AK: Sublime summer rafting down the Klehini River

Jimmy McNevin (left) Wylie Betz (right) and other rafts in the group ahead. (Photo by Daysha Eaton, KHNS – Haines)

The Klehini River near Haines is about 42 miles long, from its source in British Columbia to its mouth at the Chilkat River, of which it is the largest tributary. It is also one of the most accessible and sublime summer rafting experiences to be had in Southeast Alaska.

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On an overcast afternoon, eight passengers and two guides are ready to push off the bank into the waters of the Klehini River which weave like strands of ribbon through a rocky plain between steep, snow-capped mountains.

Jimmy McNevin is an expedition raft guide for Chilkat Guides out of Haines.

Originally from Minnesota, McNevin says several years ago he left a good paying job in a cubicle in Denver to work seasonally on Southeast Alaska rivers.

“This is a glacially fed river, so the water is very, very shallow. It is also very cold. Uniquely this time of year, it is also clear,” McNevin said. “It is beautiful, it is kind of an emerald green color. Later in the summer when the Jarvis Glacier starts to melt, there will be a lot more silt in the river and it will be kind of a chocolate milk color.”

It’s not hard to see why he never went back.

“We’re surrounded by a lot of cottonwood trees. We’ve got a lot of black cottonwood trees, a lot of coniferous trees, primarily Western Hemlock and Sitka Spruce, the state tree of Alaska,” McNevin said. “We are sandwiched in between two mountain ranges, the Takeensha and the Takshanuk. The Takeensha is basically what separates us from Glacier Bay and the ice fields that flow down into Glacier Bay National Park. So, we’re right on the edge of a whole world of ice here.”

The river follows the northern boundary of the Chilkat mountain range. McNevin explains that the Klehini actually starts in Canada.

“It’s a river that’s headwaters are in British Columbia,” McNevin said. “The Jarvis Glacier flows from right off the AlCan Highway. If you ever were to drive to Haines you would see it right after you cross the Canadian border into the Haines Highway, you will see the Klehini River right on the right.”

The lower portion of the Klehini, where we’re headed today, passes through The Alaska Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve. The area is called the “council grounds” because it is where thousands of the white-headed raptors congregate annually in late fall and early winter to feast on salmon. There are quite a few bears in the area as well.

“Well, it’s pretty early in the season so mostly just eagles so far. I’ve been really craving a bear and moose sighting,” guide Wylie Betz said.

Betz, originally from Tacoma, Washington, also left a more traditional job for one on the river.

“I had a pretty good job as a warehouse manager, but I was really stressed out and had a really bad car accident basically as a result of that stress and one of my best friends has worked up here for nine years now and he invited me on a Grand Canyon trip for the third time,” Betz said. “After my accident I called him up and was like hey is that still open, cause I’m there.”

Betz says he can’t imagine doing anything else.

“There is nothing I enjoy more than boatin’,” Betz said.

With all those glaciers fueling its flow, the Klehini’s channels can change overnight. It is braided river, so that means it’s always changing, which can be a challenge for guides.

Before taking off, Betz gives a safety talk.

“If I say duck I’m not pointing out wildlife, I want you to duck into the boat not out of it. We might be going over an obstacle hanging over the boat,” Betz said. “And don’t grab onto any branches or anything like that as we are going underneath. Also, you might hear me say highside. If we come into an object sideways, the river will want to push us up onto it and we’re just going to go onto the highside of the boat and that weight will help us get off of that object and keep going down river.”

This is one of the first rafting trips of the season which starts in early May and runs until October. Before cruise ship season gets going, the company has invited local people who live in the Haines area for a free ride down the river; people like Nene Wolfe, who’s never done this before.

“I’ve lived here going on three years, but I’ve been coming up to work here for the last 20 years maybe,” Wolfe said.

We push off into the river in the 18-foot-raft weighing 2,000 pounds.

Its early spring, so there are still patches of ice along the shoreline. Sometimes to avoid a downed tree or a large rock, guides jump out of the boat and onto the bank with a rope bringing the raft to a quick stop then walking it along river’s edge around the obstacles while passengers traverse the river’s pebbled shores.

And in the shallow water, there are bumps. Here and there the raft gets stuck on a gravel bar, requiring that everyone on board bounce up and down until the raft breaks loose.

Taking a break on a gravel bar, passenger Nene Wolfe is taking it all in.

“It’s so beautiful! And it is a lot of fun watching our boat guide,” Wolfe said. “From the perspective of the river instead of the road it is absolutely beautiful.”

Passengers pick up polished river pebbles as souvenirs then pile back into the raft and the guides push off downriver. A lone eagle surveys this stretch of the Klehini from his perch on a nearby cottonwood tree.

McNevin with Chilkat Guides says when people ask him why he keeps coming back he tells them:

“It’s the place, It’s the place,” McNevin said. “It’s Haines. It’s glacially fed rivers, it’s the scenery, it’s the people.”

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Daysha Eaton is a contributor with the Alaska Public Radio Network. Daysha Eaton holds a B.A. from Evergreen State College, and a M.A. from the University of Southern California. Daysha got her start in radio at Seattle public radio stations, KPLU and KUOW. Before coming to KBBI, she was the News Director at KYUK in Bethel. She has also worked as the Southcentral Reporter for KSKA in Anchorage. Daysha's work has appeared on NPR's "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered", PRI's "The World" and "National Native News". She's happy to take assignments, and to get news tips, which are best sent via email. Daysha became a journalist because she believes in the power of storytelling. Stories connect us and they help us make sense of our world. They shed light on injustice and they comfort us in troubled times. She got into public broadcasting because it seems to fulfill the intention of the 4th Estate and to most effectively apply the freedom of the press granted to us through the Constitution. She feels that public radio has a special way of moving people emotionally through sound, taking them to remote places, introducing them to people they would not otherwise meet and compelling them to think about issues they might ordinarily overlook.

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