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Rafting the Tatshenshini River: Yukon – Alaska

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If you want to raft one of the world’s most scenic rivers you’d have to include the Tatshenshini River. The Tatshenshini River (the Tat) originates near the Haines Highway in the northwest corner of British Columbia. It flows north to the Yukon and then west and south, returning to British Columbia. Then it meets up with the Alsek River in the Tatshenshini-Alsek Provincial Wilderness Park. From there it flows into the Pacific Ocean in Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska.

Considered to be one of the top 10 river trips in the world, rafting the Tatshenshini River is a wilderness experience on a grand scale with stunning scenery and wildlife. It has widespread appeal – families to old folks, the supremely fit to the couch potato.

You need to know how to put up a tent and be comfortable using an ammo box as a toilet but that’s about it. On our trip in early July the mosquitoes were a nuisance on only one evening. They were almost nonexistent for the remainder of the trip. Temperatures weren’t exactly balmy but by noon it’s often short sleeve weather. Night time barely exists.

Meal time on the Tatshenshini River
Meal time on the river

Fun fact about the Tatshenshini River

The actual length of the Yukon portion of the river is only about 45 kilometres – but it contains a substantial component of the river’s headwaters. 

What do you see on a Tatshenshini trip?

Most of the trips take 11 – 13 days. That may sound like a lot but it only takes a day or two to get into the rhythm of the river. And then the days start to blur together and you never want the trip to end. You’ll float through canyons, and past mountains that are higher than 15,000 feet, walk on huge glaciers and paddle a stunning iceberg studded lake.

There are rapids but never more than Class 3, pretty tame by river rafting standards. Wildlife abounds – from the pint sized voles and mice, to rabbits, porcupines, marmots, mountain goats, moose, black and grizzly bears. You may even get lucky and see gray whales off the Alaskan coast.

Bird life is excellent too. Close to 50 bird types were seen on our trip with the help of a wonderful naturalist who had joined us.

What you get on a guided trip

If you’ve signed up with a guided trip as opposed to getting a permit and running your own trip, then chances are you will dine well. The guides on our trip were fantastic cooks to the point that almost everyone gained weight.

Coffee was available at the crack of dawn, followed by porridge cooked by a different guide every morning.  There’d still be a hot breakfast, then easy lunches and themed dinners like – Greek, Italian and Mexican. Beer, wine and snacks were available too.

What else do you do besides raft the river?

Days on the river are punctuated by nature walks or multi-hour hikes, socializing, meals, packing and unpacking the tent, campfires, photography, bird watching and reading. It’s a very idyllic way of spending time. But don’t count on cell phones up here. You’ll have to be comfortable being unplugged from the world.

Alsek Lake

Alsek Lake was the highlight of the trip for me. We floated in on a beautiful, sunny day with Mount Fairweather looming in all its glory at 4671 m (15,325 feet), fronted by massive glaciers that fed Alsek Lake. Icebergs calved with thundering regularity.

Alsek Lake Icebergs

With this trip passing through the world’s largest protected area, a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site, and getting a lot of press, there have been efforts to control the number of permits handed out every year. The idea is to preserve the quality of the experience on both the Tatshenshini and the Alsek Rivers. Unfortunately the experience isn’t inexpensive. But it is a once in a lifetime affair and I highly recommend it.

Companies rafting the area

There are lots of companies operating on the Tastshenshini. Our family of four signed up with Canadian River Expeditions and had a marvelous time. 

More reading you might like on Yukon adventures

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