DIRTBAG DIARIES: Light and Cheap On The Tat-Alsek

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Story & Photos By John Nestler

The Tatshenshini through Dalton Post, Yukon, is an unassuming stream. Not exactly the "eyegasm" coined in the guidebook we'd read on the drive up from Haines. Zane, Sam and I have read plenty of trip reports framing the Tatshenshini and Alsek rivers downstream as one of the most magnificent river trips in North America.

The three of us, college paddling buddies, were graduating and going separate directions. So we decided to mount the fastest, cheapest trip we could to see the Tat-Alsek's elusive beauty for ourselves. That meant opting for inflatable kayaks to keep transport easy (and to forgo raft-rental costs), and taking the only available—meaning the earliest—permitted launch.

Typically no one launches in late May, when this corner of the North, in which the Yukon-British Columbia border runs into Southeast Alaska, is only beginning to thaw. But as we put on, the sun radiates, increasing the flow as tributaries deposit crystal water.

If rivers have personalities, the Tat struggles with multiple: A narrow canyon of frothing whitewater gives way to a calmer river that meanders 140 miles to the Pacific, where the only thing that continues to intensify is the expansive wilderness scenery.

Snow-capped mountains taunt us. Bear sign is everywhere—scat and scratched trees. The three of us review our encounter strategies. With only two cans of bear spray between us, the rehearsals never end well.

It doesn't help that we're chumming the water. Without a cooler, we chill our perishables in a submerged drybag—like a drag bag, but full of pungent, bear-tempting meat instead of beer.
We try not to think about the bears. We focus instead on the the grand symphony of this river journey, with its staccato opening, gentle melodies, and ever-increasing tempo. The crescendo comes at the confluence with the Alsek, where glaciated mountains encompass a mile-wide expanse of braided river channels. Here we feel truly small.

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Bald eagles perch on the gravel bars, scanning a barren landscape made hazy from wind whipping sand upstream. Twenty-foot-tall icebergs block our path through Alsek Lake. Rainy coastal clouds and fog close in to mark the crux of our passage.

Forty-eight hours of continuous rain dampen our spirits and chill us to the bone. We line our IKs around the lake's shore, breaking through small ice floes. The sun finally returns on our 12th day, when we take out in Dry Bay.

As we drag our boats up a shallow tree-lined channel to an airstrip rendezvous with our pilot, a massive grizzly blocks our path. It doesn't charge, but neither does it flinch. The bear, grown accustomed to scraps from the nearby fish processing plant, sniffs us thoroughly before sauntering back into the woods.

I don't stop shaking until the plane is in the air. As I watch the vast and rugged landscape scroll below, I realize that nothing could have prepared me for experiencing a river of such inconceivable beauty that does indeed lie just downstream of Dalton Post.

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This Dirtbag Diary originally ran in our, June 2015 issue.