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.

Lava North – Big Rapids and Big Relief

Day 5-6

June 20-21

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.

Lowell Glacier and Goatherd Mountain

Days 3-4

June 18-19

We are traveling with three rafts, all 18 feet long, bucket bailers, and none with air compartments in the floors. The latter means that you feel the 33 degree water right through your boots. Since they are not self-bailing there is usually some water on the boat floor which also adds to the chill on the feet. Our third boat is manned by two guide trainees – Angie and Marley. They are not being paid for the trip but are expected to do all the chores guides do on the river as part of our team. It is an opportunity for them to show our lead guide, Jimmy, that they are capable of being leaders on these trips. They are both in the twenties and are now day-trip guides. Now they would like to move up to long-trips with better pay and bigger rivers. The Alsek will be a big big notch in their belts.

Ron and I are riding with Jimmy every other day. He has the lean musculature of a true athlete and an easy efficient manner in moving us along. As the head guide he leads the other two boats downstream, following the “grease” as it rambles along in erratic fashion. His experience and knowledge are obvious to Ron and I as we gain respect for this former Minnesotan who left a great paying job in the wind industry to follow his love of the outdoors to Alaska. His girlfriend Kate is of like mind. They have traded security for a life style that fits their passions. Jimmy’s boat is set up for three clients so Dan joins us in his boat. Dan’s hobby is photography. His technical skills in his aeronautical career transfer well into his hobby. He rides in the rear of the boat where he is free to focus on shooting pics. However, whenever we are in rougher waters we all put the cameras away.

Yesterday we made it down to the Lowell Glacier. It is a massive river of ice and has created a lake full of ice bergs which the Alsek must find its way through. Three times the glacier calved with a big rumble and a sharp crack while we were approaching in the rafts. The sound was big enough to bounce off the mountain cliff walls a good mile and a half away. We pulled over to scout the river for the best way to get to Lowell Lake. Getting out of the boats we found ourselves beset by two Merlins with their “Chirr Chirr” of distress at our appearance. They must have a nest really close. Relentless in their attacks, they only stopped when we had walked far enough away to appease them. Earlier we had seen a Kestrel and a Peregrine Falcon so quite a day for spotting falcons along the river. There was a small rapids to navigate before the lake which Jimmy handled easily in the lead boat. We found a great campsite in full view of the lake and glacier. All was well in our world.

In 1852 the Lowell Glacier surged forward and caused a tremendous wall of water to roar downstream completely overwhelming a Tlinget village below. All people were swept to their deaths. It is interesting that scientists were able to pinpoint this date by collecting stories passed down by Native people plus studying the geologic signs left behind in the natural world. We are now camping where the glacier had been at that time. It left behind pyramids of gravel with cores of ice which when melted created little kettle lakes such as those just behind us.

Today we spent the day climbing up Goatherd Mountain which overlooks Lowell Lake and its parent glacier across the river. Marley stayed behind to watch the camp and cook dinner. The route was challenging for several of the people but it was a beautiful hike over geological surfaces of rock which triggered the imagination with the layers of lines, colors and swirls. Lots of erratics along the way as well. Stopping at a waterfall two-third of the way up we were treated to the presence of a mountain goat below us who decided that we were interesting too and parked there for awhile. The views of Lowell Glacier and the resulting ice bergs gave us a great perspective of the lay of the land which we couldn’t experience from camp. Spectacular.
It was a very good day.

Rustin spotted a mama grizzly and two cubs. He has a real knack for spotting animals and birds which he attributes to his recent Lasik surgery which left him with 20/10 vision in both eyes. I tried very hard to see the bears as did Ron with no avail. We have been seeing tracks everywhere. This area has the largest concentration of brown bears in North America. The presence of these bears is not to be taken lightly. We are being very careful with our food and making sure to leave nothing behind that might interest them and start to associate people with food.

Rough Weather Beginning

Days 2-3

June 16-17

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.

Alsek River Rafting Trip – Day 1 – 2017

June 15th 2017

One day about 12 years ago I received a call from Ron, a good friend since our college days so many years ago now. “Buck, I want to go on an adventure, what can we do?” Ron and his wife, Debbie, had raised a daughter and then due to circumstances, also raised a grandson. Ron’s career in real estate, his family obligations, and life in the suburbs had kept him far away from the wild environs that I liked to play in. He wanted to really get outside. So I suggested a rafting trip down the Alsek River in Alaska which I had heard about from Rob Foster, an old friend who had spent his geology career in remote Alaska. Happily, as it turned out, Ron had seen a National Geographic documentary on this very trip and was really excited about the opportunity.

Here we are now in the spring of 2017 in Haines, Alaska, finally ready to raft the Alsek River. We had arrived in Haines on a Cessna 207 from Juneau and found our way to the 115 year old Halsingland Hotel overlooking the harbor in this small quaint adventure town in Southeast Alaska. It’s a rambling but majestic old hotel with lots of charm and comfortable rooms. Having a few hours before meeting our guides, we took a tour through the streets of Haines where we not only found a nice meal of halibut but also an odd little museum. The Hammer Museum. An admission of $5 – what was there to lose? An amazing little place, it had over 2000 different hammers from all over the world and, as we were told, 5000 more in storage, You have to wonder, why hammers? And why here? The museum was founded in 2002 by a blacksmith from Ohio named Dave Pahl, who had been collecting hammers for years. He had moved to Haines to get away to a simpler life.  The museum became a non-profit in 2004. My guess is that it was always a non-profit. Ron and I were amazed by the variety of this collection of odd but technically useful tools lost to time and change but for this little building in this remote place. We had two favorites – the around-the-corner hammer and the electric hammer. See my photos below.

Our hostess while wandering through the rooms of the museum told us a great little story about Armand Hammer (the baking soda people) suing the Hammer Museum for copyright violation of the name of its museum in Los Angeles. A rafter wandered into the museum during this time period and learned of this suit. He happened to be a writer for the Wall Street Journal and, after a little investigative work, published an article about Arm and Hammer’s suit on the bottom of the front page of the paper. The suit was dropped two days later.  Hooray for the good guys, and also common sense.

The annual Kluane-Chilkat International Bike Relay from Haines Junction to Haines (158 miles) is scheduled to begin in two days so the town is abuzz about the arrival of about 1200 cyclists. Since we drive up to Haines Junction tomorrow to put in our boats we will miss all the craziness.