Cruisin' down the Tat

On the Rio: Blanchard River to Tat, Silver Creek Camp

4AM and the sun is coming up, the worst thing is the birds are yakkin' at each other at 100 db, and I utilize all the weapons: earplugs and eye pillow. To no avail, I doze till about 6, and am up showering again and off down the interminable staircases of the Halsingland hotel to a welcome cup of coffee in my new big insulated mug, emblazoned with eagles, a true Alaskan experience. Others are stirring and I catch Donna heading off to get sandwiches at the mega-sandwich store, give my order and head for the mocha stand. The winsome beauty is there, dishing out the good java, and I fill my cup and mind with stimulations of all kinds and head back to the hotel. Our stuff is accumulating out front in a motley pile, and people are drifting in for breakfast. Stan is due at 7:30, so we waste no time wolfing down another great pile of eggs, home fries, toast and the rest needed to get us off to a nutritious start for a big day.

We hang out and watch the other travelers up early: a bus heading for Fairbanks with the lovers who watched my camera stuff on the ferry, Japanese tourists heading for the ferry, and others milling around, drinking coffee, waiting for Godot. Stan and Nigel arrive and a flurry of activity ensues, me grabbing shotgun in the van before anyone is cognizant that it exists, Randy and Mike go in the truck with Stan, which now has all the Blanchard gear, our personal gear and the kitchen stuff. A major load. Al has proven his worth by blowing out one of his dry bags, and spending a large amount of money at the outfitters store on a pair of sandals and a new dry bag. Bonnie has recovered her lost duffel from Haines airways with all her camping gear in it. We are full of coffee and ready for the ride.

We pull out under overcast skies, cloud-covered peaks with glaciers and snow gullies on far-off ranges. Nigel is full of stories, they are going to run the Chilkat tomorrow, they climbed the high ridge north of town 3 days ago, saw some griz in a meadow, full of activity this place. We cruise north on the paved highway, built by the army corps during Korean conflict. It is a great road, and we fly along and soon reach US customs, no big deal, but lots of mosquitoes, and a great relief to drain some of the coffee from our systems. We hit the Canadian customs in BC. and Nigel warns us to say nothing of guns or alcohol if asked by the customs dude. He had assured the guy last time he had no guns or alcohol, and when the guy asked the passengers, one guy piped up "Yea, I have a gun", which started a lot of mistrust, and an hour of paper filling out and generally pissy delays. After a long wait, we cruise through showers up in to the high tundra, rolling hills, a high pass, mountains kept at bay by a vast plateau. Finally we head down several broad drainages, and cross the Blanchard, turn onto a dirt road marked by a broken kayak and we are at the putin of a cute little stream, battling the mosquitoes who dont seem to mind the elevation and general lack of food.

We chomp on oversize sandwiches, put our wet suits on and blow up the boats going on this first voyage. 8 of us will paddle or row 4 miles of the Blanchard and 8 miles of the Tat down to the regular putin where the rental craft, kitchen, gear and the rest will be waiting. We thank Stan, he has been a great help, tireless in his efforts so we can have a good trip. The girls are working on Nigel to stay the night with us, but he has his program. Finally we pile in and head on a bump and grind run down a shallow rocky stretch. The satellite dish and chain link fence of a highway maintenance station slide by and we are in the Alaskan wilderness at last. Above the banks of a shallow canyon, we can see cloud-shrouded peaks poking up into never-never land, giving it a lost kingdom look. We round the corner and eagles swoop high above, and one appears on the ridge above us, sitting 3 feet high, eyeing us wondering who is penetrating his territory. He just sits there, while several others wheel high above. We land and I grab the camera, killing my fingers in the process, an unforeseen side aspect to pelican boxes. I snap on the telephoto and track the wheeling eagles for 6 shots, then look for our perched friend upstream, but he is gone. Some beautifully slump-folded and layered cliffs of sand from glacio-fluvitile deposits form the cliffs upstream, sitting on top of a highly deformed turbidite sequence at river level. Franciscan geology all over again, on a mega-terrane scale, this is Alaskan geology. We run some riffles, then some rocky rapids, Mike gets stuck on one big sharp rock that looks like a saw, I call it sawtooth rock. We pivot off, but he is concerned, he looks at me at a break and says "you are the only one I can feel paddling". I know the feeling, the boat surges each time one person paddles. We have 5 paddlers, Sam, Al, Bill, Nif, JT and me, with mike the captain. Nobody is putting out any energy, I can see it. "That's why I stopped captaining paddle boats" I say in a low tone to Mike. He looks at me helplessly, we are heading into a big canyon on the tat with major rapids. I found a map on the wall of the commercial's shed at putin, and the rapids were named, and a gorge is immanent.

Suddenly I become aware of a major expanse of water ahead, brown with silt and roiling with high water. It is the confluence with the Tat coming in from the left, cooking behind about 5,000 cfs, and moving about 9 mph downstream. A different scene awaits us as we cautiously poke our way out into the flood, a lake moving downstream at impossible speeds. We gradually get used to the new river environment, much bigger, much faster, we are looking at major holes now to dodge, Grand Canyon style water, very different problems and consequences from the Blanchard. The water is not complicated, but major eddies, boils and currents toss us around, we are now in a forceful current and our boat (14' Aire self-bailer) is at the mercy of the river. Just as we are thinking this is ok, the walls rise, and the holes become a maze of turbid froth, as we work our way down through several major rapids. Mike does a great job of avoiding the major stuff, until one takes us by surprise and we all grab the lines and the boat surfs a hole and spins around a few times. Al is sitting high on the tube, and we watch his incredulous face as he flips backward into the creamy ice water. I told him 50% chance of a swim, and here he is. Fortunately, he comes up next to the boat and all hands reach out and drag him aboard flopping around in the bottom like a beached whale. He has on a wet suit and is really prepared. On we go into other screaming bends dotted with major holes, but no more incidents. The river mellows out and we enjoy the scene in a steep canyon cut in the plateau. More eagles wheel to entertain us, and we drift along a serene stretch. The country opens out and soon we find our boats and companions perched on a steep shoreline. We beach the boats and set about the duty of camp. After a great discussion where we tried to avoid going against the others wishes and superior knowledge of life in the wild, Sam and I finally settle on a nice spot in a grove of trees not far from the campfire, within crawling distance if you know what I mean, and we settle down for the first night on the river.

Life in camp, settling down with several piles of gear, sorting through to get theright outfit for the evening. The mosquitos are swarming and several folks have put on headnets. I slap on the deet and mix up some gatorade and vodka (the godka of gc fame), and sam and I settle in chairs with a view. The call interrupts our reverie and we heave to the tarp. Clouds are darkening, and the thunder is rumbling. It takes 5 of us about 10 minutes to string all the lines with two oars for roof support, and we snuggle in as rain starts pattering on the roof. Hummus cranked by hand Hordoevres are out and the crew is cranking out a great meal, chicken stirfry, fruit salad with whipped creme for dessert. We check the boats out and start tieing down essential stuff. Big-tube bucket boat pros, double enders, should keep the spray off and carry lots of gear. JT is partying, and we whip some quick jokes back and forth as she guzzles another bud lite. She teaches english and phy ed at incline high school in Tahoe, and skiis and parties with the best of them. She is a wild- looking woman, early thirties, with a great smiling mouth and intense eyes. She has travelled all over the world, and met Sam with her dad on the patio of the yak hotel in Lhasa two years ago. She has a great relationship with Bill, her dad, and they joke constantly back and forth. Bill is a successful businessman and has time and money to do major travelling. He and Sam did the Karakoram highway last summer, and is full of tales of adventure. His wife prefers to stay at home and pursue her carreer as photographer of rich people in natural environments.

I feel the call of the wild, and head off down a damp dirt road towards the outhouses. Aware of how wild it is here, I sing and whistle as I go along, to warn the bears of my presence. Salmon are running like torpedos up a small creek, a King salmon run is in progress, and the counters are sitting on a small dam watching the fish go by, what a job! Back at camp, Mike has called a meeting, and covers all the details of camp chores etc. I will be coffee man in the morning. Meal prep will be by whoever is motivated, and Donna will be chief cook, hmmm, we'll see if this works. It gets dark about 11 pm and I settle into the tent, and find the zipper for the mosquito net is broken, but the main door zipper is ok. Fortunately, it is cool out and we open the vents and settle in. Day 2-river I wake to the incessent biting and buzzing of moquitos. sam took a leak and left the door open a little and the buggers are all over the place. I zip up put on more deet and try to sleep. 6 am I rise and start the coffee process. Boil water in big pot (silty stuff from the river), set up thermii and melitta filters and coffee and then pour when ready, waiting the requisite 3 minutes for the water to cool down. Donna is up and we are exchanging stories, my snafu ones are ravingly wild, but true, but true. Overcast, clouds hiding the peaks in the distance, but traces of glaciers and snowfields outline the main topography. I get the walkman, and pop in the mozart piano-violin sonotas, leaving the phones part way out so I can talk and hear people. We dress for the river, my new boots, overpants and layers and layers, shorty wet suit, silk longies, rain pants, silk shirt, poly pro shirt, vest, jacket and rain jacket, gloves and waterproof gloves at ready

Load up the "Arctic Tern" with most bags in the back with my sling and cargo net holding all comfortably, much more room than in Lucy, my older pro. The SNAFU flag flies proudly, and we shove off, after piping Mike off with a tune from the recorder, and the current catches us and immediatly we move along like a frieght train, current riffles, watching downstream for obstructions, having a close call with a tree, spinning off it, and savoring the far-off views of mountains, trees and nobody, nobody at all for thousands of square miles. We make progress rapidly and Sam takes over the oars, and immediatly runs into a tree, snapping off the snafu flagpole, and causing great consternation as we finally retrieve it. We start into the gorge rock changing from graywacke ss to hard diabase, the only major rapids in the trip and drift too close to Steve, we are bumping him into the rapid, he is getting pissed. I tell sam to back off, but he wont or cant, and after several close calls, I get him to relinquish the oars and pull away from steve. I worry about Sam at the oars, he doesnt have the river sense coordinated with what one should do at the oars. I feel much better now, dodging big holes, and crashing through waves. we are soon full of water and my boots are too, and it is cold! 38 degrees at least. We run quickly through the gorge, gather wood with big moose tracks all around, pass a snug small camp downstream from Squaw creek and marvel at huge mts in the Squaw range. We arrive in camp after only about 2 hours on the river.

Silver creek is sunny and we unfold camp, chowing down on a great lunch, supplemented by "Steves elk jerky and elk salami, absolutely delicious. I snooze and wake to shouts of "Terry, where are the stakes for the tarp" Mike is worried. "They are in the ground at last nights camp" I reply, and his shoulders slump, dissappointed in the loss. There are 5 stakes left, 1/2 of the total. I saw them there in the ground when we derigged the tent, and said," it would be easy to leave these h ere." Rocks, boats, logs become stakes, and the tarp is erect. I head up the creek to explore and find a rough trail, through tough bushes, mulberry with thick limbs. it is a bear trail, and I find old bear poop, a coyote track, and some great marble outcrops, signalling yet another terrane. I yodel to scare the bears, this is fun, haven't yodeled for years and damn I am good!! Sun is out blazing down at camp, so I set up the sun shower and Sam and I down some mango-vodkas, (modka?) and feel quite mellow.

A game of horseshoes is raging, Randy and Mike were just annihilated on a recent middle fork Salmon trip, and are really good now. We settle in to hordoevres, black bean dip and crunched tortilla chips (some one sat on them in my boat). Steve sings a song about bad Bill getting it on with the wrong woman and speaking in high tones thereafter. some conciousness lowering with JT, Bill and Sam, and "Fire girl", Dyan's new name. She is a chunky, beautiful version of Steve, her father, killed her first elk at 13, and now is working in Bend. I take some pix with the nikon, like doiing a fashion shoot, and she beams. We revel in the ranges, Squaw Range to the north, Alsek range looming far to the south. Dinner rings. and we dive in to smoked salmon bbq marinated in olive oil, soy and whiskey (steve's black velvet), potatoes, and dessert. Having no problem with this food scene. Mike has it down, in black and white on computer printout in a waterproof case. I crawl in at 10 pm, the mosquitos are mercifully absent here and sleep the sleep of the exhausted, with the rush of Silver creek beside me. (more to come after a Tuolumne hiatus) Copyright 1997, Terry Wright

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