Flowing into the Pacific Ocean near Juneau, AK, the Taku watershed is the largest road-less watershed on the Pacific Coast of North America. The pristine network of rivers that form the Taku lie in the heart of the isolated Alaska - British Columbia Trans-boundary Region and encompass nearly 28,000 square km. Imagine a Massachusetts sized chunk of ice-caped mountains dissected by rivers with no roads, few trails, and more Grizzly than humans and you get the idea.
In the whitewater world, the Taku does not receive the notoriety of its adjacent neighbors, the mighty Stikine and Alsek rivers, in large part because both of those rivers have road access and feature well known world class whitewater. By contrast the best known class V whitewater in the Taku is on the Nakina River which has only seen a handful of descents. But it’s precisely this mostly unexplored watershed that is unaffected by the detriments of human civilization that initially caught my attention.
In fact, the Nakina was also the first river I considered when I started thinking about the Taku. Although not a first descent, a little research revealed that a large portion of the river had been portaged on the last attempt 12 years ago. I was right in thinking Ben Stookesberry would be game for a mission, and pretty soon we were finalizing logistics for an end of August attempt. When I contacted the only float plane company that services the area, I figured they’d be surprised by the request for the remote drop-off with kayaks. What I didn’t expect is that they were already booked that day by a team of kayakers that apparently had our exact same plan in mind. The world of exploratory kayaking is small and pretty soon I was talking with Ali Marshal, the trip leader of the other group and a bit of a legend in the sport. In other situations this might have been a conflict, but with Ali it was the opportunity to share the adventure, and maybe paddle out together. But after discussing it with Ben, we decided to try something different. It seemed silly to overcrowd a small slice of the Taku in one of the least crowded places on earth.
On satellite imagery it’s 170 miles from the source of turquoise blue, waterfall studded Kowatua Creek into the Inklin River which in turn flows into the Taku. This descent from nowhere, BC to Juneau, Alaska is an ideal vacation from my day job as an ER nurse, but I know there will be no lack of work to pull it off. So I knew Ben would definitely be in and I also sold the trip to my “Gorge neighbor” Todd Wells as the perfect mission on his drive back south from a summer in AK.
On August 25th we meet in Whitehorse, Yukon where we finish packing for our estimated 10 days needed to complete the mission. The next morning there is time for a quick stop at Tim Horton’s before we load into Todd’s big diesel and drive 2 hrs south into BC where the road ends at the quaint town of Atlin on the Northern flank of the watershed.
From here we meet a Dehaviland Beaver floatplane and our veteran pilot Chris. He has spent 18 years flying into the Taku, and has a hell of a story about the last crew of kayakers. Twelve years ago, he damaged his float while arriving to pick them up, and so he sent a friend with a helicopter to retrieve them which also ended in unfortunate circumstances; but with this perfect weather, it seems like we would have better luck.
Skimming over mountain passes, I realize how lucky we are to have a clear, windless day. It’s an incredibly smooth hour long flight with spectacular views of the immense Taku in every direction.
Our destination is Tunjony Lake and the headwaters of Kowatua Creek in the Chechilda subgroup of the Greater Boundary Range, 20 miles east of the mostly arbitrary straight line that marks the remote Canadian border with Alaska. From the glacial lake, our goal is to paddle 50 miles through the Kowatua through a series of gorges and lakes, then paddle another 120 miles in a semi circle moving east, north and then back west into Alaska.
With the landing as smooth as the flight in, we taxi to the head of the aquamarine lake to unload and find our first camp. According to our pilot, this fair weather is rare and he recommends that we plan for the usual rain and wind common in these parts. “Also,” he advises with a wry smile, “don’t get eaten by a grizzly.”
It’s early afternoon, so after putting up our tent, tarp and hanging our precious food from potential grizzlies, we shoulder and bushwhack empty boats 4 hours and 4 miles up to the true source of the Kowatua. There are two significant alpine glaciers that give birth to the Kowatua, and at the upper one a hundred cfs flows out of a dwindling glacial tongue into a silt grey headwaters lake.
As I said the weather ‘was’ perfect, but all of a sudden it’s cold and threatening to rain. Having left my seemingly superfluous life jacket and dry top back at camp, I borrow a rain jacket from Ben who brought the dry-top half of his Idol drysuit, which right now seems like a pretty good idea. Without much drama other than watching Todd descend some low-volume class 4 in a rain jacket and no spray skirt, we descend shallow but sufficient flow back to camp at the head of Tunjony in just 20 minutes. We all now realize that portaging through this terrain is going to be a challenge with fully loaded boats.
Back at camp we reposition our shelters in increasing wind and then settle into a little dinner, deciding to cross pollinate Ben’s “born again vegan” food with more traditional dehydrated fare so that we can eat as a group. One look up from the bowl of hot food gives a sense of shear awe of the grandeur of this place and isolation from a world we left earlier that day. In the morning with the wind at our backs, we cross Tunjony Lake towards the outflow and what we knew would be the most challenging part of mission.
All doubts about having enough water are erased at the outflow of Tunjony lake. The Kowatua spills out glacial blue with triple flow from where it entered a few miles back.
Pretty soon our casual float ends where a steep constriction begins. We guessed that this gorge, which drops an average of 450 feet per mile, was going to be on the outer limits of navigability. So we are not surprised when the arduous portaging begins.
What was a surprise is that this crazy steep boxed-in cascade actually seems runnable, but none of us are feeling it on this day.
In between the crux gorges there were sections of tight runnable whitewater.
To have any chance of running this kind of steep committing whitewater, we need our boats to be light. And so we spend the rest of the day portaging our gear and 10 days of food to the bottom of the steepest section of river a few miles downstream. Although we try to see the rumbling creek along the way, we spend the better part of 7 hours crawling and clawing through thick, steep boreal forest with this semi awkward and totally heavy load of dry bags.We camp at the first opening back to the creek.
The next morning, carrying nothing but camera bags, we ascend back to the boats in less than 2 hours. Below the first gorge we paddle a mile of interesting constricted class 4 to where the Kowatua rumbles out of site once again. Just below a powerful lead-in, gorge walls hem in consecutive fifty foot waterfalls each with a car sized chockstone lodged above the flow. But like the first gorge this too seems runnable. 160 miles from any would be rescuers, we make the prudent decision and start portaging.
Below the “Double Chockstone Falls” more vertical walls has us scouting further down-stream where we find a blind corner with more vertical walls. The entire flow is going into a sieve that seems pretty much impossible to survive at river level. We end up portaging directly back to our little riverside camp over the next 4 hours, this time on the opposite side of the river. While Ben votes to camp, Todd and I are keen to at least find something we can kayak, but in truth there is only an hour of daylight left. So far we have spent the better part of 3 days scouting, bushwhacking, and portaging. We all hoped for something different on day 4.
In the morning we were stoked to wake up and start making self-contained progress before the creek once again thunders over a horizon line. This time we find a more runnable but still burly situation. With our boats too heavy to make any meaningful moves and trying to keep the gear in our kayaks, Todd finds a creative seal launch to avoid a tricky lead-in sending the 30 foot falls below. At the bottom we are all hoots, hollers and smiles. What a difference a falls makes. Portages… what portages!
One of the reasons I wanted to see the Kowatua was this distinct azure color of the lake on Sattelite imagery, and to paddle over it now is surreal. We take our time looking for Salmon in the lake but see none.
There must be more falls downstream. Again the Kowatua more than doubles in flow from lake entrance to lake exit, this time looking more like a river.
Downstream there is a couple miles of quality class 4 and 5 punctuated by a ramping 15 foot falls.
Just beyond the whitewater hundreds of bright red Salmon swarm up as we enter another pristine lake. The challenge of the Kowatua Gorges is complete, but we are still a long way from home.
Immediately we noticed a boat dock on the relatively small lake. We were not expecting to see signs humans in this wilderness let alone the lovely well appointed cabin nestled in the woods lakeside.
With Ben having severely cracked his boat somewhere in Trapper Falls, a boat repair was the perfect excuse to stop and say hello. After calling out, a friendly woman named Jane emerges to greet us slightly confused but very welcoming. She’s a biologist working for longtime fish weir operator Brian Mercer. According to Jane, Brian had flown to a nearby lake where he operates another fish weir but should be arriving any minute giving us hope that we might borrow his workshop to fix the boat and maybe even stay in the guest cabin.
Twenty minutes later, Brian zips out of the now clearing sky in a small Maule floatplane. While Jane helps him dock and unload the plane we stand ready to introduce ourselves, help, and otherwise ask for help. To be perfectly honest, we are not prepared to repair the 10-inch crack in Ben’s boat.
If Brian was just as happy to see us as we are to see him, he doesn’t show it. At first he passes by without acknowledging us. Finally, we get a chance to explain our situation. “Boat cracked, gorges, waterfalls, 3 days of portaging” is all we needed to say to change his demeanor and our luck. Not only is Brian keen to help Ben fix his boat, but he warmly invites us to spend the evening.
Over dinner Brian tells us a little about his 35 years on Little Trapper Lake. He has names for all the bears. When we ask the name of the bear that just ran by our cabin he saids “ohh, that’s probably Buddy.” Jane tells us that’s the name given to any bear that isn’t immediately identifiable. He tells us about raising a family here and how one of his son’s had the world record snowmobile jump (google Ross Mercer). He also tells us that we are actually the 2nd group of paddlers to arrive here, but that the other group, who landed by float plane, never actually paddled downstream after Brian described another long section of whitewater on the Kowatua downstream of here. And so we would be the first to paddle this entire 50 miles of Kowatua Creek which made us all feel slightly better about the hellacious portaging of the past few days.
Brian Mercer is a bushman in the truest sense of the word. Since homesteading this property in the Early 1980’s he remains the only inhabitant of the Kowatua having milled every board of every structure by hand. But Brian’s true passion is fish biology. Funded by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in conjunction with the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans, he has spent almost 4 decades in the watershed monitoring a spawning grounds that accounts for 15% of the total Salmon in the Taku Watershed that is historically one of the highest producing wild salmon fisheries on earth.
The next morning, well rested, well fed, with a seemingly bullet proof repair job on Ben’s boat, we set off downstream stopping to portage Brian’s fish weir located at the outflow of the lake. In this last week of August we are just passed the peak of the salmon run, and Brian shows us how he documents the salmon which include Coho, Chinook and Sock-eye. We thank Brian and Jane profusely for their kindness. Like our float plane pilot from 5 days ago, Brian warns us to keep an eye out for bears as I notice the massive 45 on his hip and a shotgun close at hand. Bear spray is our only protection but so far so good.
Below Little Trapper Lake, we paddle for a half-day through a river snaking like a beautiful emerald serpent through a wide flat bottom valley. Around the first corner we catch site of our first bear. The big hump backed Grizzly, startled at first, stands his ground seeming to contemplate the options. I am glad the creek is now a river. Downstream, truly massive bear tracks mark every beach and bald eagles greet us at every bend in the river. Todd is part Alaskan and stops to spend a little solitary time casting his fly-rod, while Ben and I continue floating downstream at the speed of the current. Just as we start to get tired of paddling one direction only to turn 180 degrees in the exact opposite, the river straightens into swift class 2 and accelerates towards the promise of one last section of whitewater.
We make camp with the usual “HEY BEAR BEAR BEAR! JUST MAKING CAMP HERE. LEAVING IN THE MORNING!
On day 6 the Kowatua cranks up enough to be extremely impressed by the salmons attainment skills. It’s awesome whitewater that is mostly class fun and not at all scary for this team.
By early afternoon our crystal blue magic carpet ride down the Kowatua ends at the confluence of the much larger silt grey flow of the Inklin River. From here it’s another 50 miles of flat but swift water to the Taku.
Ever-changing views of the now arid landscape mark our northern trajectory deep in the rain shadow of the tall boundary peaks to the west. For the first time since our flight in, the weather goes blue-bird and we make an early camp in late summer sun amongst the bear tracks.
A week after beginning the journey, we enter the Taku River at the Inklin/ Nakina confluence where a massive east to west valley opens up to the Pacific Ocean. With seemingly orchestrated timing, we meet up with Ali Marshal and his team following the Nakina descent.
Unfortunately one of the driest summers on record had reduced the mostly rain fed Nakina to something less than epic. Still it is apparent that theirs is a vision quest not totally affected by the whims of nature. And without a doubt their story of a frightening Grizzly encounter while locked in a low water box canyon is the most hair raising yet still benign river encounter that I can imagine. Over the next few days our combined 9 kayaks do little to fill this immense landscape.
On day 8 our flotilla cross over a line cut into an otherwise virgin forest that marks international division. Just downstream we are greeted by Alaskan fishermen (and women) with smiles and a gift of fresh caught Steelhead and Salmon. Dinner tonight is epic with Ali building a special smoke rack from river drift to create a unmatched salmon dish. Here it is appropriate to say that life on the Taku is good.
From here on our sense of isolation dissipates with many cabins along the river, still the scenery seems to only build to the largest glacial tongue I have every seen. At nearly a mile thick the Taku Glacier is the largest temperate glacier on earth and appears to still be surging despite every other glacier in the area retreating at an alarming rate. Most scientists believe that this surge will be short lived as the ice in the Juneau field has thinned significantly over the last decades.
The massive Taku ice front is also one of the most visited glaciers in the world with hundreds of thousands of tourists arriving by cruise ship every year to Juneau. From there they are transported by fleets of float planes, helicopters, and fan boats that assault our senses with air and noise pollution. It’s a stark contrast from the previous week and a half of deep wilderness.
At sunset we pull into the most lovely Forest Service cabin that I have ever seen. When dusk falls the aerial assault of the glacier comes to an end and this vast wilderness once again fills every sense. The lower Taku flows through the 17-million acre Tongass National Forest which is the largest National Forest in the US. As unseasonably early northern lights fill the sky with psychedelic color, and the often used term for the Tongass of “Crown Jewel” is the only one fitting for this place.
On day 10 we thank Ali and the boys for sharing their food and other supplies with us so generously. While their vision quest continues, our time is up and unfortunately I’m going to be late for work if we don’t hurry! We set our minds to the task at hand and try to time the tides for the 30 mile paddle to Juneau. At a crucial constriction in the inlet officially dubbed “Jah Point” on our map, we take a break to rest and wait for the tide to turn. Just as we are getting settled, a fishermen motors up to ask if we want a ride to Juneau. “Hell yes we do!” None of us has any qualms about missing out on a final 25 miles of flat water. On the boat, captain Terry Thomas points towards his cooler and a few cold ‘Alaskans’ that he had brought for the occasion. I am once again struck by the kindness of a complete stranger that marks this trip through such an unpopulated land. This ‘Spirit of the Taku’ settles over us along with the potent Alaskan brew. It’s a fitting ending to this trip.
The Taku watershed is under a number of environmental threats from the practice of resource extraction. Widespread mining exploration and mounting pressure for large-scale development threaten every corner of the drainage. Already this pristine river has been scared by the derelict Tulsequah Mine that has been leeching toxic runoff into the river for decades and poses the still unanswered question of “who will pay the bill to clean up the mess when the mine closes?”
And although the Tongass is the only National Forest which allows clear cutting of Old Growth, the National Forest Services 2001 Roadless Rule protects some of the last remaining old-growth stands of cedar, hemlock, and spruce. But as of this past July, the Trump administration initiated an amendment that would re-open large scale logging and clear cutting of those once protected stands as well. While environmental activists see this as a federal subsidy for an unsustainable Old Growth harvest, many others in South East Alaska view logging as a culture in addition to an important aspect of the economy.
Whether it was the transcendent bliss of the Taku Journey or the overwhelming rush of smart phone and civilization back into our senses; Ben, Todd, and I failed to immediately check-in with US Customs and Border patrol once arriving in Juneau. Within a week we all received a fine for $5000 in the mail. Please be aware that while the other well known trans-border rivers like the Stikine and the Alsek have strict yet easy to follow protocol, there is nothing in place for the Taku. I definitely recommend that you consider our mistake and contact CBP before and after any future missions.