Looking for a bit of fun and adventure finds Angela and I heading north out of town and up into the high country to parts unknown. We packed the truck with bicycles, packrafts, hiking paraphernalia and some snacks. About halfway up Marinka’s Hill, we stop to gawk at the Northern Takhinsha/Southern Alsek’s baring their blue and stoney ice in the spectacular late summer light. I have never seen these peaks so devoid of the previous winter’s snow. The result is visually striking; the glaciers are on full display and the rocky summits piercing the deep blue hue above. Once past Three Guardsmen, it is decided a paddle across the mystical Kelsall Lake is in order, and soon we are bouncing the truck down the 4WD track to it’s shores.
Once in the water, a pleasant paddle two or three miles to the inlet stream that feeds the lake comes around and we stop for lunch and a swim on the sandy beach below the glacier of Kelsall Peak. Back in the boats, a great wind swells up and we fight the lateral rollers all the way back to the truck and happily scurry back over The Pass and head back home.
Since moving to Haines from Fairbanks nearly 5 years ago, I have been fascinated by a local piece of wilderness called the Takhin River Valley; a river born of the Takhin Glacier high at the western end of the Takhinsha Mountains at the far northern most tip of Southeast Alaska. The nearby Tsirku River is born from the Tsirku Glacier far into the western reaches of the range where massive ice sheets dominate the landscape. Further down stream a Tsirku feeder, the Le Blondeau Glacier, comes very close to the Takhin Headwaters and is separated from it by a 500 foot high, two mile wide swath of an ancient moraine covered in Alder thickets and Devil’s Club, and is know locally as Heartbreak Ridge. I had heard many folks talk of the Tsirku… it is of fairly easy access by bush plane, or by foot, is big enough for a full size raft at spring and summer water levels, and is fairly tame overall. But I never ever heard anyone speak of it’s sister, the Takhin. After asking around about it, I discovered that there is a locally operated bush airstrip about 3/4 the way up the Takhin Valley known as the Fox Airstrip, but it seemed there was no way to gain plane access to the headwaters at the Takhin Glacier itself.
Last year I decided that the best way to investigate was to hike up the Tsirku on foot from the Devil’s Elbow, where one can park a vehicle, and attempt to get to the Le Blondeau and have a look at Heartbreak Ridge. At the time, I had no packraft, and made many dicey river crossings on foot until deep snow, and high water blocked passage about a mile and a half from the landing strip near the Le Blondeau. After spending a night in the upper Tsirku watching and listening to a pair of Wolves, I packed out, vowing to return better equipped.
This year, Angela and I, armed with packrafts, hired Drake Olsen and his Super Cub to get us landed on the tiny gravel air strip near the Le Blondeau near what is locally known as Horse Camp, a group of seasonal tin cabins from which hunting and guided Tsirku River trips begin. It’s from this place we could easily hike to Heartbreak Ridge, and begin it’s Alder thrashing, which more than one person had guessed would be “extreme”.
The tiny Super Cub plane holds one pilot, one passenger, and a wee bit of gear. That’s it… so Drake takes Angela in first; it is about a 20-25 minute flight in and I wait by the Haines landing strip for his return, eagerly anticipating viewing the Takhin from the air to inspect for any obstacles we may encounter. The Super Cub re-appears, and in minutes gear is loaded and we are airborne and slicing through the crystalline sky along the lower reaches of the Takhin. Drake flies as low as possible so we can look for log jambs, wildlife, gravel bars, and any other thing of interest on the ground. We pass the fantastic Bertha Glacier and her giant iceberg filled tarn; the lake is still partially frozen over. It is May 17th 2018…
After Drake drops me off, Angela and I watch as he hits the air and disappears over the ridge and is gone. We shoulder packs and begin walking the Gravel bars of the Tsirku in search of a supposed trail leading through the forest to Horse Camp. After a bit of wandering and doubling back, we find the trail and find ourselves deep within the confines of the bush. A large Moose antler is found on the ground, likely dropped the previous Winter. The cabins of Horse Camp are dilapidated and run down… animals have had their way with them and are in pretty bad shape. The tarn of the Le Blondeau Glacier is partially frozen over, and great slabs of icebergs are float here and there. The views of the glacier and peaks are amazing… one peak, known as Tomahawk, has gorgeous plumes and flutings descending from its jagged and corniced summit. Not all mountain ranges have these flutings, but are common in Alaska, The Andes, and Himalaya. Truly a signature of deeply glaciated peaks and severe weather.
We stomp around the east side of the lake all the way to just shy of the ice and right up against the mountain where we believe the easiest passage through the two miles of Alders might be. After having spoke with some people who had seen it, and seeing it from the air myself, I estimated it would take us about 4 hours to get through it, over Heartbreak Ridge, and to the toe of the Takhin Glacier. Soon, we cannot go any further and so we dive into the Alders to our left and begin the extreme thrashing. The paddles sticking out the tops of our packs make the going much worse. Alders are notoriously bad for this sort of bushwhacking and this is no exception. We gain a lateral snowfield and follow it, postholing in knee deep snow to ankle breaking downed Alders beneath. Two hours later we come to a stream where we break for snacks and water before committing to more thrashing. Occasionally, we find old avalanche chutes to traverse up, then down, up, then down, avoiding short sections of thickets. It is time consuming and exhausting to say the least. Hours later, we are at the base of the final climb up Heartbreak Ridge proper. It’s nothing short of a heinous and evil Alder thrash. Did I mention Devil’s Club? We gots that too folks. Lots of it. We emerge on top, bloody, sweating, exhausted… and ornery. The Alder thrashing we did last year on the approach to Mt Archibald in the Yukon was actually worse, but this was sustained. It had kicked our ass, but we did it. In fact, I do not believe any one in recent memory (or ever) has gone over Heartbreak Ridge during the non-winter months (skis, snowmachines, etc) The view down to the Takhin Glacier is breathtaking and the descent looks steep and dangerous. After the initial loose and steep drop in, it is easy going and soon we are on the rubble covered glacier and boulder hopping to the toe to find our camp.
After reaching the snout of the Takhin Glacier, a gaping ice cave appears and the very utmost of the Takhin River is born, emerging as a rapid and icy tongue from it’s innards. We thought since the goal of this trip was to packraft the entire Takhin from it’s beginning, it would be especially cool to start from inside the ice cave and emerge in true fashion. However, it looks dicey so we decline, stumbling off to find a camp spot. We pitch the awesome Hyperlight Mountain GearUltamid 4 that was loaned to us by the company for testing and inspecting; I find it extremely light, easy to setup, and bombproof. Many thanks to HMG for this shelter. After camp is constructed and I lay in my sleeping bag, it occurs to me that it took us over ten hours to get from the landing strip on the Tsirku to the Takhin Glacier; I severely underestimated Heartbreak Ridge.
The morning sees the weather in fine shape with early morning light splattering the fluted ridges high above us. We walk for about a half mile downstream on the gravel bars in search of water deep enough to put the boats in. Since it is morning and the temps still chilly, the water has not yet come up, but we finally find adequate water and we inflate the rafts. A pleasant float downstream on class I-II, puts us in a forested area, where log jams and shallow water force us once again on foot. Another paddling section begins and a mishap with a strainer and a missing paddle ensues. We thought that the paddle had floated away, but was in fact stuck underwater in the submerged thicket. We were soaked and needed to dry out. Luckily it was hot out… too hot in fact and we were both getting somewhat sunburned. back in the water, we paddle through another alluvial fan and spot a large Mountain Goat about 200 meters off walking right towards us. We eddy out and watch silently; the Goat stops and finally takes notice to us. We stare back and forth and the Goat decides these strange creatures near by are best not to get tangled with and starts trotting south and away from us. What a magnificent animal…
Back on foot again to avoid low water levels, we decide the best way to travel is to mount the inflated rafts to the tops of our backpack and hanging down with the bottom of the boat facing behind you; doing this makes one look like a giant alien Beetle. We walk through the open forest like this for a spell and I spot a Grizzly 100 meters away (close!) staring us down. I freeze, Angela freezes. It appears to be a lone male Grizzly, not giant, but not small either. We stare at each other for several seconds and the Bear flips 180 and bolts the opposite direction. After that, I decide that the Bear spray will go in one pocket, and the Colt 1911 .45 in the other.
Eventually, we begin paddling again, and even though the water is low, we are able to float big sections and simply drag the boats through the shallow areas and then jump back in. Soon we come to end of the big braided section of the Takhin near where the Fox Airstrip is, and realize that it is getting late and that we are very tired. We pitch the ‘Mid on a sandbar riddled with Grizzly prints and attempt to sleep. Soon however, a great wind pick up and after a bit, blows a steady 30 knots, showering us with sand and dust. It was miserable, but we hunkered into our bags deeper and got through it. Eventually it died off and we drifted into needed slumber.
Another fine morning of gorgeous weather finds us paddling immediately and entering the “Boulder Field” we had heard about from one person who claims to have jet boated up the Takhin. The river slices through the tight forest here and turns into a different animal than we had previously seen. Small rapids appear… class II-III; twists and turns and rocks and holes all become the experience. The paddling is excellent; this is what we came for. One nasty looking class III section with a big rock at it’s bottom that would surely flip you we decide to portage around. Following that, the Takhin turns into one set of glorious Class II-III rollers after another for several miles. It is an instant classic Alaskan paddle in my mind. We pass the Dickinson, Willard, and Bertha Glaciers, and into the final twists of the river a few mile before it’s confluence with the Chilkat River, where enormous log jams bar passage and force us out of the boats. We drag the rafts through the sand past Wolf and Bear prints and back into the water where more Class II rollers and some technical navigation around strainers and timber force a keen and sharp attention. Angela has a mishap with a pesky log and flips the boat, but all is well. We stop for a breather and laugh about the incident as we pour the water from our Extra-Tuffs and wring out our wool socks.
Back in the water and around the next bend in the river, we can now see the peaks of the Tahshanuk, indicating that we were extremely close to the Chilkat. We ponder for a moment if we should spend another night, or just simply paddle down the Chilkat back to the Haines airport where the truck is parked. After reaching the mother Chilkat, a great wind picks up and it is decided instantly that paddling home is the ticket; three days and 35 miles of bushwhacking and paddling behind us, our weather window had closed, and it was time to end this adventure and begin looking forward to the next…