Sometimes you get lucky! But part of being lucky is going out and keeping your eyes open. The last few weeks, I’ve been heading up to the Chilkat Pass looking for whatever might happen to show up. I’ve had great experiences on the pass over the years, and have seen moose, bear, wolverine, lynx and many other creatures along the road.
I went out with Ron Horn last week. Ron is primarily a wildlife photographer, so he loves to head up on the Chilkat Pass to see what there is to see. We were hoping to photograph ptarmigan, the chicken-like bird that loves the high alpine environment. They are not easy to find, since they are white birds who live in a snowy environment. To make it more difficult, we ran into some fog. We saw a few ptarmigan, but they flew off into the fog. But the fog was lifting, and as it lifted the angle of the sun, combined with ice crystals in the air formed an amazing optical phenomenon, a perihelion. Some people refer to these as “sun dogs.” I took dozens of images, and decided to share this one with you.
Optical phenomena are not common, but do occur, especially in cold environments. Guiding for years on the Alsek and Tatshenshini Rivers, I saw some weird things. One time, when pulling the rafts into camp along the shores of an iceberg-filled lake, I saw giant men with orange and green jackets towering over our camp. As we got closer, the “men” shrunk down and I realized that “they” were our tents. The ice crystals in the air and the angle of light had made them appear huge.
I guided the Alsek and Tatshenshini Rivers from 1988-1999, and spent most of my summer out on river trips. It was a great period of life- out on a trip, return to town, pack up, meet the next group, clean up, pack up, head back out. One summer I spent forty days in a row doing back-to-back trips in the wilderness without a day off. From 2000-2010, I left the Tat and Alsek Rivers and began guiding up in the Arctic. And for the last few years my guiding has been mostly around Haines, even though I did guide two Tatshenshini trips over the last few years. The Alsek is more intense, more extreme, so there is a part of me that really misses the Alsek River.
The tour season 2015 was a great one for Rainbow Glacier Adventures. As a treat and to celebrate, a few of the employees and I headed out September 22-28th on a rafting trip down the upper Alsek River. I contacted Parks Canada and talked to the lady in charge of river trips.
“We are concerned about the late date of your departure”, she said in an official tone. “We are not sure about the water levels and water temperature.” I told her that I had dozens of trips down the river, that I’d written the guidebook to the Alsek and Tatshenshini Rivers, and I’d even skied the upper Alsek in March years ago. We were prepared for hardship.
I asked her how many times she had been down the river. She seemed a little sheepish, and then admitted that she had never been down the river. I gave her a complimentary copy of my book, The Complete Guide to the Alsek and Tatshenshini Rivers, signed the paperwork and paid the park fees for our trip. “Be sure to contact us when you get back to civilization,” she said.
My big worry was strong winds, as the first part of the trip has minimal current and is known for piercing upstream winds. I remember several trips where it took us hours of gut-wrenching paddling to make a few miles progress. On one trip guide Liam Cassidy pulled so hard trying to make downstream progress that he strained muscles in his forearm and couldn’t row for the rest of the trip. Luckily, there was another training guide on the trip who took over for him.
So we were very happy when we started the trip with a downstream wind for the first two days! It was quite an adventure and we had everything from fairly warm, sunny days to some extremely brutal upstream winds that stopped us in our tracks. To escape the wind, we pulled a raft up out of the water and turned it on its side as a windbreak so that we could cook our meals.
At our last camp, Lowell Lake, we had to look for a good place for the plane to land to pick us up. Lowell Lake is where the Lowell Glacier calves icebergs into the lake. It is a surreal location. There was no vegetation where we camped; nothing but glacial dust, small rocks and a few pieces of driftwood. Icebergs roll and tumble at a distance, and when the weather clears the huge peaks of the Icefield Ranges dominate the horizon.
The area we chose is where Parks Canada requires groups to camp so that they do not encounter the many brown bear that frequent the vegetated areas. We were not sure if this was the exact spot the pilot had told us he was going to pick us up, but it looked like a safe landing area. We were happy when he came in, flew over camp, and landed nearby. We ran up to the plane, he looked at us, and the first words out of his mouth were, in a strong German accent…..”You’re in the wrong spot! Park Service doesn’t want me to land here, and these rocks can damage my plane.”
I was taken aback. I wanted to say….”Hi, my name is Joe, how are you?…..” But I have dealt with enough bush pilots to know that small talk is not their strong suit. I stuck to business, and asked…..” Where do you want us?” He said….” A half mile upstream and a quarter mile inland.”
We were a group of seven and had lots of gear. Our rafts were still inflated and the gear was in a huge pile. I said, “I have lots of experience moving gear upstream. We’ll get it there.”
He loaded up 3 members of our group, and the four of us remaining got down to business. Moving rafts upstream is tricky. If you just try to pull the raft from shore with a rope, the raft will run into the shore and hit rocks in the river. The technique is for one person to pull on the rope, and the other person uses a paddle to keep the raft from hitting the rocks and shore. If there are rocks in the river, then one guide has to stay in the raft and push the raft off the rocks, while the other guide pulls the boat upstream from shore.
We loaded all the gear in the two rafts, and started pulling. Soon enough we realized there were too many rocks for us to both stay on shore. One of us stayed in the raft, pushing off the slippery rocks, while the other tugged. It was a good forty-five minutes of hard work, and there was some danger involved. The water was ice-cold, the rocks were slippery, and the guy in the raft had to sometimes get out of the raft onto the rocks and muscle the boat around or over the rocks.
But there was no time to rest. We offloaded all the gear, and started hauling it to the spot where the pilot planned to land the plane. Load after load, up a steep sandy hill, over uneven terrain, to the spot, and then back to the river. It was two straight hours of additional hard work. The pilot came back and was impressed with our progress. He loaded more gear, took off and came back an hour later. By the time he was back, we had just finished carrying the rafts to the landed spot, deflated them and rolled them up. He flew off with the rafts; we finished hauling the gear, and finally had a minute to rest before he flew us back to Haines Junction where our bus was waiting. Funny thing, I had expected the hardship at the beginning of the trip….this time it happened at the end of the trip. I called Parks Canada and reported that we were safe and sound. Then we drove back to Haines, cleaned up the next day, and started planning another trip on the Alsek.