Adjacent to the tiny village of Haines, Alaska, and across the emerald saltwaters of the Chilkat Inlet, lie the deceptively remote and jagged peaks of the Chilkat Mountains. These peaks are of a particularly steep and heavily glaciated nature and include the enormous mass of the Cathedral group that includes the mighty Mt Emmerich, clearly visible from town. Emmerich is the visual centerpiece of this group and rises out of the Kicking Horse River valley just east of it’s convoluted mass. The Kicking Horse River is a river born of the ice; it’s scant origins flowing from the snout of the Garrison Glacier situated at the northeastern end of the range, where it flows for a relatively short distance to it’s confluence with the heavily braided and Salmon infested Chilkat River. At the point where this confluence occurs, the Chilkat narrows to perhaps a half mile across, and on this 9th day of February 2017, winter temperatures has frozen the Chilkat solidly enough to allow crossing on foot.
This winter in Haines has been one of mostly consistently cold temps, with snow on the ground for the entirety of the winter season so far; only once or twice has rain been allowed passage to our winter Alaskan landscape. This is the way I like it and having the rivers frozen over has gained me the chance to explore the “far side” of the Chilkat several times this season. The far, or wilderness side of the river gains access to the peaks of the Chilkat and home to a wolf pack twenty strong. Once, last fall, I had the ultimate pleasure of viewing, with binoculars, several wolves attempting to take down two separate Moose. Ultimately, both moose escaped with lives intact. The visual experience left a deep impression on me and the deep wilderness just across the river has been enchanting me ever since.
Earlier in the winter, I had the pleasure of wandering across the river in other places; once at 10 mile and across to the dense Alder thickets of the Tahkin River, and another time near to 8 mile where once across and beyond the barrier of Cottonwoods lining the shore, I found open snow covered meadows full of Moose, Wolf, Lynx, and Rabbit tracks a plenty. For me though, these were just to test the waters of crossing the Chilkat and the ultimate goal was to reach the confluence of the Kicking Horse River. While there are other, more remote rivers that flow from the Cathedrals, the Kicking Horse to me was one that had a special interest. It was more accessible and equally as wild. So today it was to be…
Parking on the Haines Highway at the state fish and game run fish wheels, I meander out onto the ice and instantly feel the bitterness of the biting wind. The surface is a mixture of crystal clear ice several inches thick and more opaque sections requiring more care in regard to judging the thickness. As I walk the slippery clear sections, I look to see the bottom of the river a few feet below and imagine the thousands of Salmon swimming upstream as they do every year as they have for thousands. Chinook, Chum, Pink, Sockeye, and Coho all run in these waters. Soon I am near the other side and the frozen Kicking Horse is a mere 300 feet ahead. However, there is a channel of open and running river water just in front of me, blocking access to my destination. Further east, I can see that the channel slides under the winter ice pack and disappears. How thick is this newer ice I ask myself? I walk further downstream to where the ice re-appears and gingerly step into this new zone. I can see immediately that is is very thick and soon I am completely across the Chilkat and standing on the gravel shores of the braided Kicking Horse confluence.
It feels downright sublime to be standing here and looking up the Kicking Horse for the first time; gravel bars and Alder thickets lead to a narrowing of the river before it disappears into the bowels of the wilderness. I walk these frozen river banks, occasionally crossing thinly veiled ice sheets over rocky surface, boots crunching loudly and the stiff breeze from earlier dissipating. A long stretch of snow leads to the forest where hundreds of Wolf tracks appear. At least part of the pack has traveled through here recently. I look around and see more Wolf tracks than I have ever seen and realize that the Kicking Horse must be some sort of Wolf highway; a passage leading from the wilderness of the Cathedrals to the shores of the Chilkat herself.
I travel further into the corridor till passage is barred by river ice with a couple inches of running water. Here, the forest at river’s edge are many dead Cottonwoods stripped of their bark and treetops. They stand like monuments guarding the inner access to the wildness beyond, Mt Emmerich towers over head, displaying intricate ridge lines, towers, gendarmes, and gullys. This is the closest I have ever been to this peak and I am awestruck by it size and complexity.
This is my turning around point and it is getting late and the temperature is dropping, so back through the Adler thickets and gravel bars and the multitudes of Wolf tracks to the frozen Chilkat, where an easy stomp back to the highway is in order.
The Kicking Horse has always held a great deal of fascination for me and today was a teaser that strengthened that notion.
I will return …
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