Friday, July 13, 2018

Pack Rafting the Alsek River Part 1

In about the year nineteen hundred and eighty eight or so I was able to take advantage of Oregon State University's position as a strong ag and forestry school and their then-program of a three-quarters/school year schedule (meaning more classes, and thus more ability to take electives) to take a class called "Wilderness Management" taught by a guy named Bo Shelby.  Perhaps a bit of a stretch for a business major, but it did have the word "management" in it and because of my personal interest in the outdoors and forced-upon "interest" in the business world it was the first time that I got exposed to the complexities associated with the deeply inherent complexities associated with societies' relationships to the natural world.  Bo was the first person I'd met who essentially had a doctorate in recreation, and it wasn't a joke; he was a pioneer in the concepts of an environment's carrying capacity of humans, the effects of sound on a forest and its visitors, the perception of crowding in the outdoors, the effects of the development of trails, river flow effects on fishing, and many other aspects of outdoor recreation management that are even more relevant today after 30 more years of booming participation.

Not only was Bo pretty dang smart, he got after it too.  And one of the best aspects of his class was that every coupla weeks we'd come in and he'd say "Ok, today's lecture is going to be a slide show" and he'd give us a full blown slide show of a climbing and kayaking trip he did to the Karakoram or the many times he'd driven down to NorCal's Smith rivers or somesuch.  But the one that really rung my bell was his descent of the Alsek river and the infamous Turnback Canyon.

The Alsek is the biggest (I think) river that flows out of the Wrangell St. Elias mountains, starts in the Yukon's Kluane (clue-ahn-nee) National Park, makes a brief foray into British Columbia, and then crosses into the US after the Tatsenshini River joins it for a last big run to the ocean south at Dry Bay, 45 miles south of Yakutat, which is itself a long ways from most anywhere (like Juneau, it has no road access).  The Alsek is (I think) the only river in Alaska that requires a permit to float, and the permit is actually for the take out at Dry Bay, so with an Alsek/Tat permit you can float either river down to the confluence and out to the ocean. 

The Alsek was mostly unknown until nineteen hundred and seventy one, when a brash 50ish doctor from Salmon, ID named Walt Blackadar decided to do a solo run down the Alsek and without much/any information, charged down the Alsek's Turnback Canyon, which is a 4 mile stretch of big whitewater even by today's standards.  He made a big deal out of it with some pretty grandiose language ("I want any other kayaker or would-be expert to read my words well. The Alsek Gorge is unpaddleable!") and eventually his exploit was covered by Sports Illustrated, cementing his reputation as the grandfather of gnarly boating.  Undeterred by good doctor's warning, a group of big water doods from the Pacific Northwest went up to do it some years later, and one of those guys was Bo Shelby. 

I don't remember any specific pictures from Bo's slide show, but I do remember thinking "holy shit, I gotta figure out how I can go do that."  I had a coupla roommates who were paddlers and OSU had a pool kayak session and my buddies tried to teach me to roll, but I was absolutely terrible.  Eventually I started kayaking in rivers anyway and - like Walt Blackadar - didn't really have a roll for the first coupla years and - along with Mike Elovitz - was pretty much the captain of the river swim team, but I was on my way to paddling some good rivers. 

In about 2004 brother Paul got an Alsek permit and inexplicably....I didn't go.  Around that same time Greg Hanlon got a permit and again inexplicably....I didn't go.  In 2006 Paul got another permit and decided to do the Tatsenshini since he hadn't done that tributary and finally I got to go, and while it was a great trip and a good introduction to the "Fast and Cold" Alaskan rivers.  But both Paul and Greg said that while the Tat was nice, the Alsek was mind blowing, and thus I still wanted to go do the Alsek. 

Turnback Canyon is about 100 miles down the Alsek from the put in, with a couple of class 3-4 big water rapids above it, and it makes for a bit of a daunting obstacle.  At 4+ miles long it's a long portage, the imposing, glaciated north face of the mighty Mt Blackadar (named after Walt died on the SF Payette in 1978, and the first ascent of the peak was done by a team including his son) tumbles right into the canyon from the left, and the huge Tweedsmuir glacier also ends with huge seracs falling into the canyon from the right.  But people still want to raft the rest of the river, so the norm is to hire a helicopter to fly in from a hundred miles away and haul all of the rafts, people, paco pads, dutch ovens, beers, and groovers a few miles downstream to the canyon's exit.  A big deal, and heli time isn't cheap: it's about $6000 total these days. 
pic poached from the interweb

The takeout provides an additional logistical challenge: Dry Bay is a suburb of the middle of nowhere, and thus a trip needs to fly out of there, either back to Haines, AK or 45 miles up the coast to Yakutat.  Also a bit of a big deal. 

But Tim Kelley had an idea; how about taking pack rafts down, so that you can do the portage on your feet for cheap, and instead of flying from Dry Bay to Yakutat, why not just walk it?  So he was able to snag a cancellation permit and he and his buddy Gunnar then reached out to Brad Meiklejohn to see if he wanted to join in the paddle and plod fest, and Brad in turn rightly figured that I'd be game for it as well.  And thus we headed out for an Alsek On The Cheap. 
some great cheap Thai food in The Middle of Nowhere, Alaska
A great little cabin alongside the AlCan highway at the pass between Haines Jct (Yukon) and Haines AK; a good place to remember for AK bike tourers.  
Our journey began inauspiciously, as we first had to go 150 miles out of the way of our already-long drive from Anchorage to the put in because the US Customs office to the north of our put in didn't know how to deal with us paddling back into the US, and forced us to go to the southern border customs office, where the officer in charge was clearly pleased with the PIA that they were causing for us.  Back at the Kluane National Park center we discovered that mindless bureaucracy was not only limited to the US, because we had to get multiple permits to float from Canada, they took over an hour to "process" us, and when we told the official where our first camp was she said "you can't make it there in one day!"  Um, the river is pretty much at peak flows and is cranking past the put in bridge; it's only 12 miles to camp so even if it was flat we could get there in 4 hours, gets dark at 2 in the morning if it does take too long.  But she insisted on calling another official to ask if it were humanly possible to go 12 miles in a pack raft, and we had to wait for him to get back into range before she grudgingly took (too much of) our money to float.

And finally we were at the put in with our patient shuttle driver (Kat from NOLS Alaska).

The Alsek is famous for the winds that roar up the canyon from the cool ocean mouth to the warmer, drier interior, and as we drove the major drainage to the north of the Alsek provided a vivid example of that:
that's dust blowing about 40mph up canyon
But it was tolerable on our river, and it took us just a few hours to float down the Dezadeash River down to its confluence with the Kaskawulsh River where together they become the (very big) Alsek.

And a pretty expansive-view camp:

Next up:  paddling the Alsek and portaging Turnback Canyon.  

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