Rafting the Alsek River

Renowned for large rapids, Himalaya-like mountain valleys and glaciers, the Alsek is a wilderness treasure unlike any other – including the Tatshenshini.
A Spectacular campsite on the Alsek River.

In the late 80’s, the “press” reverberated with the river named Tatshenshini due to a disputed mining project. If anything, the publicity understated the beauty and drama of the river. History (or fate – depending on your perspective) dealt a curious hand with the lack of mention of another river beauty – the Alsek – only one valley over. The Alsek River has it’s origins only a short distance from the Tatshenshini but the difference between the two is dramatic.

Perhaps the best way to articulate the unique features of the river is to describe a journey on the Alsek. The first striking distinction is the alpine origins of the Alsek where we embark at Serpentine Creek. The broad valley within Kluane National Park is distinctly representative of high altitude ecosystems. To further distinguish the river is the evidence of recently spectacular historic geological events in the valley. In the late half of the 1800’s the Alsek was entirely bridged by a sudden movement of the Lowell glacier. The resulting lake backed up over an area of hundreds of square miles, even flooding the current townsite of Haines Junction. The ice dam remained for a few years until it was finally broached by the river and in a cataclysmic event the valley below was flushed by a flow of gargantuan proportion. Native history tells of villages that were decimated by the floodwaters. When we travel the river today we see scaring and other effluvial remains that tell the story of the monstrous hydrological event.

While marvelling at the unique beauty of the valley and the stunning historical record, we soon reach the iceberg dotted Lowell Lake, the remains of the vast flood. Camping here for two nights we take the opportunity to hike up Goat Heard Mountain for panoramic views of the ice fields including the tallest peaks of the St Elias Range. Of course mountain goats, Dall sheep and other flora and fauna vie for our attention.

Hikers on Goatherd Mountain overlooking Lowell Lake and Glacier, Kluane National Park and UNESCO World Heritage Site, Yukon Territory. (Photo: Tyler Garnham)

After crossing Lowell Lake the mountains crowd inwards leaving narrow canyons. The water rushes through with several distinct rapids and an ever changing vista. Never a dull moment for the next few days as we approach Turnback Canyon. Here we are confronted by the Tweedsmuir, the largest of all the glaciers on the trip. Acting like a huge funnel, it forces the river into a narrow confine crowding it into a deep gorge known as Turnback canyon. Downstream the river plunges through a ten mile series of horrendous rapids. Though it has been kayaked several times, it is still considered to be unsafe for rafts. Camp is above Turnback Canyon, at the foot of the glacier.

The never ending drama of the trip continues to unfold the following day as a helicopter arrives at our camp to begin ferrying us, and our equipment around Turnback canyon. On the short flight we are afforded a great view of the area and the famous rapids that few have seen. On the other side of the Canyon we will inflate and re-rig the boats and continue downstream.

Helicopter is ready to go with a load of gear to portage from Tweedsmuir Glacier just to the end of Turnback Canyon. Tatshenshini Alsek Provincial Park, British Columbia. (Photo by Josh Miller)

Passing the Vern Ritchie and Battle Glaciers, we camp at the confluence of the Tatshenshini and Alsek Rivers. At the confluence the two rivers swell to stretch nearly three miles wide, surging through braided channels that criss-cross the valley. The resulting union bears the name Alsek River and soon enters the State of Alaska and Glacier Bay National Park.

On a giant bend that can be seen from space, we are encircled by peaks in a stunning amphitheatre of glacial ice and rock. From this point we view the crystal blue hues of Walker Glacier, a place where we actually hike on the surface of this ancient ice and experience the unique environment of deep crevasses and jagged seracs and ice falls.

Kodak Corner, below the confluence of the Alsek and Tatshenshini Rivers. Although the glaciers are receding quickly, there remain many majestic ones in the world’s largest non-polar icecap. (Photo: Noel Hendrickson)

Floating downstream we have a view of more than 20 glaciers as we make our way down to the place where the Alsek and Grand Plateau Glaciers come together at the river to form an eight mile wide face of ice. We camp at Alsek Lake which was formed by the gouging action of the glaciers resulting in the largest lake found anywhere in Glacier Bay Park.

The only thing breaking the mystical spell of the iceberg filled lake with the mountain backdrop is the frequent explosive crescendos of calving glaciers spawning multi ton icebergs. Overseeing the phenomenon is Mt. Fairweather whose ice clad summit soars over 15,000 feet above our camp.

Enjoying and exploring the lake is a delight to all of the senses. The final leg of our memorable trip is from Alsek Lake to Dry Bay on the Gulf of Alaska. At the tiny commercial fishing enclave we are met by small charter planes for the flight back to Whitehorse with a plane load of memories.

View our Alsek River Expeditions >

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Joel Hibbard

Joel Hibbard

Joel is an owner, outfitter and guide with Canadian River Expeditions. His favourite paddling trip is the upper stretches of the Nahanni River which saves him from having to choose which part of the park he enjoys most! Joel has a lifetime of experience in the Nahanni and looks forward to sharing the beauty, history and adventure of the North with you.

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