This story is featured in the August 2012 issue of Canoe & Kayak Magazine which can be purchased here.
It took me two days to hitchhike from Haines, Alaska, to the Yukon highway bridge where Walt Blackadar started his fabled 1971 first descent of Turnback Canyon. I launched in a drizzle feeling quite puny, just as Walt probably did, which I guess was the point. I was alone, as he had been, with 10 days and 230 miles of the Alsek River ahead of me. Running Turnback was never part of my plan, though. Gazing into that gorge, which squeezed 50,000 cfs of ice-water into miles of unrelenting rapids, assured me that my decision was sound. Besides, the portage across the Tweedsmuir Glacier, all seven miles of it, turned out to be a highlight. Violet blue streams carved slot canyons into the rocky glacial surface, disappearing into holes that led, it seemed, to the bottom of the earth. All that water re-emerged at the toe of the glacier, bubbling out of circular ice tubs, surging and hissing to form its own river of 3,000 cfs. I rode the escaping water back to the Alsek, and continued for the coast.
On the last morning, I packed at dawn in eerie storm-light to the unexpected sound of distant thunder. Later I realized I was hearing the grinding of the glaciers that surround Alsek Lake. At 3 a.m., I floated silently past the
ranger's cabin. By 5, a seal was showing me the channel through fog-shrouded tidal flats. At 7, I braced into the Pacific shore break, dragged my kayak up the beach, and pitched camp.
I was feeling good. I had survived the Alsek, my bush plane was due in 24 hours, and the ranger station was far behind me. A permit, you see, was one piece of equipment I had failed to procure. They had all been claimed, mostly by parties of well-heeled rafters who portaged Turnback with helicopters. If there was anything more antithetical to that raw wilderness than bureaucracy, I thought, it was helicopters. I paddled with a clear conscience.
I was quietly watching the surf when people, the first I'd seen in 10 days, came walking down the beach. Naturally, we chatted. They failed to mention that their afternoon plans included lunch with the ranger. When I saw a park service hat approaching through the dunes hours later, my heart sank. We made small talk. He read me. I read him. After an agonizing 30 minutes, he finally dropped the bomb: "One more thing, I need to check your permit." Things went south from there.
The big bust didn't last long. After he did his paperwork, we talked surfing, and rivers. I helped him push his skiff into the dropping tide. He agreed that mine had probably been the lowest-impact river trip of the year. After that moment of reconciliation, however, something happened within government's grinding wheels, because I soon learned that my fine was to be $6,000—that's six thousand dollars. The park service called every phone number on my confiscated map trying to incriminate me further. Nobody cracked, and after pleading not guilty at my hearing, I got off for $700—the better part of a month's pay at the time.
In those days I often worked as a boatman for the Park Service. When word reached my home river, a local ranger began bragging that I would "never work here again." The thing is, he didn't know what I looked like, and I rowed one of his Park Service boats away from the ramp under contract with the federal government the next spring. I thought of my salary for that trip coming from the same faceless bureaucracy that took it on the previous one. In sum, money changed hands, people were busied, and the rivers flowed, indifferently.