Walt Blackadar and Turnback Canyon

Days 7-8

June 22-23

Since we had to wait until the Canadian group camped just below us were helicoptered over Turnback Canyon before we could move camp, the decision was to take a hike down to the “Pearly Gates” viewpoint to the entrance to Turnback Canyon. This trip involved a lot of high rock and cliff scrambling making me a little nervous about 2 or 3 of our group for the trip back. It’s much easier to climb up steep rock than it is to climb down and there was a lot of loose rock and a sharp turn just before the top of this rock knob. The viewpoint exposed us to the opening of the famous canyon but the angle didn’t allow any views of the beginning of the rapids themselves. There were, however, some really beautiful pockets of natives plants in full bloom up high. Marley had come along with us today bringing lunch and prior knowledge of the route up here. After the climb up he scouted unsuccessfully for an alternative route back down. I, too, spent a little time looking around. The obstacle on the far side of the overlook was a clear cold glacial pond which was bordered by a cliff. I could see the possibility of wading the pond alongside the cliff to get back without the danger of someone falling on our prescribed route. Marley was indicating that we should start down the earlier route but I could see from Eric and Nancy’s body language plus hear in Ron’s voice a lot of hesitation. Ron had surgery on his knee just two months before. The drop from where we were was about 175 ft. If one were to fall they would hit the rock face on the way down long before hitting the water. So I told Ron that he didn’t have to go, we could go around and across the pond. He stepped back from the edge and said, “Yes, I’d rather do that.” We turned and made the easier hike down to the water and I led the waist high wade across the beautiful glacial water. Sometimes twenty- somethings (Marley) should be overruled by us old folk. They may be invincible but we know we’re not.

The next day we made the move down to the helicopter portage camp and proceeded to take all the gear off of the boats, sort it out into loads, and the crew flattened the boats themselves. The heli flights are a major expense for the rafting company so being really efficiently prepared before the copter’s arrival can save a good amount of money. We were excited about the big bird’s arrival and our own rides over this amazing canyon.

Dr Walt Blackadar soloed the rapids of Turnback Canyon in his kayak in 1971 during high water after paddling the craft down the same route as we had come, stopping only to sleep in his wetsuit on the ground. He had smuggled a 44 mag pistol across the Canadian border by fiberglassing it into the boat. No bear spray back then. His brash conquest of this seemingly impossible rapids shocked the people of the river world everywhere. Sports illustrated called this achievement the “river equivalent of the first ascent of Mt. Everest.” It brought Dr. Blackadar instant fame. When he ran this section the flow rate of the Alsek was an astonishing 50,000 cubic feet per second. Blackador himself said that nobody else should try this, it was an impossible run. The Alsek River and Turnback were well known even then by the elite of the kayak and rafting communities but now they became famous everywhere. The Alsek was on the map. The mountain just behind our camp has been named Mt. Blackadar. Blackadar himself died in 1978 when trapped by an underwater log and drowned while kayaking the South Fork of the Payette River not far from his home in Salmon, Idaho.

Even today less than fifty people have successfully kayaked this waterway since Blackadar’s achievement. It is considered unraftable. Good enough for me. We’re taking the helicopter.

Jimmy took us on a path behind our campsite to a small shrine to Blackadar on a cliffside shelf. One half of his kayak paddle from his ride was propped up by a large rock on the cliff face. The original inscription on the paddle face was no longer decipherable. There was another shrine just a few yards down from the kayak paddle. “Channel Lock Joe” Loffel and his son Jeremiah were thrown from their raft while running Lava North some years ago. Jeremiah had MS. Their bodies were found downstream. Joe’s wife, along with some friends, survived the ordeal but had to wait two days for help. This was before satellite phones and they had trouble getting through on their radio phone. Lava North is the same rapids we had just run a few days before. There is a pair of rusty old channel locks and an empty wine bottle up on the same cliff as Walt’s paddle.

Jimmy also showed us bear tracks in the ground just beyond the cliffside memorials. He said that bears always take the easiest route, which in this case meant walking in the exact same tracks as other bears had previously. He pointed out a deeply worn set of tracks leading to a large rock which the bears love to scratch their back on. It was really quite amazing. The tracks were imbedded in ground that was very rocky and firm. Who knows how long this had been going on. I followed the tracks a ways beyond the big rock and didn’t see any tracks except these deeply worn into the path.

By mid-morning we heard the thump-thump of the helicopter approaching and watched it set down next to our camp. The pilot was from New Zealand, a country I just love, and very outgoing. After introductions he gave us a safety talk which was basically “stay away completely from the back of the copter because of the small but deadly rotor blade there and also beware of the main rotor blade as the copter is not always level.” We laid out the nets and divided the boats and gear into two of them. After the gear had been shuttled to the other side, six of us climbed aboard for the four mile ride through the canyon to the quieter waters beyond the crazy rapids. The last three people took their turn behind us. One could see why these waters are rated Class VI and unraftable. In places where the river narrowed into tight corners and big drops there was just no way our rafts would get through in an upright condition. It was an impressive ride in the copter. Tried to get photos out of the window but it was quite difficult. You had to admire the audacity of kayaking this canyon river rapids at all, much less alone with no posse coming to help in the event of a mishap.

After re-rigging the boats we had a beautiful ride through endless snow-capped mountains towering over lush green hills and ridges. Sun dominated our day. The rolling boat and heat of the sun made it hard to keep from drifting away but the need to stay in the boat would jar me awake again. Our camp had a great view of two separate glaciers slumping forward out of black and white craggy mountain ridges amidst big snow fields. Dan had his camera out and was absolutely in heaven.

The following morning I was up at 7 and dunked my head in the river for a quick shampoo. Glacial water at 33 degrees will wake you up. Then I grabbed a spare 5 gallon pail, filled it halfway with river water and gave myself a thorough washing. Fresh underwear and t-shirt completed my overhaul. Next job was collecting firewood. We cook all our meals on a grate over a wood fire. There is plenty of dry driftwood to gather and they crew has a well-worn set of Dutch ovens. We went for a long group hike down the riverbank to where the Tatsenshini River joins the Alsek. Marley stayed behind to watch camp and cook dinner. Cottonwoods lined the bank and above them the big round mounded hills were lush with wild flowers in full bloom. Above them was the constant presence of craggy jagged peaks and glaciers. Many tracks along the gravel and sand banks greeted us as we moved down the abraided river. The length of the claw marks in front of the plentiful bear tracks makes one wonder just how anyone survives a bear attack. We also saw moose tracks, wolf tracks, fox tracks and those of birds searching the ground for sustenance. Dan got a great photo of bear tracks and wolf tracks in the same couple of feet of sand. It was a really pleasant way to spend an afternoon here in this wild river basin. NO bears posed for photos.

We had spotted a white 5 gallon pail washed up on a sand bar as we moved down river from the canyon. It was the same pail which was lost from Rustin’s boat when they were caught surfing in that hole in Lava North. Amazing that it had survived the trip down the river and through Turnback’s huge rapids only to park itself right in plain view for us to retrieve. We labeled it “Back from Turnback” and back into Rustin’s boat it went.

6 thoughts on “Walt Blackadar and Turnback Canyon

  1. Once more, I’m enjoying your adventure-log! Your should submit some of your writings to OUTSIDE!
    You haven’t mentioned bugs . . . Good, bad or ugly?
    And how the heck are your communications being transmitted? Middle of nowhere magic?

    1. Hi Karen, thanks for following along. Also for reminding me about the topic of bugs. I’ll put it into today’s blog. We had no means of communication while there except for Jimmy’s sat phone in case of emergency. I’m writing this from notes I kept during the trip. I got back about a week ago.

    1. Thanks Pascale, Dan took the one with the wolf prints in it also and I took the one of the bear prints imbedded in the ground through years walking in the same place each time.

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