The Parton River: A Weekend Packraft Adventure

Living in Haines for the past six years has given me great thirst for the remote and mysterious Takshanuk and Alsek Ranges on the SE fringes of the St Elias mountains. This is an area of smaller peaks and moderately sized glaciers that give way to the monster peaks and glaciation of the the bigger icefields to the west all the way to the remote outer coast at the Gulf of Alaska. The areas between the Kelsall Valley to the east and the St Elias Range to the west are riddled with remote valleys, seldom seen rivers, and rarely climbed or even seen peaks. It is an extremely convoluted area that sparks my imagination and love for this magnificent landscape. One of the easier to access areas that involves a variety of travel on both land, glacier, and river is the Samuel Glacier region that gives birth to the short but spectacular Parton River. Access via the Chuck Creek trail is straightforward, scenic, and enjoyable.

On July 5th 2019, Angela, Tully, and myself set out on foot armed with hiking, camping, and packrafting gear to explore this area with the intention of camping in the glaciated upper valleys of the Parton River and packrafting back to the truck at Horse Camp on the Tatshenshini River the following day.

Immediately after leaving the trailhead, the bugs and heat are overwhelming; it is downright hot and the Black Flies and Horse Flies are swarming in droves around our sweaty bodies. But the landscape is dreamy and the smoke from the forest fires further north seem to be clearing somewhat. The wildflowers are blooming in full force and the stream crossings managable. We see a few people along the trail, but for the most part, it is quiet. After about 5 miles, the trail dissipates and cross country travel on the tundra leads to an overlook into the headwaters of the O’Connor River and the southern arm of the Samuel Glacier. It is here we must turn north and travel high tundra benches to gain the central arm oif the Samuel Glacier, cross over its flanks, and drop into the upper Parton River region, where, after 13 miles of travel, we find a spectacular camp along the shores of a great glacial tarn with close views of flowing glaciers and jagged peaks.

Before we reach the glacier however, a 500 foot slope of steep and loose glacial moraine must be descended to the ice; it is a bit dicey, but soon Tully and I are at glaciers edge. Angela is still about half way through the ordeal when a thunder shower of epic proportions descends upon our weary and unprepared selves. The weather forcast called for no rain, and since it was a short trip, I opted to leave rain gear behind, and soon, the torrent has us totally soaked and doesn’t seem to be stopping; Tully and I huddle under the lip of the ice in hopes of staying drier, but it is futile. Angela emerges from the mist a soaked and muddy mess and the rain continues to thrash us. The possibility of hypothermia is very real and I’m getting genuinely concerned. Suddenly the drops become somewhat lesser, so we shoulder our packs, hop onto the ice, and start hoofing it. The rain stops completely and soon we are dry and happy and admiring the notion of crossing this sizeable glacier at it’s toe in July in running shoes. There are no crevasses to speak of so it is a safe passage all the way to the headwaters were were set up camp next to a large granite boulder. We see another party camped about a mile down valley and want to give everyone space, so we call this lovely spot home for the evening. The weather is grand once again, and I even sleep outside under the northern sky where I can eyeball the peaks and glaciers of this incredible and spiritual place. I would have to say it it is one of the finest camp sites of my life. The blue of the ice and the starkness of the granite are mezmerizing to me.

Morning time is coffee time and sitting on the shores of this glass smooth glacial tarn is spent talking and joking about nearly getting into a bad situation in the previous afternoon’s thunder shower. We sip our cold coffee (we did not bring a stove) and look about this incredible little valley with it’s six glaciers, numerous peaks, and two lakes. I vow to back here and climb at least one of these glaciated granite peaks. We pack up and head down valley, where we are greeted by the party ahead; turns out it is Dan Humphreys, Gina St Clair, and several others from Haines. They are not here to packraft, but to hike up the valley above and cross over the mountains by way of West Nadahini Creek back to the Haines Highway in a 4 day through hike. 

After scouting out the upper Parton where it leaves this tarn, we descend slightly and make a dicey river crossing on foot, where we then walk the troubling looking class IV territory as the tumbling torrent finagles it’s way through the terminal moraine of a long gone ancient glacier. perhaps 2 or 3 miles down river from Dan and Gina’s camp, we find a good spot to stop and inflate the boats. Up ahead, there is some fun looking terrain consisting of some class II rollers. We roll through only to find several miles of flat, unintersting terrain riddled with bouts of butt dragging and boat hauling through shallow braided channels. I am becoming frustrated with the lack of actual paddling and the Horse Flies are increasing their intensity. I’m feeling ornery, but the thin braids finally give way to a single channel deep enough for real paddling. The river however is flat in dull… up ahead, we can see the river entering the canyon and losing altitude. The roar of the rapids ahead has us thinking. We pull over to grab some lunch and watch as a large Bull Moose crosses the channel and thrashes about with the irritating Horse Flies. Soon he is gone and so are we, paddling almost immediately into enjoyable class II/III waves and rollers. This is what we came for! This river is steep, and the intensity does not let up nor are there many places to eddy out. It becomes more and more intense and it occurs to me that during this record heat and afternoon thunder storms, the river is much bigger than “normal”. This torrent is really pushing hard. The river is running so strong and fast, there are very few boulders sticking out of the water; instead it becomes a twisting set of massive hydraulics, deep holes, and monster waves with substantial consequences at every hit. I had been told this river maxes out at about class III, but it definetely feels more like class IV to me. This is BIG water today.

Finally, and eddy appears and I pull off while Tully and Angela appear coming around upstream; they are wild eyed and some concerns about the river ahead are voiced. The roar of the rapids is defeaning. We must continue on… a quick thumbs up and the battle through the hydraulics begins again. One giant wave sends me into a big hole with a boulder sticking out of it; invisible from above. I nearly flip the boat but manage to swing it around. Things are getting hairy to say the least. I pull off again just slightly and let Angela and Tully pass and give them both some room figuring I’ll pull up the rear. Back into it, it is becoming more and more intense and soon it commands ALL attention. Catching air off of giant hydraulics increases my speed substantially and soon I am within sight of two empty boats ahead of me with both Angela and Tully swimming for their lives. There is nothing I can do for either of them and keep paddling another half mile where it mellows to class II and and eddy appears on river right. I get my boat to shore and out of the corner of my eye I see Tully’s boat coming right at me. I lunge for it and touch it, but but am knocked off my feet. After barely making it onto the shore once again, I see it far down stream, heading for Dry Bay and the Gulf of Alaska. I see angela’s boat next… this time in the middle off the torrent. Instinctively, I dive into the water and swim after it, and for a split second, I regret the move, but I grab hold of the boat and struggle for a quarter mile to get it to shore. Breathing as hard as I ever have in my life, I ditch the boats and begin stomping through the boreal spruce forest enroute upstream to find my companions. I spot Tully with Angela not far behind thrashing through the willow thickets up ahead. We are all together and safe, but now minus two paddles and one boat, our only option is to hike out to the highway where the truck is parked perhaps 4 or 5 long bushwhacking miles away. 

Poor Angela and Tully – a harrowing experience and a close call for them both. Angela lost only a paddle, but Tully lost everything; a packraft, a backpack full of camping gear, his phone, an expensive camera, etc. We are a sullen group now and begin the arduous bushwhack to the road via Bear trails next the river bank. We all keep an eye out for Tully’s boat, hoping it might have snagged itself on a strainer or somehow managed to eddy out. Exhaustion is taking its toll on all of us, but we continue on, shouting out every 30 seconds or so “Hey Bear!” in an attempt not to startle one. After a couple of miles, the river turns NW and flattens out, sending water into several shallow braids that makes for traveling in-water feasable; I find it easier to simply wade through the shallower braids of the river than to attempt to navigate the heainous willow thickets shore-wise. Tully and Angela are back behind me a ways, so they do not see what I see down river just yet. Its Tully’s boat, backpack and all, hung up on a shallow gravel bar. I swim toward it and rescue it as fast as I can in fear of it somehow sprouting fins and swimming away from me. It is full of water and is going nowhere. After getting it to shore, I see the others up river. I wave and shout to them and suddenly we are all full of joy.

Somehow, I had it in my head that the truck was parked just past the confluence with the Tatashenshini River, so when we arrived at the Tat, Angela and I swim across, while tully navigates his vessel and we continue further down stream. Tully questions my notions that the truck is down stream, and I assure him that it is. Tully’s instincts were spot on, and after another hour of thrashing, we realize that the truck is nowhere near where we are or where we are heading. We are so exhausted that each step is becoming an excercise in agony; the willow thickets becoming more and more challenging with each minute. We come back to the Tatshenshini and head north along it’s shores, seeing several Beaver along the way and swatting their tails at us each time. I pass a Moose skull and suddenly spot the truck not far off. Days later I realized from inspecting the map the err of my judgment. There is an old faint dirt road heading to the river crossing at Horse Camp and the truck, but in our exhasted state of mind, must have walked right past it. Lesson learned. Somehow, I had not completed my homework…

The drive home was a real challenge due to exhaustion, but looking back, we had one helluva fine 36 hours of real northern adventure. I totally and completely live for this stuff, and sometimes the pain and discomfort of fatigue and stress are what makes a trip more than a trip in a tense and potentially dangerous situation. Yet it is this philosophy that keeps me meandering this wilderness time after time to experience the spirit of The North and all her glorious treasures, wether it be mountaineering and alpinism, skiing, packrafting, or just simply going on a pleasant and simple day hike. It all counts and adds value to my life here. In the end, we walked almost 20 miles, paddle some 10-12 miles of river including some stuff at the boundaries of my paddling ability, endured intense heat, terrible insects, powerful thunder storms, saw wildlife and good friends, camped in one of the most spectacular places in The North, had great adventure, and lost two paddles, one hat, and a pair of cheap sunglasses.

I’ll take it…

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Kelsall Lake

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.

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Bare Ice
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Happy To Call This Place My Home…
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Mountain Hemlock

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Getting Boats Prepped
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The Enchanting Kelsall Lake
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Kelsall Peak and Glacier

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Angela Fires Down A Burrito

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Brrrrr…

Heartbreak Ridge: Takhin River, Alaska

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 Gear Ultamid 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…

 

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First views of he Takhin from the air
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Bertha Glacier
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Tsirku landing strip

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Horse Camp

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Angela stomping around the Le Blondeau tarn

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Le Blondeau Glacier

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The bushwhacking and traversing begins

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Final climb up Heartbreak Ridge
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First view of the Takhin Glacier

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The true headwaters of the Takhin River via the ice cave

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Camp at the Takhin Glacier snout

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The Grizzly was spotted moments after this picture was taken

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HMG Ultamid 4 and Grizzly prints

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Angela re-aquainting herself with handgun use

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Paddling

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Just Rolling By

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