Juneau residents are familiar with Taku the ferry, Taku the winds and Taku the inlet. A few even work their way up the base of the river, where fresh water tumbles across the border from Canada.
But very few Juneauites ever see the source, where the river has a different name.
"Beyond the border is an unknown realm," said Ian Kean, who offers guided rafting trips down the entire 130-mile river through his Vancouver-based company, The River League.
Kean was perusing maps of British Columbia and Southeast Alaska when he noticed the network of rivers running through a 4.5-million acre roadless watershed that empties into Taku Inlet.
"When you're map dreaming and looking at these place on the map, it's telling you that this place is going to be magnificent," said Kean. "When I landed on the headwaters and floated the river in its entirety, it was beyond my best imaginings. The river just got more beautiful as it came down toward the coastal area and it crescendos with the coastal ranges."
On his first trip down the Taku Kean saw grizzlies, an albino eagle and a small pack of blond wolves drinking from the river. He was surprised by the number of salmon and bears along the Taku, and even more surprised no other commercial operators were running river trips when he started in 1995.
"It's an absolute global treasure really," Kean said. "I've been guiding from Latin America to the high arctic and I've never been around so many bears and the variety of ecosystems."
Through the woods
The river starts in boreal forests, lined by the white trunks of birch and cottonwood trees. To get there rafters take a 45-minute flight from Juneau, crossing over the border and off the edge of most Alaska maps, into the white realm on the margins.
"This white area that I didn't know at all was just remarkable," said Buck Lindekugel, a Juneau resident who floated down the river in mid-July.
Where Lindekugel joined the river it was called the Inklin and was already swift-moving, deep and a quarter-mile wide. The weather was dry, as it generally is on the other side of the coastal mountains.
The rivers upper reaches have grade 3 and 4 rapids where canyon walls compress the Inklin River to the width of the Mendenhall River. The roar of rushing water reverberates off the steep walls on either side.
It's challenging in the 18-foot rafts the River League uses, Kean said. An experienced whitewater canoeist might be able to do it, or portage past, but most people would be better off with a guide, Kean said.
After that the river becomes a scenic float trip, working its way into the sub-boreal, white spruce forest. It wends past the rounded slump left when the mountainside slid down 35 years ago, damming the river for two weeks.
Where tributaries join the main river, alluvial fans spread out, varying the water level. In places the water was so slow and calm Lindekugel could talk to people on the opposite end of the raft without raising his voice.
"We were on the river just long enough where you start to get into the groove," Lindekugel said. "You're moving with the river. You understand how it works. It was just really peaceful."
Most of the river is class 1, which was just fine with Sean Markey, a writer and producer for nationalgeographic.com, who took the trip in early July.
"The point of the trip wasn't to be on a roller coaster ride," Markey said. "It wasn't an adrenaline trip. Rafting was just a way to move through a wilderness area and explore it."
At night the rafters camped on sand bars. Each morning they would wake to find paw prints around their camp, evidence of the wolves, moose, bear and beaver that had been by in the night.
"The glacier till of the river was so fine it would hold the swirl of a handprint or thumbprint," Markey said.
The best seats were in the front raft, where rafters could spot dal sheep, moose, beaver, harlequin duck and bald eagles before they spooked. One sow stood up when it saw the rafters on the river, 50 feet away. She stretched three feet taller, then galloped off like a horse.
"It was amazing how fast it moved," Lindekugel said.
Lance Craighead, a renowned bear biologist, went on one of the July raft trips. He estimates the density of bears in the Taku watershed is similar to Admiralty Island, "especially in the area where there are salmon spawning streams, which is pretty much all of it," he said.
Alone on the river
What rafters rarely saw and didn't miss during the 11-day trip was other people. They occasionally found the mark of historical uses an old hunter's cache in a tree, the remains of an abandoned Russian trading post, a painting of a canoe on a rock. The rock painting was probably a marker for Tlingits from the coast and interior who used to paddle and hike the entire watershed.
"My grandfather used to walk up to Atlin all the time," said Michael Dunlap, whose ancestors were moved by the government from their villages on the Taku River to Douglas Island.
Those traces of previous people only added to the romance of the Taku River trips.
"These trips are all about the human spirit and having fun out on these rivers," Kean said. "Huck Finning about and letting all the problems of the city or home life filter away. The river washes over you and it's one of the most catalytic and most exciting and perhaps one of the most romantic places you can journey to or on."
Lindekugel felt that kind of transformation as he traveled on the river toward home.
"You're just so close to something so big and powerful," Lindekugel said. "It wasn't just the river. It was the bigger area. You're part of it, you're running its capillary, but the entire thing was alive and breathing and you could feel it."
Only when the rafters float across the border, navigating around shallows created by glacial silt, do people reappear. There the water is a mile wide, flowing at a mean rate of 6 million gallons per minute. As they came into the inlet, the rafters passed a row of cabins owned by Juneau residents and watched Alaska gillnetters at work. By then they were back in the familiar hemlock and spruce forest, with the typical weather.
"You hit the border and the rain starts falling," said Sarah Keeney, water quality/mining organizer for the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council. She went on a shorter version of the rafting trip last summer.
"It was just great to see the place. We have this incredible treasure so close by," Keeney said. "It really made me realize the wildness around us, and these incredible opportunities right in Juneau's back yard."
Kristan Hutchison can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.