Alsek River 2014
Every journey has a beginning, and for me, the beginning was likely a couple of decades ago. I had seen a photograph of what was purported to be a view from the Tatshenshini River, and I thought: I MUST see that someday. (Well, it turns out that it was actually the view of the Brabazon Range from Fireweed Point on the Alsek River, but since you have to run the lower Alsek River to do the Tatshenshini, it is all good.) It turns out our good friend Sarah, of Thermophile.org fame, had run the Alsek and thought it was the best of the river trips she had done. In fact, when she learned that we had decided to go with Alaska Discovery/Mountain Travel Sobek (AKD/MTS) on their Alsek River trip starting June 23rd, she convinced herself she ought to repeat the trip. It was THAT good. Her write up must also have convinced our Bozeman friend Roger Breeding that it was time for, as he put it, “one last adventure.” My own take is that, despite the fact he is older than 70, he has got a lot of adventures left in him, as he can hike my butt off on the trail any day. (Or ski, or snowshoe.)
Some of you might be wondering: just where IS the Alsek River? In truth, when I mentioned to our friends that Susie and I were headed there, most of them had a quizzical look on their faces. So perhaps a quick geography lesson is in order. First off: find Haines Junction, Yukon Territory on a map. Or click : here
The river running from east to west just south of town is the Dezadeash River, which flows, aptly enough, from the Dezadeash Range, east and south of Haines Junction. After the river has flowed for a few miles to the west, it takes a hard left turn and heads south into the interior of Canada’s Kluane National Park. A few miles south of that point, it joins with the heavily braided Kaskawulsh River, to form the Alsek River. From this point, the Alsek flows ca. 150 miles to where it enters the Pacific Ocean, at Dry Bay, Alaska. The Alsek is considered by Canadians to be one of the crown jewels of Kluane National Park. Indeed, the country through which the Alsek runs is in the core of the largest single contiguous protected area in North America. To the immediate west of Kluane is our Nation’s largest National Park, Wrangell-St. Elias. Immediately south of the British Columbia/Yukon border is BC’s Tatshenshini-Alsek Provincial Park. The Alsek leaves BC and immediately enters the US’s Glacier Bay National Park. These four areas comprise over 24 million acres of protected land, an area over 11 times the size of Yellowstone National Park.
So this is big country and the Alsek is a big river. Once past its confluence with the Tatshenshini, summer flows routinely reach 100,000 cubic feet per second. Susie and I had driven the Alaska Hwy twice in 2012 (once in each direction) through Haines Junction, so we were somewhat familiar with the scenery in which we would begin the trip. But we knew that there was even better stuff downstream.
All this found Susie and I getting up at the ungodly hour of 3:10 am MDT to begin our trip to Juneau, our jumping off spot for the trip. (Roger B, as he shall be known hence), had left the day before us, to ride the historic railroad from Skagway north, and do some sightseeing. We had heard that because the end of June is high tourist season, something like 800+ people fly out of the Bozeman airport between 6 and 6:30 am most mornings, and an early arrival at the airport is critical to making your flight. Well, it did not feel that crowded to us, but we were happy to depart on time anyway. After a long layover in Salt Lake (made more tolerable by a Sky Club membership), we left for Seattle and met Sarah, flying up from Portland. Our flight from Seattle to Juneau was on Alaska Air, and we landed in a rainy Juneau on schedule. Our plan had been to spend a couple of days hiking and/or sightseeing in the Juneau area before taking a ferry to Haines, AK, from where our trip on the Alsek would embark.
We were staying at the Country Lane Inn, which is near the airport, probably less than a three minute drive. We decided that since our bodies were on different time zones than the local one, such would justify eating earlier than we might otherwise. Since Friday night is Pizza night at our house, we felt compelled to find a highly recommended (after eating there, we are not sure why) local pizza joint named Bullwinkle’s. I could tell right away that the atmosphere left the ladies disappointed, as it was closer to a Chuck E. Cheese – I am told, since I have never eaten at one. Of course, we were mentally prepared for Alaska prices (this being our 6th trip to the 49th State), but even we were surprised. Three salads, one 15 inch pizza, one beer and two waters set us back $55 plus tip. And the pizza was not all THAT great. I could see that we would not be eating there again anytime soon. After checking out the nearby liquor store and purchasing some wine for the next few evenings and some Chambord for the river trip, we stayed up until 8 pm chatting and then crashed.
The next morning, after a great continental breakfast (eggs, sausage, yogurt, bagels, pastries and excellent coffee), we thought we would take advantage of the lack of rain and take a hike near Juneau’s prime natural tourist attraction, the Mendenhall glacier. We opted for the west side trail and were hiking by 9:20 am. It was not sunny, but not raining, which was good enough for us. The trail is pretty flat for a while, and then gets serious about its climbing. Lots of cables and steps on rock. We ultimately got to A viewpoint of the glacier, but not THE official viewpoint, because doing so would have required an ascent on steep, wet sheets of rocks. Extremely easy to slip and fall. Given the cost of our upcoming trip (and the fact that Sarah was leaving for a three week hiking trip in Italy right after the Alsek trip ended), we decided to turn around and enjoy our leftover Bullwinkle’s Pizza at A viewpoint.
It would ultimately take us nearly two hours to descend in the spitting rain from our lunch point, but such was fine. We had gotten some reasonable views of the glacier. We then headed for the official visitor center, and while Sarah nearly jogged over to the Nugget Creek Cascade, we looked around and chatted with one of the rangers. She seemed impressed we had hiked the West Side trail. (I suspect she was “impressed” because of our ages…….)
There then ensued a long discussion about dinner and it seemed that the food at the local Safeway, just about a mile from our motel, won out. We opted for a lot of Chinese food and salads, and likely spent as much as we had spent the previous evening. But at least we had all the wine we could/should consume and reasonably good food.
We awoke on Sunday, June 22nd, to expected rain. Sarah had talked to the folks at the front desk of the motel and heard that while one wing of the Alaska State Museum in downtown Juneau was closed, the rest of the museum was open. So we headed downtown under gloomy skies. We quickly learned that the folks at the front desk were wrong, and that the entire museum was closed until 2016. So there went our morning plans. We thought we could kill a bit of time by driving down to the docks where the cruise ships disgorge their passengers, and maybe do a bit of retail therapy. So off we went. I must confess that I was blown away by the number and size of cruise ships docked or coming in. The Radiance of the Seas was parked and it was easy to mistake it for a large hotel. It is an aircraft-carrier sized ship, with 850 staff, 2500 passengers, and a length of 962 feet. We laughed because the boats we were getting ready to travel on down the Alsek were a puny 19 feet in length.
We passed by jewelry shops, stopped in some art galleries, and ultimately found ourselves hanging out in a coffee shop. That led to a quick drive over to Douglas Island, across from Juneau, where we ate lunch in our vehicle. Ultimately, we drove north on the road out of Juneau, but turned around because one could not see much in the rain and fog. We stopped at the ferry terminal and picked up our tickets for the next day on the MV Columbia, and headed back to near Mendenhall Glacier. The rain had let up a bit, so we opted to take a short walk for exercise along the Montana Creek trail. After another stop at our motel room, we headed back to Safeway for more food, and ate in our room. Sarah had met two of the other clients for our trip, DB and his son Thelonious, so over brownies for dessert, we ended up using our tablet to Google the other clients on the trip. I found the exercise interesting from a personal standpoint. If you look me up with the address of Bozeman, Montana, you learn very little about me. However, were one to use my name and the filter of Oak Ridge National Laboratory, you get a totally different picture. Bedtime was relatively early because we had to be at the ferry the next morning by 6:15 am.
Monday, June 23rd
This day was our day to leave Juneau, and take a ferry to Haines, where all the clients and guides were to gather late afternoon before dinner, and get organized. Ah, but the best laid plans……. Sarah, Susie and I were up very early, had a quick breakfast and we on the 5:45 am shuttle out to the ferry terminal, which is about 9 miles north of where we were staying. We arrived in plenty of time to load by 6:30 am. We settled down in the front passenger only cabin, which was quite comfortable. The ferry was supposed to depart at 7:15 am, arriving in Haines at 11:45 am, in plenty of time to make our 5 pm meeting. Well, 7:15 came and went you could tell we were not going anywhere. The captain came on the PA system and said that they were undergoing some required maintenance for their new engines once those engines had reached 100 hours of running time. Yes, we had known that the MV Columbia, our ship, had been in dry dock for some time, and it had been scheduled to return to service in Mid-April, but there had been a problem and it had not returned to service until 5 days previously, June 18th. Why they knew this but did not show it on a revised schedule eludes me. Anyway, the captain indicated that their departure time would be 11 am. OK, we thought, we can live with that. We can still make that 5 pm meeting. But then rumors started to circulate that we would not leave until 4 pm, or maybe even 8 pm that night. Or maybe the ship was here for a while.
To say we were freaking out would not be QUITE accurate, but close. Sarah called the airport and the little regional airline, Wings of Alaska, to see if they had space available on any of their flights going to Haines that afternoon. (We figured we could get off the ferry, take a cab back to the airport and fly up to Haines.) Well, given the fog, rain, and very low ceiling, we were not surprised to hear that all their planes were on a ground hold, and they were not sure when the hold would be lifted. Sarah called MTS and got the cell phone number of our chief guide, and Sam basically said, we have to stay on schedule (understandably) and so if you’re not here by 8 am tomorrow, we have to leave.
Sarah called Wings of Alaska back and made a refundable reservation for the 5:25 am (tomorrow) flight to Haines, so we could at least get there and repack by the 8 am deadline. Some time after that, the captain came on (it was virtually impossible to get any sort of cogent answer from crew members, especially the purser) and said we were now scheduled to leave at 2 pm. I was to the point of saying “I’ll believe it when I see it.” But then, at 1:10 pm, the ship started to move and we were on our way. So we had been on the boat nearly 7 hours before we started to move. Aaarrgghhhhhhh!!!!!!
The ride up to Haines was interesting but wet and dreary. However, we arrived in sunshine at 5:10 pm at the ferry terminal . The Halsingland hotel shuttle was there soon after we called and we were at the hotel at 5:40 pm. It took us a while to check in, and meanwhile, Sam met us and indicated since we were late, they decided to postpone the meeting until 6:30 pm, and that everyone else was out to dinner. Well, there was not a lot of time for dinner, so the three of us hoofed it down a third of a mile to Big Al’s Fish shack where I had the best fish and chips of the trip. Then we ran back to the hotel, only to find out that folks were a bit late coming back from dinner. Well, at least I had time to burp.
Sam gathered everyone together and we walked across the parade grounds (many of the buildings are part of a former military post) to a large wooden building that acts as a warehouse for AKD/MTS. There were some brief explanations of how things would work, but the most important things were to be issued our tents, dry bags, sleep kits, rubber boots and Helly Hansens. Susie and I had elected to bring our own synthetic sleeping bags, but most folks just borrowed them from AKD/MTS. The Helley Hansens, which are rubberized rain gear, the kind that workers on commercial fishing boats use, consist of bibs and a hooded over jacket. Fit is important because you don’t want the legs to be too long, but you want to jackets to be able to fit over several layers. AKD/MTS had asked for our weights and heights and tried to fit us pretty well. But Susie, who barely weighs in at 95 pounds, is always a challenge. These suits don’t come in petite sizes. So back to our rooms in the hotel we went and spent the remainder of the evening separating gear between what would go with us on the trip and what would be shipped back to Juneau. Susie had already decided we needed to finish up the wine we had bought in Juneau, as she needed a drink.
Additional Photos can be found here: The Prologue album on our SmugMug Photo Album Site
You might enjoy reading a different perspective on this same trip: Sarah Boomer's Report on the Thermophile.org website
© Roger A. Jenkins & Suzanne A. McDonald, 2014, 2016