Alaska’s Alsek River
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 to do it again. Yes? Sure thing!
Although the itinerary was essentially the same, it was a completely different trip, a hearty reminder that repetition is a relative thing. Re-encountering a place on terms that are altered by time, circumstance, geology, weather, travel companions, and my own human growth was a wonderful life lesson. It had been eight years. The Alsek River remained a wildly stunning and deeply satisfying adventure. 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 example, despite its billing as a “Hiker’s Special,” there was remarkably little interest in hiking; one person had hiked at all.) I had to contend with a nagging rib injury for the entire 16 days. The weather was essentially picture-perfect: a few evening drizzles of rain, warm and sunny days, very little wind. Yet despite this, we were not a happy group, with hefty and odd interpersonal dynamics, despite our terrific professional boatmen.
In 2017, I was joined by my long-time adventure travel buddy, Margaret. Camping is always more fun with a tent-mate to help with the “household” chores of setting things up (and taking them down), unpacking and re-packing and schlepping all the gear to the boats to load for the next campsite. Margaret is always good for a giggle, and for sharing a nip of whatever drizzles from our flask (think: Bailey’s, or Tennessee Honey).
In 2017, though, I could see that the glaciers were strikingly in retreat and diminished. The weather was often rainy. We often found ourselves bundled up against significant cold, 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 opportunities for 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 a helicopter portage across the churning eight miles of insane water. (Walt Blackadar, 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. Thus this wild, beautiful place is 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.
[Source: wikipedia.org/wiki/Alsek_River, on September 19, 2017]