsmuir Glacier and a lot of rock. We would most certainly die if we were to try. Even in a kayak, one must be familiar with extremely cold water, be expert in rollover recovery, and as the doctor was: be prepared to die in your kayak. To read more about Dr. Blackadar’s Alsek run, check out “Fast & Cold: A Guide To Alaska Whitewater” by Andrew Embick.

Camp at the northern end of the Tweedsmuir Glacier in Tatsheshini-Alsek Provincial Park in British Columbia, Canada

We are about 65 river-miles from where we began, this is home for the next two days. Seems like a great place to take a pause and enjoy the scenery. Behind the tent is Tweedsmuir Glacier and to the left of it is the beginning of Turnback Canyon – no, this is not the end of our trek down the Alsek.

A typical kitchen on an extended river trip. Tatshenshini-Alsek Provincial Park British Columbia, Canada

Caroline is helping Martha Stewart prepare dinner – no, it’s still not that Martha Stewart! Don’t let the daylight fool you, it is 6:45 pm when I snapped this photo. Dinner got a late start as making camp has been a more laborious bit of work this day. Not only did we have to set up the kitchen and pitch our tents, but the rafts were pulled out of the river and dragged ashore.

Rafts on shore before deflating them as we get ready for a helicopter portage over Turnback Canyon and the Tweedsmuir Glacier in Tatshenshini-Alsek Provincial Park British Columbia, Canada

We need to empty the rafts of all of their contents and then deflate the rafts, we are getting ready for a helicopter portage that will take place the day after tomorrow. After we break all of this equipment down, we’ll stack it up on netting that has a connection for a cable and hook that hangs from the bottom of the helicopter for picking up our gear and moving it 8-miles down river.  Until then, we’ll chill out and admire the Tweedsmuir Glacier.

The Tweedsmuir Glacier in Tatshenshini-Alsek Provincial Park British Columbia, Canada

Our view of the Tweedsmuir Glacier, pretty nice place this British Columbia! Thanks Canada for the good times.

A juvenile bald eagle in Tatshenshini-Alsek Provincial Park British Columbia, Canada

We must be approaching salmon country, as this juvenile bald eagle is the hint that good fishing is just around the corner. In Turnback Canyon the Alsek can flow up to 25 miles per hour, too fast for salmon to swim through, so eagles have little reason to go much further upstream of here. Like this majestic bird, we have little to do but look around our surroundings.

A Northern Blue Butterfly in Tatshenshini-Alsek Provincial Park British Columbia, Canada

From high in the sky, to down here resting on a bloom, my gaze shifts from the mighty eagle to the fragile Northern Blue Butterfly, aka Lycaeides idas. On the day I was inspecting this guy, I had no idea what kind of butterfly I was looking at, nor did I know that between 75-80 species of butterflies live in the Alaska area. Want to know more about Alaskan butterflies before you visit? Try the pages of Mary Hopson’s TurtlePuddle.

Watching the Alsek River flow in Tatshenshini-Alsek Provincial Park British Columbia, Canada

Dinner is finished, nothing left to do but watch the river flow, and hope for the glacier to calve off a new iceberg. If all of this sounds oh-so normal, forget it. Caroline and I are in a constant state of astonishment. None of this feels normal. There is nearly no way to give sense of place while one is on this river. No single moment feels like any other. Not a single part of the scenery looks familiar, nor does it become so. Every minute is a new series of images and sensations that vie for a place in our memories. It is as though one were watching a 17 hour a day surrealist art film that continually puts on display an ever changing motif. Just as the splashing flow of water never repeats an exact pattern, so seems the rest of the environment that surrounds it. Long live bewilderment.

A sun dog in Tatshenshini-Alsek Provincial Park British Columbia, Canada

So it’s not a rainbow, but who cares, we’ve already had plenty of those. Now it’s time for a sun dog and a perfect end to another perfect day on the river.