Last night we met our two guides as well as our three other rafters in the Halsingland Hotel since our original outside meeting plan was scuttled by the rain. Our lead guide, Jimmy, is a handsome thirty something guy with a boyish face covered by a soft dark beard and blessed with a wild mop of thick hair somehow stuffed into a baseball hat. He is very pleasant and seems quite capable. His counterpart, Rustin, has a muscular frame spread out over six foot two, a close cropped thick heavy dark beard and a baseball cap covering thinning hair. He is in his early 40’s and is instantly likable. Both Ron and I feel quite comfortable with these two in charge. We are here to get our equipment for tomorrow so we can be packed for an early departure. They provide each of us with two 2-cubic ft dry bags, rubber boots, and a set of rain bibs and jacket. Helly Hansen’s fully rubber rain suits. For this environment Goretex rain gear just won’t do it. All of our individual gear must fit into these two dry bags. We also each have a small day bag which we have lined with compactor bags to keep things as dry as possible.
We also enjoyed meeting the three other clients along on this ride. Eric and his wife, Nancy are from the Tucson area. He is a farrier and she works as an independent contractor for a large defense firm. Dan is from the outskirts of Phoenix. He has been an engineer for Boeing/Macdonald Douglas for 32 years and is set to retire in 16 months. Good people, all three. We now move off to our rooms get all of our gear into our two dry bags each and get a good nights sleep.
We awoke to more rain the next morning but all climbed into the van excited for our adventure to begin. The first stop was the liquor store for a few beers and a couple of boxes of wine to enhance our evening time on the river. Ron grabbed a bottle of Jameson. Neither of us drink much but still look forward to a couple of celebrants along the way. We have 160 miles to travel to Haines Junction including a stop at the Canadian border crossing and also one at the Park entrance building. We began our trip in the Yukon in the Kluane Provincial Park. We drove through glacier scarred tundra with rolling rock hills and snow capped rounded mound mountains. The rain and low ceiling refused to let us see any of the longer vistas. It was about 40 degrees with wind-driven rain. There were a few bicyclists on the road preparing for tomorrow’s ride. I really felt for them. Miserable. With a clean stop at the border and a visit to a great relief map of our area in the Park Visitor’s Center behind us, we headed down the little logging road towards our river.
Mud. Our large equipment truck was ahead of us and would have no problem. However, this 12 passenger van was not built to drive through muddy rough tote roads. We soon became totally mired and geared up to hike the 3 remaining miles to our put-in point. It was cold, wet and windy but not unbearable. Ron had not packed his personal rain gear into his little bag and our dry bags were in the truck. It was a little colder and wetter hike for him, plus his hiking boots were in the truck too and he had some trouble with his feet in the rubber boots. They were not made for this type of hike. With a can of bear spray in hand we headed off into the wilderness.
The rain persisted. So did the wind. We put up our tents at the landing with the idea of postponing our put-in until morning. We learned that snow predicted on higher elevations had cancelled the bike race. It was not going to stop us however.
Our weather finally cleared around noon. The guides had spent the morning gearing up the boats. Ron and I clambered into Rustin’s raft. The early part of the trip has very little current which means tougher oaring for the rafters. The wind is almost always up-river too and it was stiff today. Rustin is very strong though and we moved along well. It was really fun to get to know this eccentric guide. Though the temp is in the 40’s and the water below us is about 32 degrees, Rustin had a single shirt and shorts on most of the day. Ron and I were both bundled up and a little chilly. He says he toughens himself up by keeping his thermostat at home between 48 and 52 all winter and also sleeps in a sleeping bag tucked into a bivvy sack outside all trip. OK. I can do the second part but have no interest in the first part. He is quite a character and Ron and I are delighted to have him on this trip.
There were white capped mountains all around us as we moved down the river. We spotted a mother moose and her two calves crossing the river ahead. Six trumpeter swans landed on our right, and later a bull moose swiftly moved across the water and into a forested peninsula. The primary tree on our trip up from Haines was black spruce but here on the river the dominant tree is the cottonwood.
Technically, the river at our starting point was the Dezedeash River. Today the Kaskawulsh joined in and the combination is now the great Alsek River. The current has picked up considerably.
We camped at a beautiful site along a peninsula of sand dunes and rock. Ron and I had a little trouble setting up our Mountain Hardware Trango 3 tent but finally got it sorted out. I had used the same tent on my Denali climb in 2010 but an aging brain and a number of different tents used since then had fogged my memory. A great meal of vegetable beef stew and home-made bisquits sent us to bed happy.