Sunday, January 6, 2013

Sketches and Photos from the Tatshenshini-Alsek

Trumpeter Swans, confluence of Sediments Ck and Tatshenshini River. Watercolour field sketch, the start of the Sediments Hike in the background.  Trumpeter Swans seem to be increasing in numbers in the area.

For  the past  two decades I have been fortunate enough to have the opportunity to spend time rafting two of the great rivers of the St.Elias Mountains and explore  the Haine's Triangle.

This is an interesting and little known part of NW British Columbia, SW Yukon and SE Alaska, with spectacular mountains, glaciers, and an interesting biota that combines elements of Pacific, Boreal, Montane and Arctic environments.
Semipalmated Plover, Alsek River, pencil sketch.A number of shorebirds nest in  the  area, including  this species.

A number of coastal species of birds have colonized the river valleys of the Alsek and Tatshenshini, including Red-breasted Sapsucker, Rufous Hummingbird, Cassin's Vireo and Vaux's Swift.
Red-breasted Sapsucker,watercolour sketch, Porquipine Camp,Tatshenshini River, July 9 2004

Willow Ptarmigan are common along the Haine's Road,and  also  the lower Alsek.
Here all 3 species of Ptarmigan can be found, and the area has isolated outposts of Arctic breeders such as Aleutian Terns, Parasitic Jaegers, Baird's Sandpipers, Smith's Longspurs and Snow Buntings- and perhaps more... In addition, the glaciated peaks and slopes above the glaciers are the home of perhaps the least known of North America's breeding seabirds, the Kittlitz's Murrelet.
Parasitic Jaeger perforning a "broken  wing"  distraction  display,  Alsek River, B.C. July 20, 2001. Despite records like this one, the first documented nest record in B.C. wasn't until  July 2010.
Parasitic Jaegers harassing a Common  Raven pencil sketch, Alsek  River, near Dry  Bay, Alaska. Pencil and ink field sketch.

Arctic Tern,Lowell Lake,Alsek R. July 6, 2001  Watercolour sketch.  Icebergsof seemingly endless variety are found on Lowell Lake, Alsek Lake and the newly created Walker Glacier Lake. I have found nests of both Arctic and Aleutian Terns .  The small colony at Dry Bay is the easternmost Aleutian Tern colony known.   

When I joined the Rocky Point Bird Observatory and we were trying to look for  interesting trips to bring to birders, I immediately thought of this spectacular and special part of the world.

 For more information on this trip click here:

Tour Itinerary: Birding the Tatshenshini-Alsek River by Raft: Ptarmagin, Aleutian Terns, Icebergs and Glaciers.

Rocky Point Bird Observatory and Canadian River Expeditions have teamed up to develop this exciting birding and rafting trip that takes you through some of the most spectacular and rugged scenery in North America and gives you a chance to find some of the iconic birds of the St. Elias Mountains.

Aleutian Tern.  (photo Nick Hajdukovich/USFWS).

The naturalist/ birder on the trip is biologist David Fraser who has birded the Tatshenshini and Alsek Rivers for the past 18 years.

The following is a tentative itinerary. Your guides will adjust the schedule to make the best use of river and weather conditions.
The following initials indicate the meals included each day: Breakfast = B | Lunch = L | Dinner = D
Day 0 (June 21, 2013) WHITEHORSE, YUKON The scheduled flights arrive in Whitehorse throughout the day. Aim to arrive by noon. Please make your way to your hotel and plan to rendezvous with your guides in the lobby of the High Country Inn at 1pm for an orientation meeting. There will be a chance for last minute questions concerning clothing, gear, packing and other details. We will leave Whitehorse a 3 pm for the scenic drive to Haines Junction at the edge of Kluane National Park. Overnight in Haines Junction.
Day 1 (L/D) BIRDING the Haines Rd. The next leg of our journey will take us through the stunning scenery of the Haines Pass. We will stop and bird some boreal forest, looking for Yellow-bellied Flycatchers, Boreal Chickadees and Harlan’s Hawks. As we climb into the Haines Pass the scenery and the birds change and we will look for breeding Trumpeter Swans, Arctic Terns, Northern Shrikes, Wandering Tattlers, and American Tree Sparrows. Here all three species of Ptarmigan are possible, with Willow being the most easily seen. We will drive this road to the US Customs Post at Pleasant Camp where we clear US Customs before the rafting trip. Later in the afternoon we arrive at Dalton Post, now known as Shäwshe reflecting its heritage with the Champagne Aishihik First Nations. Following a safety orientation we will load the rafts and push off. At this point the Tatshenshini is a narrow stream.

Bald Eagles are numerous along the Tatshenshini and Lower Alsek,especially during salmon runs (David F. Fraser)

Day 2 (B/L/D) CANYON WHITEWATER Another safety briefing will prepare us for the day. Before long, as we float deeper into the St. Elias Mountains (19,850’) we will encounter class 2–4 whitewater – this is the most exciting stretch of water on the trip, and it’s hard to remember to look up through the canyon for both eagles, Gyrfalcons and Peregrines as we make our way downstream. Says Phoebes nest on the canyon walls and we will listen for the ringing songs of Townsend’s Solitaires.
Day 3 (B/L/D) Oxbows and Bird Songs Today, in contrast to the swift rapids we have descended, the river meanders quietly but surely through the broad valley dotted with oxbow lakes. The birding here can be very good, with Blackpoll Warblers, Rusty Blackbirds, Grey-cheeked, Hermit, Swainson;s and Varied Thrushes, Fox Sparrows and a variety of other species.
Day 4 (B/L/D) MOUNTAIN GOATS & TIMBERLINE SPARROWS Weather permitting, this is a hiking day. We move through a mature aspen stands noting the trees marked by passing Grizzly Bears and looking for Spruce Grouse, Red-breasted Sapsuckers and Trumpeter Swans. The willow thickets above camp are good for Golden-crowned and Brewer’s ("Timberline") Sparrows, and Common Redpolls. As we climb a talus slope has an isolated colony of Collared Pikas. Those who are more ad venturous can continue to climb another 1000 metres to the top for a spectacular view of some of the glaciers of the Alsek Range and up into open alpine with American Pipits, Golden Eagles and Horned Larks.. This area is known as Goat Ridge and often, if we are lucky, we glimpse mountain goats feeding on the open tundra of the high plateau.
Grizzly Bear, near the headwaters of the Tatshenshini (David F.Fraser photo)
Day 5 & 6 (B/L/D) ST. ELIAS RANGE We float past the Carmine peaks and the O’Connor River with great views of the far off St. Elias Range. Carmine Mountain is one of the few peaks with documented breeding Snow Buntings in B.C. Here we see signs of recent glacial action as the river picks up speed and becomes very braided. Moose, grizzly bears and bald eagles often frequent the wide gravel river banks, Arctic Terns nest on the gravel bars.
Day 7 (B/L/D) GLACIERS ABOUND Today we begin to see the many glaciers of the area. From our camp at Melt Creek, near the confluence of the Alsek River, we can count 27 different glaciers. Glorious views can be seen in all directions.
Day 8 (B/L/D) CONFLUENCE OF GREAT RIVERS Now, as we speed along with the current, the voluminous Alsek River joins us from the north. So large is the confluence that it is difficult to know exactly where our route lies. The surrounding peaks become higher and increasingly majestic, robed in glaciers. The broad valley here is the only place in British Columbia where Parasitic Jaegers are known to nest. A stop at the base of Walker Glacier and its huge moraines a walk here produces Willow Ptarmigan, Common Redpolls and the possibility of Kittlitz’s Murrelets rocketing their way to the sea from their rocky breeding areas above the glaciers.
Day 9 (B/L/D) ALSEK LAKE & BERGS Back on the river we will pass the Novatak Glacier, nearly six miles wide where it sprawls towards the river. Here we will look for more nesting Jaegers, Red-throated Loons and Common Redpolls.

Mt Fairweather and Alsek Lake (David F.Fraser)

As Mount Fairweather (15,300') appears around the bend, dwarfing the surrounding 7,000' peaks, a narrow sliver of a peninsula separates the river from Alsek Lake. Here the Alsek and Grand Plateau Glaciers occupy several miles of shore line where they "calve" huge slabs of ice into the lake issuing a thundering roar. The shore of this iceberg-studded lake is an enchanting place to camp.
Day 10 (B/L/D) GRAND PLATEAU GLACIER On our lay-over day, we will relax and enjoy a hike to overlook the bergs on the lake and if conditions permit, we will paddle and row among drifting bergs, keeping a respectful distance as they crack and roll. High speed aerial chases provide dinner entertainment as jaegers chase Arctic Terns and Mew Gulls for food.

Kittlitz's Murrelet (Nick Hajdukovich/USFWS). 

The Alsek now passes through a transition from the tallest peaks on the continent to the broad flat Pacific coastline. In this valley we have a vertical distance of over 15,000’ between us and the highest peaks, an overall elevation difference greater than that of the Himalayas.

Back on the river we pull into shore at the fish packing sound of the local power generator is a beacon, even in the thickest Pacific fog. The only access is by air or boat. Here we pack up the rafts prepare them for the flight home. Enlisting the help of a local fisherman and their ATV’s we head out to the vast beaches of the Alsek Delta, looking for nesting Aleutian Terns, Parastic Jaegers, and look at the flocks of Common Murres, Kittliz’s and Marbled Murrelets, gulls and other birds attracted to the mouth of this mighty river. The beach is also good for bear viewing and the tracks of Grizzlies, Wolves and Moose are everywhere.
Day 12 (B/L) FLIGHT BACK TO WHITEHORSE In all but the worst weather, the bush plane will pick us up and fly us back through the Coast and St. Elias ranges to Whitehorse. Following showers, the group may want to gather at a local eating establishment (not included). Whitehorse is a lively town and it will not be difficult to find a way to enjoy the evening!
Day 13 (July 4, 2013) HOMEWARD BOUND After goodbyes and a last look around Whitehorse, we will head for home with a cargo of fond and spectacular memories

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