Tatshenshini River

Overview

The Tat, as it is often called, flows out of the majestic Kluane Range of mountains in the southern Yukon Territory and slices past the Alsek Range on its way to traverse the region between the Ice Field Range and the Fairweather Range of the St Elias Mountains. It is, perhaps, the greatest wilderness float trip in North America with the upper half of its length in Canada and the lower half in Alaska, a journey of up to 150 miles. It is a river slightly counter intuitive in nature as it begins in the mild dry reaches of Kluane in the Yukon Territory and ends in the cold icy grip of the Fairweather Mountains in Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve. All the way down its length the vegetation will indicate an increase in elevation as alpine plants will be beside the river within 30 miles of the ocean. It features a 14-mile long canyon full of whitewater on the first day and crosses 4 major tectonic fault lines as it traverses five major terrain blocks. Any trip down the Tat winds up on the Alsek River for the last few days. There are giant icebergs in the river and miles-wide alluvial outwash plains to route through. It goes through the largest concentration of grizzly bears in North America and flows where the ranges of the interior Dall's Sheep overlap with the coastal Mountain Goat. It joins the lower Alsek River for its final giant crescendo of nature where the river flows to the ocean with volumes over 100,00 cubic feet per second. It is a landscape only recently uncovered by glacial ice and is as close to the Pleistocene Era as you can get with some examples of The Mammoth Steppes in places. It even has the actions of surging glaciers and huge water volume spikes when glacial outbursts release tens of thousands of cfs in short periods of time. The river is 152 miles and is easily floated in 7 to 10 days to the take out at a fish processing plant at Dry Bay on the north coast of southeast Alaska.

Put In

The Tat requires a take out permit from Glacier Bay National Park and forms and info packet are available upon request from the Yakutat Ranger Station in Yakutat, Alaska. Registration is required for your launch date and is with Parks Canada and Kluane Provincial Park and can be done by phone. It is the take out date that is regulated and you can’t miss it. There is paper work for the Customs and Immigration people of both countries prior to the trip, as well.

The Tat is a logistically challenging river to prepare for. The start is in another country and a permit is required to end your river trip, with a wait of up to two years for a put in date of your desiring. Vehicles and equipment are available in Haines to help with your planning. But the actual starting point for the expedition is at Dalton's Post, a collection of ruined cabins in the Yukon, from the time of the late 1800 gold rush days, and when this was one of two routes to the Klondike gold fields from Alaska's coast. The 4-mile road down to Dalton Post turns off Haines Road (Hwy 3) to the west; look for this turn just north of the Haines Road Bridge across the Takhanne River. The put in is just upstream of the Klukshu River confluence with the Tatshenshini. You can get there by flying to Juneau and then by air or ferry boat to Haines, Alaska, where you then take a vehicle into Canada to the put in site. Or you can start in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory and, again, drive to the put in at Dalton's Post. You will have to coordinate vehicle shuttles and drivers. An alternate put in is on a headwater tributary of the Tat called the Blanchard River 20 miles above Dalton's Post and it has access from the Haines Highway, which runs from Haines, Alaska to Haines Junction, YT. This is a run of twenty miles and is rocky and full of large boulders and isn't suited for a heavily laden expedition raft. It is more of a day trip with a commercial outfitter running daily trips so if you need to, make camp at Dalton's Post and run empty boats for fun down to the camp above Village Creek on the Tat. There should be a sign there that reads "welcome to the food chain! Bears are everywhere!” From Haines to the put in is a 2-hour drive with no stops. From Whitehorse to the put in is just over two hours. The border with Haines and Canada is not a 24-hour crossing and is open from 7 am till 12 am.

Take Out

Take out involves getting your boats to the Dry Bay Campground, established by GBNP&P, and adjacent to the fish plant where a long airstrip, that sees DC3s land and take off, is located. There is a park service cabin and human waste disposal unit located there. To get to the strip it used to be easy but these days lower water levels, increased gravel deposits and isostatic rebound, (as much as a half an inch a year), has dried up the approach. Known as "The Slough" it is a small left hand channel that even on a good day, everyone might be out of the raft walking down the gravel bars with the water only 3 inches deep. During mid summer, high water often keeps the slough open. But if you don't stop above it you will float another hour around a giant river bend to where you can stop at the lower end of the slough and then line your boats up the two miles to the airstrip. Once at the campground, it is a 30-foot high brushy cut bank to haul everything out to break down and get ready for the flight back. There is a way to charter a 4-wheeler and trailer from a local fisherman who will collect you at the top of the slough alongside the main river and move you to the strip. It’s a couple hundred bucks but so worth it. At the take out, a park service ranger or seasonal will get a trip report and a bear sighting report from you as you are frantically trying to dump human waste, deflate and clean rafts, breakdown frames and oars, everything to fit in the small Cessna 206, a Single Otter, or a Beaver on wheels. From Dry Bay there are only two options, to Yakutat, Alaska or to Whitehorse, YT via Skagway. There are two primary local flight operators and you do want to fly with the guys that are always flying the route through the mountains to Haines. There are Canadian flight services that do the Whitehorse run. It's a spectacular flight on a good day and white knuckler on a not so good day.

The Trip

Dalton’s Post to Silver Creek: 12 miles

At Dalton's Post you may see another group but they will not have the same take out. Its a strange system that regulates only one group per day at the take out, so a 9 day 10 day and 11 day trip could all have the same put in date but would have different take out dates. Most groups try to get on the water and run the canyon the first day. Other groups will camp at the put in. There are a few spots just 30 minutes down river, but after only 45 minutes of shallow channel choosing and sweepers to duck, comes the 5 miles of canyon white water. There is always an early season high water period with up to Class IV rapids often and at huge flood levels, don't put in! There is a guidebook of details on this river. The canyon is formed at the point where the north flowing upper Tat turns 120 degrees on itself to start its southward run to the ocean. The river has cut through the Beaton Batholith here. Silver Creek is the first major tributary on river right below the canyon and has a campsite and a clear water source.

Silver Creek to O’Connor River: 35 miles

At Silver Creek you are crossing one of the five fault lines and here separates Wrangell from the Alexander Terrain. The river is now running south and its wilderness character increases doubly each day. The Alsek Range dominates the right hand side. At Detour Creek the valley widens five fold as this is the place where historically there have been glacial dams that forced the Alsek River to back up and then escape down Detour Creek. In effect the confluence with the Alsek used to be here and it is huge as a result. Soon the river goes from sluggish to fast and there is no time to not pay attention as you float down the river at speeds of 10 miles an hour. Sediments Creek enters from the right and has the best alpine hike of the whole trip. This swift water section is very challenging with high-speed channel changes and the occasional logjam to miss. Just getting stopped is no easy thing. There is another set of waves and holes just below Alkie Creek where a debris flow, now called Monkey Wrench, dammed the river in 1989. When you are at the O'Connor confluence the scale of things is rapidly getting BIG! Every tributary is another big glacial stream and the volume of water doubles in volume every 20 miles this day.

O’Connor River to Alsek Confluence: 31 miles

This section is known as the wind tunnel due to the upstream winds racing off the icecap that is downriver. Clouds of silt can fill the air and inflated rafts can be flipped by wind when they are pulled up on shore. The width of the river is so wide here, and the speed of the current so high and the nature of the maze of braided channels so complex, that stopping along this stretch is often impossible. Camps are few until below the Tomanous Glacier outflow. As you approach the confluence with the Alsek, the Fairweather Mountain Range looms up with hanging glaciers clinging to all the slopes. At the confluence you are witness to a giant landscape with a huge river full of salmon and bear signs everywhere and numerous glaciers in view. It is here that the Hubbard Fault line and the Border Ranges Fault line merge and become the west arm of Glacier Bay. Melt Creek is the beautiful blue river entering from the left out of the Melbern Glacier Valley. The Alsek enters from the right and the Tatshenshini river ends and you are now on the giant Alsek River.

Alsek Confluence to Dry Bay Campground: 54 miles

From the confluence, the current in the main channel is 10 mph and if you had to you could float the 50 miles to take out in an afternoon. The Fairweather Range is the left side valley wall and the Ice Field Range is the mountainous glacier country forming the right valley wall. Big bears are numerous, nesting Bald Eagles are common, hanging glaciers cling to every mountain face along this stretch. Below the confluence, the Netland Glacier is the large glacier on river left. The river makes a 90-degree bend to the left past it and you are approaching the Walker Glacier next, also on river left. Camping here allows for easy access to the Walker Galcier and a walk across its icy surface.

Beyond the Walker Glacier the river heads to the Brabazon Range of mountains, across the Fairweather fault line and into the last tectonic plate, the Yakutat Block. To the right is the miles wide Novatak Glacier, one of the truly giant valley glaciers of the trip. Once you are firmly entrenched in this continental suture zone there are 10 more miles to where the river enters Alsek Lake. Use extreme caution here as icebergs the size of battleships are constantly tipping over and cracking in half causing huge waves and rough water. Camps are best located near the outlet in the vicinity of Gateway Knob. After leaving the lake, it is a 14-mile stretch of river that leads back to civilization. Not long after leaving the lake you will see fisherman homes, nets in the water, boats hauling fish to shore and 4 wheelers hauling fish to the plant. Take out is the airstrip adjacent to the fish plant and is reached by staying left on the narrow slough that leads to where the campground is.

USGS Maps

Skagway B-8
Yakutat A-1, A-2, B-1

Distance

150 miles

Days

7-10

Difficulty

Moderate/Difficult

Class

I, II, III, IV

Craft

Kayak
Raft

Cost

$$$

Getting There

Coordinates
Latitude: 60.117609
Longitude: -137.037721

Show Map

Tatshenshini River Points

Blan­chard Riv­er 20 miles above Dal­ton’s Post and it has access from the Haines High­way, which runs from Haines, Alas­ka to Haines Junc­tion, YT. This is a run of twen­ty miles and is rocky and full of large boul­ders and isn’t suit­ed for a heav­i­ly laden expe­di­tion raft. It is more of a day trip with a com­mer­cial out­fit­ter run­ning dai­ly trips so if you need to, make camp at Dal­ton’s Post and run emp­ty boats for fun down to the camp above Village…  ...more

Vehi­cles and equip­ment are avail­able in Haines to help with your plan­ning. But the actu­al start­ing point for the expe­di­tion is at Dal­ton’s Post, a col­lec­tion of ruined cab­ins in the Yukon, from the time of the late 1800 gold rush days, and when this was one of two routes to the Klondike gold fields from Alaska’s coast. The 4‑mile road down to Dal­ton Post turns off Haines Road (Hwy 3) to the west; look for this turn just north of the Haines…  ...more

Take out involves get­ting your boats to the Dry Bay Camp­ground, estab­lished by GBNP&P, and adja­cent to the fish plant where a long airstrip, that sees DC3s land and take off, is locat­ed. There is a park ser­vice cab­in and human waste dis­pos­al unit locat­ed there. To get to the strip it used to be easy but these days low­er water lev­els, increased grav­el deposits and iso­sta­t­ic rebound, (as much as a half an inch a year), has dried up the…  ...more

If you camp at Dal­ton Post close­ly watch for bears. It is a major salmon stream and the only salmon stream in the Yukon, so fish­er­men are com­mon. And the food and fish smells here have made a few brazen bears. Have loud noise­mak­ers to help run em off as well as your pep­per spray. Guns are not allowed! The winds are a big threat and you should always have things secure in the boats or they may blow away. Tents should be staked down securely.…  ...more