The 1972 Descent of the Tatshenshini River

As remembered in September 2021 after reviewing my many photos of the trip
By Richard B. Norgaard

In 1972, Alaskans were busily discussing – in governmental offices, public meetings, corporate headquarters, NGO gatherings, and private conversations – which agency should manage vast areas of Alaska. The developers of the oil from the recently discovered Prudhoe Bay in the far north wanted to build a pipeline south to Valdez on Prince William Sound on the Gulf of Alaska. They needed permission to do so, but from which agencies was unclear. The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA 1971) had finally established land rights for Native Alaskans and set a process in motion to determine who should manage which parts of the remaining state so the pipeline route could be permitted. Alaska had become a state without having acquired a significant share of land for further settlement and natural resource development. There were many proposals for new and expanded parks and wildlife areas. During meetings, as we focused on the large map of Alaska on the wall, the first question asked when more remote areas were brought up was “Has anyone in the room been here?” Sometimes someone would stand up and describe their impressions of the land, but frequently, none in the room had been in that part of Alaska nor even known someone who had been. And to me, this symbolized how much of Alaska half a century ago was still a frontier.

During that summer, I was attending the unending series of meetings as an observer and visiting researcher at the University of Alaska’s Institute for Social, Government, and Economic Research. I already knew Alaskan kayaker Jack Hession, soon to become Alaska Director of the Sierra Club, from a joint trip down the Copper River in the summer of 1970, was an active lower-48 environmentalist myself, and was living for the summer in the house of famous Alaskan environmentalist Celia Hunter. It was in this context of Alaskans pondering under who’s agency the many parts of the whole state should be managed that my eyes, and those of Jack Hession, were drawn to a major blank spot on the map, the watershed of the Tatshenshini River, terra incognito.

Now, to be clear, the whole of the Tatshenshini River is in Canada. Only after it joins the Alsek River do they together cross into the United States at a very skinny piece of the state connecting the bulk of Alaska with its narrow southeast extension. As the Tatshenshini joins the Alsek River, they slice through the southern end of the St. Elias Range which to the north smashes together with the Wrangell Mountains. As we were looking at big blank spots on the map about which people knew little, international boundaries carried all the meaning of the thin lines they were. And now, fortunately for wilderness protection, thin lines mattered little for the sequential establishment of what eventually became the largest protected area on Earth. Starting from the north, the U.S. Wrangell-St. Elias National Park connects to the Canadian Kluane National Park and Reserve which connects to the Tatshenshini-Alsek Provincial Park of British Columbia which connects to the U.S. Glacier National Park, an immense area interlinking two countries.

In the summer of 1970, Jack Hession, Mary Kaye Gormley, Jack’s wife to be, and their friend Peter Tryon kayaked the Copper River, from the town of Chitna to Flagg Point. My wife, Marida, I, and our 2.5-year-old daughter tagged along on this trip, though carrying their food and camping gear, in a decayed WWII surplus life raft on its last trip. In 1972, we hoped to pull off a similar kayak and raft combination, less now our two children plus a larger new raft, to explore the Tatshenshini and Alsek. We knew from Walt Blackadar’s descent of the Alsek River earlier that year that, upstream from the Tatshenshini, the Alsek had ferocious rapids in Turnback Canyon. One could not determine even major waterfalls from the best topographic maps we had of the Tat because the contour lines were at every 500 feet. We were not aware of anyone having boated the Tatshenshini and wanted to make sure that it had nothing remotely comparable to Turnback Canyon. To this end, Jack found an opportunity to check out the river from a Cessna and could report that he saw nothing challenging. We were planning to do the trip on our return to Berkeley, a dramatic end to a great summer in Alaska. We were able to fly our young children to their grandparents in Berkeley in the company of Yoshiko Kitawaki who had joined us for the summer to help care for our children.

In early August, Hession informed us that he had to be at a critical meeting in San Francisco and that Mary Kaye would not be joining us either. Now Peter Tryon wisely chose to be in the raft rather than a lone kayaker. Georgeanna Davis, a summer student in the Wrangell Mountains program needed a ride back to the lower 48 and chose to return with us with a raft trip included. Going down an unknown river should be done with multiple rafts and many qualified rafters; we had but one new neoprene 16-foot raft, and this was the shot we had to venture into this blank spot on the map.

Dalton Post, Yukon Territory, about 50 miles southeast of Haines Junction along the Haines Cutoff and then down a steep dirt road, provides the best access to the Tatshenshini. But we first drove all the way to Haines, Alaska to arrange for a small airplane to pick us up at the sandy dirt airstrip above the beach at Dry Bay. We met with Layton A. Bennet of LAB Flying Service and arranged to be picked up. He offered us a simple two-way radio indicating that if we were not at the airstrip to meet him, he would fly up the river and we could radio to him when he was overhead. This was our best emergency back-up plan, though we also had backpacks, emergency food, and climbing gear to try to hike out if possible and necessary. Someone with LAB drove with us to Dalton Post, left us off, and took our vehicle back to Haines. It was late August as we hand pumped up the raft and pondered the stream we were about to embark down, an estimated 125+ miles of unknown river to the Pacific Ocean. It was surprisingly small at Dalton Post.

The Alsek-Tatshenshini Rivers contribute the 5th largest volume of fresh water to the eastern shore of the Pacific Ocean following the Yukon, Columbia, Copper, and Sacramento-San Joaquin Rivers. We knew we would be encountering significant tributaries along the way. At the top of our descent, however, we were concerned about the stretch of water flowing through a tight canyon and dropping 75 feet to the mile. It could have had dangerous stretches not visible to Jack Hession from the air. Once in the canyon, we pulled the raft up in an eddy several times and sent someone clambering to look around the next bend as best they could, but it all proved easily navigable. Marida was able to walk ahead around Pirate Creek Falls to photograph us on the only named feature at that time on the river. While we had a bit of sun at the start and a bit of sun along the way, the trip was mostly gray but not rainy. After the 12th Bald eagle, we did not point out the remaining 988 or so. We saw huge Grizzly paw prints, but no bear.

As the flow of the river increased tributary by tributary, we became more aware of boils, whirlpools, and the height of eddy fences. The river’s turbulence within its own hydraulics, not turbulence from encountering rock obstructions or sudden drops, now made for interesting boating. The most impressive thing I saw as a river runner was just after the O’Connor River joined the Tat. Prior to this point, the Tat is flowing roughly southeast along foothills east of the Noisy Range that are foothills of the St. Elias Range. After the O’Connor joins, the Tat flows southwest, cutting straight through those foothills and eventually the higher Noisy Range. From near the O’Connor River, looking several miles down a straight stretch, is the only time I have had the feeling that a river is truly descending in one great downhill run. It was obviously descending because well down the river, three or four miles down around Henshi Creek, there was a tall tree, and we could look over the top of the tree and see the Tat above the tree after the river’s gradient had decreased. Boaters are aware the river is descending amidst rapids, but otherwise there is little sense that the river is descending. Here on the Tat, you could see it going downhill for miles.

Which brings me to Henshi Creek and the stupidest thing I have ever done on a river trip in half a century of river running. The creek had brought huge amounts of debris into the Tat, forming an elevated, leveed channel of its own, a substantial and continuous pile of river rock on each side of the creek’s channel, projecting out into the Tatshenshini River. We pulled into the still water at the Tat’s upstream side of this levee, rowed as far up it as we could, found ourselves on a very flat rocky, muddy “beach” and realized we were still a hundred feet from ground high enough to camp on. The Tat rises and falls according to the travel time from glaciers in the sun providing meltwater. We could not drag the raft all the way to the campsite and so we buried an oar 2 feet down in the muddy rocks, tied our bow line to it, and buried the oar another foot and a half above the “beach” before hauling our gear for the night to high ground to camp. I checked the mooring before going crawling into the tent that night, the river had gone down further, and I was wondering if we were going to be able to get the raft back into the water the next morning.

I awoke at dawn, looked out of the tent, saw the river had risen, but could not see our raft. Before I could scream in despair, I was joyous to see the raft had only drifted 50 feet toward the river and was resting along the Henshi Creek’s natural levee. Shoes not laced, I ran otherwise naked down the levee fearing the boat would escape any minute, but it stayed resting peacefully in a little eddy along the levee. If the raft had found a way to the river, we would have been in deep trouble. We had not carried our backpacking gear off the raft, too much trouble, nor most of our food. Indeed, I think the two-way radio was on the raft too. For half a century I have rafted cautiously and have never flipped a raft. After this Tat run, I also became known for being the obsessive guy out in the night and wee hours of the morning checking that the rafts were secure.

The scenery had been most pleasant to Henshi Creek, but it was absolutely spectacular from Henshi Creek to the Pacific. As we faced the St. Elias Range with the Noisy Range on our right and nearly as high mountains on our left, the river broadened and meandered over fine glacial sediments from the mountains upriver. Glaciers came into closer view, we joined with the Alsek River, and encountered even more glaciers. The lateral moraines of glaciers frequently provide adequate foot travel. Lateral moraines save struggling through dense alder and encounters with the intensely stingy spines of Devil’s Club. On a hike up the left bank along a lateral moraine of a step glacier, we had a spectacular view of the Tat’s intersect with the Alsek. On this side adventure we came across the only evidence that there were other humans on earth. There had been no airplanes, not even contrails, and the evenings were cloudy so we saw no satellites. But high above the river on a little glacier, we came across remnants of a weather balloon: an atmospheric pressure sensor and bits of radio mounted on thin pressboard. This was a truly foreign intruder on our personal blank spot.

We were now rafting braided stream. This is a process of constantly choosing when to cross from what had been a main channel to a new channel forming on one side or the other of your raft. At first the newly forming main channel is only a few inches lower but soon a full foot lower. Each crossing to the forming main channel looks a little too shallow, the next one might be better, but the next one could be worse. If you stay your course by sequentially delaying crossing, you eventually run out of options and find yourself at the end of what had been your main channel and needing to backtrack. Whichever cross channel you picked, you were likely to scrape bottom and need to get out and drag the raft to get to the newly formed channel. I do not have 1972 photographs of us stuck on cross channel gravel, not because we picked our cross channels well but because I was too busily lifting and dragging the raft to take photos.

Walker Glacier provided us with another opportunity to photograph our raft other than when it was tied to shore. There is a lake formed by an old terminal moraine that had an island on which I could stand while Marida rowed the raft toward the glacier so I could photograph it with people. That was a sunnier day. Finding a path onto the lateral moraine proved a bit difficult, but then we had easier walking to again get above the river to marvel at the spectacular mountainous terrain from another angle.

We drifted, but also occasionally rowing against a wind, to Dry Bay by the afternoon of our 8th day as planned. Trying to spot the Fish Camp at Dry Bay from the river was not easy and we were a bit concerned that we would find ourselves out to sea soon. The upper parts of a DC-3 airplane were eventually spotted on the horizon, and we pulled over to shore, the end of our trip. Fishermen and fish scalers came and were curious how we had arrived at their camp. We gave our oars away to a fisherman. The weather, however, was not fit for small aircraft, the winds to squirely for landing on primitive airstrips, and we ended up joining the crew cleaning and scraping the scales of salmon and packing them on ice. Three days passed before our plane could fly in to pick us up. We could not return directly over the St. Elias and the other ranges the Tatshenshini had cut through. But the pilot was able to fly south around the west side of Mt. Fairweather, over Glacier Bay, and then over lesser mountains and along the Lynn Canal up to Haines.

Soon after we returned to our home in Berkeley, I gathered Joe Daly and Dick Linford of ECHO, George Wendt of OARS, and Lou Elliot of ARTA and showed the maps and photos of our incredible exploration. At the time, this was the best I could do to get the word out, though we should have written an article for River Runner. The story behind why we did not publish our story widely, however, belongs among tales of a marriage gone awry.

From the perspective of 2021, the big blank spots on the map of Alaska were only frontier to us white invaders. The watershed of the Tatshenshini was only a blank spot in our western consciousness. It is now understood that Tlingit Haida had followed the river for centuries as an access route between inland valleys and the sea. Nor were we the first whites to take a boat down the Tatshenshini. Several years after our trip, someone found an old news articles from 1890 that reported that Jack Dalton, of the Dalton Post at which we had put our raft on the river, and another white explorer, E. J. Glave traveling at the time with Dalton, went down the Tatshenshini with a Chilkat Native named Shank who had built a shallow Cottonwood canoe approximately 20’ long and a Tutchone Native who had been down the river before. So, we were the second white invaders to descend the river and the first of record in the 20th century.

Our expedition is noted as likely the first since Dalton and Glave by Andrew R. Embick in his 1994 book Cold and Fast: A Guide to Alaska Whitewater page 251. I provided a brief history of our trip in Jim Cassady and Dan Dunlap, 1999, World Whitewater, pages 94-95.

Twenty years later, in 1992, I had to request a permit to take a party of 10 with three rafts including the one we used in 1972. We had much more sun on this very beautiful July trip without any of the tensions of rafting an unknown river. In eight days, we saw two other rafting parties on the river.

Notes on our equipment in 1972

We were in a 16-foot raft, a model that river runners had labelled a “Yampa”, made the year before by Rubber Fabricators, Inc. in West Virginia. It was a replica of a WWII D-Day assault raft that was also made of neoprene, but the new version had stronger, lighter nylon fabric instead of heavy cotton.

During the summer in Fairbanks, we made a sidewall-style frame out of exterior grade ¾” plywood painted with three coats of exterior enamel. We should have brought oars from California for in Alaska the longest we could find were 7.5 foot, well shy of the 10-foot oars normally used on this size raft. I extended the 7.5 foot oars another 1.5 feet by fitting 2” diameter 2-foot lengths of steel conduit over the 6-inch wooden handles. This proved to work on day runs on the Delta River and so I was optimistic they would work on the Tat.

Marida and I wore life jackets that we had purchased years before when we lived in Oregon that were made for speedboat racers on Puget Sound. Yes, they were strange. Peter and Georgeanna had jackets with minimal flotation, Peter by choice, Georgeanna for lack of alternatives. Our dry bags and nearly waterproof boxes were military surplus. Our Coleman stove was well enough behaved.