Fed by the massive glaciers of the world’s second-highest coastal mountain range, the St. Elias Mountains, the Alsek River is one of Canada’s most outstanding wilderness rivers. The designated area is 90 km in length and lies within Kluane National Park and Reserve, in the Yukon Territory’s southwest corner. Considered the Kluane National Park reserve’s most precious jewel, the Alsek River’s impressive natural features include landforms resulting from the natural assaults of water, wind and glaciers. The area through which the Alsek flows is home to important ecosystems such as the Kluane Ice Field ranges of the St. Elias Mountains, which contain the highest peaks in the country. Large populations of mammals and birds – some endangered – make the areas that surround the Alsek River their home.
Though the Alsek Valley is sparsely inhabited, indigenous peoples have inhabited the region for an estimated 10,000 years. The ancestors of the Southern Tutchone people, for example, arrived about 4,500 years ago, and traditional hunting, fishing and trading camps, such as the villages of Nesketahin and Klukshu, just outside the park, have been used for more than 1,000 years. The first people of European descent came during the Klondike Gold Rush.
In more recent times the area has become a focus for mountaineering and glaciological research.
This remote region has made the Alsek river valley a place for the adventurous. Private and commercial rafting trips of 3 to 14 days are possible; all take-out points on the river are accessible only by aircraft. The river features huge waves, a swift current, dangerous rapids, cold summer water temperatures (averaging only 2-4 degrees Celsius), and winds up to 100 km/hour, but trips on this river are nonetheless highly appealing to white-water enthusiasts!
A 45 km stretch of the Alsek River passes through a Special Preservation Area that protects grizzly bear habitat and rare plant species.
Kluane National Park and Reserve abuts three other large protected areas: Wrangell-St. Elias and Glacier Bay National Parks in Alaska, and British Columbia’s Tatshenshini-Alsek Provincial Park. Together, these parks have been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site and make up the largest internationally protected area in the world.
The designated portion of the Alsek River flows through Kluane National Park and Reserve and is managed by Parks Canada.
The Alsek River was designated a Canadian Heritage River in 1986 for its outstanding natural heritage. The river rises amid the highest mountains in Canada, in the southwest Yukon Territory, in Kluane National Park and Reserve. Its braided upper reaches nestle in a broad valley, providing an oasis for grizzly bears, Dall’s sheep, mountain goats and other wildlife. Downstream, glaciers flow into the river’s silt-laden waters, calving icebergs into the river as it leaves the park on its journey to the Pacific Ocean.
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The Canadian Heritage River plaques offer a brief glimpse into why a river has been designated to the System. They are often located nearby one of its historically significant locations, and highlight some of the most important natural, cultural and recreational values of the river.
Alsek River Plaque Text
The Alsek River - Rising in a complex of braided river channels, the Alsek is fed by the Dezadeash River and glaciers of the Icefield Ranges. The river’s broad upper valley contains extensive areas of vegetation unique at this latitude and provides habitat for large populations of grizzly bear and mountain goat. Downstream, huge glaciers calve with tremendous force into the river channel. Here, its frigid white water and steep banks make the river’s southern reaches virtually impassable. For these outstanding features, the Alsek is herby proclaimed a Canadian Heritage River.