Alsek River to Turnback Canyon

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The following initials indicate the meals included each day: Breakfast = B | Lunch = L | Dinner = D

  • Day 0
    Your journey north from your home will be a refreshing departure. You will fly over the largest expanse of wilderness in the world with stunning views on cloudless days, pass through quieter and friendlier airports, meet friendlier and less harried service personnel and generally begin to immerse yourself in the wilderness experience that is about to unfold. This is the arrival day and is the first day listed for your trip. The scheduled flights arrive in Whitehorse throughout the day. Aim to arrive by 6 p.m. The guides will be out of town at the river, rigging the rafts. Please make your way to your hotel and plan to rendezvous with your guides in the lobby of the Westmark Klondike Inn at 8 p.m. for an orientation meeting with the trip leader. There will be a chance for last-minute questions concerning clothing, gear, packing and other details.
    Whitehorse is a great place to spend a few extra days and there are local day hikes, gold panning float trips through Miles Canyon and 4X4 outings in the region.
    We will meet in the hotel lobby at 8 am following breakfast (not covered) and we will embark on the Alaska Highway for the 1 1/2 hours van ride to the small community of Haines Junction. There we will visit the Kluane National Park Interpretive Centre. (The bakery across the road is legendary for its goodies so keep your wallet handy.) We then drive a short distance to the edge of the Park where we transfer to a four wheel drive vehicle waiting to take us the final 20 kilometers along a rugged track to our waiting rafts.Part way in we cross the boundary into Kluane – one of Canada’s most renowned and spectacular National Parks.
    As the 4x4’s ford streams and bump across meadows, we often see our first bears of the trip. Mountain goat and Dall sheep are frequent sights on the hillsides above. The valley floor is also excellent habitat for moose, beaver, songbirds,terns, swans and other waterfowl.
    The “road” fades out at the braided alluvial fan of Serpentine Creek. Here the rafts are rigged and waiting on the banks of the Dezadeash River.
    Following lunch you will have time to make final adjustments to your pack, the guides will introduce you to the finer points of the day’s journey. Here on the edge of Kluane National Park you embark on a gentle piece of river, winding through the broad valley, as it flows into Alsek Pass. This region can be prone to strong upstream winds. Initially the Dezadeash River, one of the two sources of the Alsek, flows quite slowly. We carry paddles(in addition to the guides’ oars) and anyone who desires to pitch in and burn off the delicious lunch can do so.
    A couple of hours below Serpentine Creek, we pass the confluence of the Dezadeash and the Larger Kaskawulsh. It’s at this confluence that the Alsek is born. The wide flood plain of the Kaskawulsh has semi-dammed the Dezadeash and once past the confluence the Alsek River picks up its characteristic swift speed. Camp location will be determined by the prevailing conditions. Keen eyes may spot Dalls sheep and mountain goats grazing on the slopes.
    Our destination on the second day is a camp on the edge of Lowell Lake between massive Lowell Glacier and the foot of Goatherd Mountain. This is usually the longest traveling day of the trip. The extra few hours spent traveling this day pay off with a two night stay in the Lowell Lake/Goatherd Mountain area. Embarking early in the morning we raft past an interesting portion of river with unusual rock formations, dunes of wind blown glacial till known as loes,and lots of bear sign. We break the days rafting up with a couple of short walks to viewpoints, a waterfall, and a grizzly bear rubbing tree or some other interesting feature. Apart from the major hikes, the upper Alsek is also ideal for walks behind our camps and lunch stops due to the lack of tall or thick vegetation. This is the reverse of many rivers where the thickest vegetation often lies in a riparian strip on either side of the river. Why is this? A hike from the river yields a dramatic view and 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 town site 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 coastal villages that were decimated by the floodwaters. When we travel the river today we see scarring and other effluvial remains that tell the story of the monstrous hydrological event. This accounts for the lack of vegetation by the river. Today’s river bank was (until very recently in geological terms) under the waters of the glacial lake and therefore soil couldn’t form as it did in the forests above the ancient lake.
    Looking up, it’s easy to see how the land is layered into the four main zones: a largely unforested open band reaching a few hundred vertical feet above the river where the old lake once lay; a dark green carpet of spruce up the mountainsides; then the brighter green of alpine meadows and scrub; all topped off with rocky glaciated peaks.
    In the afternoon the river quickens ad in the last couple of kilometers we encounter the trips first minor rapids as the river washes around boulders left behind by the glaciers.Here we get our first view of the white tops of icebergs protruding up in the distance.Though presently receeding, massive Lowell Glacier still spills into the lake that is carved out at it’s toe. Like the other glaciers of the St. Elias Mountains, Lowell is a remnant of the last ice age. Lowell Lake is an iceberg-filled spectacle similar to the larger one on the lower Alsek made famous by books and posters. We camp on the flats at the base of the cliffs against which Lowell Glacier, once pressed during a surge, sealing off the Alsek’s flow. This is a natural place to spend an extra day to hike or just soak in the sights.
    Goatherd Mountain is a superb destination for hikers – truly a world-class hike with fantastic wildlife.Even those who don’t choose to go to the top can get a marvelous view from its base. One can look out over the jewel-like icebergs of Lowell Lake and see 50 or more kilometers up the ice falls of Lowell Glacier to 13,905foot Mount Kennedy (named after JFK and climbed by his brother Bobby). Other peaks surrounding Kennedy– Alverstone and Hubbard - rise up to over 15,000 feet:Mt. Logan, Canada’s highest and second in North America only to McKinley, lies a bit farther back at 19, 850 feet.
    Goatherd Mountain is well named as it’s home to over100 mountain goats, some of which graze the slopes right above camp. With binoculars or spotting scope you’ll get a good look at wildlife from camp. If you're up for some hiking, you can expect to get a great look – often so high you can actually look down on mountain goats. Ptarmigan,horned larks and pipits nest and feed in the high country.Golden eagles soar over the slopes looking for unwary Arctic ground squirrels. A rainbow of wildflowers carpets the alpine meadows. If necessary, the guides will split up to accompany some to the mountain top, others to the lower flanks and meadows and also the less ambitious for a ramble along the gentle iceberg-studded shoreline of Lowell Lake.
    On Day 4 we usually break camp and continue on through Lowell Lake, paddling and rowing through a maze of icebergs, which have calved off from the face of Lowell Glacier. The bergs range in size from minute to massive– some are the size of entire apartment blocks! Periodically one rolls over with a resounding thunder, exposing its freshly washed, sapphire blue underside. (Occasionally,strong afternoon winds can be an obstacle to crossing the lake so we may elect to get an earlier start this day).
    After about 4 kilometers, the lake narrows and becomes a river again with its characteristic speed. The bigger bergs get hung up in the shallows of Lowell Lake’s outlet but many smaller ones (up to the size of a van) can escape and we may bob and weave downstream with them.
    The major rapids of the trip are located a couple of hours below Lowell Lake. The amount of time we spend on Lowell Lake will decide whether we run the big rapids of the trip on Day 4 or on Day 5. There is one tight spot where, in most water levels, the guides will line the boats or run them through empty. It’s easy to walk downstream a few hundred meters and meet the boats once they’ve negotiated this spot. Don’t worry, you won’t have missed anything. The fun rapids continue below.
    Shortly below these rapids, we meet the first drainage of the Fisher Glacier on the right and the Bates River coming in from the left. Here the terrain begins to close in and the river valley becomes more confined. Waterfalls plummet off the rugged mountainsides as the river races underneath.It’s a very imposing, awe inspiring landscape. A number of fun rapids and wave trains await downstream!A second layover day is spent at a camp somewhere below the Bates River. There are a number of possible layover camps well-positioned for alpine hikes, glacier walks or simply relaxing with a great view.
    About a day before Turnback Canyon we leave the Yukon Territory’s Kluane National Park and enter British Columbia. In June 1993 the BC portion of the Alsek and Tatwas preserved with the declaration of the Tatshenshini-Alsek Wilderness Park and has since been designated a United Nations World Heritage Site. The Tat-Alsek watershed is the heartland of the largest protected wilderness area on the continent.
    After a few days of unstructured itinerary, this day’s objective is to position ourselves to rendezvous with the helicopter for the aerial flight over Turnback Canyon and out to vehicles waiting to transport us back to Whitehorse on Day 8. We usually endeavour to get down to our camp above Turnback early enough to allow a few hours exploring the start of Turnback Canyon that afternoon or evening. Turnback consists of several kilometers of some of the ugliest, most tortured and turbulent whitewater you’ll see anywhere. Not only does it stop humans floating the river,it’s so bad that it even blocks most salmon from migrating any further up the Alsek. Tweedsmuir Glacier still sprawls right into the valley and it is very evident how, held against the flanks of Mount Blackadar, the Alsek has carved a formidable wild canyon in the bedrock. Tweedsmuir has receded a little in recent years, but when we first flew the river twenty years ago, the snout of the glacier overhung and calved ice right into the raging rapids. Although it has been kayaked a “handful” of times in low water, it is no place for a raft. After dinner the guides deflate and roll up the rafts and consolidate the gear for the helicopter egress the following day. This camp is spectacular, with a dramatic and imposing sapphire-blue glacier hanging off the nearby mountains.
    Today we begin to see the many glaciers of the area. From our camp at Melt Creek, near the confluence of the Alsek River, we can count 27 different glaciers. Glorious views can be seen in all directions.
    After goodbyes and a last look around Whitehorse, we will head for home with a cargo of find and spectacular memories.

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