Photos and story by John Nestler
Extended self-support kayaking is soaring in popularity as paddlers realize the flexibility and adventure that kayaks offer on remote, wilderness runs. The Grand Canyon has become immensely popular recently, yet few eyes turn north to the self-support possibilities in Alaska. Enter the Tatshenshini and Alsek Rivers — a river-runner's dream trip through 140 miles of the largest formally protected wilderness area on Earth. Selecting your choice permit date can take years, but self-supporting allows for more flexibility and the possibility of putting together a trip in just a year.
A takeout plane shuttle from Dry Bay, Alaska limits the use of hardshell kayaks due to space issues; so personal tandem inflatable kayaks were the obvious choice for the three of us. The extra space on the tandems allowed us to carry 12 days of food and gear while still performing admirably on the Class III rapids just after the start of the trip at Dalton Post, Yukon. The inflatables also rolled up neatly and were easy to fly with into Juneau, as they were less than 50 pounds. Veteran river-runners urge caution at Gateway Knob, where massive icebergs choke the entrance to Alsek Lake after calving off from the nearby glacier. In the early season only two options exist: Portage all gear about a half-mile around the knob, or slowly push your way through ice against the shore of the knob. Due to the small size of the IKs, we put our drysuits to the test, and pushed small icebergs out of our way while completing the crux move of the trip in under two hours.
IKs allow for a personal experience on the water, and add another level of excitement in the large rapids as the Alsek grows to over 100,000 cfs in volume and a mile in width. Lounge back as glaciers pop into view; lack of a cockpit and sprayskirt means complete freedom. Splashes from the fast-flowing river will keep you on your toes, even if you're in awe and experiencing "eyegasms" as our guidebook, The Complete Guide to the Tatshenshini River by Lyman et al., described it.
Permits are unique here. You pay to enter onto the waiting list, and await contact for your pick of takeout date. If no one above you has selected that date then it's yours. Rafters tend to avoid early season dates due to the ice issues in Alsek Lake, so anything earlier than mid-June is a gamble weather-wise, but odds are that no one has claimed the date yet. Capitalize on the versatility of your self-support trip and you may be rewarded with the trip of a lifetime.
Once you manage to get yourself to Haines, Alaska, with all your gear, contact the Captain's Choice Motel for the cheapest car rentals around. A two-hour drive up the Haines Highway brings you to Dalton Post where the river adventure starts. Negotiate takeout flight with Fly Drake, based out of Haines. He's flown backcountry snowboard icon Jeremy Jones as well as National Geographic, and is one of the most passionate guys in the business. Finally, don't forget about the local knowledge — Stan Boor, owner of Alaska River Outfitters in Haines, is the veteran to talk to about local beta.
Reinvent wilderness multi-day trips by opting for a light and fast approach with self-support kayaking. The possibilities are endless, and the logistics are a breeze. Moreover, traditional kayakers will appreciate the thrill that inflatable kayaking provides in a landscape of epic proportions.
— Watch Nestler’s film on his self-support solo kayak run of the Grand Canyon.
— Check out reviews of a few of paddling’s latest inflatable kayaks, and see Erik Boomer’s tips for how to pack for a self-support multi-day kayak trip.