Rafting Among Glaciers and Grizzlies: Tatshenshini and Alsek Rivers, Alaska and British Columbia

Sierra Club Outings Trip # 14011A, Raft

Highlights

  • Explore spectacular glaciers and hike in pristine wilderness
  • See wildlife that includes bears, moose, eagles, wolves and sheep
  • Enjoy exceptional wilderness photography opportunities

Includes

  • Sleep kit (tents, sleeping bag & pad), waterproof bags, rubber boots, lifejacket, heavy duty rain gear
  • Charter plane flight from Dry Bay to Yakutat
  • Half-day float through the Alaska Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve
  • Visit Klukwan, an ancient Tlingit village along the Chilkcat River

Details

DatesJul 1–11, 2014
Price$3,295
Deposit$200
Capacity11
StaffDennis Teutschel

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Trip Overview

The Trip

British Columbia's Tatshenshini-Alsek Wilderness Park and Alaska's Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve represent the sub-Arctic Pacific Northwest at its finest. These areas -- along with neighboring Wrangell-St. Elias and Kluane parks -- form a UNESCO World Heritage site that, with almost 38,000 square miles, is the largest protected wilderness ecosystem on earth. This is a place truly unspoiled by humankind's heavy hand. The Tatshenshini River is known for its spectacular scenery and wildlife, and many seasoned river-runners consider this to be one of the world's premier raft trips. If you can take only one expedition to Alaska in a lifetime, this is it.

From its headwaters in Canada's Yukon Territory, the Tatshenshini River flows south through British Columbia's highest mountain range to its confluence with the Alsek River, which eventually enters the Pacific Ocean at Dry Bay on the Gulf of Alaska. We will be rafting about 140 miles of this rivershed. The waters of the Tatshenshini flow slate-gray with the silted melt waters of the surrounding glaciers and snowfields. Numerous side streams add to the flow until the braided "Tat" becomes a mile wide. In all of North America, only the Columbia River delivers more water to the Pacific Ocean.

Here the air is crisp and clean, and the sky -- when it is clear -- is a brilliant blue. Wildflowers line the riverbanks, and the valleys are verdant green against a backdrop of rugged gray peaks cloaked in ice and snow. Icebergs can be seen and heard breaking off glacial faces into Alsek Lake near the end of the trip. Wildlife can be plentiful on this Alaskan adventure. Eagles soar overhead while shore birds scurry along the water's edge. We will have an excellent chance of seeing bear, beaver, moose, red fox, mountain goats, Dall sheep, and perhaps a wolf, wolverine, or lynx. As we hike and float through this beauty, there will be plenty of time for photography, drawing, or just relaxing to enjoy the views, the silence, and the solitude.

Most Alaskan adventures -- especially those that include backpacking -- require considerable experience, equipment, physical stamina, time, planning, and effort. Rafting, however, is perhaps the least strenuous -- some would say the safest and most comfortable -- way to gain access to the true Alaskan wilds. Ten days exploring this region and floating the Tatshenshini and Alsek rivers is the perfect "Introduction to Alaska" for wilderness lovers.

We rowed up its fjord and landed to make a slight examination of its frontal wall. The berg-producing portion, a mile and a half wide, was broken into an imposing array of jagged spires and pyramids, and flat-topped towers and battlements, many shades of blue from pale, shimmering, limpid tones in the crevasses and hollows to the most startling, chilling, almost shrieking vitriol blue on the plain mural spaces ... It seemed inconceivable that nature could have anything finer.
 - Sierra Club founder John Muir, Travels in Alaska, 1875

Itinerary

This trip begins in Haines, Alaska, and ends in Yakutat, Alaska. You are responsible for securing transportation to Haines and from Yakutat. All other transportation is provided and included in the trip price. The trip involves crossing into Canada, which requires appropriate documents (see below).

Day 1: Haines is the type of town many people picture when they imagine Alaska; nestled in the upper reaches of the Lynn Canal, with the Chilkat River Valley behind it. The Chilkat Mountain Range rises behind the river, providing a dramatic backdrop to the picturesque town, with restored Fort Seward buildings decorating the hillside in the foreground.

You will arrive in Haines about noon via the Alaskan Marine Highway ferry from Juneau (see Getting There). A shared double-occupancy room at the Hotel Halsingland will be waiting for you upon arrival after a short shuttle from the ferry terminal. Members have the afternoon to explore Haines, grab a meal, and make any last-minute equipment purchases.

At 3:30 p.m. we reconvene in the Halsingland Hotel for the mandatory club orientation meeting. Immediately following the orientation, we will learn about regional environmental and conservation challenges from Lynn Canal Conservation (LCC).

LCC played a key role in helping to establish protections for the land we will be traveling through. Southeast Alaska and British Columbia rely upon a healthy environment to provide jobs, subsistence foods, recreation, and quality of life. LCC has a long-term commitment not only to the health of fish and wildlife populations, but to regulations that promote clean water and stream protection for watersheds, which are important to commercial, sport, and subsistence salmon fisheries. Protecting fish habitat is an essential part of a healthy economic future for this pristine region. After the meeting, members are once again free to enjoy the charm of Haines and grab a meal.

Day 2: At 10 a.m. a mandatory guide orientation meeting will begin on the parade grounds in front of the Halsingland Hotel (weather permiting). The meeting wraps up around noon with a bag lunch (included in the trip price). At the end of the meeting, you will receive your equipment, get your personal equipment checked, have the chance ot ask any last-minute questions, and receive information about the next morning's departure.

We will reconvene at 2 p.m. in front of the Halsingland Hotel and will be transported to the Alaska Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve, where we will put-in on the Tsirku River. The float concludes mid-morning by hauling out at Klukwan Village.

Created by the State of Alaska in 1982, the preserve was established to protect and perpetuate the world's largest concentration of bald eagles and their critical habitat. It also sustains and protects the natural salmon runs and allows for traditional uses. The Preserve consists of 48,000 acres of river bottom-land of the Chilkat, Kleheni, and Tsirku rivers. More than 80 eagle nests have been observed in the Eagle Preserve. Over 3,000 bald eagles have been counted within the preserve during the fall congregation. What brings the eagles are the five species of salmon that spawn in these and other nearby streams and tributaries. The combination of water and large amounts of food bring large concentrations of eagles and other wildlife into the Chilkat Valley.

Nestled along the banks of the Chilkat River rests the ancient Tlingit village called Klukwan. The name Klukwan is taken from the Tlingit phrase "Tlakw Aan," which literally means "Eternal Village." Klukwan enjoys a multi-layered cultural history that is preserved through the Tlingit language, rituals, stories, oral histories, and subsistence activities practiced by the Chilkat Tlingits. Members will enter the “village that has always been” and learn about Tlingit culture, enjoy a presentation and dinner (included in the price of the trip), then get transported back to Haines.

Day 3: The Chilkat Guides bus will arrive at 8 a.m. in front of the Halsingland Hotel. We’ll enjoy coffee and a breakfast snack before departing early for our put-in at Dalton Post, Yukon Territory, 110 scenic miles from Haines. The highway to the put-in passes through the Bald Eagle Preserve before climbing out of the coastal valley, entering Canada, and climbing into the alpine region of Chilkat Pass. Wildflowers, jagged mountain peaks, and hanging glaciers set the scene here. Once we reach the put-in, the guides will load the rafts, explain the rules of the river and bear etiquette, and then we'll be underway!

Days 3-9: The first section of the river takes us through Tatshenshini Gorge. After six miles of Class III rapids, the land opens up and flattens out. The remainder of the river is generally Class II at normal water levels. We soon enter the Tatshenshini-Alsek Wilderness Park where, over the next several days, we will wind our way toward the beautiful Alsek and Noisy ranges. Thickly forested valleys provide the perfect habitat for a large population of moose. Soon the river reaches the Alsek Mountains, a towering range of ice-capped peaks that turns the river south. Here the river once again picks up speed. There are good short hikes in this area. Weather permitting, we will have spectacular views of the surrounding mountains. This is prime wildlife habitat; the beaches are often marked by the tracks of moose, bears, and wolves, and occasionally we may catch glimpses of the animals themselves.

As the river braids out into an ever-widening valley, tributaries pour in, doubling the river's volume time and again as it cuts deeper into the mountain ranges. The broad, open deltas of the tributaries provide excellent locations to spot wildlife. High on the slopes above, beautiful white mountain goats and Dall sheep graze on the grassy knolls and rugged crags. As we float downstream, we will notice the mountains growing taller and the glaciers increasing in size and number. The confluence of the Tatshenshini and Alsek rivers is an awe-inspiring place. Here, four major valleys converge, and the river becomes a giant rolling highway, braiding out across a wide valley. Our camp here will be near the Alaskan border, where we will enter Glacier Bay National Park.

Farther downstream, the Alsek rounds a blind corner and reveals the massive Walker Glacier. In the past, this breathtaking glacier tumbled down, crystal-blue, to the river's edge. Now the glacier has receded, and we plan to make a short hike (about a mile) to explore this glacier for an afternoon. Only by wandering onto the glacier will we be able to truly appreciate how huge, powerful, and seemingly alive they really are.

Back on the river again, we'll count more than 20 glaciers in a spectacular panorama, where the river quickly moves away from Walker Glacier, and the surrounding high peaks rise steeply from the banks to their heavily glaciated summits. This is literally "Ice Age country," with dozens of large and small glaciers filling every vista around our rafts. We'll pass the immense Novatak Glacier and float toward Alsek Lake. Here we should see many species of birds, including bald eagles, semi-palmated plovers, spotted sandpipers, northern phalaropes, water pipits, and Canada geese.

Near the end of the trip, we'll reach Alsek Lake, where the Alsek and Grand Plateau glaciers join at the river to form an eight-mile-wide ice face, arching around the beautiful lake and filling it with icebergs. Thunder rumbles across the lake at regular intervals as the glacier spawns another berg. This scene is just the foreground, though, to one of the world's most beautiful and stunning backdrops: the massive rise of 15,300-foot, ice-clad Mt. Fairweather. Weather permitting, we will spend a day rowing out onto the lake for a closer look at the massive icebergs. Our last camp on Alsek Lake will be the most spectacular yet. Here you will learn the meaning of the phrase "scenic overload.

Day 10: We will leave Alsek Lake for the final leg of our float trip to the take-out near Dry Bay, where the mighty Alsek meets the ocean. From there we will board a small charter plane (flight included in trip price) for the scenic trip to Yakutat, where we will connect with Alaska Airlines for the flight to Juneau (arriving in Juneau around 9 p.m.). The flight to Juneau is not included in the trip price. The last meal of the trip will be lunch on this day.

Photos

Details

Getting There

Members are responsible for their travel to Haines and from Yakutat to Juneau. Do not schedule your arrival and departure dates too tightly; allow some flexibility for canceled flights and other delays. Because of the possibility of weather-related flight delays, it is strongly recommended that you purchase travel insurance.

Arriving in Haines: Fly into Juneau, AK, using Alaska Airlines. Arrive in Juneau the night before you plan arriving in Haines. Alaska Marine Highway Ferry System (www.dot.state.ak.us/amhs or 800-642-0066) has regular ferry service from Juneau to Haines (around $40). Board the early morning Alaska Marine Highway ferry from Juneau to Haines. The ferry begins loading at 7 a.m. at the terminal in Juneau. Leave plenty of time for check in. Arrival in Haines is around noon. A shuttle service into Haines will be provided. This is the best, most reliable way to arrive in Haines, and it allows you to take in the breathtaking views of Lynn Canal on your approach. It is best practice to reserve a ferry reservation online prior to your departure to Juneau.

Getting Home: Though you begin in Haines, you end in Yakutat. From Yakutat you must get back to Juneau to connect with outgoing flights. Alaska Airlines currently has one flight a day from Yakutat to Juneau. The flight leaves around dinnertime and arrives in Juneau about 9 p.m. You will need to make your reservation prior to your arrival in Haines as it occurs on the last day of the trip. In southeast Alaska, all flights are subject to weather delays, in which case you may be delayed in Dry Bay or Yakutat for the night. Most airlines will be accommodating in these situations, but it is wise to discuss this possibility when scheduling your travel arrangements. Trip insurance is recommended.

Accommodations and Food

Haines: Accommodations (shared double-occupancy) will be reserved for the two nights at the historic Hotel Halsingland in Haines prior to our trip departure. You will need to make your own reservations for lodging in Juneau, or for earlier nights in Haines.

Some Juneau hotels have a shuttle service. Express and Driftwood Shuttle also provide transportation to local hotels for about $6. The Bed & Breakfast Association of Alaska (www.accommodations-alaska.com) books more than 25 B&Bs in Juneau and Haines; they are also very helpful with ferry and flight reservations.

On River: During the trip, tent space is limited to minimize impact and the amount of equipment that must be carried on the rafts and bush plane. Therefore we provide "shared double-occupancy" tents.

Food: All on-river meals and lunch on the last day are included in the price. Also included is a bag lunch after the outfitter orientation, snacks on the preserve half-day float, dinner at Klukwan village, and breakfast snack on departure day.

Our staff will supply and prepare all of the food and provide mugs and eating utensils. If you have a special dietary need, please inform the trip leader upon enrollment. It may not be possible to meet all special dietary requests, but the sooner the request is received, the better the chance it's possible.

The river provides plenty of highs and excitement. For your safety and the safety and the enjoyment of others, no drinking is allowed during the day or while on the river. You may bring your favorite beverages in plastic bottles or cans (no glass). They will need to accompany you at the Halsingland Hotel when we load up and depart for the put-in on day three. Remember, alcohol accentuates the cold, speeds hypothermia, and contributes to dehydration. Moderation is the rule. If you have questions, ask your leader.

Trip Difficulty

This is a trip of intermediate difficulty. On the international whitewater scale of I (easy) to VI (unrunnable), the rapids in Tatshenshini Gorge are rated Class IV in high water and Class III at normal flows. It is not the rapids that make the "Tat" a trip of intermediate difficulty, but the weather. Coastal Alaska's climate is generally cold and wet. This is an area famous for record levels of precipitation. Indeed, the high mountains here get 60 feet of winter snow, producing some of the largest glaciers in the world outside of the polar regions.

When it rains, it can be very heavy and cold with wind. We may encounter thick fog as well. The weather will have a strong influence on the itinerary and overall difficulty of the trip. It is normal, however, to have some days of glorious sunshine. The temperatures may reach the 70s, but the lows can be in the 30s, and generally the need is to keep warm and dry. For this reason, previous wilderness camping experience is a must for participation on this trip.

Although we make every effort to ensure a safe trip and have an excellent safety record, whitewater boating, hiking, and wilderness travel do involve some risks. Physical challenges and risks are inherent in rafting and are often the reason people seek this kind of adventure. If you elect to participate, you must be in good health and willing to assist with camp chores, such as loading and unloading duffel and community equipment on and off the rafts and carrying it to and from the campsites twice a day. Each person must be able to take care of his or her personal needs and attend to his or her own campsite. Strict adherence to "bear etiquette" is necessary to help us maintain the excellent safety record of previous trips on this river.

On-shore exploration ranges from easy walks to more difficult hikes that require some scrambling ability. The specific hikes we do depend on where we camp each night and on weather conditions. Glacier walks can be dangerous. Although all hikes are optional, good physical conditioning is important in any wilderness outing. We strongly recommend that you engage in a program of regular exercise prior to the trip. This trip should be considered an "active" vacation as you will be packing and unpacking your gear, setting up your tent, and participating in side hikes. These activities, taken together in a wilderness environment, are physically demanding if you are not in shape. The trip leader is responsible for screening participants for their suitability for the trip.

The pace of the trip will be leisurely, allowing time for hiking, photography, and exploration. It is a great trip for both new and experienced rafters alike. Minimum age for this trip is 15 (18 if unaccompanied by an adult).

We use professional raft outfitters and guides for our raft trips. The industry practice is that outfitters require participants to sign a waiver similar to the Sierra Club waiver you will be asked to sign. Your trip leader will provide you with additional details for your trip.

Equipment and Clothing

We will use 16- or 18-foot oar-powered rafts, each controlled by an experienced, licensed river guide. The Sierra Club opposes the use of motorized craft in wilderness areas, and our rafts are free of the engine noise and exhaust fumes found on some commercial river trips.   Our boats are not "paddle rafts," so trip members will not be paddling the boats. We will have professional river guides and staff that know the river.

We will supply a “sleep kit,” which includes a sleeping bag & pad. Participants share a sturdy double-occupancy tent. We also provide two large waterproof "dry bags," heavy-duty raingear, rubber boots and gloves, a lifejacket, a mug, a plate, and eating utensils for each trip member. A detailed equipment list will be sent to you upon acceptance on the trip.

The weather can be very volatile in this area, so the key to enjoying yourself is to be properly dressed. Use the layering method that allows you to add or subtract layers as the weather changes. It can be very wet at times, so you must have clothes that keep you warm even if you're not dry. Therefore, you need to have wool, fleece, or polypropylene clothing. Cotton absolutely must be avoided.

Do not bring cell phones (they won’t work there anyway), laptop computers, or music systems. Likewise, leave the worries of your overstressed life at the office! And please leave your watches at home. Once you are on the river, it is river time.

Also leave unnecessary valuables at home. For those essential valuables (wallet, credit cards, passport, and plane tickets), double-bag them in Ziploc-type bags and store them in the provided waterproof bag. Handle film/camera-cards and medications in a similar fashion. There is no long-term storage for valuables provided in Haines.

Luggage storage has been arranged for in Haines while you are on the river. Your luggage to be stored must be brought to the meeting place on the morning of departure. We begin in Haines and end in Yakutat. Your stored luggage will meet you in Juneau at the airport once we arrive from Yakutat.

While there are plenty of salmon in the river, the river is opaque and silty, and the fish don't feed once they leave the ocean, so the fishing is not good. You can fish at other locations in the Juneau-Haines area before or after the trip.

Travel Documents: 
You must have a passport to travel to Canada and return to the US; a driver's license or birth certificate alone is no longer adequate. Non-U.S. citizens must have green cards or re-entry visas for the U.S. and Canada where applicable. Your passport must accompany you into Canada and will be used to check-in at the Yakutat airport.

References

To fully enjoy the trip, you will want to read one or more books on the natural and human history of the Tatshenshini-Alsek region, conservation, and Alaska before we depart. This outing is unique in many ways and it would be a shame not to come intellectually well prepared. Even a rudimentary grasp of the region's natural and human history will greatly enhance your experience. 
The following are especially recommended:

  • Muir, John. Travels in Alaska. The classic, by our founder and inspiration.
  • Wayburn, Peggy. Adventuring in Alaska. The Club's excellent travel guidebook, written by one of the Club's most impassioned defenders of Alaskan wilderness.
  • Lyman, Russ, Joe Ordonez, and Mike Speaks, The Complete Guide to the Tatshenshini River and Map of the Alsek and Tatshenshini Rivers. 2004. Both are available at www.cloudburstproductions.net/. The standard river guide and map for this trip.
  • Hamilton, Heather. A Naturalist's Guide to the Tatshenshini-Alsek.
  • Careless, Ric; Budd, Ken; Mikes, Johnny (Eds.). Tatshenshini River Wild. An excellent large-format book of photography and art of the Tatshenshini region, produced during the battle to save the Tatshenshini watershed. A great souvenir of the trip.
  • McPhee, John. Coming into the Country. An erudite and engaging introduction to Alaska, especially for McPhee fans.
  • Schooler, Lynn, The Last Shot. In breathtaking detail, author Lynn Schooler re-creates one of the most astonishing events in American military history -- a final act of war that brought about the near-demise of the New England whaling industry and effectively ended America's growing hegemony over worldwide shipping for the next 80 years.
  • Lende, Heather, If You Lived Here, I'd Know Your Name: News from Small-Town Alaska. Lende's offbeat chronicle brings us inside her busy life: we meet her family and a colorful assortment of friends and offbeat neighbors, including aging hippies, salty fishermen, native Tlingit Indians, Mormon spelunkers...as well as the moose, eagles, sea lions, and bears with whom they share this wild and perilous land.
  • Kantner, Seth, Ordinary Wolves. The readers experience life on the Alaskan plains through the character’s own words.

Conservation

One of the greatest conservation battles and victories of the late-20th century played out in the wilderness through which we will travel. This struggle has much to teach us, and we will take the time while on the river to discuss it further. The battle began when a Canadian mining company wanted to develop a huge copper mining operation on Windy Craggy Mountain in the Tatshenshini watershed. Environmentalists opposed the proposal because the copper ore at Windy Craggy has a particularly high concentration of sulfur, which, when exposed to air, oxidizes to form sulphuric acid. Environmentalists worried that the proposed storage methods -- tailing pools behind earthen dams -- were inadequate to protect the Tatshenshini watershed, especially because the area is prone to large earthquakes. Moreover, the service roads would have run dangerously close to the Tatshenshini River.

In addition to potentially polluting the Tatshenshini and Alsek rivers, toxic fallout from the mine would have destroyed the habitat of one of the largest concentrations of grizzly bears in Canada. The winter range of the Dall sheep and the habitats of mountain goats and wolves also would have been damaged. The mine would have harmed the salmon in the two rivers. In 1993, showing the courage and leadership so often lacking in the U.S., the Canadian government not only denied the mine proposal but declared the entire Tatshenshini-Alsek region in northwest British Columbia a Class A wilderness, to be permanently protected and managed as wilderness. The area, the Tatshenshini-Alsek Wilderness Provincial Park, is 2.5 million acres in size -- twice that of the Grand Canyon. The park, which abuts the Wrangell-St. Elias National Preserve and Glacier Bay National Park in Alaska and the Kluane National Park in the Yukon Territory, is now part of a new 24.3-million acre "St. Elias-Tatshenshini World Wilderness Reserve," the largest in the world.

Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed; if we permit the last virgin forests to be turned into comic books and plastic cigarette cases; if we drive the few remaining members of the wild species into zoos or to extinction; if we pollute the last clear air and dirty the last clean streams and push our paved roads through the last of the silence, so that never again will Americans be free in their own country from the noise, the exhaust fumes, the stinks of human and automotive waste. - Wallace Stegner, 1960

In 2014 America celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act. The Sierra Club, various other organizations with a wilderness focus, and the four federal wilderness management agencies are vigorously planning this celebration. The goal of the effort is to assure that a broader public knows about the concept and benefits of wilderness. Sierra Club Outings is a vital part of the celebrations for wilderness.

While the Act was far in the future when our outings program started, we were already promoting the principle behind it: to forever set aside from human developments certain special places, by civic agreement. This is the basic principle on which the Sierra Club was founded. The wilderness anniversary gives us an opportunity to highlight our organization’s leading role—in publicizing this principle, in passing the 1964 Act, and in achieving more designated wilderness since then.

Staff

Leader:

For almost two decades Dennis has led rafting trips for the Sierra Club. In 2010 he was recognized by the Sierra Club for his leadership skills and service. Dennis has led rafting trips throughout the West, including Utah, Idaho, Oregon, California, as well as Alaska, British Columbia, and the Yukon Territory. His trips emphasize the "whole experience." Participants can expect to learn about the geology, wildlife, history, human influences, and challenges unique to the rivers and canyons his trips travel through. His focus is to have participants come away from their adventure with enough knowledge and experience to advocate for the fragile and unique ecosystems of the rivers and canyons his trips travel through. Feel free to contact Dennis if you have questions about his trips.

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