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