The Tatshenshini River in Yukon, British Columbia & Alaska
Why is the Tatshenshini River so Famous?
Part of the world’s largest bio-preserve.
Flows through the Yukon, British Columbia, Alaska, Glacier Bay National Park, Alsek/Tatshenshini Provincial Park, to it’s denouement at the Gulf of Alaska.
The Tatshenshini became well known in the late 1980s after a controversial, proposed Coppermine and road in the heart of the region were stopped.
Rafters are able to hike up onto a glacier and float in an iceberg filled lake.
Bald Eagles and grizzlies abound.
Tatshenshini RiverHistory of the Tatshenshini River
The Tatshenshini River emerged from obscurity in the late 1980s when development plans for a small gold mine changed to a large copper mine, requiring a road, bridges, and massive tailings ponds in the heart of this roadless region. In the Tatshenshini River’s surrounding area the mountains are still growing, making this area more seismically unstable than the San Andreas Fault of California. The plan to have the acidic waters of the tailings perched above the Tatshenshini, a major salmon river, sparked international concern. The Tatshenshini-Alsek watershed was put at the top of the list of the 10 most endangered rivers in America. As a result, Tatshenshini Alsek National Park was formed and the region now comprises the heart of the largest biological preserve in the world and one without a mine or roads.
Geographic Highlights of the Tatshenshini
The Tatshenshini River begins as only a tiny trickle amid the alpine meadows of the Chilkat Summit. This burgeoning rivulet eventually swells to more than half a mile (about one kilometer) in breadth. At its confluence with the Alsek River, the two rivers rival the largest drainages on the continent. Together they form a vital green corridor, between the interior and coast, through the highly glaciated and rugged peaks of the St. Elias Range and coastal mountains. Below the spectacular peaks, the broad lush valley is home to large populations of grizzlies, bald eagles, moose, wolves and other animals. These qualities have earned the river a reputation as a coveted destination. Visitors are often torn between the choice of beginning their trip on the Tatshenshini or the Alsek. Those who have experienced both say you must keep each of them on your list.
Photo Credit: Noel HendricksonCavorting with whitewater abandon from the alpine reaches, the Tatshenshini meets Klukshu Creek at the historic Southern Tuchone village of Shawashee. Raft expeditions launch at this site, as the last road access to the river is here. For countless generations, First Nations families have gathered here to capture spawning salmon which leave the Tatshenshini for Klukshu Creek. Farther up the creek, at the village of Klukshu, one can still witness the use of traditional fish traps and smokehouses which have provided sustenance for thousands of years.
Below the Klukshu confluence, the river rushes into a canyon rift in the Squanga Range. The Class IV whitewater creates a barrier for all but expedition rafts and a handful of expert canoeists and kayakers. Foaming holes, submerged rocks, and slick drops spell whitewater paradise. Abrupt bends below rock walls and narrow routes through boulder strewn chutes demand the full attention from the river guides piloting the craft.
“The Tatshenshini-Alsek is one of the most magnificent river systems on earth, flowing through one of the world’s most pristine wilderness areas. The region is prime habitat for large mammals including the grizzly, the rare glacier bear, moose, wolf, mountain goat and Dall sheep, and birds such as the bald eagle, peregrine falcon and trumpeter swan. It is a place of exceptional quality and environmental significance. The Tatshenshini-Alsek features tremendous biological diversity and overwhelming natural beauty, which should be protected and preserved for future generations.”
--Former United States vice president Al Gore
After 19 miles (30 kilometer), as though it is resting for more to come, the Tatshenshini enters a calmer section. Here it meanders through green moose meadows under the watchful eyes of bald eagles. Immersed in dense alder and willow trees, belted kingfishers, beavers and spawning salmon compete for attention. The close curtain of thick foliage hides the visual treasure that lies ahead. After a day of weaving through this verdant area, the river cascades into the open, broad U-shaped valley with a sudden swoosh and reveals the towering St. Elias Range.
The Tatshenshini increases in volume and speed as it courses back and forth through braided channels across the broad, glacially carved valley. The gradient is steep and the river extremely swift. Turbulent boils form where channels converge among the braids. The large rafts mask the power of the hydraulics, which would instantly overturn a smaller craft. Amazingly, the river remains less rough than its steep gradient would seem to dictate. This is because a gravel-and sediment-filled bed smoothes the river bottom, keeping the descent from becoming an unnavigable maelstrom.
At one point, a narrow constriction belies the dynamic, ever changing nature of the valley. This constriction was caused by a massive landslide from the overlooking mountain, this feature is only 20 years old! The resulting rapids formed by the constriction bear the moniker Monkey Wrench Rapids. It was here in the mid 1980s that river guides spotted orange flagging tape. The survey tape marked the location of a future bridge that would cross the river, allowing the creation of a road through the heart of the Tatshenshini to service the proposed copper mine. In the spirit of an early environmental activist, Edward Abbey, the guides removed the tape, throwing a “monkey wrench” as it were, into the bridge plans. Hence the rapids’ name. Vast alluvial fans of rounded rock debris spread out where they have issued from side canyons. At times in their ongoing evolution, these fans have spilled into the valley, constricting the river. This is an ongoing process and the river fights back by cutting away at the intrusion. As you drift past these cut faces, they appear markedly straight and sharp, surgically incised, leaving impossibly steep-faced gravel banks. These banks would slump to a shallower incline if not for the continuous erosion of the river-- further evidence that the process is ongoing. In contrast to the translucent green waters of the upper canyon, here the river takes on the color of chocolate milk, with a heavy burden of glacial silt.
Tatshenshini River Beauty
Photo Credit: Noel HendricksonFlora and Fauna
A day-long hike allows you to take in stunning alpine beauty. Hiking opportunities in the rich coastal ranges are rewarding, but they must be strategically planned. The dense coastal rain forest of willow and alder is impenetrably thick, except where game trails exist. The alpine area is home to mountain goats and Dall’s sheep as well as Merlins, American kestrels and golden eagles among other creatures. You never seem to have enough film on these hikes to capture these sights.
As the Tatshenshini spills toward the confluence with the Alsek River, the mountain slopes above take on the verdant lushness of alders and fuscia fireweed, which carpets all but the steepest rocky crags. The confluence is a vast sprawling region dotted with islandsand gravel bars. Travelers who scan the shores with binoculars, are often rewarded with the sighting of grizzlies.
Alpine glaciers become evident in the peaks, and sprawling, sparkling valley glaciers stretch down toward the river. As the Tatshenshini joins the already mighty Alsek, the two cut through the coastal ranges. So entwined are these two great rivers that river travelers think of them as a single entity. In truth, the Tatshenshini surrenders its name and turns over its load of silt, sediment, and a small number of travelers to continue to the Gulf of Alaska, via the majestic Alsek.
Tatshenshini River Rafting
Tour Code: ZZ-RAFTC-02
Dates: June to Aug
Day to Day Itinerary
Image Slide Show
What To Bring