Packrafting the Alsek River: Haines Junction, Yukon to Yakutat, Alaska via the Lost Coast.
Updated: Aug 22, 2020
Why Alsek?: This river corridor is stunning. The Alsek drains the eastern edge of the largest non-polar icefield in the world. As a result, traveling along the Alsek feels like traveling back into the ice age. The coastal mountains are dramatic and paddling around icebergs at the toe of a glacier is a definitive highlight. In addition to the sheer beauty of the scenery, the whitewater is fun and the wildlife is abundant. As far as wilderness river trips go, this is a must-do for many reasons.
The Alsek has long been a legendary river trip that is cost or skill prohibitive to many boaters. The crux of the trip is a 6-mile class V+ section know as Turnback Canyon, considered one of North America’s greatest pieces of big water kayaking. While a handful of kayakers make the trip in early spring or late fall when the levels are low enough to paddle Turnback, rafter parties will typically pay a pretty penny to charter a helicopter to portage their gear over the canyon. To me, packrafting the Alsek seemed like a simple solution to facilitate an easy portage of Turnback. An additional perk of packrafting this route is saving some money by forgoing the standard charter flight out from the typical take-out at Dry Bay. One can simply pack up the boats and walk the Lost Coast to the town of Yakutat- a worthy adventure in and of itself. In fact, we were pleased to find that there were some small rivers running parallel with the coast toward Yakutat that broke up the hiking portion even more. In the end, the ratio was 190 miles of paddling to 32 miles of hiking. Packrafting is definitely the way to “dirtbag” an otherwise costly run.
Without paddling Turnback canyon, the whitewater on this route becomes more accessible to class IV paddlers. Those who have paddled Turnback will likely downplay the whitewater on the rest of the run. That said I would strongly suggest that anyone tackling the Alsek is a solid class IV paddler with appropriate big water experience. The sections of whitewater are mostly class III but very continuous with some huge features, seams, and few places to stop. A swim could be very long. Once you leave Lowell Lake and up until a few miles before the Turnback portage, it is continuous whitewater. Sam’s and Lava North stand out as the big rapids. The left side of Sam’s is class V big water at the flow we had, but the right channel offers a class III passage. Lava North is reminiscent of Lava on the Grand Canyon but longer with a few more bends at the bottom. We had a very high flow of 48,000 cfs on the Bates gauge (150,000 cfs at Dry Bay) and Lava was huge but offered a reasonable line on the left. Scouting on river left at all flows is advisable (bring bear spray).
Turnback Canyon portage:
It was hard to find any information about the portage. The toe of the glacier is shifting constantly so no two portages will be the same. While a few kayak parties have dragged their boats around the canyon and over Tweedsmuir Glacier, packrafts make this a much more reasonable experience. From Nouse Creek camp we hiked downstream for a mile before crossing the lateral moraine and a wet moat to access the glacier. Once on the ice, we were able to cruise over flat terrain. We downloaded satellite images and tried to walk further away from the river on white ice to ease the crossing. Eventually, we crossed the moraine once more to leave the glacier and encountered tricky scrambling over talus and slick terrain. We did the eight mile portage in about 5 hours.
The Lost Coast:
Many people make the Lost Coast a packraft trip of its own, so it seemed like the logical way to depart the Alsek. Expect lots of sand and lots of bears with a 90% chance of rain. We did the 45-mile section from Dry Bay to Yakutat in 3.5 days. Bad weather could make this section less cruisy. For the most part, it is a flat beach walk. I recommend paddling the Akwe River which parallels the coast and cuts out 11 miles of walking. A tide table is helpful for planning your arrival in Dry Bay and the crossing of the Dangerous River. I also recommend paddling the last 6 miles of the Arhkln River into the fishing village of Situk. Hit this river when the tide is going out our you will be lining your boats. From Situk to the Yakutat airport it is 7 miles of road walking, but we were able to hitch a ride.
Permits: Yes. There are lots. It is a clunky system but it is worth it. There is a super hefty fine for poaching this run. You need the following 3 permits in this order:
Glacier Bay National Park, U.S.- Get this first and establish your takeout date. There is typically a one year waitlist, but we got ours a few months prior just by calling and asking about cancellations. Once you have a take out date, call Kluane. ($125 USD per trip)
Kluane National Park, Can.- The park will check with Glacier Bay and then you will have a selection of possible launch dates. Of the three parks, Kluane is the most strict on your itinerary and will want to know where you plan to camp each night. Keep in mind if you plan to launch on the Dezeadesh that will add a day to your itinerary. ($9 CAD per person per day)
Tatshenshini/Alsek Provincial Park- They will verify you have a Glacier Bay takeout before issuing a permit. ($100 CAD per person)
Border Crossing: The U.S. Customs Service requires you to go to the Dalton Post Crossing in person to turn in a form that permits boaters paddling the Alsek or Tat to waive their re-entry into the U.S. We learned the hard way that there is no exception to this rule after trying to turn in our paperwork at the Tok border crossing on our way from Anchorage. If you are not traveling through Dalton Post, consider calling ahead to secure prior approval.