Green forests, white and blue glaciers, and a rainbow of wildflowers are the palette of the Alsek River. Join us for a week of rafting and hiking in a Pleistocene landscape. Ice scoured and raw, the Alsek watershed has only recently emerged from beneath the glaciers of the last ice age, and yet the forests and meadows are unbelievably lush in the brief summer warmth, the contrasts and the beauty luring us to paddle around the next bend and climb the next mountain.
A journey down the Alsek River is a trip into an Ice Age wilderness. The upper Alsek, from Dezadeash River to Lowell Lake, offers excellent hiking in Canada’s Kluane National Park with unique plant species, abundant wildlife, and a first-hand look at glacial geology in action.
Our expedition begins on the Dezadeash River in Haines Junction, Yukon Territory, against the impressive backdrop of the Auriol mountains. The river here is slow and clear, winding its way through alder and willow scrub with occasional stands of white spruce. We’ll look for beaver, moose, bald eagles, northern goshawks, and the northern waterthrush, among other species. All able hands will ply oars and paddles, as the upstream winds can be strong.
As we move downstream, tributaries swell the river and the current picks up speed. At the confluence of the Dezadeash and the silt-laden waters of the Kaskawulsh Glacier drainage, we begin our journey on the powerful Alsek River. The upper Alsek, bounded by the Kluane Ranges, is a designated grizzly bear preserve, home to the largest concentration of grizzlies in Canada. We’ll look for brown and black bears foraging for soapberry, kinnikinnick, or bearroot, and turning over logs in search of ants. This section of the river is also prime habitat for moose, Dall’s sheep, and trumpeter swans.
As the river snakes south, the dramatic folds of the mountains are evidence that we are crossing the Denali and Duke River faults. Along the route, we can hike a geologically recent lava flow, spot glacial erratics, and walk on sand dunes that were once the shores of Lake Champagne, created when the river was dammed by the surging Lowell Glacier. We can explore countless creeks, mountainsides and forested valleys carved by recent glaciation. Weather permitting, we’ll take a dip in the beautiful clear pools we find along the way.
On our journey we will paddle about 45 miles from the dry interior mountains of the Yukon Territory into the heart of glacier country, culminating in a layover camp at iceberg-studded Lowell Lake. Intrepid hikers will summit Goatherd Mountain for vistas of the lake and Lowell Glacier – and perhaps an encounter with mountain goats along the way. On a clear day, the 15,000-foot glaciated peaks of the Wrangell St Elias Range can be seen to the west.
Our trip allows for multiple layover days so we can explore according to weather conditions and group preferences. Rafting the Alsek River is a true wilderness expedition. Challenges such as wind, cold, inclement weather, and swiftly rising or dropping river levels are all part of the adventure. With the help of our experienced guides, this exceptional trip of a lifetime is suitable for anyone with a thirst for adventure and a reasonable level of personal fitness.
Please note that this “hike and raft” itinerary is different from most trips offered on the Alsek River. We will linger in the upper portion of the river and spend our time hiking in the dry interior mountains. We will not run the big whitewater nor embark on a helicopter portage, nor paddle to Dry Bay on the Pacific Coast, preferring to savor the sunny side of the mountains and hike the tundra for this summer’s adventure. There is, however, a helicopter ride at the end of the trip from Lowell Lake to the Haines Highway.
This trip is offered in cooperation with our friends at Haines Rafting Company, in Kluane National Park.
Last updated: January 19, 2020
What follows is a general flow of events. Expect the unexpected and prepare to be flexible.
Arrive in Haines, AK in time for a 4 pm trip orientation convening at the Haines Brewing Company.
Lodging at the Aspen Hotel this night is included. Meals this day are on your own.
Morning van departure up the Chilkat Valley, across the Canadian Border (you must have your passport), through the spectacular high alpine of Chilkat Pass to the interior mountain valley of our raft put-in at Haines Junction, Yukon Territory. Once arrived, we’ll eat lunch and launch on a small tributary of the Alsek. If the upstream winds are particularly stiff, we’ll hike into our alternate put-in at Serpentine Creek.
As we move down the Alsek River, we’ll spend a couple days exploring the rivers, valleys, and mountains of Kluane National Park and Preserve. This is grizzly bear and moose country so we’ll have cameras and binoculars handy. The open, dry alpine environment with stunted trees and tundra-like terrain is ideal for wildlife viewing. The scenery is spectacular, and rich with stories about geologic, natural, and human history.
Enter the heart of glacier country, and move back in time to an Ice Age wilderness. The Alsek picks up speed and turns from clear blue to the color of chocolate milk as it converges with the silt-laden Kuskawulsh River. The river is splashy and fast and we begin to get a sense of the jaw-dropping immensity of the St. Elias Mountains towering 9,000 ft above the river.
Just when you thought the scenery couldn’t get any better, we raft through a series of splashy, fun rapids and then into iceberg-studded Lowell Lake. We’ll lay over at the lake. Weather permitting, we’ll take a sunset paddle on the lake to get a closer look at icebergs and other glacial features. In the morning, the intrepid will set off to hike Goat Herd Mountain, where we may see mountain goats, and get a bird’s eye view of the lake, Lowell Glacier, and the sublimity that surrounds.
The last morning, we will break down camp and weather permitting, prepare for the 45-minute helicopter ride from Lowell Lake to the Haines Highway. A van shuttle will be waiting for us when we land. The drive back to Haines is less than an hour. Once we arrive you can check-in to the Aspen Hotel for much deserved showers.
They went above and beyond the typical guide responsibilities and there was never a demarcation between guide and client–we were one pack of unruly rabble-rousers, loving every breathtaking minute on that wild river. One of the best trips of my life.
Transportation from Haines, AK
Food while in the wilderness, stoves, cooking & eating utensils
Boats, paddles, oars, life jackets, safety & repair gear
Professional guide service
One night lodging at Aspen Hotel in Haines the night prior to your trip (double occupancy)
Select Rental Gear is available and included
Lodging other than one night in Haines
Any non-camping meals
Personal clothing and gear per our Equipment List
Gratuity for guides
Rain is likely; snow and frost almost impossible; sunshine intermittent. Temperatures are usually in the 50’s and 60’s. Overcast and damp conditions are common but this trip focuses on the interior portion of the river and we will likely avoid some of the wet weather on the pacific side of the mountains. July has the nicest weather of the whole year, but at this latitude “nice” might not be all that warm. Bugs should be very few. But bring a little DEET just in case.
TRAVEL TO AND FROM HAINES:
Our recommended sequence is to spend the night before the pre-trip meeting in Juneau, then take the morning ferry on the day before the trip arriving in time for the pre-trip meeting.
At trips end, spend the night in Haines and ferry to Juneau the day after. Or if you are interested in spending more time in Haines, we have lots of suggestions for other adventures in Haines.
Love Finds You in Glacier Bay by Tricia Goyer and Ocieanna Fleiss
The Land of Ocean Mists by Francis Caldwell
The Complete Guide to the Tatshenshini River: Including the Upper Alsek River by Lyman, Ordonez, Speaks
Jimmy Bluefeather by Kim Heacox