Tatshenshini

And now the story of the river.

I cruise along the 60 miles of dirt, back towards Chitna, back towards pavement, towards Haines, towards home. At the bridge over the canyon, I stop and make breakfast. A few people on motorbikes stop and we chat for a bit. The van is good at starting conversations. Not quite as good as a dog.

At the crossroads called Glenallen I get gas and stop in at the tourist information center. There’s a retired couple in an RV up from New Mexico. The guy at the counter remarks that there aren’t many people who visit from NM. I laugh and tell him that perhaps we just tend to keep quiet, but that there are probably more of us than he suspects. “We get more people from Switzerland than from New Mexico coming through here.” “Yes, you are probably right,” I say. “You’d have never known I was from there if these folks hadn’t walked in while I was here.” I sign his guestbook from Gunnison, CO.

In Tok I pick up a hitchhiker named Kevin. He offers to get out and walk across the border. It hadn’t occurred to me to be worried about being hassled. It’s no trouble. We stop for dinner at a pull out a little way into the Yukon. He plays his guitar as I cook steak and beans. We stop for the evening on the bank of the Duke River. The moon is very low in the sky, exactly half full, and hangs just above the horizon with its terminator appearing directly vertical. I wonder if I can calculate our location from the altitude angle of the moon. I think I need to know where we are in the 19-year lunar cycle for that. Which I would probably know if I’d grown up around people who celebrate Ramadan. Or around Mayans. It seems strange, the moon so low with the edge on circle-line dividing shade and sun so neatly vertical. In a week the moon will be full.

In the morning we continue on, get coffee and pastries in Haines Junction. Kevin what, I ask him when we stop for gas and at first he’s thinking that he’ll continue on into BC and so we trade contact info. Just call me Kevin Hitchhiker, he says. He offers to connect me with his family in Bend, Oregon if I end up passing through there on my way home. Then he decides to come check out Haines, since there’s a ride and all. So we set off.

At a pass, we stop and enjoy the views. The landscape is open, high alpine. Grey stones given a lick and a promise by recently retreated glaciers show through the pale green of full summer in the southern Yukon. Descending on the Pacific side of the pass, it’s a drastic change, passing through the range of mountains between the interior and the coast. Dwarf black spruce give way to gigantic trees. Tundra is replaced by underbrush.

Haines is like a little town in the Pacific Northwest, elements of Port Townsend or Squamish. I meet Greg and Jeff, Kevin takes off, perhaps he’s headed straight back to Canada. Greg is Coop’s friend who organized this trip. Jeff is a friend of Greg’s. Jonathan Coop is a friend from home. He teaches Biology and we bonded over the fact that we both are from New Mexico. At dinner, I meet Phil and Alaina, who will also be on the trip, and Eric and his wife (whose name I forget) who live in Haines.

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I find a spot to park a bit south of town. In the morning there’s a cafe and market that makes a nice place to sit and have breakfast. In the afternoon, Coop and Mikal arrive on the ferry. We meet with Stan, the outfitter, and talk about the particulars of the river, and his system that he’ll be loaning us. Last bits of gear. I pick up some rubber boots. I got a drybag in Fairbanks. Coop brought the bright red all-weather suit I’ve had sitting in my closet for ten years or so and never used. My mom got them for me and my brothers a while ago because they seemed like a good deal. It turned out to perfect for this trip. She’s good at finding things like that.

In the morning, we park my van at the airport and Stan and his wife Katie drive us north to the put in at Dalton Post in the Yukon. This is in part of Alsek Provincial Park, which together with Kluane Provincial Park and Wrangell-St. Elias and Glacier Bay National Parks in the US form the largest protected natural area in the world. I’ve reached the saturation point where I’m enjoying gently poking fun at the flagrant affinity for superlatives that the Alaskan tourist industry promotes, but this is one that I wholly appreciate. Besides, I remember playing the “by far” game with my dad when I was little, where we’d name off things that Alaska was “by far”. Alaska is by far the largest, by far the furthest north, by far the furthest west, by far the furthest east, has by far the largest and the most mountains, is by far the least populated. Unless of course you include Canada in the game.

At the put in, we rig the boats, following Stan’s procedure. He’s good at taking this group of people, some of whom have plenty of river experience and some of whom, like me, have almost none, and giving us simple, functional systems that we can master quickly and that adapt well to the adjustments and idiosyncracies of a varied group.

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The rafting party is an interesting band of people. Greg, Jeff, Paul, Alaina and Mikal are all friends from the old days of taking direct action in service of the forests and the wild places. Greg teaches at Gonzaga. He’s one of Coop’s mentors. His manner is a reserved sort of outgoing. He drops all sorts of hints of having a very interesting collection of stories to tell. All of these people do. Phil and Alaina are a very sweet pair, happy with each other, supportive. Together since the old days. On the drive to the put in, Phil and I discover that we seem to have studied the same joke book. The lama asks the hot dog vendor to make him one with everything, gets his sausage, hands the guy a twenty, ask for his change, and is told that change comes from within. Jeff’s the quietest guy in the group, an observer. Mikal is as obsessive about documenting things as I am. Perhaps more so. “Former technophobe” Alaina comments, smiling, as Mikal accumulates video clips in his phone and talks about his editing workflow. He’s working on a documentary about the changing nature of the pot-growing community in Humbolt County. And there is Coop and there is me.

Next to the put in a couple of guys are camped in pop up trailers, fishing. A couple of park rangers stop by and check our permits. The boats are rigged and we have lunch. We estimate that the river is flowing at 2-3 thousand ft^3/s. I check the units in my head and try to guess at the distance to the opposite bank, the speed of the river in ft/s. Stan says the average depth is about five feet right here. The river is opaque. This will make a good math 105 example. Especially when the river gets big. And it’s a fun diversion.

Eventually, everything is ready and it is time to go. The first day is the only stretch of river with unavoidable rapids. They start after about 45 minutes as the river enters a canyon. The land is young, the canyon’s unpolished. This river is just beginning to cut into this landscape, following the broad track laid out by the glaciers that were here just recently.

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The rapids aren’t much this time. Enough to think about, enough to splash plenty and make me stash the camera at times. I’m riding with Coop and he is having a blast steering us past wave trains and holes, catching eddies to collect the other two boats and give me time to bail. When we are out of the canyon, cut banks and gravel bars abound. Driftwood piles on snags and islands and mossy vegetable mats overhang the banks. Stan told us that there would be about 45 minutes of rapids, and then after that, we were on pretty smooth water until camp.

On a small island, Jon and I stop to pick up some wood for our fire. As we pull onto shore, Greg and Jeff float by and then Mikal, Phil and Alaina. We gather a couple armloads and bundle them up in the bow of the boat. When we pull in to camp a little further down the river, Greg asks us if we had seen the bear who watched from along the shore as we headed to the island for wood, dropping to four paws and disappearing into the forest as Jon and I climbed out of our boat. Nope. Guess we had better open our eyes back up. Ed Abbey floated this river a while ago. He seemed to resent the fact that he never actually “encountered the Grizz” as he put it in his oft-quoted admonition. He did give name to one of the rapids a bit later on, Monkey Wrench.

We make camp at the place where Silver Creek flows into the Tatshenshini River, still in the Yukon Territory. River trip beginnings remain strange to me. I do not have habits on which I can rely for this sort of adventure. New people, new gear. There is a Dutch oven and I try again to make cornbread. But I don’t build enough of an insulator around the cast iron; it is a bit better than my poor showing along the Denali highway, but still not great. I open the growler of beer from Denali park and share it around.

Night does a better job of falling than what I am used to. Waking up in the middle of the night, I notice Cleopatra overhead. The big W, or perhaps E. In India, when the dipper goes below the horizon, Cleopatra is used to find the north star.

And then morning. Sitting on the river bank. Coffee. River ambles by, as always. Few flies. Greg, Jonathan, Alaina and Mikal are also writing. Jonathan examines the local flora, documents what he observes. I find his enthusiasm as a naturalist inspiring. Alaina is writing letters to her mom, not unlike my letter to my dad. Mikal takes any opportunity to write. He always keeps journals when he travels, and wonders about when he will ever make it to the point of editing the accumulated stack into anything coherent.

At breakfast, we talk about the ideal of a liberal arts education. I am stuck on the idea that we must not fear any discipline, as many fear math and as I have at times shied away from music. I was talking last winter with Dan Cress, a sociology professor at Western and a figure in the Gunnison music scene, about how he picked up the guitar. He didn’t play any instruments previously, but when he turned 40, he decided that he would give himself the gift of learning to play guitar. That also is inspiring.

When the coffee is done, we motivate. Today, Stan told us, involves a bit of rowing. We confirm Stan’s prediction. It’s a good day for conversation. Coop is stoked to be a dad. I’m glad to be a friend of his sons, Eli and David. The difficulty in this adventure is channel choosing. On one long oxbow, I choose poorly, and our three boats follow a long meander rather than the shortcut that the recent channel found. But maybe the shortcut was blocked by a log jam anyway. Another feature of the rapidly changing northern topography.

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After a long day, we find Sediments Creek. There is bear sign at the campsite, tracks in the mud and a pile of berry-filled poo. Looks like a momma and one cub. There is some excitement, some talk about protocol to be sure that we are all on the same page in terms of keeping a responsible camp. This camp is at the mouth of a steep creek draining some small glaciers. The creek flattens out and ends in a half mile or so of flat gravelly outwash, covered in white tufts of dryas. The river and the creek running into it are full of silt.

We set up camp and make dinner. There is plenty of driftwood, it is nice to sit around the fire and let the conversation wander. Eventually I retreat to my tent. I am exhausted but sleep is not easy. Doubts which I hoped that I had left behind in the mountains resurface. They crawl across my thoughts like errant silverfish. Did I succeed on Denali? Eventually, I drift into unconsciousness.

A big breakfast — Ham and eggs with veggies, toast. Stan’s outfit is fairly deluxe. I’m not used to this river culture of bringing everything including the kitchen sink. (There is a foot pump rig for hand washing. This seems extravagant when there is a river nearby.) But that’s how it’s done. I think I’d be happy with about one quarter the stuff. But the comfort and the company is certainly worth whatever difficulty comes with extra things.

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When breakfast is done, we go for a hike. A trail enters the woods a few hundred yards upstream. Lovely but poisonous bane berry bushes spot the underbrush with bits of bright red among the riot of green. Parallel gouges in the aspen bark ten feet above the ground again remind us of our ursine neighbors. Phil calls out as we make our way, “Hey bear! Hey-oh!” The trail starts up hill and doesn’t let go until we gain the shoulder of the ridge.

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It’s a good viewpoint. Greg spots a moose, possibly with a calf, in a meadow on the other side of Sediments Creek, a four-legged speck through my little spotting scope. The scale of the glacier that carved out this valley is impressive to imagine.

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A bit further along and the forest opens to fields of wildflowers. Jonathan and I are struck by how many of the species are common to the mountains outside Crested Butte. Which one of these mountains is Gothic? The Balsam Poplars are the most visible incongruity. We stop at a talus field for lunch. Alaina decides to head down, and the rest of us continue up to a broad plateau of alpine tundra.

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We wander, still aiming generally uphill, alternating between immersion in the miniature beauties of the flowering tundra — forget-me-not, paintbrush, rose, heath, more — and expansion into the space between here and the mountains across the valley. Sediments Creek flows at the bottom of an immense gulf.

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We sit on the edge and watch tiny flecks of white on the slopes opposite through our binoculars: mountain goats. I am reminded of picking out constellations; these seven goats are the Pleiades. Phil heads down to meet Alaina and get started on dinner.

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Further along, we sit and stare across at the blue ice of the glacier that feeds Sediments. Greg teases Jonathan with an old Devil’s advocate: “What would Bill Cronon have to say about all of this?” I play along for a little while, until I start thinking about how to build an agent based simulation to determine the comparative strength of the desire to explore as a factor in human expansion in relation to less esoteric pressures such as scarcity of resources and overcrowding. I decide that it might be better to just look at the mountains enjoy the exploring.

From where we are sitting the ridge drops down to a saddle where it appears that there are a couple of bear dens dug into the loose sand and rock. Beyond this saddle there is no more vegetation. Jeff and I contemplate continuing up, tagging the next high point. We could probably get there in another hour or so, and then run all the way down the scree slope from the peak to Sediments. We decide against this and follow the others down the way we came.

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The rain begins on the way down. It would have been a bit more of an adventure than we had anticipated if we had continued up and that rain had hit while we were still climbing on steep and crumbling rock. On the way down, I find a goat knuckle with a tooth-hole punched right through it.

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Back at the river, dinner is ready. I’m settling in to this trip now. The rain continues sporadically through the night and the next day. It is a bit cold on the river, a short day to the O’Connor River. I wish that I’d brought my fleece pants. The rain kept up through the morning, and sitting on the boat means moving but also means sitting. So you don’t warm up by going.

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Phil and Alaina’s friend Eric was part of the fight to keep the miners out of this area. Near here is Monkey Wrench Rapid. Perhaps it got its name from the fact that Ed Abbey took this trip, though perhaps he was a bit cynical about the experience. Maybe not. It is probably impossible to describe the magic of this place. Perhaps he didn’t try because he knew that. Or the rapids got their name from the monkey wrenching that went on to keep the big copper mine out of here. There would have been roads, bridges, tailings ponds. All these things that go along with the fact that there are at least seven digital cameras on this trip.¬†We were talking yesterday about the Quechua distinction between we that includes you and the exclusive we. Nuqanchis need to take care of this place. Nuqayku will not let you bring in a mine.

Our campsite on the O’Connor is just past where it flows into the Tatshenshini. There are no trees for tying off the boats, so I dig a driftwood log in as a deadman. Jonathan, Mikal and I wander up the O’Connor. Our eyes are again drawn to the ground; the variety of river rock is phenomenal. Quartz and iron intrude in dark volcanic stone. Copper makes for brilliant greens. Our pockets fill with favorite specimens.

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The next day brings us nearly to the confluence with the Alsek. The mountains have become larger, the glaciers closer. We camp just past the place where Melt Creek flows into the Tatshenshini. What’s a creek, what’s a river? I’ve lived next to the Santa Fe and the Pojoaque and the Snoqualmie and the Willamette and the Fraser. And the Gunnison. All rivers. Melt Creek has more flow than my southwestern rivers. I’ve found quite a few new creeks and rivers to call home this summer. When the Tatshenshini flows into the Alsek, it becomes the second largest river flowing from North America into the Pacific. Only the Columbia deposits more water into our western ocean. There are no dams on these rivers.

When Melt flows in, its turquoise mixes with the brown of the Tatshenshini in a fence of eddies that remind me of the Kelvin-Helmholz clouds I’ve seen a few times since moving back to the southwest, and of the Karmapa’s banner. In this place the dharma will flourish.

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We decide to stay two nights at this campsite. Sunsets are phenomenal, and last for hours.

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In the morning, we hike up Melt for a mile or so. There is an island near then confluence of the Tatshenshini and the Alsek where our guidebook says there are petroglyphs. It is just across the river from where we made camp, so the rafts won’t make it across. I have Vaughn’s packraft, so I decide to head over and look for them. I put in to Melt, careening down a swift mass of moving energy in a little plastic bubble. I keep to the left side as it enters the Tatshenshini, and pull my way over to the island.

Take a trail up to a high point, and find the rock just as described, but I can’t find the petroglyphs, even though it is obvious that if one were going to carve in a stone, that this one is the correct choice. I look around a bit more, bushwhack over to another high point where there are clearly no stones. I come back to the first high point. It is a beautiful place. I take off my shoes, and feel its textures through my feet: warm granite, soft moss. A couple of hours after I first found it, I return and sit down on the rock at the end of the trail. I take my dad’s ashes out of my pack and set them next to me, and write a bit more of the letter that I began composing to him on the shoulder of Donaho. After some debate, I pull out the walkie talkie and call Coop. I ask him to read the section in the guidebook where it describes how to find the petroglyphs, in case I am forgetting some important detail. “Take the trail to the high point on the island. Look closely at the rock at the end of the trail. The petroglyphs are hard to find.” As he reads, I realize that I have set my dad’s ashes at the edge of a circle carved into the stone. The light has shifted and the slight change in shadow brings it out. The world clicks into place, and I am filled with something greater than joy. It is perhaps the feeling that I would have had on finding myself at Swayambudhanath or the Wailing Wall or Notre Dame if I had been raised differently. I thank Coop for his help, and sit on the rock a while more, enjoying the peace, the sacredness of the place.

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And when it is time to go, I am sad to leave. The packraft takes me back across the river and I hike back up to camp, in time for dinner and another mind-blowing sunset.

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The morning brings us on to the Alsek, an enormous lake of a river that happens to be flowing through a massive range of mountains that just recently left the ice age. We see our bear, ambling with a slow and soggy majesty along the left bank of the river.

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We cross the arbitrary line dividing Canada from Alaska, which has been marked with a line of trees mowed down like a firebreak. We navigate through a maze of snags to the Walker Glacier camp. The guidebook says, “This glacier is the one you can walk on, it’s the Walker.”

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Weather rolls back in. We set up camp, and all meander out on our separate walks. I head up towards the glacier, find a nice place to sit, and spend some time writing. Soon enough, the river of ice is calling to me, and I find myself bushwhacking up towards the trail I can see around the lake at the glacier’s end.
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Sometimes it seems that I am on a trail, sometimes not. This place sees enough human traffic that most places have trails. I think back to the Brooks Range, and the germ of a story comes to me, where a bear and a human use each other’s trails and fall in love. In Shadows on the Koyukuk, I recently read the story of the last time that Koyukuk natives hunted grizzly bear with spear. It mentions this strong connection in this northern Athabascan culture between women and bears. The hunters could not let the women know of their plans or it would doom the hunt. Eventually, I break out of the bush, and follow the trail to the base of the glacier.

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Mikal is there, just leaving as I arrive. There will be time tomorrow to more fully explore this place, so I content myself with a short visit. Again, I return to camp late and my friends are already eating dinner. Tonight I sleep early, and wake early.

I get a fire going and make coffee. From where I’m sit on the beach under this tarp, I look out across the tree strewn river. The clouds are low. The river came up in the night, the boats are floating on their lines.

The others rise and we head out to explore the glacier. The water cuts through the ice like through sandstone.

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Meanders, drops, falls. And also moulins, holes. And on the surface, rock collects. Dirt forms. Some plants, mostly alder shrubs, mosses, a few flowers grow on the thin layer. Dig down and there is ice.

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This is another place where scale boggles the mind. My friends and I are colorful specks amid the grey and blue of the glacier.

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Return to camp eventually. Tomorrow to Alsek lake. Then to the take out in Dry Bay. Then back to Haines. The day after the day after tomorrow. And then what? Back to the rest of life. Reconnect, see what I learned. Raining. Sitting in my tent. Socks, gloves, hat hung up to dry. Up early, to bed early. Hands smell like bleach from doing dishes.

After the glacier and a nap, conversation drifts through love and senescence and death. Alaina asks if I’d had visitations from my father. She’s thinking about her mother. Yes, perhaps. Subtle. Or maybe I’m just deaf to these sorts of things. Mikal the EMT from Humbolt says that people who are too stoned (apparently this sometimes happens in Humbolt) often think that they are dying. I tell my story about the chalk drawing of the angel on a bicycle that I saw on the way to Cody’s memorial, and a story about traveling with my father.

Paris subway. Dad asks, “What if you were on the subway and you see someone in the next car, the other train going the other way, and your eyes meet and you both know that it’s true love and then the trains move and you never see each other again?” I had some issues with the idea. “You’d find each other if it was true love.” Maybe not. Maybe love is like gravity. More subtle than anything else, unmatched at distance, but incredibly fragile at close range.

Maybe in some way the Pleadies are these seven goats we saw on the third day. Maybe the universe has topology but we are usually deaf to it because things change so much in the travel. I do an exercise with my students in math 105 about the scale of the earth-moon system. I learned it from the book I use for the course. When I got to ski with a shuttle pilot last year, I told him about this exercise. He does the same thing with the educators that come to his lectures. I’d not be surprised if the authors of the book I’m using learned it from him. The noospehre is not a sphere.

And then on to Alsek Lake. We head to camp on Gateway Knob, an island in the corner of the glacier-fed and iceberg-choked lake. It takes some decision making to get there. One must decide whether to venture out into the middle of the lake and navigate through a wall of icebergs, or to go around the Gateway Knob counter-clockwise and risk having to portage across a quarter mile of mud. The water seems high, and the icebergs formidable. When we stop to scout the channel, we watch a building-size iceberg capsize in a massive crash. So we opt for door number three. It works out fine, and there is no portage.

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After dinner we head out for a row amid the icebergs. It is eerie, a bit frightening to be close to the large ones, after what we saw earlier. Mount Fairweather looms in the distance. It takes a long time for the sun to disappear from its slopes after we move into the earth’s shadow.

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To the west there are no more mountains. The clouds are ocean clouds: flat, braod, curving to the horizon in the distance. We are still some miles from the ocean. Three hours on the river and then a five mile road.

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Nobody wants to leave in the morning. I hike up to the top of the knob. When pressed to start packing, Coop announces from his tent that he is starting a movement called Occupy Gateway Knob. But we do eventually load up the boats for one last day on the river.

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The icebergs are flowing with us towards the sea. A curious seal follows us for a little while. When we stop for lunch, we discover the game of skipping stones at icebergs. As usual, once a projectile leaves my hand, it travels along a random trajectory that may or may not have anything to do with what I intended.

After a little exploring to find the correct slough, we find the take out at the airstrip, break down the boats, and enjoy one last dinner together with another eternal sunset. I don’t feel like dealing with my tent. It doesn’t look like it is going to rain, so I don’t.

In the morning, I wake early and run the last five miles to the ocean. I put my feet in the surf and stand there for a while. I chat with some ravens.

I run back to the airstrip, the plane comes, we load up, there is some amazing scenery viewed from high above, and then we are back in Haines.

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