Aug. 24 Good camp, sheltered by an overhanging bank, but since wind and tent are facing upstream, a grizzly coming from the rear will surprise us both.
Big water today. No stops needed to scout rapids. Stayed in the center but constant maneuvering necessary to avoid rocks and holes. No flips, but my heart pounded once or twice as I passed cliffs with boils and huge hydraulics—violent currents that twist and turn and grab from all directions at once. The water is now icy, and I can't force myself to practice rolling up and thus psychologically prepare myself for the canyon ahead. To roll up (right a kayak) you lean forward with your paddle along the side of the boat and on the surface, then with one twisting sweep turn your body and paddle 180�. I feel a flip is a 30% chance of a swim. The water is brown, something like halfway through the Grand Canyon. I can still read the water confidently since the crests of the waves are white, but the glacier silt adds power to the rapids.
Lowell Glacier, off to the right, is tremendous. It is a mile of bright blue ice wall over 100 feet high and extending out into the Alsek, which undercuts the cliff. As I passed, huge blocks of ice two-thirds the size of a football field would crack free from the wall and drop 20 feet to the river bottom, then tip outward and slap the water with a frightening sonic boom. These were followed by tidal waves that tossed earlier ice blocks (calves) and my fragile kayak sky-high. Fortunately, I never was within 200 yards of an ice fall and tried to stay in the open so I could maneuver the waves. An active glacier is an amazing spectacle. And I've got three more ahead!
Became lost in the floating calves but continued on to the end of the iceberg lake, where the river turned abruptly. Must have paddled over 50 miles today so quit early but could have gone all the way to Turn Back Canyon, where the worst rapids begin. Plan to sleep late in the morning and proceed gradually, but if I get to the canyon before 2 p.m. I'll tackle it then; otherwise, will rest until noon the next day. I have been paddling in my full wet suit, including boots and gloves, but no wet suit head stall; only my regular protective helmet. I want to remove the gloves in the gorge, if the icy water is not unbearable, so that I can grip the paddle more firmly. I'm three days ahead of schedule and going strong—very relaxed. My 25 ounces of vodka will see me home with spare. Am less tense being alone. In a kayak I never rely on others to get me out of trouble, so I wear a 33-pound flotation life jacket. Water that can separate me from my boat would be so big no other kayaker could help. He'd be too busy staying up himself.
I have matches and emergency supplies sewn into my life jacket. No sign of the helicopter, perhaps because I have traveled so fast. Saw two golden eagles and a friendly shore bird fatter than a tern—small beak, gray-brown with a banded tail.
Aug. 25 In the gorge and stranded—almost directly across from a creek that gushes off the mountain on the left, forming a roaring waterfall. My boat is on the bank in the rocks and my tent 100 yards upstream on a sandbar. This has been a day! I want any kayaker to read my words well! The Alsek gorge is unpaddleable! Unbelievable. After carefully scouting the rapids, I found it's twice as bad as it looks. There's one huge horrendous mile of hair (the worst foamy rapids a kayaker can imagine), 30 feet wide, 50,000 cubic feet per second and a 20-degree downgrade going like hell. Incredible! I didn't flip in that mile or I wouldn't be writing. But to go back:
On entering the canyon I paddled bravely past the last portage on the right and into the gorge. The river narrows from a half mile to 100 feet. I suddenly felt trapped and committed. Stopped on the left after maybe a quarter of a mile and had trouble getting out on the narrow ledge with my long paddle, so I tossed it to a higher shelf where it lodged. Soon found myself in difficulty with the tricky currents and nearly flipped getting out of the kayak, which would have forced me to swim the entire gorge. Once in the water there would have been no way to regain the shore. A swimmer couldn't fight the current and would be swept downriver. Tried to abandon my plans to make a stop but couldn't reach my paddle so struggled out and lifted the boat to the safety of the ledge.
After scouting, I ran the first mile of rapids with tremendous respect—found myself upside down twice. Rolled up easily. Slammed into the cliff once and was pinned there for a lifetime on a tight turn but worked the boat forward and free with my hands—you have to hold the paddle in one and push off the cliff with the other. I'd abandoned the gloves.
Stopped again on the left, this time easily, and scouted for over a mile to a huge 45-degree drop of 30 feet or more into a boiling hell. After looking it over carefully, I decided to carry the kayak on the left. There was a seemingly easy stop and only a 100-yard portage to miss the drop. There are huge icebergs that have calved off Tweedsmuir Glacier and are running with me in the gorge. I have already hit two very hard in big water. Boat O.K. and surviving well.
As I paddled down to the portage stop in apparently quiet water, a whirlpool suddenly appeared, my boat was sucked by the stern into a perfectly vertical position, then whirled 1� times around and plopped in upside down. I rolled up immediately and easily caught the eddy as planned, but in the wrong place. I was going to have to work my way to the extreme lower end of the eddy to get out. This I hoped to do by going along the shoreline, but I found I couldn't because of the terrific current. Consequently, I had to go out into the main current, but I went too far. Suddenly I realized I couldn't make the portage. Now I knew I had a paddle ahead! Just then an iceberg the size of my bedroom appeared alongside, charging for the drop. I hurriedly turned my boat around and paddled upstream with all my strength while sliding backward into the "falls." Missed the iceberg which went ahead, flipped and hung upside down while the boat was tossed out of the most violent boils before rolling up. Very solid, very confident in my roll—no question of swimming. I was almost euphoric in my survival and so thrilled I had not had to portage after all, for I knew I would soon be out. Stopped and relaxed for five minutes on the shore among the icebergs. Could not check what was ahead because of a cliff, so continued without scouting.