The Last Wild Rivers

Exploring Alaska's Alsek and Tatshenshini
By Joe Willie Jones, Alaska Discovery

After eight years guiding rafting trips in California and Oregon and running a guiding service, I came north for a visit, little realizing that I would fall in love with Alaska.

I got a chance to fill an empty spot on a rafting trip down the Tatshenshini Rivers. This was one of hundreds of rivers that I had rafted in different parts of the world but this trip left me spellbound. Only in Siberia had I experienced such remoteness. The wild river ecosystem was totally intact for the entire 160 miles. The only signs of humans were a few other rafters that we encountered. I learned about the ways guides protect this purity; like hiking on bear trails centuries old and using fire pans to protect the ground from campfires.

I sold my rafting business in Oregon and returned to Alaska the following year. I joined the guiding crew of Alaska Discovery, a well respected Alaska-based outfitter, which has been operating throughout Alaska since 1972. After six seasons leading trips down the Alsek and Tatshenshini Rivers, I was promoted to operations manager. It's to that untamed land that my mind escapes when it needs a break from the daily demands of my new desk job.

The Alsek and Tatshenshini Rivers have been called the last wild rivers on earth, for they flow unrestricted all the way from their source to the sea. They are so removed from the heavy hand of humankind that rafting the rivers is the only feasible way to gain access to the wilderness area that surrounds them. To raft the Alsek or the Tatshenshini is to experience the world as it was in prehistoric times.

In 1993, British Columbia established the Alsek-Tatshenshini Wilderness Preserve, now the heart of the largest international wilderness reserve, connecting Kluane National Park in the Yukon and Alaska's Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Glacier Bay National Park. The Alsek and Tatshenshini River drainages, along with the adjoining wilderness areas in Alaska and Yukon Territory, were declared a World Heritage Site in December 1994. In company with the Grand Canyon, the pyramids of Egypt and the Great Wall of China, the huge area of 21 million acres makes this the world's largest heritage site.

The preservation of this immense area allows wildlife to flourish, particularly large mammals most sensitive to encroachment by mankind. From the security of my inflatable, I've seen wolves, brown bears and moose look up, undisturbed, as we float by. I'm always delighted to spot herds of mountain goats on the rugged slopes, for reclusive and rare as they are in other parts of the world, they thrive and are abundant on the ridgetops above this river valley. Bald and golden eagles feast on the salmon that have spawned in the tributaries. An amazing diversity of flora and fauna flourish in the ecosystems that range from subarctic at the headwaters to maritime rainforest at the coast. Visiting biologists are thrilled by the many rare species such as Dall sheep, white trumpeter swan and blue glacier bear.

Everyone should visit the Alsek-Tatshenshini Wilderness Park at least once in their lifetime, like a pilgrimage to a sacred shrine. This is an adventure that transforms people, where one can know what pristine wilderness really is, and be immersed in the beauty of life. When the daily stresses pull at us, we can remember this place, so apart from the industrial world, and bring perspective back into our lives.

Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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