A Crescendo of Wonder: Exploring the Tatshenshini River
By Jasmine Wilhelm5 Min. Read
I was wholly unprepared for my trip down the Tatshenshini River. Not for lack of trying: I read three books, watched at least seven YouTube videos, and scoured the internet for information. Despite all my research, I arrived in the Yukon Territory unsure. Turns out, the river is indescribable. No amount of research will accurately prepare one for the “Tat” or its scenery.
Time and distance are unconventionally calibrated out there. On day two, we saw our end destination, Sediments Creek, entering the canyon on river right. And then it took us literal hours to arrive. There were so many oxbow bends that we slowly crept closer to the side canyon, while absolutely screaming around corners and whipping past debris pile-ups. Yet on day six, I once again saw our destination in the distance and we jettisoned there in less than 15 minutes. I was incapable of understanding my own size in a space this wide, in a space this wild, in a space this extreme.
“You think you know rivers,” Ryan said when we pulled over below the mile-long O’Connor Creek delta, where the river started to braid more intensely, “but you don’t!” We laughed because it was true. The river had suddenly swelled in volume, and the speed of its currents intensified. More than once I looked at a channel downstream of my boat that was literally higher in elevation than the channel I was in upstream of it. Channels confluenced at odd angles, sometimes perpendicularly, creating strange and unpredictable tube-sucking currents. Coupled with the high turbidity, it became challenging to estimate the depth of the water. Our 18-foot boats were sometimes skidding to an absolute halt mid-channel.
I was rendered speechless when I first heard the rumbling, tumbling river rocks beneath our boat. My jaw dropped as I realized what I initially thought was thunder and then a plane, was actually the sound of rocks moving underneath me. On the rivers I know, the rocks have names: there’s Elephant Rock on the Main Salmon, the Cheesegrater in Grand Canyon, and the Catcher’s Mitt on the South Fork of the American. When rocks shift (which they don’t often do), it’s the talk of the town! On the Tat, the rocks are constantly shifting. The river bed is literally seething. It’s churning and crawling.
It wasn’t just the water that was wild, the shore was, too. The first time I caught sight of a grizzly track, I clamped my mouth shut mid-sentence and quietly scanned the beach. I knew logically that I wouldn’t see a bear—we’d been eating lunch and chatting on the beach, making a ruckus for at least a half hour—but try telling my heart rate that! Every beach we stopped at we saw bear tracks (both grizzly and black bear); we saw lynx, moose, and wolf prints, too. Once, I spotted a lone wolf standing in a wildflower-filled meadow.
The wildness reached its apex for me when we saw our first iceberg. I sputtered. Flustered, I let out a spew of gasps and unintelligible mutterings of awe-filled indignation. Not for the first time we wondered aloud, how will we possibly explain this place to our friends? How will we tell our co-workers what we’ve just done? How will we help our families understand the remoteness? The beauty? The sheer epicness?
We saw many more icebergs in Alsek Lake where they bob and float and congregate in coves. The lake welcomed us with a calving glacier. The sound traveled across the calm water with jarring decibels. Then we heard a splash and minutes later, a cacophony of different ripple trains collided in front of us. “This is insane!” I kept repeating because of all the words I know, I couldn’t land on one that did this place justice.
We fell asleep to the sounds of cracking icebergs, calving glaciers, and the crashing tidal waves that followed. It was surreal.
Icebergs that looked big from camp were absolutely colossal when we approached the next day. Blue and black striations told the story of how the water eroded the ice. We harvested smaller chunks of ice for our cocktails and spent the rest of the day watching the ice float on by. My mind kept wondering, “How? How is this place real?”
The trip had already been so wonderful and wild and scenic and other-worldly, it felt greedy to have a final request… yet, we harbored one. As we packed up our kitchen on our final day, we heard a deafening crack. Trip members from all corners of camp came flooding to the beach. There, before our very eyes, a house-sized iceberg started splitting and sloughing ice chunks which descended into the lake and popped up bobbing tens of feet away, creating massive tidal waves. We watched in wonder, and then, as if mother nature said, “You thought that was cool?” the berg split in two, and one half flipped, exposing its teal underbelly.
It’s obvious now why my research didn’t prepare me: this river is rugged, this river is unexpected, this river is a tremendous crescendo of beauty and wonder. And all of it is utterly indescribable.