Paddle Through Paradise , By Louise Healy
The grizzly bear ambled nonchalantly toward the river and waded in. He hadn’t spotted the bright yellow raft heading straight into his path. After trawling across, he exited and energetically shook the water off, showcasing a body of sheer muscle that belied an otherwise soft appearance. With the sound of a camera clicking, the bear’s eyes shot up, caught a glimpse of our raft and without hesitation the 400 lb animal darted at high speed for the woods, leaving in its wake a plume of dust.
The Tatshenshini River that runs through Northern Canada and Alaska is the playground for nature’s wild. Grizzly, black and rare, silver-blue glacier bears, moose, lynx, caribou, wolves, peregrine falcons and bald eagles all call this area home. Set this eclectic mix of wildlife along a 225 km mighty river that carves through the highest and most spectacular glacial ranges on the continent’s coast and you have something quite unique.
Exploring the Tatshenshini River on a rafting expedition from Canada’s Yukon Territory, through British Columbia to the sea in Alaska is one of the most all-encompassing ways in which to see untouched, pristine wilderness at its best. In its Journeys of a Lifetime series, National Geographic ranks the Tatshenshini River as the number one river trip in the world and it’s easy to understand why. For 10 days we meander in rafts down a green artery through a land of lofty peaks and swathes of untouched snow-capped mountains, valleys and glacial fields to the largest non-polar ice field in the world.
Starting off, after a quiet stint of braided channels through the rolling-hill country of Yukon Territory, the river narrows, snaking into the Tatshenshini Canyon and opening up the largest section of technical white water rafting on the trip. It’s an invigorating way to embark on what is essentially a scenic float trip; bustling through exciting rapids and encountering some amazing wildlife - within an hour we spotted a Grizzly bear cub running along the riverbank and several bald headed eagles circling overhead.
An early highlight is on day two with a layover day at Sediment’s Creek. We set up camp at a beautiful spot abundant with cotton-like mountain avens. Magenta carpets of fuchsia and lavender fireweed border the river for the entirety of the trip and at Sediment’s Creek the low lying Aspen forests provide the ideal understory for other plant life -Indian paintbrush, wild geraniums, dwarf dogwood, columbines and saxifrage - to flourish.
There is a nice mellow hike through the forest to an overlook that traces the winding ‘Tat’. Surrounded by cottonwood trees, berries of pillar-box red and white are also plentiful here; another tell-tale sign that this is one of the most heavily populated corridors for Grizzlies in Canada.
Even if you don’t see them you are always aware of their presence. We were reminded every night to pack any food, perfumed toiletries or sweet smelling items far away from our sleeping tents lest they were to provide any enticement for bears, who, at this stage of the summer, spend 23 hours a day searching for food in anticipation of hibernation season.
Close to the O'Connor River, we pass Monkey Wrench Rapids – the name dates from the 1980s - the legacy of a mining company's bid to tap the world's largest copper deposits. At the time, river guides, opponents to the plans, would reputedly pull out the surveying stakes, throwing a metaphorical monkey wrench into the works. This grassroots opposition to development, along with some high-powered words from then vice-president Al Gore, led to the Tatshenshini-Alsek gaining park status in 1992.
They say that big mountains and rivers attract big spirited people. None could be truer than our guide and Canadian Rafting Adventures’ owner Dave Pearson, who had his work cut out for him when, due to fallen trees blocking our course, we missed an eddy to pull our raft in for the evening. What ensued was a team effort - joining up ropes to form a pulley system with which to drag the raft back to the river bank.
“If you’re looking for an adventure this is the trip of adventures because absolutely anything can happen,” said Pearson. “It’s the most dynamic river I’ve ever been on; constantly shifting and changing. The glaciers are always working to change the shape of the mountains. It’s just amazing to experience one of the most untouched areas of wilderness in the world.”
And while you may be far removed from the comforts of modern day civilization, scrimping on food you will not. The gourmet menu for this trip is remarkable. Freshly baked bread and eggs benedict in the morning, grilled leg of lamb and Greek salad in the evening followed by pineapple upside down pudding -all made on site, only to be trumpeted the following nights by pear, goat cheese and walnut salad, tender steak and salmon, chocolate fondue and peach cobbler. To be in a land of unadulterated beauty, eating fine cuisine and having no concept whatsoever of time (it is essential in my eyes to travel here without a watch) is a true rarity.
Discovering the Tatshenshini actually involves an exploration of two rivers - the Tat is a tributary of the larger Alsek River, part of the world’s largest protected biosphere - a heartland of 22 million acres of wilderness - and now an UNESCO world heritage site. On day six the river widens to nearly six miles across, more than doubling its size, leaving us feeling that we are paddling in an ocean rather than a river. Here the Alsek boasts a circle of peaks that form a stunning amphitheatre of glacial ice and rock. Further downstream are more than 20 glaciers and the spot where the Alsek and Grand Plateau Glaciers come together to form an eight-mile wide face of ice.
If we thought things couldn’t get any better, the following day as we pass into Alaska we are treated to the awe-inspiring views of Walker Glacier where we set up for another layover day. Here we marvel at the crevasses and seracs and experience the slightly surreal feeling of walking on the glacier, inspecting the deep blues and greens of the ice that looks like a winding staircase, frozen in time.
It’s not so much the isolation that makes this trip so sublime, as it is the scenery. If Walker Glacier was the prelude, the final symphony of epic beauty followed as we paddled into the heart of Alsek Lake – the climax of our trip. The day started off foggy but as with the preceding 10 days, the sun came out in all its splendour so that we could experience the exquisite beauty of the crystal clear, aquamarine, and electric blue ice sculptures – ephemeral works of art - dwarfing us in the lake. This view of Alsek Lake is nothing short of surreal – it’s like a contemporary ice museum of magnificent proportions. At intervals we hear a distant boom, a roll of thunder as chunks of ice, calve and plummet into the lake.
Our final day of paddling to Dry Bay in Alaska, alongside icebergs making their journey to the sea, is a reflective one. But then there was the grand finale. Just when we thought we had overdosed on scenic decadence, the plane ride from Dry Bay back to Whitehorse in the Yukon supplied the last, phenomenal master touch.
Hovering over the river that punctuates the St. Elias Range and passes close to three of the four highest peaks on the continent, we encounter an absurdly stunning panorama of 27 glaciers, electric blue icebergs, surging creeks, hill-top lagoons, valleys of wild flowers, snow-dusted mountains as far as the eye could see and the snaking Tatshenshini River its entirety. In 60 minutes our steps are retraced from the past 10 days through the heartland of some of the most pure, untouched natural beauty known to man.