Thredbo Cannonball festival and bike reviews
One’s response to being attacked by a brown bear (grizzly) should be different to finding oneself on the pointy end of a black bear. Brown bears: play dead… apparently… they will only attack when they feel threatened. Black bears, on the other hand: fight back.
Brown and black bears can be very hard to tell apart. But, as I read on through my copy of Bear Attack: the Causes and Avoidance, I learnt a useful tip: brown bears have much straighter and longer claws than black bears. Well, that shouldn’t be too hard to work out when a bear has its foot on my face…
Reading books about bear attacks is kind of amusing when you’re at home, but when you’re lying in your tent with a full bladder you wish you hadn’t bothered. In nature ignorance is bliss. That’s why all the baby moose and mountain goats look so cute and relaxed – they can’t read.
The Tatshenshini River, whose banks my bladder now threatens, is considered one of the most visually magnificent rivers on earth. It forms the basis of the British Columbia provincial park that carries its name – Tatshenshini-Alsek Park contains nearly one million hectares of glacier-cloaked peaks, wild rivers, grizzly bears and unusual plant communities.
Situated in the northwest corner of British Columbia, the park nestles between Kluane National Park and Reserves in the Yukon and Glacier Bay and Wrangell-St. Elias National Parks and Preserves in Alaska, USA. Combined, these parks comprise the largest protected area in the world at about 8.5 million hectares. Surely, in all this area, there is room for a little guy from Tassie to take a leak without having to figure out the relative length of a bear’s claw.
We had arrived in the Yukon Territories in Canada a few days earlier to arrange gear and logistics for our trip. We landed in Whitehorse, which is the capital of the Yukon and a historic gold rush town. In a lot of ways it is still a frontier town with an extraordinarily diverse population – both local and transient. The Walmart carpark is full of RVs spending the night before heading further north toward the Arctic Circle and oblivion. As one traveller said to me: “Where else up here can you get cola and donuts 24/7?”. All I wanted was a couple of cheap deck chairs so I could enjoy a riverside vino.
Half of our group were Canadians and had driven up from ‘down south’ with much of the food we would need for the trip. There are a couple of excellent gear stores in town where you can pick up all the bear spray you can carry. Guns are not permitted in the national parks which is a good thing really, as being from Australia, most of us would probably just shoot ourselves in the foot… or worse. All the gear we needed – rafts, kitchen etc. – was rented from local outfitters and a bus was arranged to drive us the few hours to the put-in at Dalton Post, the site of a long-gone historic trading post.
Before putting onto the river, however, we had to take a bizarre 60km detour to the US border to have our passports checked and stamped. The lower reaches of the river cross into the United States and it is from the USA that we were to fly back to Whitehorse in Canada, albeit from a grass airstrip in the middle of nowhere. Borders are funny things; people rarely crack jokes. As we approached, our Canadian friends were taking it very seriously and advised us to do the same. It was as if they had an innate sense of the Australian psyche. We were excited, in a foreign country and about to jump on a fantastic new river, which is a long way of saying we were right on the edge of acting like complete dickheads, and the Canadians could smell it.
A customs officer boarded the bus, crewcut and deadpan. He asked to see our passports, which one of the Canadians had gathered together in as much of an attempt to be helpful as to keep us away from the officer. Upon seeing the Australian passports, he looked up and hollered: “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie?” to which we instinctively replied without rational thought: “Oi, Oi, Oi!”. With that we were off to the river.
Rivers are supposed to flow from the mountains to the sea. The Tatshenshini and Alsek flow backwards, or at least the landscape does. Instead of starting in cold steep mountains, the Tatshenshini begins in the warm, sunny, forested, rolling hill country of the Yukon Territory. Cutting a spectacular path through the St. Elias Mountain Range and ending 213km later in the ice cold water, icebergs and glaciers at Alsek Lake, 30km from the coast.
Strangely, the river appears to gain in altitude as you travel downstream thanks to the St. Elias Range being home to the largest, non-polar icecap in the world. Cold air drainage sees alpine plants growing down to river level. The lower reaches of the river are notoriously cold and wet – think South West Tasmania on steroids. The weather on the Tatshenshini is renowned for kicking butt, and even the guidebook states: “From the very beginning your trip is best enhanced when you recognise that when it gets right down to it, there are only three important things: FOOD, FIRE AND SHELTER”. The water temperature hovers around freezing even in midsummer, and the region is very remote. The river is classed as a “grade 3 float trip” but it’s a place where mistakes can have dire consequences.
An hour or so after our little sing-along at the border, we reached the river on what was a balmy late-autumn evening. We rigged the rafts and next morning launched on to the fast running waters. It was the beginning of our journey through the mountains to the sea. It wasn’t long before the banks closed in and we descended into the canyon of the Tatshenshini, the longest section of whitewater on the trip. It stretches around 8km and is more or less continuous with very few
eddies for relief. Being only about 20 minutes into a 213km trip, and barely having worked out how to row our raft, the canyon was at times a hair-raising ride.
For those who have never rowed a raft, an oar boat is a very different beast to one which you paddle. Oars give the person rowing a great deal of power and enable the boat to be manoeuvred with precision on open non-technical white water. They also afford the other passengers the luxury to sit back and enjoy the view, look out for wildlife and maybe even take some photographs. At least this is the case when the person rowing the raft knows what they are doing. For us, it was like having an idiot sitting in the middle of our raft with two jousting sticks flailing in the air. Taking your eyes off the jousting sticks to look at the view would be a mistake and attempting to take a photo would be foolhardy at best. Despite this, we managed to compensate for our lack of skill on the oars with our ability to scream useless advice at those wielding the oars. Somehow we made it through the canyon upright.
It was mid-afternoon on our second day that we spotted our first bear. It was the size of a house. A huge, male brown bear lying on its back in the sun, looking not unlike an upturned caravan, with ears and pretty big claws. We floated towards it silently, hoping to get a closer look, because that is the stupid kind of thing you do when you are confronted by a large and potentially dangerous animal. The bear became aware of us and opened one eye for a look. Unimpressed it rolled over and went back to sleep in the sun.
About half an hour later we saw our second brown bear. This one was not as large as the first and clearly no problem to us rafters. So we floated silently towards it while it scratched away at a sand bar looking for food. But then it caught our scent and stood up on its hind legs for a better smell, presumably to scare the shit out of us, which it did quite effectively. It then launched itself into the river and swam down a decentsized rapid, before grabbing a tree trunk with one paw and dragging its huge body out of the fast water and disappearing into an alder thicket.
Each day on the river the landscape grew larger and more spectacular. The campsites were generally open, flat areas with long sight lines. In this country you want to see potential trouble long before it gets to you. This necessity also affords vast views of the surrounding mountains. We spent long evenings in our deck chairs, drinking wine and watching the light changing on the peaks above. One great thing about rafting a river on which there are no portages is you can bring pretty much anything you can fit on the raft. Our Canadian companions even brought a couple of guitars and, thankfully, were very skilled at playing them.
The river slowly grew wider and became more braided as the flow struggled to fill the enormous valley. Care had to be taken to ensure we stayed in the strongest current and didn’t run aground on the numerous gravel bars. Towards the confluence with the Alsek River, the Fairweather Range came into view, along with myriad stunning blue glaciers. One
Tatshenshini-Alsek Park contains nearly one million hectares of glacier-cloaked peaks, wild rivers, grizzly bears and unusual plant communities.
of the first white men to travel through this country described it as having “…such an incessant display of scenic wild grandeur that it becomes tiresome.” Not much has changed since 1891, although the tiresome bit is well and truly up for debate.
The Alsek is the sister river to the Tatshenshini; the big sister. When they meet, the river valley grows to be many kilometres across and the huge mountains make judging distance difficult. Things that look a kilometre away end up being further. Looking up the Alsek valley you can see the ice fields that are home to Mount Logan, Canada’s highest peak.
Once on the Alsek, coastal weather begins with a tendency for low fog and rain as the moist ocean air meets the cool interior. For us, leaving the camp at the confluence was like starting on a completely different river. It was incredibly wide; we could barely see from bank to bank. Then we met the fog. It was quite surreal to be travelling down a river at around 15km/h without being able to see the banks at all, and very little in front or behind us. We were in a strange white world with only the flow for direction. This would have been fine except we were fast approaching “the Channel of Death”, as the junction of the Alsek River and Alsek Lake is known.
No one has actually died here… yet. But the mix of fast-flowing water and large icebergs clogging the lake’s entrance makes it a very dynamic and dangerous place. Suddenly it’s a cross between mountaineering and rafting. The icebergs move with the wind and it can be hard to find a route through. They also often topple without warning and have been known to flip rafts or lift them completely out of the water. After almost being swept down a nasty looking channel, we managed to drag our boats back upstream a short distance and ferry-glide across the current to skirt around the back of an island appropriately called Gateway Knob to a beach on the lee side.
We pulled up at the end off the beach and as we walked around the corner to look for a campsite, the full lake came into view. It was astonishing; a lake completely full of icebergs of various colours from grey to electric blue. This was going to be a surreal and spectacular place to spend the night.
When we arrived at our final camp, it was late in the day and quite cold – hardly surprising given the amount of ice lying around the place. Not long after we set up camp, we heard a great crashing noise in the distance; it was a large berg rolling over somewhere out on the lake. Everyone stared out into the mist in awe of the sound and in wonder of what was going on out there, unseen. Then there was immediate concern that the crashing berg might trigger a large wave. But nothing happened and we all relaxed.
A couple of minutes later, the wave arrived. The tide was coming in rapidly and carrying a small avalanche of icebergs surfing in with it. It was impossible to know how far up the beach the wave would come. Was it okay to stand and watch the spectacle or should we run for our lives? Finally, the water receded and the campsite was left strewn with lumps of ice the size of Eskys but thankfully nothing was washed away.
On our final day we navigated through the bergs to the end of the lake, floating the final 30km to the small fishing village of Dry Bay and the airstrip. As our plane carried us into the low cloud, the amazing world of the Tatshenshini and Alsek Rivers disappeared into white, like a dream.
Navigating the shallow channels of the lower river was a constant challenge.
Rowing an “Oar Boat” is much tricker that it might seem.