Solo Canoe Trip on the Tatsenshini River

I had already paddled the Nahanni river in a solo canoe and it was during this trip that the idea of paddling the Tatshenshini solo had germinated. The Tatshenshini is well known as a wilderness rafting river, but few people canoe the river, let alone solo it. The reasons were laid out for me by an experienced Tatshenshini rafting guide whom I met in Atlin, B.C. after the Nahanni trip. He cited the river’s high volume, murky glacial currents and multitude of braided channels as reasons why it would be a difficult canoe journey. Yet despite his cautions or maybe even because of them, I was determined to run it.

So after 25 days on the Nahanni and a short break in Atlin B.C., I headed for the abandoned historic site of Dalton Post, 50 miles south of Haines Junction in the Yukon. This was the put-in for a 130-mile trip that ends at Dry Bay, Alaska, on the Pacific Ocean.

Within an hour of launching the canoe in the brisk current that rainy August afternoon, I had arrived at the entrance to the Lower Canyon. Here, the river — funneled into a passage less than 75 feet wide — turns into a boiling mass of Class III+ whitewater. Once in the canyon, I was plunged into a series of drops, ledges and holes that taxed my abilities to the limit. I maneuvered my heavy canoe around countless boulders and through blind curves that were impossible to scout in the steep-walled canyon. To make matters worse, the continuous rapids offered few eddies to rest in. At the end of the day, the non-stop river running had me in an adrenaline-charged state — one that would become familiar to me in the days to come.

The next day dawned gray and cold and I paddled until midday in a moderate current under a drizzling rain. When I resumed paddling after lunch, I was jarred from my leisurely pace by an ominous rumbling noise emanating from the next bend. I quickly closed the cockpit of the spray cover and braced myself for what lay ahead. Nothing in my 20 years of paddling experience could have prepared me for what I was about to encounter. As I came around the bend, the river was transformed from a single channel into a multi-channeled sea of flowing water 1 to 2 miles wide. I was soon bracing against huge side-curling waves that threatened to overturn the canoe as one stream emptied into another at unpredictable angles. Stopping was out of the question in these narrow channels as the water-scoured walls of crumbling till were 3 to 6 feet deep in places and rose straight up from the river. I felt like I was being flushed through a trough with no end in sight and no way out. The constant hissing and crackling of rocks and mud on the bottom of the canoe did nothing to calm my frayed nerves.

By the end of the afternoon, I knew I must get off the river or risk an accident. I made several futile attempts at stopping, but only succeeded in turning myself backwards and scraping the side of the canoe on the rocky gravel bar. Crosscurrents from incoming streams and shallow bars combined to sweep the canoe towards shore and I came dangerously close to the omnipresent sweepers that lined the river. Only last minute draws in the opposite direction allowed me to clear these obstructions, often with the stern dragging over the branches. Blasts of wind from side canyons sent me swirling broadside into 3-foot swells and all I could do was brace and ride them out.

Now desperate to get off the river, I steered towards a small passage and worked my way towards shore. There, on a rocky outcropping, was a group camping area where I gratefully dragged my canoe up the steep embankment. I had never been so happy to see human footsteps in my life! As I lay down to an anxious sleep that night, I worried what the river had in store for me the next day.

The next morning, under clearing skies, I launched the canoe and vowed to stay clear of the main channel whenever possible. Working my way through the calmer current on river left, I made good progress and by mid-afternoon had arrived at the Tatshenshini’s confluence with the Alsek River. The skies cleared and I was surrounded by the spectacular peaks and glaciers of the St. Elias Range. The grandeur of the landscape dwarfed my tiny craft as I drifted silently by.

In awe of this incredible beauty, I stopped on a gravel bar to take some photographs of the unfolding panorama. While looking through the camera’s viewfinder, I was startled by a grunt … grunt behind me. No more than 150 feet away, a grizzly bear was standing on his haunches, sniffing the air. I swung the camera around and took a quick picture. At the shutter’s release the bear bolted away from me. As I reframed a second shot, the bear, realizing who was at the top of the food chain, came to an abrupt halt and charged back towards me! At that instant, I remembered the bear spray sitting on top of my pack in the canoe about 50 feet away on shore. Dropping everything, I made a mad dash for the canoe and was able to push off into the current just as the bear stopped his charge at the water’s edge.

At the shutter’s release the bear bolted away from me. As I reframed a second shot, the bear, realizing who was at the top of the food chain, came to an abrupt halt and charged back towards me!

I eddied out 300 feet downstream and began yelling at the bear in an effort to scare it away from my equipment still on the gravel bar. The bear paced back and forth but took little interest in my gear or in me. Finally, deciding I had become a nuisance, he made another charge at the canoe and this time I had no choice but to push off into the strong current and head for the opposite shore. By the time I reached it, I was a quarter mile downstream of the bear and my gear.

All attempts at lining the canoe back upstream were unsuccessful so I removed my two main packs, leaving them on a gravel bar and set off again. The bear was still parading the bar, apparently foraging for insects and grubs as he overturned old logs. I crossed two side channels, dragged the canoe over the intervening gravel bars, and walked well past the point where I had left my gear on the opposite shore. After about a half-hour, the bear disappeared behind a bend into a forested bay. I decided it was now or never and ferried across. In record time I had tossed the gear in the canoe and was paddling downstream to pick up the packs.

I didn’t think any more of the episode until later in the day when I started looking for a place to camp. The first two sites I scouted had recent bear scat and prints so I decided it would be wise to keep looking. It was now late in the day and the sun had disappeared behind the mountains. The river had widened even more and good campsites were hard to find. A quick check of my topo map told me I should be approaching Walker Glacier and another group camping area, but how far? Tired and hungry, I began to shiver from the cold wind blowing off the snow-covered mountains in the distance and I knew I must make camp soon.

I picked the first suitable gravel bar and stopped to scout. A quick survey of the area showed no sign of bear activity and I began to set up camp. As I pushed the last tent peg into the ground however, I spotted the biggest bear tracks I’d seen so far just 10 feet behind the tent. “How could I have possibly missed them?!” I asked myself. By now I was so nervous about bears that no amount of reasoning would calm my rising bearanoia. Despite the high risk of getting back on the river at this late hour, I quickly threw everything in the canoe and cast off in the semi-darkness. “Walker Glacier can’t be that far away. Surely I’ll reach it soon,” I reasoned with myself.

The article was originally published on Canoe & Kayak

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