There were a few concerns Ron had about this trip since he hadn’t really camped since his early twenties and had never done a trip this remote and wild. The one worry he talked about the most was sleeping on the ground in a tent. I had verified with the folks at Chilkat Guides that we would indeed have sleeping mattresses and not just pads. So I left my faithful Neo Air at home and both Ron and I found ourselves with thermo-rests of a vintage I had retired some years ago. Ok, well as long as they work it will be fine. Of course, Ron’s leaked. Not quite his worst nightmare……but close. He turned down my offer of using mine even though I can sleep on just about any surface.
I was finding that every time the water swirled up over the part of the tube I was sitting on, I felt cold water seeping into the derriere of my Saloman pants and through to my shorts underneath. That water is around 33 degrees, Gets your attention. How could that be – I was wearing rubber bibs and a Helly Hansen raincoat. Sure enough the bibs had a seam leak just in the right spot to penetrate all that rubber protection. Well, both Ron’s sleeping discomfort and my wet butt were minor compared to what we could have been facing on this day……..
We made a big push across Lowell Lake. The current disappears in the lake and with a 15mph wind in our faces and a fully loaded boat weighing a couple thousand pounds, it was tough rowing for our guides. While in the current both our guides use a rowing technique called portegee. They stand up facing forward and very rhythmically push on one oar and then the other in a ballet like fashion. It becomes almost hypnotic to those of us sitting just ahead of them. This method allows them to see where to go yet still have enough force to maneuver the boats when needed. We have been traveling in a current moving at about 7 knots. Here in the lake, though, they have to turn and power the boats through in the traditional rowing style to have enough force to overcome the wind and lack of current. It was a big effort today. We both grabbed paddles and joined in on the push across this iceberg laden body of water in front of the massive Lowell Glacier. A big relief when we re-joined the current down river.
This steeply sided river has huge mounds of sand left over from earlier glacial lakes. This sand has been wind-driven into big sand dunes. Some of the dunes have become vegetated and even wooded as nitrogen has become introduced to the infertile sands. Towering above these mounds are the constant presence of rugged and snow-striped mountains that line the river on its whole course down to the sea. Two hours beyond the lake we found ourselves at a split in the river. We taok the right-hand course and as we approached the left hand coming back into our flow a few short miles further on, Jimmy told us to look back at the rapids we had just gone around. Sam’s Rapids is a Class V mass of churning frothy white and green frigid charging water that stopped our conversation instantly. Wow. We knew that just a short distance ahead is Lava North, a class IV+ rapids that we will be taking the boats through. It was an eye-opener.
We pulled the boats over to a sand beach as we approached Lava. The guides and clients who wanted to take a look went for a walk through the woods to scout Lava North. I stayed back with Dan to see if I could dry out my backside before we continued. When they returned we all donned our dry suits and jumped back into the boats to see what fate had in store for us. Ron reported to me that Lava looked the same to him as Sam’s had. Re-assuring. Ron and I were riding with Jimmy today and he took us through the protocol on bailing the boat and commands such as “high side” and “hold.” The ride was simply amazing. We were shouting in pure joy as we rolled and rocked our way through this mass of whitewater tossing us up, down, sideways and rolling over rocks, chutes and foam-tipped crests. Marley and Angie had followed Jimmy’s lead just behind us. In just thirty or forty seconds this half-mile ride was over. The first words out of my mouth were, “Let’s do it again.” Jimmy’s eyes were still on the river behind us. Rustin’s boat with Eric and Nancy had not appeared out of that frenetic foamy mass. We couldn’t see them anywhere upstream. The seconds seemed like minutes as our minds raced to what seemed inevitable. They had flipped in the frigid current. We both looked at Jimmy. What can we do next? Jimmy had just started to give us an answer when suddenly Rustin’s boat appeared out of the churning waters. Eric was bailing like crazy with Nancy hanging on to him and Rustin giving his all on the oars. We all just started cheering. Dodged a big bullet today. This is a major river and we had just gone through a very major rapids in glacially hypothermic waters. People die in these situations here.
Rustin related the predicament they had endured with Eric and Nancy interrupting excitedly with their personal stories of the same. They had gotten into a huge hole behind a big obstruction in the river which grabbed the boat and held it spinning around while water poured into it on the front side. They were caught surfing the hole as the water rushed in to fill the void. Rustin jumped on the back of the boat with all his force and Eric bailed in desperation while Nancy clung to him to keep him in the boat. Rustin wasn’t sure if his quick maneuver popped them out of the hole or if it was just a very lucky break but they did spring free and he was able to guide them the rest of the way down to us. Eric had a waterproof camera hanging from his neck that was on video for the ride. Rustin was able to check the time on the video that they were trapped in that hole. That desperate 35 seconds seemed like several minutes or a lifetime to the three on board. Seemed just as long to those of us watching for them in the quiet waters beyond.
Over lunch I questioned Jimmy about how to approach such a powerful rapids. He said, “ The most important factor is where you enter the rapids. Manuevering the boat in that large of a rapids can only happen in the direction the current takes. You really can’t change your position in any other direction. Also, corners lead the boat to the outside closest to the canyon wall so it is impossible to change if you enter at the outside. By rights the boat should have flipped. Rustin did a great job getting the boat out of the hole and so did Eric and Nancy in not leaving the boat. They are tough.” Eric suffered a cut above his eye and Nancy had a swollen hand from one of the table boards which had loosened and struck them. But I heard no whining from either one. They were excited about the ride and happy to be right where we were.
There are at least two major systems for rating whitewater rivers. The one used here has Roman numerals from I to VI with VI being unraftable. The Alsek has three major rapids – Sam’s at Class V, Lava North at Class IV+ (Rustin calls it 4.5) and Turnback Canyon at VI just ahead of us where we will helicopter over. More on this later. The Alsek is a dangerous river. It has 5 times the flow rate of the Colorado. The glacial origin of the waters leave it just above freezing. The three major rapids are world class. National Geographic has called the Alsek the greatest whitewater river in the world. It’s my first rafting trip but I can sure see where that judgement comes from.
We camped at a beautiful site called The Blue Lagoon. Lots of lively chatter after a big big day.
The following day was a travel day. We rode with Rustin. He saw two bears, one of which he took a photo of from a long distance. Neither Ron nor I could see any bear there but later Rustin showed me a blown up version of the photo and sure enough there was a bear sitting on his haunches and looking straight at us. We moved through Class II and III whitewater to the campsite just above Turnback Canyon. It was an overcast, drab day with a low ceiling so not too conducive for photos. As we rounded the corner towards our next camp, Jimmy spotted two orange tents set up at our preferred spot. A Canadian group was already there. We ended up setting up camp a half mile upriver from them. The place
they were at is the helicopter camp where groups are picked up and lifted over Turnback Canyon. They will be gone tomorrow and we will move our camp.