The Tatsheshini River (the Tat) is the goal. Put in- the Yukon Territory; takeout- Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska- two weeks later. The shuttle includes a flight out of Glacier Bay via bush plane. Billed as one of the most spectacular river trips in the world.
Call Gulf Air- they can't fly out my kayak- Plan A.... but they give me the number of a company who can.. for $1600.00- Plan B. Go to Plan C. Borrow a raft- but that will take an extra flight with Gulf Air for $550.00. Plan D- Buy a Sevylor Tahiti (inflatable kayak) (alias- rubbery ducky). It may still take an extra flight. Oh well... I'll chance it.
Drive two days down the Al-Can to the put-in. Rig boats- Ray and Stephanie's 14 foot raft and my rubber ducky. A leisurely evening beside the campfire along the Tat. Why don't I get excited about trips anymore- I should be excited?
Drive both vehicles to Haines, leave Ray's. Leave my kayak in trees behind a raft companies office. Return to put-in. Still not excited. Launch- no excitement but, rather, a feeling of exhilarated calmness. Two guys in a power boat pass by repeatedly- turning and staring. They come back up stream, turn and stare some more. Turn the boat around and come back by and stop downstream. A scene from Deliverance? Just curious locals? Are they inbred? I check my Rambo river knife attached to my lifejacket, its still there- and handy. They come up alongside me and stop and stare. Finally "Do you know about the canyon" they warn, "It's pretty rough."
"Yeah, that's what I hear, sounds great." I reply. "You're not going to go through in that thing (my rubber ducky boat) are you?" "Yeah, I plan to." "It's not very safe." "OK, thanks."
They leave shaking their head and then circle around again. "If you get into trouble we have a cabin just upstream, on the north bank." "OK, thanks."
The canyon begins. Hug the inside bank, Prepare for the worst. Anticipation. Peer around the bend. Suddenly we sweep around the corner and into - more flat water. Eventually we reach the rapids- continuous technical class 3-4 for several miles. Read and run, no place to scout from but the eddies and tops of waves... what a blast!!!
Morning- Back against a log, butt on river rounded rocks. The Tat floats (pours, flows, ripples, runs?) past. Does it know I'm watching, does it care. Why don't I get excited about trips like this anymore. Instead just a sense of infinite calm and peace. Time no longer matters, nothing matters. Just watch the dwarf fireweed bloom and wiggle in the wind. Black-headed white-bodied Bonaparte gulls flitter, glide and dive into and above the Tat. Birch, cottonwood and aspen along the banks glisten and shimmer in the wind and sun. A bumble bee checks out my shirt, nose, hands. Its black and yellow "hairs" iridescent in the morning sunshine. Endlessly the river flows.
Bald eagles and us boaters lazily soak up the sun as the river carries us onward. Arctic terns hover- forked tail, black head, red beak and snow white body blend together in infinite grace. Suddenly, wings fold and they dive bomb into the silty water, feeding on unknown delicacies.
Snap, crackle, pop. We wait and watch as brush brakes across the river from camp. Watch and wait- snap, crackle, pop- more waiting and watching. Later- upstream- a small black bear emerges from the trees. It strolls into the river and swims to our side emerging and disappearing into the brush just upstream from camp. Wait and watch- no more sign of buddy bear. Sit and enjoy the slow boreal style sunset. Stephanie calmly says " there's that bear again." I run for my binoculars thinking, that's a different bear. Yep- a massive griz is plodding down the river bank headed straight for us. We watch it disappear into the brush at the edge of camp. Watch and wait. Wait and watch. Stephanie does not sleep. Ray describes his experience (and shows his scar) of being mauled by a griz a few years ago.
This is the way to travel. Get up. Enjoy the country. Make a pot of coffee. Discuss the meaning of life. Cook breakfast. Eat breakfast. Discuss the meaning of life. Break camp. Float down the river. Stop at the first good campsite. Hike up a glacial valley, following massive griz and wolf tracks. Remove boots. Wade the icy glacial creek. Feet burning with cold. Nap. Read. Nap. Read.
Mountains close in on the river. Glacial creeks carry and dump their heavy loads of ground rock into the Tat- forming deltas and changing the character of the river. It has changed from a lazy small greenish stream to a gray roiling broth, the voluptuous scouring serpent so characteristic of glacial rivers. Waves and boils at deltas. Bald eagles- floated past one immature 30 feet away, its speckled white and black breast feathers ruffling in the breeze, massive talons clutching a dead king salmon. Wings spread in the indecision of retreat. Powerful beak locked. Eyes and head moving- missing nothing.
Thunder, lightning, rain, set-up flapping tents and tarp, finally shelter from the rain- which soon stops. Fog flows down the side creeks- magically, mystically, slowly.
Camp. Across and upstream from the confluence of the Tat and Alsek. Over a mile across this gray semi-fluid rushing glacial water. At the edge of camp the St. Elias Mountains jut skyward. Glaciers cascade from each canyon. The glacial river valley surrounded by 5000 foot mountains. Bald eagles repeatedly fly over camp. Griz and wolf tracks under our tents. We decide to stay another day.
Sunshine, the Saint Elias, glaciers, two rivers- the Tat, the Alsek. The two have now become one. Now only the Alsek- huge, gray, a swirling mass of water. How many cfs? 100,000? How many molecules? How many hydrogen atoms? How many oxygen atoms? How many ground up rocks?
YO-BEAR!!!! YO-BEAR!!!! YO-BEAR!!!! awakes me in the middle of the night, I charge out of my tent. Steph heard rocks crashing on the edge of the mountain beside camp and saw something moving. But no more sign of the furry creature. However, I do catch my first sighting of a star since early June when I left the lower latitudes. That brings the dreaded realization that soon I will need to be heading back to those latitudes. But now, now all that matters is the flow of glacial water.
Emanating from the bottom of the 50 foot high glacial moraine face- a gushing fountain of gray silt saturated water. Seemingly from the bowels of the earth (actually melt water from the glacier). How old is this water? How long since it was last liquid? What was the world like then? Where will it go? How long till it becomes part of another glacier? Whose crops will it water? What fish will extract its oxygen? Can we keep it as pure as it is now? Will it become polluted? Will it continue to support life? I lay down and drink. Dunk my head. It is frigid. It is silty and gritty. It is good!!!
From the top of the moraine to the glacier it is a mile- or is it ten. Time and distance seem irrelevant (even irreverant) here. Is it Friday, Sunday or Monday? Is it 1993, 2003 or 1883? Is there a difference? River time, glacial time, timelessness- at least in human time.
Dig through the moraine to the glacial ice. Hike across the glacier itself. Glacial erratics (boulders the size of houses) perch on top of stems of translucent blue glacial ice. Crevasses seen through binoculars. Old crevasses through which I now walk- listening to the murmures of ancient water as it trickles free. Mushy, muddy silt and sand on top of the glacier, moistened by the melting (dying?) glacier. Is the glacier dying? Is it alive? It grows. It moves. It ceases to exist. It eats rocks. It changes its surroundings. It changes the earth's climate. What is life? Is the earth alive?
Morning campfire consumes driftwood- emitting its warmth and toxic fumes. Clouds roll in. Fog slides down the mountains. Sometimes hiding the peaks, glaciers and forest. Sometimes revealing their majesty. As always the river rolls past on its journey to the sea. IT must be alive.
More glaciers feed the now immense river. Camp. Surrounded by glaciers. A two mile wide glacier behind us. As the clouds break, Gateway Knob (the entrance to Alsek Bay) becomes visible. Occaisionally, 15,000 ft Mt. Fairweather is visible through the spotty clouds.
Alsek Bay to ourselves. Well almost. Tons of icebergs block the entrance to the bay. No real option but to camp on a small rocky point at the base of Gateway Knob. WHAM, BAM, POW, RUMBLE. All afternoon sit, watch, listen, feel iceberg collisions, glaciers calve, icebergs breach, icebergs calve. Waves- following calvings and breachings soon wash up on shore. Icebergs - the size and shape of castles, Devil's Tower and modern art. Across the bay is Alsek glacier with an 8 mile wide face.
Morning. Ice jam is still here. Sunshine has returned. Ray rows his boat around the point to the junction of shore and ice jam. Remove the oars. Shove icebergs with oars. Pull raft along the shore, shove icebergs, pull, shove, pull, shove, pull. We have now advanced 1/2 the length of the raft. Half a day later and we are through the quarter mile ice jam. Soon we set up camp on the other side of Gateway Knob. Again we watch, listen and feel as icebergs and glaciers calve. The sound and vibration of nearby thunder, is actually a glacier calving 2-3 miles away on the other side of the bay. Water and ice crash, splash and fly. Followed by huge outwardly rushing waves, 10-20 minutes later reaching our camp- though most of their energy has dissipated.
Out the end of Alsek Bay onward towards the Gulf of Alaska- we float down the Alsek. Our last day on The River. Civilization- a few scattered summer fishing camps. Bright orange buoys marking set nets- capturing salmon. The glaciers and mountains drift behind us. Past a small summer cannery. The take-out. A pilot from Gulf Air happens to land and radios to Yakutat (their headquarters). An hour later a 206 lands- ready to take us back to Haines. Who is ready to go... who wants to go? We load gear- it won't all fit. They have another flight out tomorrow- they'll bring it then, for an extra $100- a great price. Fly up the Alsek, over Alsek Bay, the confluence of the Tat and Alsek, glaciers from above, turn up a glacial creek valley, up the canyon, nothing to be seen but ice and rock as far as one looks. The plane is buffeted by wind, dropping, rising, lurching, once suddenly dropping and turning on its side. Ray and Stephanie are nervous- they were in a plane crash flying out from a river trip several years ago. The pilot seems to be less concerned the rougher it gets... except that now he has both hands on the stick. Dropping down out of the pass it calms. The Chilkat River and Haines, Alaska.
The river rolls gently on. Why would it stop? How could it stop? Why should it stop? Certainly not for Homo sapiens. This morning I finally realize that the sense that has replaced excitement on wilderness trips is a feeling of going home. This is where I belong. Deep in the woods, high in the tundra, flat on a stark desert. Surrounded by the white noise of a river, or the soundlessness of a boreal winter. Soaking-in the warm UV-rays of sunlight in sandeled feet or huddled around a campfire built on top of the snow- pushing away the frostbite and hypothermia. Ears attuned to the howl of the wolf. Eyes searching for the track of the grizzly.
Water sports are potentially dangerous. You are are are responsible for yourself. Get
lessons. Go with a grouop. Know your limits and don't exceed them.
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