It is said that you cannot step into the same river twice. This is true. In July, 2009, I joined a group of strangers to descend the Alsek River—a remote river at the upper end of Alaska’s southeastern panhandle. In summer, 2017, the opportunity rose up: do it again? Sure thing!
Although the itinerary was essentially the same, it was a completely different trip. I was reminded that repetition is a relative thing. Going back to a place involves re-encountering it on terms that are altered by time, circumstance, geology, weather, travel companions, and my own human growth. It had been eight years; the Alsek River remained a wildly stunning and deeply satisfying adventure, and yet my second passage was a very different experience.
In 2009, I was traveling solo, the glaciers were visibly more robust, the group was, well, let’s just say, interesting. (For one thing, there was remarkably little interest in hiking despite its billing as a “Hiker’s Special”; one person had never done any hiking.) I was given the chance to contend with a nagging rib injury for the entire 16 days. But the weather? The weather was essentially picture-perfect: a few evening drizzles of rain, warm and sunny days, very little wind. Yet despite fantastic weather that year, we were not a happy group; that river trip met with a challenging degree of hefty and odd interpersonal dynamics, despite our terrific professional boatmen.
In 2017, I was joined by my long-time adventure travel buddy, Margaret. For me, life is always better when you have the chance to live in a tent. There’s just something so whittled down about it. Everything you need is right there with you (or just outside, in the vestibule): warm things to wear, a cozy, well-padded sleeping bag, boots and shoes (insoles with you in the bag to dry and stay warm), maybe a good book or a journal. It’s even more fun having a tent-mate to help with the “household” chores of setting things up (and taking them down), unpacking and re-packing your stuff (all two bags of it), schlepping all the gear to the boats to load for the next campsite, which will surely be as stunning in its own way. Margaret is always good for a giggle, and for sharing a nip of whatever drizzles from our flask (think: Bailey’s, or Tennessee Honey).
But I also found, in 2017, that the glaciers were strikingly in retreat and diminished. The weather was much often rainy, and we often found ourselves bundled up against significant cold and north-country breezes. The weather could have worn down even the most optimistic person, except that this time, the group was downright fabulous. In addition to the happy fact of once again having outstanding boatmen (one, a fond repeat from 2009), we were a hardy, happy, outdoorsy, bring-it-on sort of group. Our collective upbeat nature and steady team-like approach to the many daily tasks of the journey made an enormous difference. We hardly noticed adversity. We were having too much fun!
For sixteen days, we made our way the coupla hundred miles down the river, this time adding in some prodigious hiking along the way. We couldn’t get enough of the amazing off-river exploration. We climbed to side valley glaciers, to the top of Goatherd Mountain, along flower-saturated plains, on and on. And the river was just…amazing. If the concept of being in a remote location appeals to you, the Alsek River is for you. We didn’t see another human soul the whole time.
Oh: except for the helicopter pilot and his passenger. What?! A geologic roadblock known as Turnback Canyon meant for us a helicopter portage across the churning eight miles of insane water. (Walt Blackadar, the first to descend those waters, in August 1971, felt very lucky to survive the trip.)
The Alsek River is an especially wonderful river—perhaps due to Turnback Canyon and the logistical challenges it poses. It runs mostly through protected wilderness areas and national parks in both Canada and the United States and this wild, beautiful place is thus relatively safe from human intrusion or development. Together with its main tributary, the Tatsenshini River, the Alsek River is a World Heritage site. I know how lucky I have been to see it not once, but twice.