Rafting the Alsek: A Descent into Wildness

By on September 1, 2017

By Carol Lovegren Miller—

“’Captain Will’, what happens if I push 911 on my satellite phone?”

“Nothing, there is no search and rescue in the Yukon.” It is up to you to arrange your own rescue.

We knew that our rafting trip in early August on the Alsek River in Kluane National Park, Yukon Territory, Canada would be no ordinary adventure, but we didn’t expect it to start before we even reached the river. The trace road crossing a large river delta was wicked!

Our rafting guide for Tatenshini Expediting in Whitehorse, Canada, Will O’Brien, with his cohort Lindsey Patenaude, jounced confidently right through the river fingers. We eventually encountered Kluane Park employees armed with puny shovels, “We were sent out to repair a bad section of the road… beyond this, it will be easy sailing.” Uh huh. We rounded the corner and came to an abrupt halt where the road dropped more than a foot into a wide stream bed.

Sunset over the Alsek River, Kluane National Park, Yukon Territory, Canada

When we eventually reached the river, Kyle inadvertently created his own drama. He opened his personal dry bag and was puzzled to find everything soaking wet. Dry bags are designed to keep things dry and we hadn’t even started on the river! The mystery was solved when we sniffed the pungent wet items and shook his now empty aerosol bug spray cans. Definitely bug prevention overkill.

We launched a rugged rubber raft loaded with just four of us: our guides “Captain Will” and “Commander Lindsey”, my husband, Kyle, myself, and what seemed like a thousand pounds of equipment for our four-day trip. To our chagrin, instead of the expected idyllic drift downstream, we found ourselves paddling hard! The river current was no match for the stiff wind kicking up two-foot, white-capped waves determined to shove us back upstream.

We paddled feverishly, glanced at the shoreline and moaned to see that we were making little to no headway. Grassy sand bars were our salvation. Captain Will and Commander Lindsey would vault over the side, grab the raft and literally walk us down the river. Lindsey was a cute motor, but Will proved to be an exceptionally cool guide when he stepped into a hole and filled his dry suit pants with water.

Four hours later, a mere two miles downstream, arms limp with exhaustion, we stopped at a river confluence to make camp. As we wearily set up our tent, Lindsey magically appeared with an elaborate plate of hors d’oeuvres! Throughout the trip, our outstanding guides served us a mix of gourmet and comfort foods… e.g. eggs Benedict with smoked salmon, and moose stew with biscuits made from Lindsey’s grandmother’s recipe.

Despite pitching our tent on grizzly bear tracks, no grizzlies chose to come visiting. However, soon after we launched onto the Alsek River, we were stunned to watch a grizzly making a bee-line across the river in front of us.  Lunging through the shallows and swimming strongly in the deep sections, the bear had hundreds of yards of water to cross (the Alsek is a major river drainage.) Because the bear wasn’t interested in us, Will surmised that it was probably being chased by a bigger bear. How reassuring.

After the first day, we had a much easier time as two rivers joined, increasing the current, plus, the weather settled into beautiful calm sunshine, the first they had that summer. It was August 3rd.

Towering mountains reared up on either side of us, while stunted spruce, alders, willows, and balsam poplar lined the river banks. On the river plains, our guide advised us to look for the carpets of white “river dryas” flowers for our tent as they would assure a dry…site.

river dryas flowers in their puff ball stage.

Nothing is allowed to be left in the wilderness – nothing – hence the “Groover”. A groover is a knee-high ammunition can used as a toilet. Ours was a deluxe model; we had two flat boards that fit loosely over the groovy edges. To soften the indignity, our guides always thoughtfully located it in a private location with a fabulous view.

Day three we entered Lowell Lake after some fun bouncy splashy whitewater. As Lowell glacier slides into the lake, the air frequently cracks and booms from calving icebergs as they join the already substantial flotilla of towering icebergs and “bergy bits”.

An iceberg floating like a loon on Lowell Lake

Despite difficulty just reaching the mountain, our guides led us 2000 feet up Goatherd Mountain. A relatively simple ascent, it boasts fascinating geology, a plethora of delightful wildflowers, occasional sparkling creeks and waterfalls, swarms of mosquitoes, plus the obligatory herd of billy goats. Best of all, it offers stunning views of snow clad Mt. Hubbard soaring above Lowell glacier and its icebergs.

Lowell Glacier with the Alsek River in the foreground and Mount Hubbard in the background.

At the top Kyle exclaimed, “There is a small bear running towards us.”

“No!” Will cried, “It is a WOLVERINE!” The exceedingly rare, elusive, vicious creature soon caught sight of us, veered, and bounded off across the rolling, open tundra.   

We spent our last night on the lakeshore with a world-class view of Mt. Hubbard, the glacier, and icebergs. The long hours of daylight make going to bed before 11 p.m. difficult. However, when we awakened at 4 a.m., we noticed an odd bright light playing peek-a-boo with us from behind the jagged mountains. After teasing us a bit, it slowly eased over the horizon, revealing itself as a spaceship-looking line of five lights. It is no wonder that the Yukon has an active group of UFO searchers.

Even more otherworldly was paddling among the icebergs. It was sort of like spending a summer day lying on your back imagining what cloud shapes look like – only in 3-D, with fluorescent blue shades, black and gray streaks, teetering ice boulders, stranded rock boulders, ice arches, ice caves, ice tunnels, ice pillows…. The highly compressed, ten thousand-year-old, crystal clear ice with only a few scattered air bubbles tasted like — ice.

Behind our lakeside camp was a glacier-dug, kettle-shaped hole filled with sparkling clear water. Because it was slightly warmer than the big lake with its oversized ice cubes, three members of our party opted for a frigid dip. I bravely volunteered to document the event with Kyle’s camera.

Preparations for flying out involved packing everything as tightly as possible. The goal was to fit everything, including the deflated raft, into one helicopter trip. No small challenge! Our guides even resorted to burning some of the excess food to reduce our cargo. By packing every possible crevice – including everyone’s foot space (except the pilot’s) – we managed to get it all on.

The pilot gave us the twenty-minute ride of our life. He zigzagged down the river we had taken three days to traverse. He twisted side to side so that we could all see the base of magnificent Mount Logan – the world’s most massive mountain (not visible from any road.) He labored up towering mountains, squeezed through a high mountain pass, swooped down a precipitous hanging glacier, then landed us in his own back yard.

As we crammed our grubby gear back into our Subaru, we discovered something missing. Call 911! Our guides turned friends, Captain Will and Commander Lindsey, have stolen a piece of our hearts!

 

Carol Lovegren Miller and her newly semi-retired husband, are beginning to introduce a third generation to adventures. They took their baby grandson, a busy crawler, camping the weekends before, and after, their Yukon trip.

Carol Lovegren-Miller

About Carol Lovegren-Miller

Carol Lovegren Miller has been married to Kyle for 32 years and has three grown children. She bakes, cans, organizes church events, and substitute teaches in between her adventures and writing." Carol can be reached at [email protected]

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Rafting the Alsek: A Descent into Wildness