My shared birthday buddy Jeremy Wood invited Sarah and me on a Tatshenshini float trip, Southeast Alaska, in August. Sarah was excited about the scenery and I was excited to paddle some big-water rapids, with support, so we signed on.
The Tatshenshini has a reputation for not-scary big water (high volume) in a beautiful setting. It also has a reputation for a lot of rain, but we lucked out with the weather. This was an unusually social trip for us, which was great—two birthday cakes instead of one!
I brought my packraft and loved being in it. The rapids were fun and I was faster and more nimble than the big boats (I also wasn’t carrying any cargo). I zipped back and forth between the rafts passing messages.
I’m writing this a year after the trip, so it is going to lack detail. I also didn’t carry my camera, so most of the photos from the Tat are by ‘big sky’ Sarah! I like that she captures so much more of the sky than me. Sarah also made a trip report, you can find it over at Mind & Mountain.
The Tatshenshini is a permitted river. Chris Zerger got a permit and then conveniently disappeared, leaving the logistics largely to Jeremy, Nat, and Eben. We corrected Andy from Alaska River Outfitters when he referred to Chris as the ‘team leader’ … Chris was just the ‘permit holder.’ All in jest. Chris had paddled the river twice and lined out the rough itinerary: camps and day hikes.
We rented four rafts and group camping equipment from Alaska River Outfitters, who also shuttled us to the Dalton Post put-in from Haines (a two-hour drive). Jeremy, Jessica Goldberger, and Elizabeth Powers drove to Haines from Anchorage, Emily Beck and Jim Slaugh drove up from the lower 48, Anne Manning and Chris Zerger flew in. Sarah’s time living in Skagway convinced her that the only reliable way to get to Haines was on the ferry, so we flew to Juneau, spent a night in a BnB, and then ferried to Haines. We met up at Natalie Dawson and Eben Sargent’s home in Haines.
The return logistics were tricky too … we chartered a flight from Drake to return the rafts and camp gear to Haines, while most of the paddlers chartered with Alaska Seaplanes to Juneau (Yakutat wasn’t an option due to a shortage of planes). Chris, Natalie, and Eben planned to hike from Dry Bay to Yakutat, and Sarah and I kept that option open, waiting to see how we felt and what the weather looked like.
The river, 140 miles, 6 days
The Tatshenshini started with clear water and creek-like volume (800 CFS?). I had done my best to map the named rapids from the Tatshenshini-Alsek River Guide onto my phone, but my best guesses were wrong in this section. The first rapids after entering the canyon were underwhelming, so much so that we thought this might be a pretty boring float. But after another few miles, a right-hand bend revealed a nice Class III stretch with large rocks to maneuver between. There were 3 or 4 more quality Class III rapids in the canyon. None of the book descriptions or illustrations were helpful, but, at medium flows, these rapids were all fun read-and-runs requiring a few quick moves to avoid holes and rocks.
We exited the canyon, logged some easy miles, and set camp on a gravel bar. Most groups take more time on this river, and we would have too, but were limited to six days by our groups’s busy work schedules.
The next day on the water had increasing volume but surprisingly low gradient. A few bear sightings were appreciated and helped keep me awake. There were no rapids and a light rain convinced us not to pursue the Sediments Creek day hike.
The light rain must have been heavier upriver, because the water turned brown and climbed up the banks. The next memorable rapid was a constriction named Monkey Wrench. “Low Class III” in the book … this was the hardest rapid of the river for me, a chaotic big-water Class III. I felt fine in the packraft, but it was nice to know that the big boats were nearby! The water was moving fast and I bet it would be hard to hold onto gear after capsizing.
The next highlight was Melt River. We squeezed in next to two commercial groups for the night and hiked up the river-left bank of the Melt. The river drains a glacial lake and is a gorgeous blue color with significant volume. We had hoped to hike to the lake, but after the travel got rough and the water stepped up into Class IV+, we turned around. Lizzy, Sarah, and I paddled down to camp.
The Tatshenshini joins the Alsek just after Melt River, resulting in an unimaginably massive (and swift!) body of water. Standing waves could be sought after or avoided—there was plenty of room to maneuver—but you had to make a plan in advance. Trying to gauge ferry angles was a fun challenge.
We pulled over for a day hike at The Nose, which was a trip highlight. We walked up a steep drainage, crossed a few snow fields (firm snow … ice grippers would have made this more comfortable), and then had access to an incredible ridge and grassy knolls. The views were amazing.
I can’t remember who made this observation, but it was exactly right: Just when you think the scenery can’t get any more impressive, you turn the corner and are wowed again. This felt fairly novel to me … I think of ‘leaving the mountains’ as moving into less scenic country, but that is not the case on the Tatshenshini/Alsek.
The scenery continued to amaze as we approached the Walker Glacier camp. We paddled the glacial lake, waited for a black bear to rock climb over the recently denuded slopes, and then scrambled to a lookout over the lake and river. Another absolute stunner.
Lizzy and I paddled the lake, confident that our packrafts could squeeze through any outlet back into the river. The exit turned out to be a short and steep rapid with a complicated entrance. Lizzy initiated the scouting. We got out of our boats and noticed a submerged log in my ‘Plan A’ channel. Yikes! We scouted Plan B, to the right, and Jeremy happened to pop up with a throw rope just as we were ready to paddle through. Perfect timing, though we didn’t need the rope.
The river’s width exceeded one mile as we approached Alsek Lake—I couldn’t help but reflect on how long it would take to get to shore if something went wrong. This was part of the learning lesson to me … this water was not challenging, but the consequences of a simple mistake in a packraft could be severe. The rapids, as indicated in the river guide, were all easy to anticipate and avoid.
We spent the night at Alsek Lake, made poor decisions about following ‘trails’ up the Knob, and settled in for our final night as a group.
It was warm and sunny while we packed up the rafts at Dry Bay waiting for an ATV-shuttle to the airstrip. Sarah and I decided to join Chris, Nat, and Eben for the walk to Yakutat. With such nice weather, it felt wrong to head home, especially when the ocean felt so close. Rain was in the forecast, but … now was nice.
We scavenged leftover group food for our exit, including starbursts and canned beans, said our goodbyes, and got back in the packrafts for an ~eight mile paddle to the beach.
The remainder of the Alsek was surreal. Within a few miles we were enveloped in ground fog. The river reaches a width of two miles, but in the fog we could only see hints of gravel bars and stranded root balls. We thought we could hear waves crashing far away at the outlet, and then at one point, a rapid. I took the lead and sat tall in my boat trying to read the rapid, with no luck. The splashing got louder and was then interrupted by a loud, “BURRRRRP!” A seal popped up right next to Nat’s boat. And then we saw the rest of them, hundreds of seals, splashing into the water from gravel bars, making the noise that we thought was a rapid. The seals stayed with us as the onshore breeze blew the fog away and we were rewarded with a view of Mt. Fairweather to the south.
The beachwalk to Yakutat, 40 miles, 4 days
I had done the beachwalk from Yakutat ten years ago when we skied Mt. Fairweather and remembered it as a casual stroll … Danny was even barefoot. So, it was disheartening to struggle with it this time. Part of the problem was that we were carrying heavier-than-usual kits (canned beans, etc.), but part of it was that I was ten years older. Sarah’s hip was bothering her so I took some of her weight, but then my knees couldn’t handle the extra weight. Also, the forecast rain arrived.
Chris carried more weight than anyone and was completely unfazed. His weight was largely due to having scheduled an immediate flight to Burning Man after our float—he was carrying his Burning Man kit.
We were soaked at the end of our second day and started looking for a place to camp. We had a water outlet to cross and debated the advantages of crossing now, while we were already wet, or waiting until the morning. We decided to get the crossing out of the way and inflated our packrafts.
After crossing, we sheltered behind a clump of alders to hide from the wind and rain while discussing our camping options. I noticed an airstrip and cabin marker on the map a mile away so we packed up for a final push.
We were THRILLED to discover the Italio River public cabin! We didn’t have a reservation, because we didn’t know the cabin existed, but we made short time of moving in. It was n appreciated evening of drying out.
In the morning, we followed ATV tracks that led us to a beached whale carcass. I would have loved to watch the animals that cleaned the meat off of those bones!
The next night wasn’t as blissful—we set up camp in the middle of an alder forest to have protection from the wind and rain. We walked and then paddled the last miles toward Yakutat and hitched a terrifying ride into town from the end of the road. We were generously offered a place to spend the night but decided to catch evening flights to Juneau and Anchorage. We weren’t very motivated to explore town in the rain.
One of the first things I did back home was apply for a permit to paddle the Alsek River, which looks to have a similar feel. I loved this trip, this region of Alaska, and the packraft was a great boat for it (with a lot of packrafting experience). I’m curious how different it would feel without big rafts for support. The scale of the river is intimidating and I’d certainly want to be with a proficient team.