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Bugger the Bears

“Especially toothpaste.” Expedition Leader Will Bosnich asserts.  “Candies, soaps, fragrant lip balm.  Throat lozenges.  Hemmoroid ointment, too, for that matter.  Get it all out of your tent unless you want a furry friend interrupting your dreamscape tonight.” He is singularly sober when he tells us that.  In fact, our guides then start illustrating the warning with personal stories.   How, I wonder, am I going to survive 11 nights of no sleep?  But no going back now.  We are on the exit side of unportageable canyonlands with twelve raging miles of rapids already squeezed behind.

In nervous release, our gregarious whisky loving group threatens a transfer of lollies to the under-floor of any would-be snorers in our nomadic band.    

I’m not so concerned about “furry friends” such as the curious Arctic ground squirrel that abounds in this boreal forest straddling the 60th parallel of the Canada / Alaska confluence.  But a black or grizzly bear – that’s an 800 lb different story altogether!  Considering that we just erected our tents on sand flats crisscrossed with T-Rex-sized tracks of bears and wolves, an eventual encounter seems plausible indeed.

Six years ago Gordon and I took our family on our first remote river trip to help bring attention to western Canada’s beleaguered Taku River, a magnificent wilderness at risk of unsustainable mine and roadworks.  Including this day’s introductory currents, we’ve now rafted through the rapids and ranges of five more Canadian and Alaskan refuges, all in the capable company of The River League Wilderness Rafting.  Moose, mountain goats, caribou have been delivered copiously.  Bears have been the bounteous bonus – and by and far, the most beguiling.   We might even be so lucky on this particular descent to spot the rare ‘glacier bear’, a silver blue phase of the black found nowhere else on earth.

Halfway around the northern hemisphere from London, the Tatshenshini River is born in Canada’s northern Yukon Territory.  On its 132 mile (213 km) sluice to the sea, it spills southwest through upper British Columbia, and slices completely through southeast Alaska.  It snakes through boreal spruce lands, is squeezed by canyons, and carves through the highest ranges of the continent’s coast.  Along its way you see waterfalls, beaver pond outflows, and the incessant melt of countless glaciers.

On our first day we gathered together at the high-lapping headstreams of the Tatshenshini waters, it is encouraging to see the three brilliant yellow rafts already hand-inflated and mostly loaded.  Still, launching from here for almost a fortnight of self-sustenance, we carry a lot of our own comfort, and the loading and strapping takes yet another couple of hours.  By the time we are onboard, with paddles in hand, each 18’ by 8’ vessel will weigh about a tonne and a half of flesh and rubber:   Sunscreen and wool hats, swimsuits and Wellies, shorts and thermals.  Twenty cameras, and never enough film or batteries.  Two guitars, an emergency satellite phone, rescue rope, a natural history library, and first aid enough to support any injury that doesn’t warrant a four-hour medi-evacuation by helicopter.  Eighteen dozen eggs, a thousand pounds of lamb and romaine, shrimp and tofu, feta and melons, brandy and chocolate.  And, for this group in particular, a veritable vault of single malts… 

We begin to unload some weight already on the first evening:   During the bear safety talk, we inhale chicken, potatoes, cob corn, green salad, rolls and pumpkin pie.  Will says, “And oh yes, don’t wipe your barbecue sauce on any clothes that will be residing in your tent tonight…” 

It is Summer Solstice, late June, the peak time to experience the high Canadian north with its wildflowers, songbirds in prolific mating mode, and a daylight that just doesn’t end.  In the heat of the day urges a surge of glacier melt to trickle down to the valley bottom.  By midnight our toe tracks along the beach front are submerged, rinsed to oblivion, leaving a fresh pallet for the bears that will track this way again.

Already starting to get into a routine by Day Two, after an early breakfast of scrambled eggs, we individually dismantle our tents and deliver our watertight barrel-sized riverbags of worldly possessions to the crew for loading.   By 9:30 a.m. we are onboard for a six hour float.  Unlike yesterday’s serious roller coaster of Grade III/IV rapids, the day welcomes us to the serene side of remote wilderness:  Intimate forest walls going tight to the water’s edge.  Poplar trees thatch the banks like chopsticks where beavers have chewed through their massive trunks. 

The rafts are in a rotisserie of sunshine in slow spins that let us take in full 360 degree panoramas.  Icy Swallows drop out of condo-holes.  Higher still are rock ledges whitewashed with the telltale signs of golden eagle nest.  A mom moose, with shoulder hairs raised defensively, keeps watch on her gangly calf.

We cheer at the announcement that we may stay two nights at our second camp.  The ‘layover’ gives us the opportunity to ditch the Wellies and don the hikers for a full days walk to some spectacular views.  Below us valleys spread green, with aprons of rock washes, and a backdrop of never ending mountain peaks.  The thighs burn, but it is the spirits that are positively on fire.

It is Day 4 when we begin to spot the bears:  and the first is on a scree slope beside the river, posing placidly for us as we drift quietly by.  A much larger grizzly romps on the beach just upstream from what becomes our camp; this hefty one prompts self-reminders to remove the afternoon snack wrappers from pockets…

After breakfast, five of the lads sally forth for an exploration scout with a just-in-case backup of pepper spray and bear crackers.  Nothing is guaranteed, it seems, but a posse this minimum size has apparently been a proven deterrent to close encounters of the bear kind.

We tune into the hunting zone of a big grizzly boar crossing the wash of the far shore.  Lots of eagles resting on the sandbars.  And then we come upon a big grizzly mom with a new cub just four months out of its first hibernation den.  Grazing away on soap berries and scratching out edible roots.  We snoop to within a couple of hundred yards and watch her for 30 minutes.  She could reach us in a 15 second gallop.

After capturing his morning adventure in the group journal, Gordon Roddick confronts Patricia Thomson, the crew logistician and consistent guide of his previous descents, “You undersell this trip.  This is, in fact, the greatest [goddamn] show on earth!”  The consummate diplomate, retired US Ambassador Dick Viets adds solemnly, “I cannot impress upon you enough what a profound impact it us on me to be watching such wildlife against a backdrop that has never been modified, destroyed, altered by man.”

This is not to be taken for granted.  In the early 1990’s, the Tatshenshini River was one of the most endangered rivers on the continent, and the site of a massive environmental battle: A Vancouver mining company had proposed hollowing out a 6,000-foot mountain named Windy Craggy Peak to create one of the largest open pit copper mines in the Western hemisphere.  The project would have involved massive road development into the wilderness including a bridge spanning the mighty “Tat”.  At full operation, trucks would have rumbled from the minesite every eight minutes.  As well, in this super seismically-active area, a highly acidic tailings pond was proposed, a toxic timebomb to salmon and those that depend on them should the dam ever let loose.

However, thirteen years earlier to the day of our expedition launch, in what has been hailed as one of the most “significant environmental victories in recent memory,” British Columbia announced the designation of the 2.3 million acre Tatshenshini-Alsek Provincial Park.  A year later it was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The new preserve, twice the size of the Grand Canyon, put an end to the proposed mine. It also set in place the final puzzle piece of a 22 million acre reach of wildland that includes Kluane National Park in the Yukon, and Glacier Bay and Wrangell-St. Elias National Parks in the United States. In one swift, breath-taking moment, the Tatshenshini went from an endangered river to the cornerstone of the world’s largest internationally protected river wilderness.

At its widest, the main river bows to nearly 3 km across, and at times it feels more like we are paddling on a flowing sea.  It is not hard to feel humbled here.   The faint cutblock line that diagonally scrabbles from waters edge to disappear over the craggy peaks north and south, is the only indication when we slide from one country to the next.  Well, that and the patriotic ‘Star Spangled Banner’ bellowed in unabashed semi-melody by our U.S. comrades.


We have been on a nomadic float for nine days, and have seen no other soul beyond our own roster.  How strange this privacy seems!  Is it solitude or serenity.  Virtually unfathomable by the likes of Marcus a Body Shop franchisee who resides in the heaving metropolis of Hong Kong.  He pauses in yoga posture, pretzeled on a sunwarmed boulder high in ‘the heavens’.  He only briefly closes his eyes, preferring instead to inhale the vast view spread below our feet.  Great arms of the massive Juneau Icefield fall prostrate to the stillness of Alsek Lake.  From our lofty and distant perspective, they paint a frigid embrace. 

The Knob upon which we sit, is a wilted mitre peak, a green island surrounded by river and ice.  It has a broad beach brim – a northern nesting ground for plovers.   A maze of alder bushes is the hat band.  It provides a bit of shelter from the rain that finally catches up to us here. 

Back on the beach, veteran rafters pitch in to help gather an abundance of driftwood to fuel over large rocks, while the guides create the frame of a waterside sauna.  Several hours later, after a feast of rosemary roast lamb and Greek salad, we don our togs (or not!), and hunker ourselves into the blue cast of the tarp’d hovel. 

The guides shovel in a nest of granitic heat, and with a wetted broom of wild sage, washes of water become a sudden swath of steamy decadence to soak our soiled and muscle-sore bods.   A second round, after a mad mass plunge into the icy lake, feels even better!

“Thrushes are crisply chorusing from the dense wall of alders.  It is after midnight, and still they sing…  I write from within the tent without a torch.  The mauve twilight is enough to see even to the far side of the lake… except for a waiflike mask of mist.  The “Big Top” is erected as tarp roof over the whispering campfire, and I can hear Ben and guide Dave Laird recounting tales and sporadically laughing uproariously …  What intoxification is there in wilderness that invariably, immediately breeds mirth and merriment –  despite chills and damp…?”

The Tatshenshini-Alsek ultimately pours its massive bulk into the Gulf of Alaska – and us with it.  We pitch our last camp on the beach.  The Pacific coils in to greet us in banded waves of turquoise and white.  Orange-billed Caspian terns wheel overhead, mingled in flocks of hundreds of gulls.  With its black forked tail tense for the turns, a jaegar harangues gentler birds for an upchucked meal.  Our own finale feast is fresh salmon – one each of baked, teriyaki, curried, and straight fire-stoked.  Marcus returns the fish heads to the washed sand shores; in a grand display of grace, a majestic bald eagle eventually snatches each from on the wing.

We have flowed to our most western limits, and have fallen with the river 1950 ft (650 metres) since our put-in.  Our way back can only be by air.   Air.  I take a supersize inhalation.  Scented of salt and seagrass, spruce and sage.  A waft of woodsmoke.  A perfume more sensual than a city candle shop. 

A perfume sweeter than “candies, soaps, fragrant lip balm.  Throat lozenges.  Hemmoroid ointment, too, for that matter.“  … Unless you are a brazen bear.

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