Alaska's Tatshenshini River

Contributed By RealAdventuresIf you have never seen the raw power of geologic forces at work, a trip down Alaska’s Tatshenshini River will peel back the coverings of time, trees, and overgrown brush that mask geologic features in many parts of the world. The Tatshenshini flows through 12 million acres of wilderness in Alaska, British Columbia and the Yukon, and in this magical place the sometimes-unnoticed agents of geological change jump up and demand attention. Those who ride this magnificent river down its 140-mile journey to the sea are taken back in time and given a peek into Mother Nature's workshop to see her master carvers at work as glaciers gouge out new valleys, and the streams flowing out of those glaciers move massive loads of sediment toward the ocean.

The St. Elias Mt. Range has the largest non-polar ice cap in the world, and the Tatshenshini cuts through the heart of this mass of rock and ice. Rafters not only get to float by glaciers that are more than two miles across, they get the chance to walk on the ancient ice. In the middle of this gigantic, slow moving river of ice are smaller worlds. Flowing across ice so blue it appears unreal, small streams cut valleys and canyons, creating miniature river systems in a fairy tale world. While peering into the crevasses and exploring the glaciers expanses, the geology textbooks and theories are brought to life before the eyes and under the feet of those lucky enough to be there.

There are other agents at work on this young land. The Tatshenshini itself, drawing its water from the miles of ice in the surrounding mountains, is a river of tremendous power. With an average summer flow of 100,000 cubic feet/second, the Tatshenshini carries three to four times the volume of the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon. Channels are continually shifting changing, and the water moves with such force that rafters can often hear the rumbling of rocks being propelled along underneath them.

This giant of a river pauses to catch its breath when it enters Alsek Lake, but rafters have their breath taken away by the views. Here the river drops much of its gray sediment as it mixes with the blue glacial water of the lake. The lake is dotted with icebergs the size of apartment buildings and the rafts bob among them at a safe distance. This flotilla has calved off from the glaciers that stretch up from the lake, leading the eye into the clouds to find the white peak of Mt. Fairweather, 15,000 feet above the boaters who marvel at it. The river seems to want to linger in the lake, just as boaters do, and wonder at the beauty of this place. At night the crashes, moans and splashes of icebergs rolling and new ones being calved enchant the campers gathered around the fire.

Amid the rock, ice, and turbulent water, there is a softer side to the Tatshenshini. The moist climate and long summer days produce wildflowers of striking size and vibrancy. A brilliant clump of Indian Paintbrush provides a wonderful contrast to the glacier looming behind it. Alder, spruce, and willows cover much of the lower ground, but this dense forest gives way to heather and alpine meadows in the higher elevations. Grizzly bears, moose, wolves, mountain goats, and many other creatures roam this untamed land. Sharp-eyed boaters can often catch a glimpse of them along the shore, or high above in open meadow.

From beginning to end the Tatshenshini never ceases to amaze and delight those who travel down it, and with just one take out allowed per day, only a lucky few get to experience its grandeur. Wilderness River Outfitters specializes in small groups and offers two trips this summer. Trip dates are July 14-24 and July 30- August 9. Space is limited and reservations may be secured by calling 1(800)-252-6581.

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