Whitewater rafting the Tatshenshini and Alsek rivers
Water splashed up and over the boat and into our faces, running in long rivulets off our foul-weather gear. ''Bail!'' called Chuck; and as the raft lurched through deep troughs topped by foaming white, I reached for the bucket.Skip to next paragraph
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We were on the Tatshenshini, one of the world's great whitewater rivers, flowing from Canada's Yukon Territory to join the Alsek River in Alaska and empty into Dry Bay just south of Yakutat on the open ocean. The ''big daddy'' of our Alaska Discovery trip was Chuck Horner, the founder of the company. The Tatshenshini-Alsek system remains wilderness in part because commercial travel is strictly limited by National Park Service permits. As a result, you can raft the river without seeing anyone at all.
Our first day we woke to fog, but by the time we set out there was bright sunshine. We moved along in the current with a flock of mergansers; an eagle slowly stretched out his wings as we passed.
The angle of the river steepened, and we picked up speed. Fred Fay-Hiltner, the leader and oarsman of the raft I rode, maneuvered a series of tight, fast turns through a spill of rock. Fred is an Olympics-class kayaker, and watching him reminded me of Henri Cartier-Bresson's description of photography as ''a matter of millimeters.'' At one point we were flying through a churning chute into a canyon toward sheer jagged rock. We swept by, missing it by inches, and plunged into huge waves, towering eight feet over us.
After lunch, we lazed in what Fred calls ''Alaska drifting'' - down through waves only three feet high. Suddenly a bear was thrashing across a stream next to the raft, a sow with her cub running away from us.
Our camp was just ahead in a field of dryas gone to seed. Perhaps the premier Alaska plant, dryas moves in first after glacial retreat to prepare the soil for reforestation. From river to forest edge, the ground was solid with small gossamer balls.
After dinner, Ken Leghorn, another of our oarsmen, said, ''Hey! There's something moving over there.'' He got a blase response; we had had a gourmet repast and were relaxing after the excitement of the canyon. ''A moose,'' said Dick Rice, our third guide. It was visible without binoculars - a light form just across the river. We all went for our binoculars to see it better: ''It's a wolf!''
And it was - a short distance away from us. He gnawed at something, walking around it, tugging. After almost an hour he walked slowly along the shore out of sight.
The river flowed light chalky green our second day, having taken on what is called glacial flour: bedrock which has turned into powder as a glacier grinds down over it. The sun was hot at lunch; so we dove into the river, swimming upstream against the meltwater.
We climbed a bear trail in the afternoon to look out over the land, and saw what looked like a meandering stream curving through the green and the great austere sweeps of gravel.
But by the fourth day, the Tat was a changed river, the bed swollen wide with the volume of water. Mountains rose from the shore.
The river is braided here, and Fred picked our way through the labyrinth, negotiating sometimes in three and a half inches of water. Fine debris churned against the bottom of the raft. We swept nimbly into a small backwater eddy: We are at the confluence of the Tatshenshini and the Alsek.