In September 2019, five friends came together to canoe the Tatshenshini and Alsek rivers. We had all travelled and worked together before and we were excited to come together at the end of the Summer Season for a relaxing trip on a beautiful river with a wealth of history and fantastic geology.
This river is paddled by outfitters most of the summer, normally with rafts. When you read other trip reports for canoeing the river, you need to have spray decks and only appropriate canoeing the river at lower levels. This is true and being competent in paddling Class III and familiar with big volume northern rivers is an asset. We paddled in 2 17-ft inflatable canoes, and 1 15-ft prospector canoe with a spray deck for our solo canoeist.
We applied for a take-out permit from Dry Bay, taking out on September 15, 2019. There was one more group who was coming after us, to give a perspective of the season. We didn’t have snow, but most nights it dropped close to freezing. In order to cross the border, you need to get pre-approved prior to your trip, as the park ranger at Dry Bay will check your details.
Three of us flew from Dry Bay to Yakutat Alaska, where we experienced the hospitality of a local friend of a friend. The other two portaged 45 miles from Dry Bay to Yakutat.
Trip Completed: September 2019
Editor’s Note: This is a challenging and remote river, with big volume, frigid temperatures and little room for error. Please ensure you have the paddling and rescue skills needed for a river of this difficulty.
Starting Point: Dalton Post, Yukon
Ending Point: Dry Bay, Alaska
Total Distance: 241 km
Duration: 14 days (easily done in 10 days)
Difficulty: Class III/IV (continuous canyon) and then Class II/III
The headwaters of the Tatshenshini River start in the Yukon Territory. By day 2 or 3 you are in British Columbia. A day after the confluence with the Alsek River, you will be in Alaska.
In 1994 the Tatshenshini/Alsek was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This park is the largest in the world; 8.5 million hectares, combining Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, Kluane National Park, Tatshenshini/Alsek Provincial Park and Glacier Bay National Park.
- Kluane National (YK)
- Tatshenshini/Alsek Provincial Wilderness Park (BC)
- Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve (AK)
- Dry Bay National Forest (AK)
The rivers flow through the traditional territories of the Coastal and Inland Tlingits, as well as the Southern Tutchone Athabascans.
Maps & Resources
Guidebook: The Complete Guide to the Tatshenshini River, Including the Upper Alsek River. By Russ Lyman, Joe Ordonez, Mike Speaks
This is an excellent resource for folks who have been guiding on the river for a long time. There is a lot of cultural and environmental information in this book that I have not included in this report. It would be a great loss if you did not take this book on your own trip.
- NRCan map: Alsek River NTS#114NE 1:500000
- NRCan map: Dezadeash-115A 1:250000
- NRCan map: Tatshenshini River 114A 1:25000
- There are more maps listed in the guidebook as well.
Resources: In the guide book there is a list of several books that would increase the quality of your trip, through learning about the land. I took a few which I highly recommend:
- Wildflowers of the Yukon, Alaska and Northwestern Canada by John G. Trelawny
- The Best of Robert Service
- Never Turn Back: The Life of Whitewater Pioneer Walt Blackadar, by Ron Walters
- Do Glaciers Listen? Local Knowledge, Colonial Encounters and Social Imagination by Julie Cruikshank
Permits: Permits are required for the takeout, as the Alsek flows through Glacier Bay National Park. Contact the U.S. National Park Service for permits:
- Yakutat Ranger Station USNPS Office: 907 784-3295
- River Info: 907 784 3370
- Email: GLBA_alsek_Info@nps.gov.
Outfitters & Shuttles
In the guidebook, there are lots of options for shuttles depending on where you are coming from. Two of us came from Whitehorse. We flew in and then had friends drive us to Dalton Post. Three others came from SE Alaska. They took the ferry to Haines, Alaska with all the gear and then got a friend to drive them to Dalton Post and then drive the vehicle back to Haines to have on the other end.
We rented one of our canoes from Tatshenshini Expediting. They were helpful and easy to work with. If coming from Canada, the other company that we spoke to for information and who I would recommend for a guided trip would be Nahanni River Adventures.
Day 1: Blanchard to Tatashenshini River (34 km)
Distance: 34 km
Time: 4 hours
Rapids: Class 3 sections with continuous Class 2 whitewater
With our friends who shuttled us up, we did a day run. This section is rafted daily with Tatshenshini Expediting and they often offer a return shuttle in their buses. The Blanchard at low levels is pretty bony and continuous rock garden. Once on Tatshenshini, you have 3 significant rapids and low water they are fun and splashy.
Campsite: Dalton Post
This is the take-out for the day run. There are designated fire pits and lots of room for tents.
Day 2: Dalton Post to Silver Creek (19 km)
Distance: 19 km
Rapids: 5 km of Class 3 canyon. The Walls, Black Bear Rapid, Thread the Needle and M&M Falls
We pushed off from Dalton Post, with much excitement and nerves. The inflatable canoes were new crafts to us and we had not paddled with each other in a few years. So we used the 7 km before the canyon to catch eddies and practice ferries wherever possible.
The orange cliffs came into view and we knew around the next corner was the start of the canyon. We read and ran the first two sections, which were rocky, and caught eddies where possible to check-in. Low water allowed for lots of options to eddy-out, boat scout and even pop out onshore in some places.
M&M Falls was fun and the hole was easy to miss, though it still requires technical maneuvers and both paddlers need to be on point in a hard shell canoe. This canyon put into perspective that if I was to run this again in a hard shell canoe I would want a spray deck, an experienced paddle partner and another boat to rescue.
Campsite: Silver Creek
Large gravel bar, with access to hiking up Silver Creek, and beautiful views in all directions.
Day 3: Silver Creek to Sediments Creek (36 km)
Distance: 35.5 Kms
This day on the river made me wish I was in a hard shell canoe. There were calm waters winding, with mountains in all directions. Dense vegetation along the river banks did not allow for a lot of spots to pull over, until the end of the day when the river started to open up and we had to navigate our first braided channels.
Campsite: Sediments Creek
Upstream side on a gravel bar. Protection from the wind in the willows and alders.
Day 4: Rest Day at Sediments Creek
Distance: 800 m elevation gain
Time: Approx 6 hours.
This was our first layover day. And we took advantage of access to hiking in the Alsek Range. We spent the day following a trail up to the alpine. We reached the top of Goat Ridge and could see access to more endless hiking. We all wished we brought gear to do an overnight hike trip. No goats but lots of birdlife, salmon and blueberries, and rose hips in all directions.
Day 5: Sediment Creek to O’Connor River (21 km)
Distance: 21 km
Rapids: Monkey Wrench Rapid Class III
The river continues to open throughout the day, and navigating braids and staying in the deep flowing water kept us focused. We stopped at Alkie Creek for a lunch break.
Today was the first time I realized why the guidebook is so detailed about where to go when approaching campsites and finding clear water. With every bend, the river valley was becoming wider and more braiding. If you are not paying attention it is easy to miss a braid and float right past some of these sites, plus there is significant volume that creates turbulent and fast-moving water at confluences.
Monkey Wrench Rapid was the most fun. About 200m of Class III water involves rock dodging and moving from river left to right to avoid some ledges near the bottom. It was easy enough to scout from the river right.
Once camp was set up half of our group went for a hike up the creek.
Campsite: O’Connor River
It was challenging to find clear water here. We ended up finding a smaller slow-flowing braid with less sediment and filled up our pots and water bottles at night to let the sediment settle out.
Day 5: Rest Day at O’Connor River
Distance: 0 km
We took another layover day as I’d hurt my ankle hiking to Goat Ridge, and with so much time for this trip we took advantage of another cool hiking spot. The O’Connor river is a wide-open river valley that was proposed to have a road built for a mining project that would have opened up the world’s largest copper deposit. I did not walk so I could rest my ankle. My friends were gone all day and when they returned they said it felt like they walked nowhere because the land is so vast.
Day 6: O’Connor to Towagh (26 km)
Distance 26 km
Knowing about the winds we started this day off a little earlier…10 am instead of noon. We did experience some wind, but nothing slowed us down. We started taking turns leading throughout the day down the river, as the speed of the water and braids increased, leading to more decision-making and needing to be “on” all the time.
With braids, we were always trying to pick where more water was flowing and making our choice early to give everyone enough time to make moves to get in the right channel.
We stopped at Tomahnoous Creek where the river narrows to one channel for some lunch. Due to the steepness of the terrain and the force of the river we sat and ate our lunch in silence listening to the water move shift rocks.
Campsite: Tough Creek
The guidebook indicates that there is a spring of fresh water in the Alders, though we did not find this. It was another beautiful campsite with the ability to walk up the wash and alders to tucked out of the wind in the alders.
Day 7: Towagh to Melt Creek (19 km)
Distance: 19 km
Rapids: Nothing marked, but lots of wave trains and holes to watch out for as the river bends and twists.
This was one of my favourite days on the river thus far. The river comes together again with S-bend after S-bend. Fun wave trains, but watch out for hazards on the outsides of these bends. My brain was tired by the end of the day just from staring at all the mountains and glaciers and the wide-open river valley.
We pulled into Melt Creek campsite, which has a beautiful eddy downstream and a short climb up to an impacted campsite. The water coming out of Melt Creek is ice blue and glaciers exist in all directions. Firewood is not easy to find here. We found some in the Melt Creek river bed. This is a popular spot, so collecting beforehand is a good idea.
Campsite: Melt Creek
Downstream eddy, easy access.
Day 8: Rest Day at Melt Creek
Distance: 0 km
Rapids: Melt creek class 2.
We laid over here, which was one of two of my favourite spots on the river (the other being Alsek Lake).
There is a trail along the side of Melt Creek and also some that follow downriver along the side of the Tat. We explored all of them. We also portaged a canoe up Melt Creek about a kilometre to paddle down through a Class II rapid. This would be a cool spot to have a pack raft and see how far you could hike up through the thick brush to the Melbern and Konomoxt glaciers and then paddle down.
Day 9: Melt Creek to Walker Glacier (27 km)
The river opens up again and the braids become so large it’s hard to tell which direction the river flows. We stopped at Petroglyph Island and explored. This was an adventure as you can easily see the island, as it is one of the only places that has trees in the middle of the river. It is challenging to get to from Melt as it is almost directly across the river and you need to navigate through some braids without going too far downriver.
Once on the island you need to search around for a trail that will lead to a high point. The connection to the petroglyph felt very significant after reading so much of the Touchstone and Tlingit people, another highlight.
As we continued our downriver journey, just before hitting the confluence of the Alsek River, we paddled by a large brown bear and eagles flying through the sky.
The Tatshenshini River now seemed so small in volume relative to the Alsek River. And as you look across the river valley the magnitude of the scale is deceiving, as everything is so big and seems so close, but in reality, is far away.
There is a new risk introduced here as there are many glaciers along the Alsek River that can cave and cause flash flooding. There are many stories of camps flooding overnight.
We continued downstream, passing the Reynolds River and Glacier, as well as the Nose Hike. There is info about this hike in the guidebook. As we approached Walker Glacier, it suddenly felt like the river ended at this Glacier.
We started to move to the river left, so as to not miss our campsite. We ended up having to pull our boats out of a channel that went dry over to a new channel. This gave us an opportunity to collect wood, and we eventually arrived at one of the Walker glacier campsites.
CampSite: Walker Glacier A
Up from the river about 4 m on a plateau, with shelter from the wind and beautiful views in all directions.
Day 10: Walker Glacier to Alsek Lake (36 km)
Distance: 35.5 km
Rapid: Confused Sea / Cat in the Washing Machine, Class II
We started our morning off with a hike to Walker Glacier. This glacier has changed a lot over the last 30 years and in the guidebook, there is an amendment made in 2017. It is no longer easy to access and walk on, as its name suggests. We just walked to the lake below and it didn’t seem like we could even access the Glacier anymore.
We pushed off and found the river again much easier than finding our campsite from the previous day. The beauty and the vastness of this wild place continued to exhaust my brain as we travelled downriver.
As we approached the Novatak Glacier Valley, the river came together again in one wide channel and we paddled down the Cat in the Washing Machine Rapid, a big confusing wave train!
We then enjoyed some floating time down the fast-moving Alsek River. As we approached Alsek Lake we saw the “Gateway Knob” and braided channels again, which was our landmark to turn on our river brains again.
If you go to the left of the Knob it brings you in straight into the lake – which can be incredibly dangerous because of the ice that shifts with the wind from the glacier. We knew we wanted to camp at the Knob so we paddled to the river right to take the channel behind the Knob.
It became shallow again and we had to pull our boats over a sandbar to get to the campsite. It was a long day but finished off at my other favourite campsite.
Campsite: Gateway Knob
This campsite faces east towards Alsek Glacier and on our second day here the sky’s cleared up and we could see Mt. Fairweather and icebergs in all directions. Lots of firewood and sandy spots for tents.
Day 11: Rest Day on Alsek Lake
For our final layover day, it was calm and beautiful, and we took the canoes out on the lake to paddle around, keeping distance from icebergs. It was a glorious day of watching the sky change, listening to the glacier, playing games and drinking whisky over glacier ice.
Day 12: Alsek Lake to Dry Bay (23 km)
Distance: 22.5 km
Rapid: Constriction Rapid
It was a sad day leaving Alsek Lake and embarking on our final day of paddling. The river slows down here and there are not many braids to navigate until the end. We encountered two rapids, both big and confusing wave trains created by constrictions.
For the first, there were big rocks in the center so we moved to the river right, though there was also a channel to the river left.
As we approached Dry Bay we knew we had to seek out a specific channel to get to the ranger station and airstrip. We ended up going quite far down and due to low water, we had to pull our boats up a very shallow slough. At higher water, there is an upper entrance, which no one had come down in the 2019 summer because the water never got high enough. Apparently, during the high season, you can contact Barbazon Expeditions to help shuttle you with 4 wheelers. Details are in the guidebook.
We just walked upstream for a few hours, amongst the last few smolting salmon. Finding the ranger’s station was not as clear as we hoped, and having a GPS was advantageous for this section. We pulled into camp pretty late, set up our tents in the field in the forest and cooked on a small fire at the tiny boat ramp. Happy that we spent all our time hanging out at Lake Alsek and not Dry Bay.
Day 13: Dry Bay to Yakutat
We caught our flight to Yakutat Alaska first thing in the morning. It was pouring rain as we said goodbye to two friends who were portaging the 15ft prospector canoe 72 km to Yakutat. The plane brought a resupply for them and we took a lot of their extra gear. Their plan was to paddle sloughs and creeks as much as they could and take about 5 days for this adventure
I and the other two friends flew to Yakutat to meet our now dear friend Robert Johnson, who hosted us for the night. We were able to clean gear and we feasted on game hens and moose on the BBQ.
Day 14: Yakutat to Home
We spent the day in Yakutat where Robert showed us around and gave us a local tour of the salmon industry that exists and sustains a lot of Yakutat. He took us down to the Ocean and out the road to a lake where we took the jet boat out and among the icebergs. It was a fantastic way to end the trip and learn more about the area.
We flew out Yakutat with Alaska Airlines to our individual homes!
14 days was a long time; we had lots of layovers and our days on the water were short, often not pushing off until close to noon. Most folks spend about 10 days on the river and I think that would have been ample time for us as well. However, layovers gave us a lot of opportunities to hike, explore and appreciate the vast beauty of this place.
You need to pack out your poop. We used doggie bags with kitty litter and then put those dog bags into a 5-gallon pail that was lined with trash bags.
Travel logistics can be challenging. A flight from Dry Bay Alaska back to Whitehorse was not cheap and very dependent on weather. There are lots of options but they all take a little bit of time.
I am a full time guide and outdoor educator. On my days off you can find me back on the river paddling in my canoe, riding my bike or running somewhere. I try to take time off every year to go back into the backcountry for myself. On these trips I love to go with friends and read books about the river we are travelling on to get the most out of the experience.