Robert F. Kennedy Jr. lowers the helicopter window and gazes at the sheer snow-plastered face of Mount Kennedy, rising from remote ice caps in the heart of Kluane National Park.
“No one from my family has been here to visit since my father,” Kennedy’s voice crackles over the headsets.
Nearly half a century earlier, his father – then a senator for New York – along with famed alpinist Jim Whittaker made the first ascent of this peak, named in honour of slain president John F. Kennedy. At 4,267 metres, it was the highest unclimbed mountain in Canada at the time.
“I clearly remember my father leaving for the climb,” Kennedy says. “It was a big deal. But we didn’t get any updates. One day, he just appeared at home again.”
Kennedy pulls his 12-year-old, Aiden, into a bear hug and snaps a selfie of the pair on his iPhone, the peak rearing up behind them. Moments later, the chopper begins an ear-popping descent toward the Alsek River, and a four-day rafting journey Kennedy has been planning for years.
The Alsek, which rises in the Yukon’s interior plateau, cleaves a deep corridor through the coastal Saint Elias Mountains on its journey to the Pacific. It is the only green break in hundreds of kilometres of rock and ice. A voyage down this powerful, surging river offers a glimpse of how North America might have looked during the last ice age. Glaciers, some hundreds of kilometres long, ooze from high peaks, their sapphire faces calving immense icebergs. Dryas, alder and other nitrogen-fixing colonizing plants fight for a toehold on moraines and alluvial fans. Grizzlies, wolves, mountain goats and eagles abound.
Kennedy is here – along with his two youngest boys, Aiden and Fin, 15, – to run a 150-kilometre stretch of this legendary river. Accompanying them are key supporters of Kennedy’s Waterkeeper Alliance and a posse of veteran guides from Canadian River Expeditions (myself included).
Rivers have played a central role in Kennedy’s life. It was Whittaker, his father’s climbing partner, who first introduced the family to rafting, taking them on annual trips down such American classics as the Grand Canyon’s Colorado River and the Snake. Later, two of Kennedy’s brothers formed a rafting company and, together with Kennedy, tackled exploratory journeys in Latin America, British Columbia and Quebec. Now an environmental lawyer, Kennedy founded the Waterkeepers Alliance in 1999, a grassroots organization dedicated to “swimmable, fishable, drinkable waterways, worldwide.”
The Alsek has been on his radar for decades. While the journey is purely for pleasure, it is clear that the Arctic – a bellwether for environmental change – has Kennedy’s interest and attention.
The helicopter drops us on the shores of iceberg-clogged Lowell Lake. The group ascends the steep flanks of Goat Herd mountain, and after two chest-heaving hours, sweeping views of the Coast Range spread before us, glaciers stretching all the way to Mount Kennedy on the horizon. Beyond lies the largest non-polar ice cap in the world. And far below, a handful of blue and orange specks: our rafts and tents.
Crossing a silty stream on the way to camp, the kids engage in a monumental mud fight. Offshore, icebergs groan, crack and roll. It is 10 p.m. before we sit down to a dinner of steaks cooked over a driftwood fire, and it’s still as bright as midday.
The next morning, the Alsek flexes its muscle. Gale-force winds whip up waves. Oars and paddles prove powerless to move the big rafts, and soon guides and Kennedys alike are wading through waist-deep frigid water, hauling the rafts toward the outflow of the lake, where a building current whisks them onward.
After a week of hot, sunny weather, the Alsek is in flood. Grey water surges over the banks, swirling though alders and dwarf fireweed, and the guides must work hard to avoid crashing waves, some the size of transport trucks.
Kennedy is always with his boys, sitting beside them in the raft, wrestling on sandbanks. There are no cell towers in this wilderness, but he has taken their phones away regardless. “We have a no-screens-during-summer rule in our house,” he says. “No TV, no computers, no phones. Otherwise, we’ll be sailing during a storm – I mean really exciting stuff – and they’ll all have their heads down playing a game.”
This means that the boys don’t miss the immense grizzly peering down from the riverbank after lunch. It doesn’t miss the rafts, either, quickly turning tail and bounding up a steep hillside before disappearing from sight. Kluane is home to the continent’s healthiest, most genetically diverse population of grizzlies, and not a single beach we stop at is devoid of their characteristic prints – as big as a Frisbee, but with claws.
After running Lava North, the most demanding section of whitewater on the journey, our group arrives at the foot of Fischer Glacier. Rain squalls pass, and guides cook a dinner of Thai chicken and blueberry cobbler that is served under tarps.
“I’ll teach you a useful trick,” Kennedy announces as we relax by the fire. “A carp will thrash about madly when you catch one. But all you have to do stick your thumb down its throat and it calms right down.”
Sitting beside me, Wendy Abrams, a member of the Waterkeeper Alliance Board, leans close and whispers, “He is Doctor Doolittle … seriously.”
Kennedy, we learn, has a fish tank at his office so large that he swims in it several times a month – among fish he has caught. A picture on his phone shows Aiden cradling an owl the size of a large watermelon. “That is our pet this summer. Every year, we raise a raven, or a crow or other bird of prey,” Kennedy explains. “I’ve been doing it since I was a young boy.”
But that’s just the start. As a youth, his family had a pet sea lion, which often pushed unsuspecting guests into the swimming pool. Young Bobby kept a “zoo” in the basement, complete with anteater, reptiles and even an elephant. “I was given a lion when I was 13. I kept it for a year, but eventually it swiped one of our deer and cut its chest wide open. So my mother said it had to go.”
At quiet moments, I find myself searching his face, and in that subtle jawline, the cast of the eyes, it is not hard to see his famous forebears. Part of a family draped in legend and tragedy, his life is unfathomable: visits from John Lennon as a child, dinner with Barack Obama last week, A-list celebs mentioned in nearly every story. He could have followed any path. So who instilled the deeply felt conservation ethic?
“I knew from a very early age what I wanted to do with my life. When I was 8, I wrote to President Kennedy saying I wanted to discuss pollution. He invited me to the White House, and I brought a salamander I’d caught near my home as a present. It was dead by the time I arrived, but I insisted it was just sleeping. We set it free in a Rose Garden fountain. Then Uncle Jack sent me to interview [biologist] Rachel Carlson and Stewart Udall [secretary of the interior] and others.
Why his keen interest in the Arctic? “You see the effects of change more starkly up here. Just look at this trip. Every bend and corner of the river, the guides have another story of how things used to be. It is more subtle in America. But even at my home, new birds are appearing. Black vultures have become common in New York state, but I never saw one in my childhood.”
Finally, I ask Kennedy the question I have been wanting to pose all trip: Is the conservation movement making progress? Is it even holding ground? His response is immediate: “We’re losing. The bad guys have all the money.”
In the days that follow, we roast hot dogs on beach fires, hike amid blankets of wildflowers and watch golden eagles soar over jade-green mountain ridges. Our rafts drift beneath unnamed summits and past canyon walls where ocean-bottom rocks have been twisted and turned like Play-Doh. Kennedy, who has rowed a dory in the Grand Canyon, is at home taking his turn on the oars.
Eventually, the thrum of helicopter blades breaks the reverie, and minutes later, the group is headed back toward Whitehorse. We gather outside the Yukon Arts Centre, where Kennedy has just delivered an impassioned address – a mix of hope and caution, a call to protect the commons – to a packed house.
When the moment for farewell arrives, emotions well up – misty eyes, bear hugs, promises to stay in touch.
“Come to the Cape!” Kennedy urges. “We’ll show you some real adventure there.”