The grizzly bear ambled nonchalantly toward the river and waded in. He hadn’t spotted the bright yellow raft heading straight into his path which was crossing their Tatshenshini River rafting expedition . 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.
A Tatshenshini River 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.
Embarking on an 11-day Tatshenshini River rafting expedition is big business. By the time we were ready to hit the river each of the two rafts weighed about a tonne and a half full of rubber, bodies, camping and cooking equipment, bags full of swimsuits and thermals, shorts and rain gear, sunscreen, first aid, safety ropes, a natural history library, a satellite phone, gourmet cuisine and vintage single malts.
After a quiet stint of braided channels through the rolling-hill country of the 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 a river rafting expedition; 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 eagles circling overhead.
An early highlight is on day two with a layover day at Sediment’s Creek. Here the river begins to widen with snow melt from creeks and the Alsek mountains close in. We set up camp at a beautiful spot abundant with cotton-like mountain avens. If flora and fauna are your thing, this trip will not disappoint. 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 to flourish. Indian paintbrush, wild geraniums, dwarf dogweed, columbines, saxifrage, alpine forget-me-nots and river beauties dot the landscape.
We welcome the prospect of bathing in the Creek’s clear waters and the following day our own portable shower is erected with water heated from the day’s hot sunshine. It’s not often one can boast of bathing in the presence of enormous mountain ranges and a stunning river surrounded by a blanket of thick, wild flowers.
There is a nice mellow hike through the forest to an overlook that traces the winding Tatshenshini. Surrounded by cottonwood trees, berries of pillar-box red and white are also plentiful here; another tell tale sign that this is indeed bear territory. The Tat is actually one of the most heavily populated corridors for Grizzlys in Canada.
Even if you don’t see them you are always aware of their presence. Bears have marked their territory on the lower plains, evidenced by scratch marks and the remnants of bear hair on the trunks of the trees. We were reminded every night to pack away 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. They planned to level a nearby mountain, construct a dam and 150 miles of pipeline, a bridge and road; a truck every eight minutes. 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 getting park status in 1992.
They say that big mountains and big rivers attract big spirited people. None could be truer than our guide and Wakpa Wilderness adventure owner Ben Thackeray, 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 pully system with which to drag the raft back to the river bank. It may have set us back a few hours but the experience and watching the consummate professionalism of the guides added to the primitive feeling of being so removed from society.
“If you’re looking for an adventure this is the trip of adventures because absolutely anything can happen,” said Thackeray, who hails from Leeds but has been living in Canada for the past six years. “What I love about the Tatshenshini river is that it is always evolving,” he explains. “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, goats 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 or alarm) is a true rarity.
The Tatshenshini River rafting expedition 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 a 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 the vast ocean rather than a river. 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. At this stage we have become dab hands at pitching tents and breaking camp; accustomed to five hours on the river, alternating between rafts, with a day layover to hike, read or relax. Here we marvel at the seracs – the jagged, crystal-blue ice teeth on the face of Walker Glacier, crevasses, 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.
This is the land of the midnight sun and what perfect way to end the day than sitting at the river’s edge, sipping 12-year-old whisky with 10,000 year old glacially-cooled ice, watching the snow- covered peaks turn pink while eagles float on the last of the day’s warm thermals.
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. By this stage the scenery becomes so overpowering; it takes your breath away, renders you speechless and all that you can muster with jaws dropped are the most nascent of sounds, (namely “oohs” and “aahhhs”), fingers pointing in every direction.
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, some the size of apartment blocks, are carved off into the lake, instigating mini-tsunamis that change the ever evolving landscape.
As we float cautiously close we see walls of ice, some 300ft, but edge softly away. These rafts are resilient, but not in the face of 10,000 tons of ice or the resulting tidal wave if they become top-heavy and flip over. We are happy to leave the sculpture garden, taking only a chunk of ice with which to make that evening’s ice cream.
Our last night we endure a spell of drizzle but as we stare out at a sea of icebergs, continuing to calve and plummet, the euphoria of being this close to nature seems to make the weather redundant. We settle in for a night of gourmet Indian cuisine followed by home-made mango and vanilla ice-cream. The stillness, all pervasive on evenings throughout this trip, is punctuated only by the resounding sound of crashing glacial ice.
Our final day of the Tatshenshini River rafting expedition was spent paddling to Dry Bay in Alaska, alongside icebergs making their journey to the sea, is a reflective one. Ten days of the wildest scenery known to man, excitement, sunshine, laughs and truly incredible experiences was hard to compartmentalize in anticipation for the return to civilization.
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 passes close to three of the four highest peaks on the continent (St Elias), 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 route we had taken on the Tatshenshini river rafting expedition. 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.