Alsek River

Location: Kluane National Park Reserve, Yukon
Region: Outside Ontario
Character: Heritage River
Length/Size: 250 km

Alsek River
By The Canadian Heritage Rivers System

Flowing amid the highest mountains in Canada, past the world's largest and longest mountain glaciers, under the gaze of grizzly bears, the Alsek rises in the mountains of Kluane National Park Reserve - a World Heritage Site. Its braided upper reaches nestle in a broad valley, providing an oasis for mountain goats, Dall's sheep and other wildlife. Downstream, rivers of ice flow into the Alsek's silt-laden waters, calving huge icebergs into the river. The Alsek's remoteness, beauty, and wild rapids tug at the heartstrings of adventurous river travellers. But be prepared to portage Turnback Canyon! The Alsek - a river locked in the Ice Age.

Fed by the massive glaciers of the St. Elias Mountains, the world's second highest coastal mountain range, the Alsek River is one of Canada's outstanding wilderness rivers. It is situated in Kluane National Park Reserve, a 22,015 sq km area in the southeast corner of the Yukon Territory. Here is a landscape of towering mountains, active glaciers and broad valleys. The Alsek is one of the park's most precious jewels.

On its way through the park, the Alsek passes through a remote wilderness area, an undisturbed natural habitat for species of both Pacific Coast and Arctic plant life, and home to large populations of northern mammals and birds. The breathtaking landscapes of the Alsek River valley provide views of Canada's highest mountains, and glaciers flowing from the largest non-polar icefield in the world.

As a representative of northern Canada's natural heritage, the Alsek River was designated a Canadian Heritage River in 1986. A plaque commemorating the designation of the river to the Canadian Heritage Rivers System is located at the Dezadeash River day-use area in Haines Junction.

The Alsek River originates in the St. Elias Mountains, key components of the UNESCO Kluane/Wrangell-St Elias World Heritage Site established in 1979. From its origin as a braided stream at the confluence of the Kaskawulsh, Dusty and Dezadeash rivers, the Alsek flows for approximately 250 km across the Yukon Territory, the northern tip of British Columbia and the Alaskan panhandle, emptying into the Pacific Ocean at Dry Bay, Alaska.

The section of the Alsek designated a Canadian Heritage River is 90 km long and lies entirely within Kluane National Park Reserve. The designated river segment comprises the headwaters and upper reaches which flow through a 5-10 km wide, 16 km long braided channel section and then through a 74 km stretch of big water rapids, canyons, glaciers and floating icebergs. This latter section is considered unnavigable. Beyond the park reserve, the rapids continue for 16 km to a point where the Tweedsmuir Glacier and Turnback Canyon prevent water travel altogether.

Natural Heritage
The Alsek River contains many significant natural features including landforms which have resulted from the action of water, wind and glaciers on the landscape. Many areas of exceptional natural beauty and some of Canada's most important northern ecosystems are found here. These include:

the Kluane and Icefield Ranges of the St. Elias Mountains, visible from the Alsek flowing through them, which contain the highest peaks in the country; among them, Mt. Steele (4,988m), Mt. St. Elias (5,488m), and Mt. Logan (5,950m);
the Fisher and Lowell Glaciers which are among the largest and longest in the world. The Lowell forms a large section of the Alsek Valley wall and calves with tremendous force into the Alsek below;
the periodic creation of ice dams by the surging of the Lowell Glacier across the valley. One dam, created in recent geological time was more than 150m high and flooded the entire valley up river beyond Haines Junction;
the Alsek dunes, an extensive sand dune complex along the east side of the upper valley;
an unusually large braided river channel, on an outwash plain, at the Alsek source;
the largest population of grizzly bears in Canada;
sizeable populations of other large mammals including wolves, moose, wolverines, black bears, Dall's sheep, mountain goats, coyotes, and lynx, roaming free, protected in their native habitat;
more than 170 species of birds including golden eagles, bald eagles, and peregrine alcons, threatened species in parts of North America;
in the lower Alsek River valley, many Pacific Coast plant species not found elsewhere in the Yukon; and,
an occurrence in Alsek Pass of Siberian Sedge, found in only one other place in North America.

Human Heritage
For natives and white men alike, the Alsek valley has held little appeal as a place to live, although small numbers of native people have inhabited the Kluane region for perhaps 10,000 years. Ancestors of the Southern Tutchone, the area's native people, arrived in the vicinity about 4,500 years ago. Some of their traditional hunting, fishing and trading camps, such as the villages of Nesketahin and Klukshu, just outside the park, have been used for more than 1,000 years for trading with both coastal Tlingit and Yukon interior tribes. But, while the Tatshenshini-Alsek corridor figured prominently as a trade route between the Alaska coast and the native trading centres of the interior, the natives seldom ventured onto the more hostile upper Alsek in what is now the interior of the park reserve.

In the 1890's, during the Klondike Gold Rush, the first white men came into the area from the south, travelling over the Dalton Trail to Dalton Post and other points north. Some stayed to prospect and mine the Kluane Ranges for a period at the beginning of the century. After this, the area became a focus for mountaineering and glaciological research, a role which continues today. The Alaska Highway follows Kluane's eastern boundary. Built in 1942, in response to fears of a Japanese attack on Alaska, it was the first transportation road built into Canada's Yukon Territory from the south.

Due to its remote location, and its extreme and variable climate, the Alsek offers recreational opportunities primarily for individuals who are skilled in outdoor pursuits or who take closely supervised wilderness tours. More than 180,000 people travel by road past Kluane each year, enjoying the scenery from the highways and viewing the exhibits at the park's visitor reception centres. Relatively few, however, register for overnight wilderness camping in the park interior and even fewer venture downriver on the Alsek.

Kayaking and Rafting: Navigation of the Alsek is only possible by kayak or raft and the only egress from downriver is by aircraft. These obstacles aside, the Alsek is extremely difficult and hazardous for river trips due to huge standing waves, a swift current, dangerous rapids, very cold summer water temperatures (averaging only 2-4 degrees Celsius), and even winds up to 100 km/hr. For these reasons, most visitors view the Alsek from the air and anyone contemplating a river trip on the Alsek is required to contact the park warden service, in advance.

The Tatshenshini-Alsek River corridor south of Kluane, from Dalton Post to Dry Bay, and the Dezadeash-Alsek River corridor entering the reserve from Haines Junction, are becoming popular as destinations for white water enthusiasts. Several trip operators now offer rafting and kayaking trips of up to 10 days duration on these two river segments.

Camping and Hiking: A 42-unit campground with cook-house and outdoor toilets has been developed by Parks Canada at Kathleen Lake within the park reserve. The Yukon Government also maintains campgrounds along the Alaska Highway and Haines Road at Million Dollar Falls, Dezadeash Lake, Pine Lake, and Congdon Creek.

Wilderness hiking and camping are increasingly popular throughout Kluane, but the country is extremely rugged and can be dangerously deceptive. Travel restrictions may also be imposed by Parks Canada during periods of high fire hazard.

Weather suitable for hiking and camping , and for kayaking and rafting within Kluane usually occurs between mid-June and mid-September. Yearly temperatures range from 30 degrees Celsius highs in July to -50 degrees Celsius lows in January.

Fishing: The Alsek's silt-laden waters are not prime fishing areas but Arctic grayling, lake trout, and northern pike are found in Kluane's lakes and rivers.

Visitor Information
Access: Kluane is 160 km by road west of Whitehorse, and approximately 2,250 km by road northwest of Edmonton. Visitors can reach Kluane by car or by chartered bus tour along the Alaska Highway (Highway 1) from Whitehorse. The Stewart-Cassiar Road (Hwy 37) also provides access from interior British Columbia to the Alaska Highway. Bus tours and car rental services are available in Whitehorse and the U. S. port cities of Skagway and Haines, Alaska. Air access to Whitehorse from southern Canada is provided by daily commercial airline flights from Edmonton and Vancouver. Skagway and Haines are popular northern gateways for tourists arriving by the 'Inside Passage' coastal ferry from Vancouver and Seattle.

Within Kluane National Park Reserve, Parks Canada limits access to the Alsek River itself in order to protect its natural values. The closest road in the vicinity of the Alsek ends at Haines Junction, 20 km northeast of the river. A rough track into Alsek Pass, the 24 km Dezadeash-Alsek Valley Trail, following an old mining trail, provides overland access to the Alsek, suitable for hiking and four-wheel drive vehicles only. Plans are under way to provide easier access to the river and to develop facilities and exhibits for day-use at Alsek Pass.

The river may also be reached by rafting or kayaking the Dezadeash River. Travelling Jarvis Creek and the Kaskawulsh River downstream to the Alsek is possible but extremely difficult. If one proceeds downriver from Alsek Pass, the only viable egress is by air charter.

Wilderness Tours: More than seventeen commercial adventure operators offer guided trips in the region. These include air charter sightseeing expeditions along the Alsek, without landing, and river touring and backpacking wilderness expeditions in the reserve, stopping only at sites identified by the park superintendent. Those interested should contact the Superintendent, Kluane National Park Reserve or Tourism Yukon at the addresses provided below. For those interested only in the Tatshenshini-Alsek trip, the Superintendent, Glacier Bay National Monument and Preserve, Box 1089, Juneau, Alaska, U.S.A., 99802 can also provide information on outfitters and guides.

All overnight park users must register with the park warden service at the Visitor Reception Centres at Haines Junction or Sheep Mountain, or with any park warden. The centre at Haines Junction is open 7 days a week during the summer months. A permit must be obtained for all overnight trips into the park interior.

For fishing in Kluane, two fishing permits are required; one for Yukon Territory waters and one for the National Park Reserve. Both may be obtained from a number of stores and at park offices in the Kluane region.

Accommodation and Services: Whitehorse, Yukon (pop. 20,500) is the main service community for Kluane National Park Reserve. Commercial accomodation, gas, some supplies, and food services are also available at Haines Junction (pop. 580), Destruction Bay (pop. 52), and Burwash Landing (pop. 94), and at lodges along the Alaska Highway. Dalton Post (now abandoned) and Klukshu do not offer any services.

Topographic Maps: Within the park reserve, the river is covered by Map 115A in the national Topograpic series at a scale of 1:250,000. South of the park reserve, 1:250,000 scale maps for the Alsek are 114O and 114P.

National Topographic System maps may be purchased from any of over 900 map dealers across Canada, the United States and overseas. To find map dealers in your area, please consult the Yellow Pages under "MAPS", or contact any Regional Distribution Centre through the web site.

Further Information
Alsek River and Kluane National Park Reserve - Services, Permits and Regulations: In making plans to see or travel on the Alsek, it is strongly advised that you write to: Superintendent, Kluane National Park Reserve, Parks Canada, P.O. Box 5495,Haines Junction, Yukon, YOB 1LO, Tel: (867) 634-7250.

Tourist Information - Accomodation, Bus and Air Charters, Guides and Outfitters: Tourism Yukon, P.O. Box 2703, Dept. 7227, Whitehorse, Yukon, YlA 2C6, Tel: (867) 667-5304; Tourism Industry Association of the Yukon, 1109 - 1st Avenue, Whitehorse, Y1A 5G4 (867-668-3331;,; Wilderness Tourism Association of the Yukon, 1114 - 1st Avenue, Whitehorse, Yukon Y1A 1A3;

Canadian Heritage Rivers System: National Manager, Canadian Heritage Rivers System, c/o Parks Canada, Ottawa, Canada K1A 0M5. Tel. (819) 994-2913, Fax (819) 997-0835. E-mail address:

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