Friday, July 26

Heading home

Two more hours on the river and we arrived in Dry Bay, Alaska, which is a commercial fishing outpost just north of Glacier Bay National Park. Then we all launched into unloading, derigging, washing and deflating rafts,   organizing gear, riding to an airstrip in a wagon pulled by a four-wheeler, and waiting until a Hawker Siddley prop plane arrived to take us all back to Whitehorse for showers and our closing dinner.

This river trip was the best yet, an overflowing buffet of scenery beyond words.  The world needs wild places and we’re grateful for a chance to journey through them. 

More scenes from Alsek Lake. We rowed out to get a closer look at some of the icebergs, in all their fanciful shapes and colors. Sometimes we’d hear a rumble that meant a berg had split or a new one had calved off a glacier—but you can’t often see what happened. Sometimes, though, a berg rolls over, exposing a fresh ice-blue surface.

A few of our companions worked with the guides to build a sauna on the lakeshore. Our family declined to go for that shock to the system—but we were happy to be spectators.

Scenes from Alsek Lake as the rain moved in. We could see it across the lake, coming our way. It’s a cool place in any kind of weather. 

For some reason, Angie, Nick and I were feeling chilled even a few hours later when we stopped for lunch. So we relaxed in the sun on a sandy beach while the others took a walk for a first view of Alsek Lake, our final camp. Many glaciers end at this lake, and it’s full of icebergs. Here are some of Steve’s photos. The flowers are Indian Paintbrush.

Wednesday, July 23

Jamaica Falls

Anybody up for a cold shower? We stopped at Jamaica Falls to fill jugs with clean, clear snowmelt water. The guides invited us to join them for a brisk shower to clean up. Why not? Other than the freezing cold water. I’m posting photos of Angie and Nick, but I’ll have you know I took the plunge, too.

Tuesday, July 23

Walker Glacier

This is the day we crossed into the Alaska panhandle for the final three days of our expedition. A shorter day on the river brought us to our camp, with a fine view of Walker Glacier.

After setting up the tents we piled into two rafts to paddle up an outlet creek and across the lake in front of the glacier, which has receded considerably since our first visit 18 years ago. There was such a strong headwind that we hooked the two rafts together into one 36-foot-long craft with four oars and eight paddles. It was no easy task to row agains the headwind, but such camaraderie and fun.

Then came a difficult and rather dangerous navigation of boulders and shifting rocks up to the edge of the glacier. We piled on layers of clothes and made our way onto the muddy ice split by crevasses gleaming blue. I saw clumps of moss growing right on the ice. There was a waterfall pouring over the side.

More laughter on the way back, then back to camp for Mexican night. Margaritas with glacier ice, chips with guacamole, and big burritos with all the toppings. It didn’t feel like Mexico, though, to eat all this in view of that big blue glacier.

The Confluence

After the helicopter portage, we had a full afternoon of rafting the through the Noisy Range of wild, misty mountains. I sat with Angie and we talked most of the afternoon. Behind was the Icefield Range, its glaciers illuminated with afternoon light. Far ahead was the Fairweather Range, also illuminated. 

And then we arrived at the best camp yet, at the confluence of the Tatshenshini and Alsek Rivers. (We rafted the Tatshenshini and lower Alsek 18 years ago when our boys were 12 and 13, and then again four years ago with Angie, my sister Martha, brother-in-law Kriss and nephew Austin.) It was sunny and breezy for the first time in days, and we could clean up and do a bit of laundry in the clear water of the lagoon, dry out our wet things, and just enjoy the splendid view. 

It was steak night, with beer-butter potatoes and dilled carrots. We played a game of travel Scrabble. Everyone was tired after our full day, but I could hardly stand to go into the tent because the mountains in the evening sunlight were so hauntingly beautiful.

Monday, July 21

Turnback Canyon

Did I mention we had a helicopter portage? The reason was Turnback Canyon, a raging narrows with steep cliffs that has only been run at high water once, by a kayaker named Walt Blackadar, a doctor from Idaho who barely survived. He wrote, “I wouldn’t do it again for $50,000. Not for all the tea in China. It is unrunnable.” 

So on Monday morning, a helicopter with and pilot arrived to ferry the 15 of us and all our gear, including deflated rafts, over the canyon. This was a real highlight! We got a fine view of the canyon and the raging river below, the vast gravel-strewn surface of Tweedsmuir Glacier, and mountains as far as we could see.

After six trips back and forth by the helicopter—three for passengers and three for gear— we were reassembled on the other side. We worked together to reinfllate the rafts and load them up. After lunch, we headed back down the swift Alsek River.

July 20

Tweedsmuir Glacier

The river was really been moving along by now, and we enjoyed some splashy rapids. One big wave washed up under my raincoat and down into my boots. Mighty chilly! When we arrived in camp, I couldn’t wait to get the tent set up, crawl into my sleeping bag to get warm and take a nap. Steve and Nick joined the steep hike for a grand view of Tweedsmuir Glacier.

Late afternoon when I woke up, I could see just how spectacular this place was, Wow! The mountains, the glacier, the garden of wildflowers—point the camera anywhere and it’s another stunning photo.

Here are scenes from the end of the first week. Note: Steve doing dishes! We had a whole week of amazing weather, sunny and breezy, with almost no mosquitoes. Cool in the mornings and evenings, but delightfully warm the rest of the day. That’s unusual for these wild mountains. 

The second week it was cooler and there were more clouds, which showed the moodiness of the mountains. When it was rainy in camp, the guides would erect a tarp using oars for poles. This is a good group of travelers, as rafters typically are. No whiners.