Bike Lane

Thredbo Can­non­ball fes­ti­val and bike re­views

Australian Geographic Outdoor - - Contents -

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.

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