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Iris and I arrive at a small island in the middle of the Alsek. These gravel bars provided little islands of safety while crossing the river; Photograph by Cameron Lawson

Alaska’s Lost Coast: The Mighty River and Mountain Sanctuary

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On the edge of the Alsek River, Iris peers across the expansive crossing that we’re about to embark on; Photograph by Cameron Lawson

With our bikes strapped tightly to the bow, we wedge ourselves into puny Alpacka rafts, and get ready to cross the mighty Alsek, an enormous river that empties into Dry Bay at an average flow of 80,000 cubic feet per minute. Before shoving off, we take a few minutes to watch chiseled icebergs the size of pool tables and huge, uprooted spruce trees bob up and down in the churning grey current as they quickly float past us toward the Pacific. I look over at Iris to gauge her comfort level. “You ready for this?” Normally talkative, Iris is quiet but finally says, “Yep! Let’s go!”

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Iris prepares her raft and equipment for crossing the Alsek; photograph by Cameron Lawson

Digging her paddles deep into silty water, she moves into the current and starts drifting downstream. Wanting to stay close, I push off from the safety of land and start following. In the back of my mind, I can hear Dave, the local who befriended us earlier on the trip, talking about 15-foot standing waves and exploding whitewater where the Alsek meets the Pacific. I don’t know if this is true, but the fear of getting thrashed in the surf and spit out to sea keeps me constantly looking at landmarks to gauge our progress.

Ferrying our boats across the river is turning out to be uneventful and fairly easy, but we don’t get complacent. During this journey, any water crossing is treated with absolute respect. If by misfortune, we were swept into the upstream side of a strainer or rock, the raft would quickly wrap and we’d be dumped from our lifeline and into chilling water that hovers around 40º F. To enhance the consequences, neither of us brought lifejackets for the trip—a bulky item we concluded would buy little time of survival in Arctic waters.

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Safely on the other side of the Alsek, we spend some time soaking in the sun and relaxing on the pebble beach; Photograph by Cameron Lawson

With each paddle stroke, we get closer to reaching the other side and putting a check mark next to our first big obstacle. The crossing is a confidence booster and instills trust between Iris and me. It’s also an opportunity to size each other up. Everyone has a comfort level when confronted with a challenge carrying an unknown outcome. Often when this boundary is overstepped, it can be a game changer for a mini-expedition like ours. Emotions can spark tension between team members, and group dynamics often implode and crumble. Luckily for us, we feel in control of the situation and we’re not getting close to that emotional threshold.

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Dry Bay isn’t much of a bay at all (at least in August); Photograph by Cameron Lawson

In the distance, thin sheets of rain hang from gloomy clouds. But above us, rays of sunshine beam down and bring smiles to our faces. Relief and a sense of accomplishment flood our bodies as our boats touch the gravel shores of Dry Bay.

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Miles of cruiser beach riding awaits: Photograph by Cameron Lawson

Relishing in our success, we take a small break to snack under a canopy of blue sky and dry out our damp gear. Lying on the warm pebbles feels dreamy and I could hang out for hours, but I know we need to get rolling. We have a limited amount of food and a lot of country to cover in the next ten days. Within 50 minutes we’re saddled up and pedaling across the sandy wash of aptly named Dry Bay. From the topo map, I thought this area was going to be gooey tidal flats or underwater, but we’re riding on a broad, sandy plain which reminds me of the Blackrock Desert in Nevada.

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A gnarled chunk of driftwood frames Iris, as she pedals along a beach of firm sand; Photograph by Cameron Lawson

Iris and I cross a few creeks and eventually roll onto some four-wheeler tracks. “I can’t believe it Iris, I didn’t think people lived out here!” We’ve seen a handful of homesteaders and a few commercial fishermen along our trip, but I have a hunch we’ll be traveling into more remote country as we head South from Dry Bay. One revolution after another brings us back to miles of smooth riding along the beach. Through a thin marine layer, we see the upper flanks of Mt. Fairweather basking in magical evening light and listen to crashing surf as we pedal under dimming skies. Life is perfect, and I couldn’t be in a better mood. By 10:20 p.m. it’s getting too dark to ride and we decide to call it quits and set-up camp.

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Mt. Fairweather is the backdrop to this pristine mountain lake choked with icebergs. We spent some time exploring these icy giants in our Alpacka rafts; Photograph by Cameron Lawson

Morning brings us another challenge. Less than a half-mile from our camp at Clear Creek, we bike to a cascade of frothy whitewater that dissects the beach. Crossing the brown, slimy boulders seems dubious, but I give it a try. As if covered by oil, my foot quickly slips off the rock and splashes into foamy ice water. Launching our boats into the sea and paddling around the river is tempting, but it isn’t doable either. Waves are exploding on seaweed-covered boulders, giving us only one alternative.

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Alaska Bushwhacking….in a league of it’s own; Photograph by Cameron Lawson

From our maps, it looks like we can parallel the river to get to Grand Plateau Lake, where we can cross the headwaters of the river safely. “I think this should be easy, Iris. From our topo, it looks like we can almost touch the lake from here!” After looking at a fortress of thick brush in front of us, Iris responds, “ Yah, we’ll see. I’m not sure it will be easy!” Fully clad in rain gear and gloves, we shoulder our bikes and start thrashing our way through dense alders.

Obviously, we have rain gear for bad weather, but our Gore-tex doubles as armor against bugs, prickly pine trees and Devils Club, a thorny, cactus-like plant that thrives in southeast Alaska. Even though it’s only a quarter mile to the lake, it seems like it’s going to take forever. Like a scene from a child’s fairytale, branches of every shrub and tree have come alive and are latching onto our bikes and packs. I curse as I tear my bike loose from the grips of the forest and inch my way toward the lake.

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The compressed glacial ice glows blue to the eye. All the colors of the visible light spectrum are absorbed, but the color blue is reflected; Photograph by Cameron Lawson

Soaked in sweat, we eventually emerge from the forest and are presented with a magnificent view. The lake is full of massive icebergs, glowing blue from reflected light. On the skyline, swirling clouds boil over prominent ridges of Mt. Fairweather and big glaciers ooze from its flanks. To be here is truly exceptional.

Eager to get away from the bugs and explore, we blow up our rafts and paddle out to the icy giants. The air is super-cooled from the glacier, but the sun’s warmth is more powerful. We stop paddling and slowly drift to a stop. The only noise is the sound of hundreds of water droplets dripping from icebergs and freefalling to the lake. Other than that, I feel we’re in a vacuum–it’s dead silent. No wind, airplane noise, crash of surf or creaking ice. I close my eyes and listen to the droplets of water. This spectacular moment is ephemeral, so I soak up every second before paddling back to shore to continue on our adventure.