Running the Tat

Floating America's Wildest River

Things to bring to the Yukon: wool socks, impermeable raincoat, faith in the animal world. The Air Canada flight from Vancouver to Whitehorse takes us over hulking mountains and sprawling glaciers. I don't watch the landscape for long. I am too absorbed in my reading, Bear Attack: Their Causes and Avoidance.

That afternoon, at the outdoor store in downtown Whitehorse—a barracks of a town that houses 20,000 of the Yukon's 30,000 people—I meet a large man who has just rafted the Alsek River with Canadian River Expeditions. I am about to raft the Alsek's major tributary, the Tatshenshini, with the same company. He informs me that his party saw 30 bears in 12 days—"a company record! You're gonna have the time of your life, lady!"

I smile with clenched molars, grip my purchases and walk to my hotel room. That night, my dreams are crowded with reddish fur, rounded ears, huge paws with burlesque-length claws. The next evening, on the gravel shore of the river, my two dozen or so companions have a similar reaction to the fact that we're in the premier grizzly-denning habitat in North America: We pitch a dozen tents so close together that a raccoon, much less a bear, would have difficulty squeezing between them.

It's mid-August, and summer has nearly finished its brilliant sprint across the Yukon. The fireweed is still bright red on the sandbars, but the creamy white evens and blue columbine are starting to give relinquish their stage to autumn. The light is still golden, but the breeze carries a chill. And it's guaranteed to get colder downstream, where the Tatshenshini leaves the forest, joins the Alsek River and cuts through the glaciated heart of the St. Elias mountains before emptying into the Gulf of Alaska. The St. Elias range is the largest nonpolar ice cap on Earth, a broken monument to ice and plate tectonics.

The Tatshenshini—known as the Tat to its growing group of aficionados—has been called America's wildest river. The reference isn't to the rapids (most of the time, the water slides along at a controlled rollick); but to the surrounding country. There are no towns, roads or bridges between the put-in at the Yukon's Dalton Post and the take-out 150 miles downstream at Dry Bay in Alaska. The Tatshenshini and the Alsek are major migratory corridors for bears and moose traveling from interior Yukon and British Columbia to the Gulf of Alaska.

The upper reaches of the Tat are peaceful and green. By late summer, almost all of the migratory birds have flown south, and the woods are quiet. The spruce-covered banks draw in close around the river, coloring the water olive. Among the mosses and ferns lie red soapberries, black currants and orange thimbleberries bright in the filtered light of the forest floor.

Around driftwood evening campfires, we make the welcome realization that the food, the drink and the company are excellent. Our group is remarkably eclectic: Among us is a beluga whale trainer who works for the Vancouver Aquarium and is occasionally sent to the Hudson Bay to capture new specimens. ("I pull up near a beluga on the boat, and then jump on it," he explains.) There is also a genetic counselor from New Jersey, her husband—a dry cleaner—a couple of women who sing in the same band in Vancouver and a delicatessen manager.

Connie Downes, the naturalist on the trip, encourages us not only to learn the names of the few birds that haven't migrated south yet, but to also regularly plunge our bodies into the river, which, despite its obvious liquidity, feels like dry ice. "We'll take showers by the glaciers," she promises, drying off on the bank. These are habits she learned during summers spent studying caribou behavior in nearby Kluane National Park. I am impressed. I went in the water up to my ankles for the most shocking sponge bath I've ever had in my life. My feet scream with pain.

The St. Elias is the highest and youngest mountain range in Canada. It rose out of a heavily fractured and faulted region, similar to the area around the San Andreas fault in California. The largest earthquake recorded in North America occurred 75 miles from Windy Craggy. The 8.6 Richter-force quake hit in 1899, thrusting some mountains up 50 feet and sending glaciers a half-mile forward in five minutes. Another, in 1958, registered 7.8. This summer, a 6.6-level quake sent rocks crashing down mountain walls.

"All this part of the country is suggestive of violence," wrote journalist E. J. Glave in 1890. "These colossal heaps of rock rudely hurled from the mountain heights, the roaring and thundering of the internal forces of the glacier and moraine, whole forests laid low by the fury of the tempests . . . "

A strange place, it would seem, to store millions of tons of acid-generating rock, but a few years ago that was exactly what was proposed. The plan was initiated when Geddes Resources, a Vancouver-based mining company, presented plans to mine a huge copper deposit in the Tat's watershed, on Windy Craggy Mountain in British Columbia. Some 33,000 tons of ore would have been moved per day, eventually cutting off the top of the mountain. A road and a slurry pipeline would be built through prime wildlife habitat. Millions of tons of waste rock capable of generating sulfuric acid would be stored near the mine site, upstream from a bountiful but fragile salmon fishery.

Thankfully the proposal was shelved due to intense pressure in Canada and abroad (Vice President Al Gore called it, "an environmental nightmare that threatens. . . every living thing in the region"), and it now looks like the wild Tat will flow unpolluted for years to come.

On a blustery, crystal clear day, we walk up the wide, pebbly valley of the O'Connor River, which flows into the Tat from the east. The water looks like hammered tin, and the circular, stacked-up clouds speak of phenomenal wind speed and cold temperatures above us. Our guide, John Colton, a former diver for the US Navy who turned conscientious objector at the prospect of the Persian Gulf War explains that this region was one most threatened by the mine. If it had been built, Geddes would have constructed a 65-mile road and a slurry line down the O'Connor's wide valley, across the Tatshenshini and up another tributary valley, Tats Creek, to Windy Craggy.

One morning, the birders among us arise in the damp and moody dawn and go tramping around the soaking alders with our binoculars. We walk over bear tracks nearly as long as our own footprints, and much wider, past bear scat that appears to be steaming (or it could just be the shreds of fog that seems to be everywhere), but find no birds. ("You could find more birds in an empty lot," says David Huff, a veterinarian from Vancouver.) Then we hear an excited cry ahead.

"A bear?" we ask.

"No!" comes the jubilant reply. "A sparrow!"

It turns out to be a pine siskin, which is marginally larger than a sparrow, and it sits on a branch and sings. We gather around and watch it through our binoculars.

After all, watching has become our main occupation. We watch the craters and plains of the waning moon through the scope Downes brought for birding. Hiking up one of the scores of unnamed mountains, we watch a pike—a small, furious rodent who lives in steep alpine rock falls—tell us why we should move on up the trail. On top, in a windy alpine meadow surrounded by glaciated peaks, we watch a young fox. It watches us back with lively amber eyes, its thick blond tail curled around its narrow red limbs. Looking through the scope, Colton's face breaks into a wide smile: "He's grown a lot this summer," he says, looking like a parent. "He's such a beautiful animal."

Downstream, in a wide rocky valley, we see our first, faraway bear. Through the binoculars, I can see its coat shine in the sun as it moves through the alders. This is no Yellowstone garbage bear; this guy is making his own living, eating berries. Grizzlies can gain two pounds of weight each day through the short summer.

Back on the boats, we soon see another, a young grizzly on the bank. It moves surprisingly fast when it sees us, bolting down the beach and up a little hill, where it stops and watches us intently for a few seconds before darting into the trees. It is as fast and sure as a weasel—but the size of a Volkswagen.

Wow. A bear that big and strong and fast reframes the universe. My muscles, awash in adrenaline, thrill with the plain possibility that, yes, they could be eaten. The hairless, persistent species of which I am a member may be chewing up most of what's good about this planet, but out here we amount to lunch meat. This realization comes as a weird sort of relief. We are part of the food chain, and not the top of it, necessarily.

Janet Morrison of Whistler, British Columbia, sits silently next to me through the show, inscrutable behind her sunglasses. Whistler was built on the former Whistler dump, and is crawling with bears. She tells me that when she worked at the local day care center, a black bear walked up to the building one day and sat down on the front steps.

"We had to call the maintenance men to get rid of it," she says.

Native lore cautions against saying bad things about bears, because they can hear you. All I can think of saying to the bear on the bank is thank you (for being so magnificent that my heart is pounding). Or, excuse me (for making you run around when you need to gain two pounds a day). Or, I'm sorry (for what we may eventually do to you).

After that, the scale of everything comes unhinged. We walk across the lower reaches of Walker Glacier, peering gingerly into its narrow, blue canyons that hum with subterranean rivers. The Alsek River comes barreling out of the ice and rock valleys to the north, and the Tatshenshini empties into it. The mountains drop back from the banks with lightning speed. The river breaks into dozens of braided streams. We are left on a riverbed that's a couple of miles across, threading our way between a sudden proliferation of sandbars. On the other side, the nameless peaks of the Barbazon Range swoop along the horizon, alternating rock faces with glacial valleys.

A century ago, E. J. Glave wrote, "There is such an incessant display of scenic wild grandeur that. . . we can no longer appreciate it. It's awe-inspiring influence no longer appeals to our hardened senses."

As for us, in the face of the biggest, quietest landscape imaginable, we actually stop talking. Around the fire, nearly everyone reads a poem he or she has written. They range from short ditties to Whitman-esque ballads. Then we learn a chant in three-part harmony. We draw in close around the fire and sing it over and over, our once-huge group feeling about the size of a family.

Alsek Glacier moves continuously into Alsek Lake, calving off warehouse-sized pieces of ice with muted roars that take seconds to be heard on the other side. The lake isn't always accessible—icebergs tend to wheel around on a huge, slow eddy and crowd up on the upstream side where the river enters the lake, making passage treacherous or impossible. But today the icebergs stay clear, the scenery opens another impossible notch and we're in the lake. Some of the icebergs are marbled white and brown. Others are as clear as cocktail ice. But they're mostly a chemical-bright shade of turquoise. Floating on the currents of the lake, these surreal forms bump and nudge each other with muted submarine thuds.

The lake water is predictably freezing. It's so full of glacial silt that it makes a hissing sound against the rubber rafts. I steer wide of Downes on shore. Luckily, she wants to hike, not bathe. We climb a scree slope and watch the huge, slow iceberg roundup.

South of Dry Bay, Alaska, a couple of miles from where the Alsek meets the sea, the gray sand stretches in front of the angry surf of the Pacific. A few dozen people have made camp here, fishing for the silver and red salmon that spawn on the East Alsek River. Betty Littlefield, a former fourth-grade teacher from Washington state who fishes here with her husband, tells me that grizzly bears periodically walk down the beach, looking in each skiff for fish.

Harold Flowers, a schoolteacher from Idaho who spends his summers fishing for salmon on the East Alsek, is waiting for the tide to come up so he can set his nets. The East Alsek was born about 34 years ago when an earthquake severed one of the Alsek's braided streams from the main river. The East Alsek is fed either by spring or by seepage from the Alsek.

Flying over the lower stretch of the Alsek, we soar over a panorama of clear aqua lakes, waterfalls, sparse alder forests with amber mosses. We count 16 Dall sheep grazing on a grass shelf above some low-lying clouds.

We see a large grizzly a few hundred yards from where we slept the night before. It stops in a clearing, looking up at us with a slightly concave face. Then it walks off. For now, anyway, it's still in charge of these woods.

Lisa Jones is an outdoor enthusiast and writer living in Colorado. Her last feature for GORP, Canoe Maine, ran last October.

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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