by Jim Strutz
(Based on two trips; July 2007, and June 2008)
The Chitina River flows out of the Wrangle - St Elias Park, the largest national park in the United States, and combined with the adjoining Kluane Park in the Yukon, create the largest park or national heritage center in the world. The scenery is spectacular, and the experience of floating it, breathtaking.
There are several places to start, and commonly people fly into the headwaters of the Chitina, or Nizina Rivers and begin their adventure there. The low-cost way is to start just outside McCarthy on the Kennecott River, float the 5 miles to the Nizina, and then 11 more to the confluence with the Chitina. Being cheap, we opted for the latter. What is missed is the mile-high canyon of the upper Nizina. Quite spectacular from what I hear, but being poor, I am limited to low-cost adventure.
To get to the Kennecott put-in, drive south on the Richardson Highway from Glennallen. Turn left at the Edgerton Cutoff, and continue through Kenny Lake, all the way to the thriving metropolis of Chitina, about 20 miles off the highway. This is all a nice paved road. Kenny Lake (pop. 410) has a general store, diner, hotel, and the all-important gas station. Chitina (pop.123) lacks the gs station, so plan accordingly. From Chitina drive across the Copper River Bridge and head out the McCarthy Road. This is 60 miles of a narrow dirt road, and the speed limit is 35 mph. Most of the time you will be driving slower, so plan on at least 2 hours each way.
I don’t know if she’s still there, but in Chitina, April, who worked at the interesting Spirit Mountain Artworks, may still be able to assist in running a shuttle for you from McCarthy to Chitina. Call her up to arrange this beforehand, and pick her up in Chitina on your way to McCarthy. In 2007 & 2008 she was charging $125, but I think that was too cheap for the time it takes, so give her a good tip. Also make sure your car has a good spare, and jack or she won't do it. A spare key would help too. She will park your car near the O'Brien Creek take out, or wherever you want. She also did shuttles to Valdez or Cordoba if you are heading that way. Another shuttle alternative is via Wrangle Mountain Air. This might be a better option if you are using multiple vehicles.
At the Kennecott put in there is a private campground right along the river bank and in 2008 the cost was $5 per night, per person. Firewood is scarce, so prepare to deal with it or buy some from the campground host. Since it takes most of the day just to get there from Anchorage (or anywhere else) plan on spending the night and heading out the next day.
While you are so near McCarthy, it would be a shame not to take a walk through town. The only way to drive into town is across the Kennecott on the private vehicle bridge, and the cost is prohibitive unless you are a local looking for a season pass, so plan on hiking across the footbridge and catching the free shuttle to town. From there you should also opt for the $15 van ride to visit the old Kennecott Mine. We killed several hours there but still got our boats loaded and headed downstream before the day was done. We didn't have a lot of float time that day so camped the next night just a little way down the Nizina, on a nice gravel bar.
There is a glacial lake that releases most years in a large flood around the first half of July. To be safe, you should talk to Wrangle Mountain Air in McCarthy while you're there to check on the likelihood of this release happening on your trip. They keep fairly good tabs on the condition of the ice dam and can give you some clues as to what's likely to happen in the next few days. If the flood is imminent you can still do the trip, but plan on camping way above the usual high water mark if there is a chance of this happening while you're on the river. The real danger is while you are on the Kennecott and to a lesser extent the Nizina. After the flood gets to the Chitina it's effects are greatly reduced. It's a 1-2 day flood, so plan accordingly.
The trip starts with the roughest part of the trip. The Kennecott is glacial, swift, and bouncy, but the waves are not that big, and the channel easy to see. There are also a few medium-sized holes to avoid, but the most dangerous obstacle is the bridge pilings of the footbridge (if you put in above it), and the vehicle bridge below. They are really quite easy to avoid but don't get stupid. Stay sideways so you can move the boat left or right to get between them. The Kennecott ends in about 5 miles when it runs into the larger Nizina.
The Nizina is also fast, but larger and smoother. There are several good places to camp in the first few miles. After that the river will enter a canyon section and get a little squirrely as it twists & turns. There are some large whirlpools that develop at some water levels, but they are not so much dangerous as they are time-wasting. There are places where you will need to put in a little effort to keep off the canyon walls, but this is really easy water even if fast. There are also places to camp in the canyon if you so choose. After 11 miles on the Nizina, the canyon opens up and the river runs directly into the Chitina. There is a cable crossing right near the end.
The Chitina is much larger than the Nizina and even easier to run. However it is still fast. Nowhere on this trip does the water slow down. Most of the time you will be doing 7 mph at low water levels, and often exceeding 12 mph at high water levels. There are some moderate wave trains in places that are caused by the current speeding up, and these are fun to charge down. They are also fast. Camping on gravel bars is available just about everywhere.
The Chitina is a braided river until the end, but determining the main channel is easy and appear ant most of the time. However, if you don't maintain constant attention it is very easy to get sucked down the wrong channel, so pay attention and keep looking downstream. Side channels are rarely a big problem though. They are generally large and deep enough to float your boat but can be a lot slower. When traveling in groups, the followers tend to rely on the navigation skills of the lead boat, so put a good leader in front. One that pays attention. Still, the followers will drift off and not see when the leader starts moving to one side or the other, and they will occasionally get sucked down that wrong channel.
I recommend using small FRS radios. They are like the walkie talkies of the old days, but better. On an open river they have a range of over a mile, and can help keep groups together. They are also good for reuniting groups that get separated. The problem with being separated is when you want to pull over for lunch or to refill your water jugs, or look for a good campsite. I recommend that people have all their gear in the boat they are riding in just in case they have to camp separated from the other boats.
Much of the land along the lower end of the Chitina belongs to the Ahtna Native Corporation, and they have fees for camping on their land. Their fees are listed on their web page: www.ahtna.com. Also, you can get a good look at where their land boundaries on the same site. You are permitted to camp for free any place below the normal high water mark, so gravel bars are open to all unless the water is too high.
There are clear water several side streams that come into the Chitina, that you can use to filter or purify for drinking. However, most of the side streams support salmon spawning and therefore have a lot of bears that roam about during the summer. Consequently, it is not advisable to camp anywhere near these streams. Get fresh water at lunch and find a nice gravel bar without the freshwater supply for the night.
One good plan for ending the trip is to schedule your last day of camping 5-10 miles from the take out. This makes for an earlier end and provides time to tear everything down, load the vehicles, and get back to town before it gets too late. Fortunately, there are several good choices for this, depending on how close you want to get to the end of the trip.
The usual take out is where O'Brien Creek runs into the river left bank of the Copper River. At some water levels, it is possible to take out just as the Chitina hits the Copper, by accessing a long eddy in the Copper, and a suitable gravel bar that leads to the start of the McCarthy Road. Personally, this does not look to be a reliable take out, but I've never tried it. Getting to O'Brien Creek is quite easy. Just follow the main channel of the Chitina all the way to the end, and as you approach the confluence with the Copper get to the river right side of the main channel. The Chitina River completely overruns the Copper and you will find yourself on the far side of the Copper in just a few minutes.
O'Brien Creek is about 2 miles downstream on river right and is hard to miss as long as you stay near the right bank. The State of AK has a narrow right-of-way from the road to the river on the upstream side of O'Brien Creek, and you will probably see a few boats parked in there. Just move on in and unload your boats on the gravel bar. There is a parking lot just above the take out, and if you used April, she will have parked your car right there. The road to O'Brien Creek is part of the old rail bed of the Copper River Northwestern Railway that connected Cordova with Chitina, McCarthy, and the Kennecott copper mine. This is also part of the same road that heads out to McCarthy today.
We took 4 days on the river to float the Kennecott, Nizina, and Chitina from McCarthy to Chitina. However, we also added one day to get to McCarthy, run the shuttle, and camp at the put in. We also added in a layover day to make the trip more pleasurable. I never used to do layover days, but I have grown rather fond of them in recent years, and plan on adding one to almost all my trips in the future. They give everyone a day to recover from the physical stresses of loading & unloading boats, and setting up a new camp every day. They also provide one more day away from town, and time to spend talking, cooking, and play cards.
This is another great Alaskan float trip, with fascinating scenery, great camping spots, and fast but easy water. Mix in a few good friends and you can have the perfect vacation.
Another option to consider is continuing on down the Copper and taking out near Cordova. There is a daily high speed ferry service to Whittier, and then only a short drive home. On my last trip four of us did this, while the rest of the group got out at Chitina and drove home. Plan on another five days to finish the trip this way.
Jim Strutz is an experienced whitewater rafter and local Alaskan who has floated dozens of rivers in Alaska. In addition to his river skills, he is a fine riverbank chef who has prepared many meals for groups large and small.