Alsek Lake and the Big Growlers

Days 12-14

June 27-29

Our days of lounging around were over, it was time to move downriver to Alsek Lake, the last of our unknowns on this big river. This lake lies at the bottom of two big glaciers, the Alsek and the Grand Plateau. The river just above this point abraids into a number of separate channels which change every season and even can even do so during a season so river rafters never know what is in store for them as they approach the lake. Jimmy explained to us that typically there are three main entrances to Alsek Lake – Door Number 1, Door Number 2 and Door Number 3. Doors number 1 and 2 are often closed off by icebergs on the lake while Door Number 3 can be too shallow if the water levels are down. If none of the doors are navigable then we would have to portage our gear a distance of just over a mile and drag the boats the same distance. Not something we looked forward to, especially after getting so spoiled by our leisurely last few days.

On our way downriver past the big Sapphire Glacier we stopped a couple of times to climb up on big scree slopes to try to scout our fortunes on our three entrance possibilities. Even from up high it was difficult to be sure about Doors 1 and 2. However, from our second stop Jimmy could see that Door 3 was high and dry. The cool weather we had been experiencing had slowed down the glacial melt thus leaving the river lower than expected. Door 2 appeared to be completely choked off by the wind-driven icebergs on the lake. He thought there might be a small opening near Door 1. With the thought of the mile long portage weighing heavily on our minds we headed hopefully towards Door 1. We were now committed to this little channel through towering icebergs pushed hard into the silt and sand of Alsek Lakes’ shoreline by the prevailing winds. The river water ran hard under and around these behemoths and if that current grabbed our boats we were in big trouble. It could pull us into and hold us against a large berg leaving us stuck or it could suck the boat right under the berg. Jimmy carefully oared us around and through the maze – suddenly we found ourselves in the lake. All three boats responded with a big wahoo! Free and clear. Our last real obstacle on the adventure. Huge growlers in the lake, the huge flowing Alsek and Grand Plateau glaciers plus surrounding mountains provided us with endless photographic opportunities. Ron and I grabbed paddles to help Jimmy get the raft down the lake since we no longer had the river current to speed us along. The Canadian group we had met a few days before were camping on the spit below Pilot Knob Hill so we made for the bay just beyond them. It was foggy and cool but the blue sky down river towards the coast just 12 miles away gave us encouragement. We had been looking forward to views of Mt Fairweather (15,400 ft peak) but the low ceiling kept it hidden. It had been a great day with two great glaciers, a wonderful adventure of paddling through this maze of icebergs, and the communal joy at sharing a big experience here on this great river.

The growlers were banging into each with big loud crunches and thunderous collisions several times an hour. Rock slides roared down mountain slopes. Calving by the glaciers and growler collisions both caused mini-tidal waves to rush across the lake. We went for a walk high up on Pilot’s Knob, the steep high-topped island which we were camping below, to watch these various floating icebergs bumping and banging each other in the water far below. It was fun to make bets on which berg would free up by the wind or current to charge forward and run amok through its neighbors until finding another to crash into. Sometimes a great chain reaction would send bergs every which way and fill the air with the resulting booms of their collisions. We sat there on a small rock cliff for some time despite the constant light rain. It was an experience we may never have again. It had been a steep and wet trip up through the alders to reach this point but so so worth it.. I found myself thinking about tomorrow and the two day trip home.. This life is so comfortable one doesn’t want to think about endings,

No Fairweather that night but there was steak, potatoes, salad and even a Dutch oven cake. Damn good day.

On our last day on the river we awoke early to pack up and head for our take-out point just above Dry Bay. We had some work oaring and paddling to get across the lake and back into the river’s current. This day brought many eagles to the river banks and cottonwoods lining them. The sockeye run has just begun and soon there will be bears in the bends and pockets of shallower water soon. Once we left Alsek Lake we were no longer in Glacier Bay Park and now we started to see a few remote fishing camps along the river sides. These are basic and primitive as the area is not very accessible. We reached the beach were we would be picked up by a local fisherman with a four-wheeler and trailer to take us across this peninsula to a small rugged airplane landing strip. We hauled our gear out and sorted it – Jimmy and Rustin along with our two trainees deflated the boats and rolled them into a manageable state, then we had a small lunch while waiting for our short ride.

Pat Pellet came rumbling up the beach with his 4-wheel ATV pulling not one but two trailers behind it. He is what I would simply describe as a good ole boy with signature bibs and knee high boots. Very comfortable in these surroundings, he has an easy way about him and very colorful language. I liked him right away. He and his wife Pat are two of only 12 people who live here in Dry Bay year round, He has been commercial fishing here for 48 years. Amazing. This year his fishing was limited to just one day a week as they were allowing a number of fish to escape up the river to spawn. We talked fishing for awhile and I learned about the breadth of his knowledge about environmental changes that are affecting the fish and the future of fishing here on the Alsek basin. He may be living very remotely but he sure is connected to the big outside world in every other way. Pat is leaving for the Walker Glacier to remove a small building which had been used in the past for housing equipment used to measure river flow.. It was no longer needed and the Park wished to remove it from the wilderness setting. Pat would be flown up there, take the building apart, and fly most of it back to his place here in Dry Bay. After flying Pat up to the Walker the pilot returned to grab most of our gear and take it and Angie back to Haines.

We were transported to Yakutat from Dry Bay on a single engine Otter. There were eight of us now since Angie had accompanied the gear back to Haines. Yakutat is a vey small town but serves as a hub for smaller jets connecting people back to the rest of Alaska from this long remote coastline. There was a small bar which we took advantage of since we had a couple of hours before flying back to Juneau. While it felt great to celebrate our experiences together with a few beers in a bar setting I know we all were thinking about how we would miss the beautiful simplicity of our two weeks on the mighty Alsek River.

Since we were all spending the night in Juneau before heading in our various directions home we met for a last dinner. The fun was highlighted by Rustin’s mighty attempt to eat an order of fries and a triple burger (one and a half pounds) with everything on it plus sauces and cheese and of course the layers of buns. The challenge was offered by the restaurant. It you could eat this meal within twenty minutes it was free. We just looked at Rustin and laughed. What a great guy. With cheers from all sides Rustin sat down to dig in. He had prior experience in a pie eating contest but this was a little bigger effort. He started out methodically putting away all of the fries and condiments, then hefted up one of the half-pound burgers. When that was gone Rustin looked a little pale and he also had started to sweat, Not easy. He got up and walked a little around the bar. Still had ten minutes. He sat down to try again. Another burger gone but much slower this time. People were making bets. Another break and a big belch. Jimmy told him if he could finish he would buy him a case of his favorite beer. If not, Rustin owed Jimmy a halibut dinner. Rustin plopped down to see what he could manage. Another burger choked down at the thirty second mark. Rustin stood up to cheers then bent down to eat the orange slices – the only thing left on the plate. We all stood up and cheered. Rustin just won a free meal. Of course what he didn’t know was that we clients were buying dinner for Marley, Rustin and Jimmy anyway. What a way to end a wonderful two weeks with great new and old friends on the world class Alsek River.

Thanks for coming along.

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