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.

Jun 222012

Caroline Wise reading the paper early in the morning while taking care of business in Kluane National Park Yukon, Canada

Reading the Chilkat Valley News out in the wild is a solo experience, the only real negative being that you have to read the same edition every day. This lone paper was our reading material while visiting the facilities, the only delivery in these parts is from helicopter. Your next question might be, so what does the local paper have to tell us we may not already know? Well for starters, there was a recent explosion of dandelions. Nursery owner Toni Smith of Haines said of the problem, “It’s horrendous.” Vinegar seems to be the all-natural weed killer in these parts. In other big news the end of a three-year study came to a conclusion with results showing that 7.1 million eulachon, a smelt-like fish had returned to the Chilkoot River. The study was administered by the Takshanuk Watershed Council for the Chilkoot Indian Association. Apparently this was great news for the locals as eulachon are known as, “Tlingit penicillin,” and it’s not every fish in the wild that gets that honor. As for the other part of the photo featuring my wife, tell me some of you weren’t curious as to where this was taken care of when on a whitewater rafting trip?

A grizzly bear swimming across the Alsek River in Kluane National Park Yukon, Canada

When the previous photo was taken, we had already been awake for an hour and were the only ones wandering about. After Caroline finished her business we walked over towards the kitchen to start the fire with hopes our camp would start to shake itself awake and we could get our first cup of coffee. As I got the fire going, I thought I heard something on my left. I looked over to see a log floating in the distance. There, I heard it again! This time I saw that the “something” was not a log, it was a snorting grizzly bear swimming directly toward Caroline and I. Mesmerized and for a moment uncertain about which way to go or how much noise to start making, we hesitated. In that time I could see that the bear was going to be picked up by the current and would not be able to make it directly to our shore. As the grizz was jettisoned downstream, some of the others in our group had started emerging from their tents. Caroline stealthily went over to tell them to peer into the river. On my right, Bruce and Shaun also were moving about. I got their attention as quietly as I could and gave them the signal that a bear was nearby. No, the signal is not one of turning around and pointing to my backside suggesting I had did in my pants what Caroline did in the can. The guys asked in hushed tones, “Where did you see it?” It is in the river on the other side of the tents.

Behold the mighty grizzly bear in Kluane National Park Yukon, Canada

We waited for what felt like minutes. And then there he was about 50 yards from camp and too close for comfort, but we remained quiet. He lumbered up the beach paying no attention to us, until he reached the area adjacent our toilet; where Caroline had been sitting less than 45 minutes earlier! It is just on the other side of these bushes that today’s first photo was taken. This big old bear then started to shake the water from his coat. Talk about a moment of wow! And fear. Fear because there were still some campers in their tents between the bear and us who were watching his moves trying to decide if we needed to start making serious noise. He sniffed around, turned, and continued on his way into a side canyon. Okay, now I’m ready for my Wheaties.

The rapids of Lava North in Kluane National Park Yukon, Canada

After breaking camp we had a relatively short ride down the river to a pullout where the boatmen needed to scout our next dangerous move; Lava North. Named after the mother of gnarly rapids, Lava Falls in the Grand Canyon, this churn of ice water is not for the timid. After much deliberation and finger pointing, the boatmen apparently have a bead on which track we’ll be traveling, as they round us up to head back to the rafts. Once there, it is time to suit up. Packed away in one of the rafts was a bag of dry suits, each one tagged with a passenger’s name. We are warned to be gentle with these fragile life-savers, if they tear, they won’t seal and that will not be good should we find ourselves in the tumult. The guides are serious about putting these on right, serious that we pay attention, and serious when they say this rapid can kill, and it has. We struggle to get our limbs through tight fittings, but after some rolling around and grunting, we are finally suited up and ready to conquer Lava North.

A wave kicking up in the rapid known as Lava North in Kluane National Park Yukon, Canada

I would love to share photos with you taken while in the rapid, but that can’t happen because we were holding on for dear life as we skirted the Monster Hole and slid by the Haystack Wave on a path that took us straight down the middle of Lava North. The tension was high as Shaun had the lead position, he made it through without a hitch. Next up was Martha, right on track as she guides her raft and passengers safely to the other side of this beast. We are last with Bruce, the cleanup crew now with nothing to do but pass over Lava as safely as the others before us. The river is pumping and we are racing full bore ahead. We are going so fast that the markers I spotted while on shore as the boatmen were scouting, are not able to be seen. The scale of our environment overwhelms the senses until we are pressed deep into reality. The reality of being so very small on such very large water. What looked almost quaint from above, now looks incomprehensible from down here. Bruce hollers, “Did you see that hole?” Har, it wasn’t a hole, it was the pit of doom. When we passed that Monster Hole, it looked as though the river dropped over six feet and nearly disappeared before the water crawled up the other side to lose momentum and crash back onto itself. I’m sure that hole is a great place to get a raft stuck as it violently flips and flops to disgorge its self of passengers and contents before spitting out the shreds of what had been a raft. And then before we know it, we are on the other side of Lava North and the water is starting to calm. Phew!

Caroline R., Carol and Harris, and Bruce Keller in dry suits after running Lava North in Kluane National Park Yukon, Canada

Dry suits get hot in the sun, and when they do, they inflate. Every so often we had to break the neck seal to allow the hot air to escape. By the time we get far enough down river to pull over for lunch and get out of the rubber gear, we are close to overheating. The boatmen encourage us to enjoy the protection the dry suits offer and to immerse ourselves in the river. We all do. Then, for the adventurous, they are shown a place on the tributary we have paddled up where they can easily enter the river and float downstream through some fast moving water. I pass, certain I’d miss the pullout and enter the Alsek, never to be seen again.

At the confluence of a side tributary and the Alsek River in Kluane National Park Yukon, Canada

The unobstructed view of our mid-day sojourn off the Alsek River. We’ll spend a couple of hours here just chilling out enjoying the perfect day, happy that we weren’t eaten by the bear or Lava North.

Glacial ice picked out of the stream off Alsek River in Kluane National Park Yukon, Canada

After lunch some of the others napped, Caroline and I explored, this is a little something Caroline found. Glacial ice that had been floating downstream. To the best of our map reading ability, it appears that the tributary we have stopped at is a flow coming from Fisher Glacier that is north of us and out of sight. The real beauty found in these sculptures are lost in the photograph. They are difficult to find the perfect angle to show you, they are even more of a problem to hold with already cold hands. Looking like glass art there is the inclination to want to stroke its sensuous curves and soft features, until the freezing ice starts to do the same to your hands and a dull ache sets in.

A swallowtail butterfly on shore near the Alsek River in Kluane National Park Yukon, Canada

A swallowtail takes a break from pollination duties, landing long enough for me to get one almost reasonable photo. A few minutes earlier a skittish ptarmigan was moving about, but he was having nothing to do with a busy guy trying to snap pictures of everything that moved, and didn’t move.

A waterfall in the cliff next to our rest stop in Kluane National Park Yukon, Canada

Our afternoon break is nearly over, the tables that had been brought out for lunch are being put away. We sweep the beach to ensure we are not leaving anything behind. This is especially important where wildlife is concerned, as if bears identify locations as being good foraging areas and then equate humans with those food sources, all of a sudden that bear gets a case of the smarts putting two-and-two together and us in danger. Scoured and clean, boats packed, passengers and boatmen ready to get on board, we push off. Our camp site is not too far away, just some miles down river near the foot of the mountain seen four photos above. Feeling refreshed and energized by our encounters with the cold water earlier, Caroline and I opt to not put on our water proof layer or the rubber gear for the rest of the river day, instead we are in shorts and shirts and ready for it.

The view from Blue Lagoon campsite in Kluane National Park Yukon, Canada

We were good up until the turn in the river when the shadows bore down on us. Oh it was easy out in the sun, after being splashed by the small rapids we warmed quickly. Bruce warned us that we had one more large set of rapids yet to deal with and thought we might want to throw on our rubber gear, he was right. Good thing too because that water came right up and over with some mighty splashing action. Also on the way to camp we stopped next to a gravel bank and collected fire wood. Shaun has rafted this river more than any other in his career and has a pretty good read on what we’ll find as we move down river. He thought we’d have trouble collecting enough wood at Blue Lagoon; our home for the night. He was right about the lack of drift wood, he was also right in choosing our campsite. If you look at that golden yellow mountain side, you should be able to recognize it as the mountain we were looking at during lunch.

Our rafts tied up for the night at Blue Lagoon camp site in Kluane National Park Yukon, Canada

We were almost tricked into thinking we were having sunset this early evening. With the sun reflecting off the golden mountains behind us, a warm sunset light was cast down upon us. Caroline learned a new trick today, one of the straps on a dry bag I carry for storing a camera broke. Bruce explained to her how to fix it when on a river – you need floss. Like all good boatmen, these folks travel with emergency supplies to fix just about anything that might break while on a river trip, a needle was found in a quick minute. Now armed, Caroline got to work reattaching the strap of my dry bag fixing it to our delight. Dinner was lasagna, the entertainment was a blazing fire, and dreams played second fiddle to the extraordinary view of nature we have been experiencing.

Jun 212012

Leaving Lowell Lake in Kluane National Park Yukon, Canada

The layover is over, time to leave Lowell Lake. As we paddle westward it is a strange thought that our departure is hinging on finding a way through the ice. If the passage is closed, we either wait, or we portage. Lucky for us we are able to find a thread to follow and are soon moving right along. It is a bittersweet moment, I was just getting a faint sense of Lowell Glacier and now this might be the last I ever see of it. Disneyland, the White House, Yellowstone, those all feel easy to visit. They are relatively close and can be visited nearly on a whim. The Alsek is not traveled to and on as a spontaneous decision to just get up and go. Here we are in the third week of June, river season barely started, and in less than 90 days winter will be greeting the stragglers who venture on to the river late in the year – way out in September.

On the western edge of Lowell Lake in Kluane National Park Yukon, Canada

We don’t get far before the guides decide it’s already time for a hike. Our landing spot is on the west side of the lake, the idea is to hike to an overview of Lowell Glacier so we will have had the opportunity to, “See it all!” Familiarization with one location often tricks me into thinking that the rest of what’s to come will be quite similar to where I’ve already been – wrong. We exit our rafts on what at other times must be lake bottom. I imagine that the pools we are seeing are one of two things, either they are depressions that hold lake water from waves that spilled into them, or second, maybe icebergs were stranded here as the lake level went down and this is its melt water.

View of Lowell Lake from the western shore. Kluane National Park Yukon, Canada

We don’t have to walk far before the perspective change is so dramatic, that I’m not sure we are still in the same relative location. Pay particular attention to the steep gravel hillside on the left of this photo, that is where we are heading. I’m confounded in places such as this, my thoughts are asking, “What’s wrong with this location?” I understand there may be something of special interest just over the hill, but when do I get the time to fully absorb this place? That giant mountain on the right is Goatherd Mountain which the majority of our group hiked yesterday, with a few of the hikers making it nearly to the peak.

Soft and fragile blooms are also an element of the landscape in Kluane National Park Yukon, Canada

Funny thing about perspective, if I were a cell of bacteria, this yellow bloom might represent the majority of the universe I would ever know. As a human, I look out and try to comprehend my scale in comparison to what is extraordinarily large such as glaciers, mountains, rivers, and the distance to a horizon. But that is often as far as we choose to perceive ourselves. What happens when we try to find scale when looking out into the universe? Do we somehow still believe that our star speckled evening canopy is mere miles above us? Could we think it is just out of our reach and so it’s not too threatening? And what of this tiny bloom, is it too small and insignificant to demand our attention? How did the others walk by as though it didn’t exist and yet were so enamored by the largeness they were taming? Maybe that’s it, we believe the tiny has already been conquered and that taking control of the immense gives us a sense of power. So what of the thing that cannot be seen by the naked eye, the microbe, the mutation in our DNA or cell, or radiation that we do not control? A word of advice: When in the big, don’t forget to stop a moment and enjoy the small, it too can be immense.

A thin ridge line being hiked for a closer view of the western side of Lowell Glacier in Kluane National Park Yukon, Canada

What one doesn’t see in this photo is the tiny strip of trail between me and those hikers that has my vertigo saying, “No way buddy, you’ve gone as far as you will today.” Caroline decides that she’ll trek back with me to keep me company, while Bruce hands off a can of bear spray so I don’t have to try taking out a charging bear armed only with my camera. With Caroline acting as bait we amble back to the rafts. The going was slow. The only problem with that was during the slowest progress forward, we would also be the quietest, until we realized that a bear could be on the other of nearly anything around us. Time to sing. Somehow Caroline must think Irish folk songs would keep the bears away, I’m thinking, “Well maybe. There is that story about Ireland and snakes, come to think about it, have I ever heard about bear attacks in Ireland?” This could work. Seven Drunken Nights is the tune and it goes like this:

As I went home on Monday night as drunk as drunk could be
I saw a horse outside the door where my old horse should be
Well, I called me wife and I said to her: Will you kindly tell to me
Who owns that horse outside the door where my old horse should be?

Ah, you’re drunk,
you’re drunk you silly old fool,
still you can not see
That’s a lovely sow that me mother sent to me
Well, it’s many a day I’ve travelled a hundred miles or more
But a saddle on a sow sure I never saw before

Green lichen growing on a black patch of I don't know in Kluane National Park Yukon, Canada

With Caroline singing bear defense songs, I was free to turn my back on danger and focus in on the easily unseen details. Granite with green lichen, this is a sight we don’t see every day. Well some readers might, but I’ll bet they don’t see it with a giant freaking glacier on their side with the chance of being eaten at any moment by a fearsome grizzly bear that is probably stalking them right now. The other hikers are out of view, the rafts cannot be seen from where we are, neither can the conspiring bears that lay in wait. Crank up the sixth verse wife and get on to singing about those two hands on her breasts that Saturday night when old what’s his name was drunk as drunk could be.

Unknown type of rock looking like it was struck by lightning in Kluane National Park Yukon, Canada

This beautifully colored red and orange rock grabbed our attention because it looked as though it had been struck by lightning. There, I heard it again. A noise in the underbrush has peaked our curiosity. What is that? A bear cub? No, it’s a full grown moose about to stomp on us! Just kidding. I said, “underbrush,” it was a bird. A very aggressive one at that. Each time we’d try to peer through the leaves, this invisible bird would flutter about making a lot of noise, but never an appearance. Maybe it had chicks and was defending the nest, we quickly moved away to leave the bird to its parenting chores.

Flowers beyond their prime in Kluane National Park Yukon, Canada

In the beauty of this glaciated land even death and decay take on aesthetic qualities worth noting. Back on Day 4 we passed a moose skull that was an art piece in its own right. Today it is the remnants of these flowers that tug at my curiosity and sense of the attractive. The stems are nearly monochrome, only hints of the golden yellow that for a very short time came into existence, give us a hint of what this scene may have looked like just a week ago.

What words can be used to describe this beauty? Kluane National Park Yukon, Canada

Five cascades are on view in this photo. The mighty Alsek River is running up at the base of those mountains. The scene is enormous, but it is hardly a very wide panorama, it is but a fraction of what we were looking at as we turned from side to side and looked behind. Caroline and I are near the end of our hike back to the rafts. From here we turned left and descended back to the lake bed for a quarter-mile walk to the lake’s edge where the rafts were tied down. The third picture down from today’s blog entry is what’s behind us. Between the two photos, you are seeing about 60% of the view. To see it all would surely bring you to your knees, as it did us.

Looking upstream Lowell Glacier and its lake start to fade from view. Kluane National Park Yukon, Canada

Goodbye Naludi, you’ve been terrific. With Lowell Glacier quickly fading behind us, it is now time to turn our attention to what lies ahead. Only problem is, there’s really no way to know what is further downstream. Wild animals, weather, an iceberg, or an earthquake could change everything. Maybe the lay of the river has been altered and a new unrunnable rapid formed over the winter? We’ve already heard about the difficulties entering Alsek Lake towards the end of the journey, it is not unheard of to find ice blocking the entry points, forcing passengers and crew to lug boats and gear over land to complete the trip to the Pacific Ocean. Right now though, none of that matters. This beautiful day suggests to me that this adventure will be nothing less than perfect.

On the Alsek River in Kluane National Park Yukon, Canada

Posted because it’s pretty.

A striped rock found at Sam & Bills campground in Kluane National Park Yukon, Canada

Little stones, big rocks, giant boulders, hills, cliff-sides, escarpments, towering mountains that reach for the heavens that are being broken down to pebbles, grains of sand, and finally silt. The components that make up much of earth’s surface are in a near constant state of flux here this corner of North America. Nothing is safe here from being ground down, tilted, shifted, thrust forward or upward – the Earth is actively at work here. So I may be repeating myself here, but I am so taken by this idea that hundreds of millions of people might see the same movie next year, but I will be the only person on earth to have ever touched or seen this rock in person. Well, that just leaves me in astonishment as to just how big our world is, while our existence within our urban zones are so tiny.

Sunset view looking back upstream on the Alsek River in Kluane National Park Yukon, Canada

After arriving at Sam & Bills to make camp, the first order of business is for us to unload the rafts. Then it’s time to pitch our tents. With our sleeping arrangements in order, Caroline and I took a walk along a nearby stream. We didn’t go far due to the bear tracks that suggested one might be near. This landscape defies words to describe the spectacular sights we are experiencing. The best we can do while in these moments of awe is to pretend this is all just the most normal thing we could possibly be doing right now. But it is the furthest thing from normal. By the way, our tent is set up in a drainage, if it rains I hope it’s not a flash flood that forces our move into the river. What I liked most about our tent location this evening was this view right here from our front door.

Jun 202012

Looking at blue ice of an iceberg in Lowell Lake at Kluane National Park Yukon, Canada

What an exciting night, not a great one for sleep, but the sounds of icebergs rolling and the glacier calving was an experience that I hope to never forget. I’d tell you that we woke at the break of dawn, but it was never night, this is such a strange phenomenon. When we finally do shake ourselves from our tent we see that we are apparently the first to emerge. Our first point of business is to head to the lake to see what changed overnight. On the right of the nunatak was this iceberg now showing part of its blue underbelly. The wave created when this giant started to roll must have pushed the other bergs out of the way because we have a beautiful view of this berg that was obscured last night. I wait, I sit, and I try to remain patient, hoping that it will continue its rollover. It didn’t budge.

Swirly patterns on rock in Kluane National Park Yukon, Canada

Coffee was ready before the majority of the camp was awake. This is a time of day on river trips that I truly appreciate: while my senses are again focused and aware, the voices of the others remain silenced. The driftwood that had been collected yesterday continues to snap and crackle as the fire works to turn it to ash. I sip my coffee, look and listen, as details are found and bookmarked. Soon, others are stirring. I may never understand those travelers who wake with an explosion of energy that is best released through the gregarious noise of announcing they have arrived. Maybe it’s a biological holdover from our distant primate ancestors who reveled with loud celebratory screeching at the Sun that it indeed had returned to reanimate us with a new day. Surely my ancestors were from a branch of life that did not draw attention that they were ready to sacrifice themselves as a meal to the next predator.

Heading up Goatherd Mountain across from Lowell Lake in Kluane National Park Yukon, Canada

Today is known as a “layover” day, meaning we are staying put. Well not really staying in one place the entire day, but we are staying in the same camp for two nights. The reason for our layover is that our boatmen have a special adventure mapped out for us, we are to hike Goatherd Mountain. Only the “we” will be minus “me,” though I won’t be alone because fellow passenger John Hoffman has decided to stay back too. The hiking group gets started around lunch time, the weather had been questionable up until that time. Caroline takes one of our cameras with her, good thing we brought two DSLRs. Quiet once again overtakes the lakeside.

Another group of rafters entering Lowell Lake in Kluane National Park Yukon, Canada

With the others gone, it was time to sit peacefully at the lake. For hours I watched the play of clouds hug and release mountain tops. In the distance the roar of a thunderous calving would elicit my standing attention to try and find precisely what was occurring, nothing could be seen. I walked the shore looking for a better vantage point for the next performance of ice ballet, but that spot was never found. As the sun peaks out from behind the clouds, the lake’s surface becomes a mirror, while the moments of silence are the mirror that reflects my inner voice. How does one question the enormity of what in comparison is actually a very small space, this lake and glacier of infinite detail that for the majority of time goes unobserved? How many fantastic scenes of beauty are never witnessed by the curious minds of those with the ability to recall and tell of the serenity that can be found in that which overwhelms our senses? I become smaller as I recognize the immensity of time and how nature does not care if it is the center of attention. How petty are we humans when compared to the generous magnanimity of our Earth.

The view of Lowell Glacier and its lake from Goatherd Mountain in Kluane National Park Yukon, Canada

Meanwhile, Caroline is high up the slope of Goatherd Mountain, that’s me on the shore far to the left! This overview represents approximately 8 miles from side to side and 40 miles of depth to the most distant peaks of Mt. Kennedy. From up here it doesn’t seem so far-fetched that a massive wave could throw rafts up a hill, heck, it almost looks flat down there. Upon getting back home, it would be this view that we placed upon our desktops to bring us back to the Yukon and our Alaska adventure every day in the months that followed. Do not wonder if I am or was disappointed in not seeing this view. We humans cannot do it all, not even when right at the place to “do” something. While those who took the hike have this memory embedded in their imaginations, they did not see what I saw. How do we rank what is more valuable to our experiences than something else? How is amazing more amazing than amazing?

Orange lichen in Kluane National Park Yukon, Canada

Orange lichen, because orange is way more exotic than plain old green, and this place is nothing if not exotic. Wikipedia calls this, ‘common orange lichen,’ the contributor to that entry obviously does not live in a desert. The trail up and down Goatherd is not for those out for a stroll in the park, it is hard work. The payoff for your efforts are sights like these, though I suppose this might only appeal to those who are not only interested in the big picture.

Swirls of rock patterns on Goatherd Mountain in Kluane National Park Yukon, Canada

Mmmm, Candy Mountain. I licked it and can attest to the fact that it is indeed taffy, stone flavored taffy! Seriously though, this was part of Caroline’s hike on Goatherd, so to be truthful I didn’t taste it, but she did and insists that is just like candy. Oh how I wish to be the all knowing geologist with a scope of knowledge that could tell you (and myself) how these formations have come to be, but I cannot. If anyone reading this can offer up some insight, I would gladly plagiarize your comment in order for me to appear more knowledgeable than I am right now.

More Candy Mountain swirls on the trail in Kluane National Park Yukon, Canada

After my wife finished eating Candy Mountain, she got busy on wearing down Candy Slope. By this time I was starving back in camp. It was already after 6:00 pm when Caroline snapped this picture of what she was leaving for other sweet-tooths who might visit this sugar laden sight for the eyes. My hunger was probably amplified due to my shivering. You may know that shivering burns a lot of calories and I had good reason to be so cold. With Mr. Hoffman well out of sight and no one else around, I stripped down to the bare essentials, that being what hair I have on my body, and bathed in Lowell Lake. No, I did not go for full immersion, sadly I could only stand in the lake for moments, just long enough to pour a few gallons of ice water over myself. Yowza that was cold, but it was also exhilarating. Now fully adrenalized I was ready to start washing up. Being the environmentally aware folks that we are, and that we had a good amount of Dr. Bronner’s left from our rafting trip down the Colorado, I got to lathering up with spearmint soap. Now likely looking like a cross between Santa Claus and a polar bear with severe hair loss, it was time to rinse off. Back into the water with my bucket. Ooh that water’s cold. Oh no, I still have bubbly suds in my hair, suds that a second bucket doesn’t fully clear away. My head is starting to shrink. This is like an ice-cream headache I’ve never known, the entire skull is writhing in pain. A third dousing and I have to pause, I’m out of breath and squealing while small chunks of iceberg float by. Reduced in appearance to a sex neutral, fat Ken doll, I go for the forth and final rinsing. I am now squeaky clean and thrilled that at least this once I will have had the luxury of bathing in a lake of giant ice cubes on a spectacularly sunny day while standing naked in the Yukon. I hope I didn’t just admit to breaking any Canadian decency laws.

Halfway between Goatherd Mountain and Lowell Lake in Kluane National Park Yukon, Canada

One view is not like the other, nor is any view like another. Perspective changes, even small incremental shifts have the ability to bring into focus scenes that leave us in astonishment that a head turn should deliver so much new to see. What is hard to see are the animals. Signs of them are everywhere, we see bear, wolf, and moose tracks, just nothing to attach them too. Good thing the sights are able to make up for it. Excuse me while I ooh and aah at the scenery, while watching out for bear.

Our camp on Lowell Lake in Kluane National Park Yukon, Canada

It’s after 7:00 pm when the first wave of hikers re-enter camp, it will be another hour before the rest of our group come home. While the fire is ready to start cooking up them burgers and dogs we’ll be having tonight, we’ll have to wait on the others. Meanwhile, we are getting guests from a nearby group of campers who are on the same journey as we are. They arrived earlier in the day, see photo above, and are setting up camp just up the road. This is a favorite stop for travelers on the Alsek River as it is the first glacier encountered and groups are well situated to take the hike up Goatherd Mountain.

A small piece of clear ice from the bottom of Lowell Glacier in Kluane National Park Yukon, Canada

With time to spare I go right to work on Caroline telling her how invigorating my bath was; she’s hooked and soon follows my steps. Armed with a bucket, soap, and a towel, she’s just as eager as I was to throw off the clothes and take the plunge. Between my hysterical laughter and her yips of reaction to the cold, I manage to help slowly rinse away the soap. I admit that I languished in slow motion pour, allowing every drop of water to roll down her back as she believed there was still more soap to rinse off. Don’t go thinking I was mean about this, it is our normal.  If you asked her, she would tell you too, that she wouldn’t trade it for anything. The piece of ice in the photo? I had to break that out of Caroline’s hair.

Piece of iceberg slowly floating on a journey to somewhere. Kluane National Park Yukon, Canada

With nothing else to do, we meander up and down the shore. Both of ensure each other that our day was nothing less than spectacular. Caroline tells me I’m lucky I didn’t go on the hike as my vertigo would have likely gotten the best of me, I tell her how lucky I was to have the day to watch the comings and goings of ice as it drifts across the lake. I also remember to tell her of a particularly attention grabbing lake event that happened a few hours earlier when something large and unseen turned over. While I couldn’t manage a glimpse of precisely what it was, its affect was unmissable. Following the rollover, a large wave kicked up radiating from the iceberg’s location and sent a short foot and half wall of water toward a nearby cove. The wave mostly dissipated before reaching me, but maybe even more interesting was the fluctuation of the lake level. Slowly the lake level went down and then sloshed back up. Back down and then up again, this happened a good half a dozen times before leveling off again. I try to imagine how big does the iceberg have to be that can affect that much water displacement, especially considering that I couldn’t see it with all of the other icebergs that were blocking the view. Obviously it wasn’t the biggest of the big, I can only wonder what that would have looked like.

Our shadows, except strangely enough, our shadows have shadows. On Lowell Lake in Kluane National Park Yukon, Canada

In all our lives, neither Caroline or I could remember our shadows having shadows. No need to correct me, I understand that one set of shadows are those made directly by the sun and the others from the sun reflected off the water. Enough of science, I’m going to stay in self delusion and choose to see this as a special glacial phenomenon that only occurs on select days when the sun is in a particular spot in the sky and enough ice melt has occurred. Double shadows all the way!

In the late day sun this small piece of floating ice from an iceberg looks amber. Kluane National Park Yukon, Canada

It took the other group of hikers longer than expected to return from their hike to the arctic, not that it much mattered, sights like this satiated my appetite. As 10:00 pm approached we were finally sitting down for a bite to eat. After a cloudy start to the day, the long afternoon sun and almost clear sky has been dreamy. We too have floated on the surface of perfection just as this ice has, only difference being, you can be sure we are not as beautiful as this amber ice jewel.

Shortly before midnight on Lowell Lake in Kluane National Park Yukon, Canada

It’s not long before midnight when I snap my last photo. With countless days of adventure still ahead of us, it’s hard to let go of this one. The layover will be finished in the morning. We’ll pack up and if ice doesn’t block our way, we’ll leave the lake for a new destination further down stream. I can’t help but wonder if I have really seen anything that was here.

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.