Day 4:
Alsek River to South of East River
6/20/2015

Aside from the previous evening's otter disturbance, I get a good night's sleep.  Sitting on a log eating breakfast, it's becoming clear that I've brought way too much food.  The 55 lb. pack isn't getting lighter nearly as quickly as I'd expected.  The "buttery goodness" is a recipe I haven't tried before and is like rocket fuel.  I've also way over-estimated my caloric needs for the trip, given the flat beach walking and warm weather.  I'm just not burning calories like I normally do on a backpacking trip.  Still, I'm reluctant to dump any of it, not knowing what lies ahead.   

The morning is sunny and warm with a light westerly breeze.  Should be good conditions for crossing the Alsek.  Most of the mountain peaks are socked in by clouds but the top of Mt Fairweather is in full view, though dim with the morning sun backlighting it.  Sparrows sing in the tall wildrye beach grass nearby. 

I'm anxious about the crossing and want to get on with it.  Breaking camp, I wade across the shallow braided side channel of Muddy Creek and continue east barefoot across the soft mud and sand of the tide flat.  Soon I'm dodging logs stranded on the tide flat, then find a way though them to the south bank of Muddy Creek close to where it flows into the Alsek.  Although labeled Muddy Creek, its width and current would make it a major river in much of the American West.   

I haven't waited for high tide like Pat suggested, but I'm right where he recommended launching.  I glass the Alsek, watching chunks of white glacier ice flow past, moving fast.  The other side is about 1/2 a mile away.  The surface is wavy, but there's no whitewater except where the current flows past submerged logs and root balls.  I'll need to keep a sharp lookout to avoid these.   

C
learing some driftwood branches out of the way, I open a narrow bit of sand between logs in which to launch the raft.  Twenty minutes later I'm ready to launch.  I check my watch. It's 11:40 AM.  Despite the anxiety, it feels good to get out on the water.  In less than a minute I'm in the main flow of the Alsek, paddling hard, but controlled.  The current is fast, maybe 8 knots or so, but lining up objects on the opposite bank I can see that I'm doing fine and will be across before I've drifted downstream more than 1/4 mile or so.  Seven minutes later I'm there, pleased that the crossing has gone so quickly. 

The bank, though, turns out to be a sandy island, not the south bank of the river yet.  Drifting past the lower end of the island, I paddle south in the relatively slow water of its downstream side.  Soon I see another channel, almost as wide as the one I've just crossed, and faster.  More large white chunks of ice quickly drift past.  Here it's wavier, but still no real whitewater.  I decide to portage up the island and launch further up.  I land, unclip the pack from the raft, shoulder the pack and carry paddle and raft upstream along the edge of the island.  It's mostly sand with some cobble and even barefoot the walking is easy. 


Hundreds, perhaps thousands of sea gulls form a white cluster near a pond in the middle of the island.  This must be a relatively safe nesting area, protected from all but avian predators.

1/4-mile upstream a narrow channel cuts across the island and I launch again from there.  As I do so, I hear the alarming sound of air bubbles escaping from under the raft.  It turns out to be just a pocket of air escaping from under the raft, not a leak.  I get in and launch.  The views of the Fairweather mountains are spectacular, but the camera is packed and I'm too focused on avoiding submerged logs to think about photos. 

Like before, I'm soon across, then into the lee of what proves to be another island.  Seals clamber off the sandy bank and watch me from the safety of the water.  I cross one channel after another, all much narrower than the two I've already crossed.  There are occasional areas of whitewater, but they're small and easy to negotiate.  I lose track of how many of these smaller channels I've crossed, but eventually reach the edge of the tide flat on the south bank and am truly across.  My watch says 1:05 PM.  Including the portage, it's taken me an hour and 25 minutes to fully cross the Alsek.  After the trip, I check on Google Earth and see that the total paddling distance has been almost 2-1/2 miles.   

I haul raft and pack up to a log on the sand bank, then stop for lunch on a driftwood log.  The wind is NW at around 15 mph and a bit chilly as it blows across the wide expanse of icy glacier water in Dry Bay.                 

It feels good to be walking again as I head west back out to the beach.  Walking west across the tide flat, then over the sand dunes, the air quickly heats up.  I cross more ATV tracks as well as those of brown bears and wolves.  Less than an hour later I'm standing on a high dune overlooking the mouth of the Alsek.  With binoculars, I see breaking waves well into Dry Bay and am glad to have had the good fortune of meeting Pat.

As I walk south, the beach is covered with ATV tracks, all leading to a temporary commercial fishing camp about 5 miles south of here, near the mouth of the East Alsek River. 
Although shown on maps as the East Alsek River, it's no longer part of the much larger Alsek River that I just crossed.  That changed during the big 1964 earthquake.  Now it's separate from the Alsek and locally is now simply called East River. 

An hour and a half later, I come to
more extensive surf marking the mouth of East River.  The surf and high tide rule this out as a crossing point.  I follow the north bank of the river inland looking for a better place to cross.  I'm curious to see the fishing camp and once again need drinking water.  I stop several times to taste the river water, but so far it's all salty. 

Although I'm now within the boundary of Glacier Bay National Park, the summer fishing camp has a history much longer than the Park does and has been grandfathered in. 
It's a collection of small cabins with a landing strip for bush planes. 

Following ATV tracks along the bank for about half a mile, I come to a driftwood arch covered with signs.  Some of the signs give distances to various points on earth, others express a decidedly conservative political perspective.  Notable is the "Harry Reid Shithouse." 

I figure the owner will be a character and indeed he is.  An exceptionally generous one, to whom I will owe a large debt of gratitude before this trip is over.  I pass under the arch and follow a path over the low sand dune to a collection of small buildings, a couple of ATV's, some solar panels and a satellite dish.  I see movement through the window of one of the buildings.  A dog barks.  Someone inside looks up and waves me over.  He meets me at the door with a friendly invitation to come in.  His name is Mike Perry.  He's a retired veterinarian, fisherman and falconer.  We chat for 15 minutes or so as I rehydrate with water from his sink.  Despite being close to the ocean, he says the freshwater table is just 12 feet down.  The water is sweet and cold. 

Mike spends summers here fishing and the rest of the year lives near Spokane, Washington.  There are a dozen or so cabins here and roughly 15 summer residents.  Everything  revolves around salmon fishing.  Mike says that he used to fish the Alsek River, but has quit.  "It's just too cold, too dangerous.  I know of 17 people who have died there, mostly commercial fishermen.  You get a net hooked on a submerged log or caught in the boat's propeller, the boat capsizes and you're done.  In water that cold, it's over before anyone can be rescued."  I see now why Pat had emphasized that his boat had a clean rail around the cockpit with nothing to hang up on nets.  I'm also reminded of how little margin there is when crossing these glacial rivers and streams. 

He comments on the heat this summer.  Just the week before it was 82F, the hottest he's ever seen here.  He also notes that there are almost no bears so far this summer.  Usually 4 or 5 of them can be seen every evening on the sand dunes across the river digging wild celery and waiting for strawberries to ripen and the salmon to head up the river.  The prevailing opinion is that the heat has driven them up into the mountains where it's cooler.  No doubt they'll be down when the salmon start running in July, but for now most of them are avoiding the coastal heat.            
 
He relates a couple bear stories, including one in which a bear walked past the door of his cabin, attracted by the smell of fish.  Mike shouted at it, but the bear was unmoved.  He went in and got his shotgun which he fired over the bear's head.  The bear was still unmoved.  Mike went back into the cabin and called a neighbor on the VHF radio.  When the neighbor came over in an ATV, the bear took off.  "The ATV's are our best defense." he says, "The bears hate them". 

I drink a liter of water, then top off both bottles and thank Mike.  He straps on a large caliber pistol, then climbs on the ATV to go check on salmon in a nearby creek.  His parting words are, "Have a good trip.  I hope the bears don't eat you."  Then he adds, "If you get back up this way, you're welcome to stay in the cabin."

Walking down to the bank of the East Alsek River, I inflate the raft.  Although it's high tide and the river is close to 1000 feet wide, the crossing is quick and easy.  It's about 6:30 when I cross the dunes back to the beach and head south.  Seals follow my progress just outside the surf line. 

I stop and have dinner on a beach log around 7:30 PM, then walk another hour before setting up camp on the dunes about 6 miles south of East River. 
   

Launch spot at mouth of Muddy Creek.  Alsek River/Dry Bay in background.


Finally across the Alsek.  Looking north past beached glacier ice.  Alsek River/Dry Bay in background.
 


Logs embedded in sand dunes by storms.  South of Alsek River/Dry Bay.


Mouth of East Alsek River


Entrance sign at Mike's fishing camp.


Mike Perry beside his cabin


End of day.  8 miles south of East River.

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