Hazards and safety
The Alsek is a large volume, glacial river. The water is extremely cold, swift, and wide in many sections. The river also contains a number of rapids that must be negotiated. A number of injuries and deaths have occurred due to travellers underestimating the powerful flow and cold temperature of the water. Hypothermia and drowning are the two most common causes of death on the river.
The Alsek is a remote wilderness river. Travellers must be entirely self-sufficient and able to handle any emergency situations on their own. In the event of an emergency you should be prepared for lengthy delays in search and rescue response times due to weather conditions and/or the availability of both aircraft and rescue personnel.
Cell phones do not work anywhere along the river corridor. Satellite phones are the recommended form of communication. Other satellite GPS messenger devices, such as a SPOT or inReach, are also effective.
Parks Canada 24 Hour Emergency Dispatch
River water can be extremely cold, only a few degrees above freezing. Dry suits are strongly recommended in more difficult sections where capsizing could be fatal. Travellers must ensure they minimize the chances of capsizing and must be prepared for a long cold swim before they are rescued or are able to get themselves to shore.
A rule to remember: Do not travel a section of river unless you are properly prepared to swim that same section.
Large standing waves, rock gardens, holes, eddies, silty water and swift currents increase the difficulty of sections of the river. River travelers should be competent with Class III and IV rapids.
Two sets of Class III-IV rapids below the Lowell Glacier should be scouted before running. A number of accidents have occurred at these two rapids. Groups may consider having the majority of the group walk along the shoreline downstream, with only a minimal number of occupants in the rafts. Paddlers should know exactly where these are prior to their trip as they are difficult to see while on the river. These rapids are located at approximately:
- Sam’s: UTM: 7V 0665400 E; 6674400 N (NAD 27) or 61º 10’ 29” N; 138º 01’ 06” E
- Lava: UTM: 7V 0666580 E; 6670500 N (NAD 27) or 60 º 08’ 21” N; 138 º 0’, 1” E
Located in Tatshenshini-Alsek Provincial Park Turnback Canyon is a 7 km-long run of continuous class V-VI white water. A spilled raft or kayak invariably results in tragedy. Travelling through Turnback Canyon is not recommended. Travelers are advised to helicopter portage Turnback Canyon.
Rafters should begin looking for a landing spot soon after rounding a big left-hand corner at:
• UTM: 7V 667361 E; 6639253 N (NAD 27) or 59° 51' 30.70" N; 138° 00' 49.98 E"
Turnback Canyon point of no return is around:
• UTM: 8V 333736 E; 6635540 N (NAD 27) or 59° 49’ 32.45” N; 137° 58’ 04.88” E
NOTE: You must fly with a company licensed to land in Tatshenshini-Alsek Provincial Park. Please contact Tatshenshini-Alsek Provincial Park for more information.
The Alsek River passes by the toe of the Lowell Glacier, and at times, large blocks of ice drop into the river and flow downstream. These ice blocks can be massive and may roll or break as they melt, crushing or capsizing a raft that is too near. Ice is also a hazard at Alsek Lake in Alaska, where several glaciers calve into the lake.
Bad weather may require extra days on the river or delay flights to and from Dry Bay. Be prepared to wait out delays with a supply of extra food.
The Alsek flows through a broad open valley in a southerly direction, and is subject to strong south winds up to 100 km per hour. Be prepared to spend extra time battling the wind as well as silts and sands carried by the wind.
River users should purify all water used for drinking and cooking by boiling for ten minutes or filtering with a less than 0.5 micron filter to avoid the intestinal parasite, giardia.
Bears and food
Extreme care must be taken when camping in grizzly bear territory. It is mandatory that all visitors ensure bears do not gain access to human food or garbage. The use of approved bear-resistant food containers or an electric fence is strongly recommended. Keeping campsites clean, handling food and garbage properly, and choosing campsites carefully, minimizes conflicts with bears.