by Jim Strutz
(Based on three trips in the 2000’s)
The Chulitna is a multi-faceted river. The usual put-in starts out on the East Fork as a small clear water stream with good fishing, and a little white water; it becomes a moderately large, and finally quite large glacial river that goes through several canyons and open braided sections. There is enough variety to keep everyone interested.
The Chulitna has been canoed, and at low water I think it would be fairly easy for competent, experienced white water canoeists. At normal flows there is a Class III section that starts just above where the railroad crosses, and continues for a half-mile or so. If you're starting from the East Fork put in, these rapids are maybe 3-4 hours down. At low water, it's just a matter of rock dodging through this section & no more than class II whitewater at the most. However, low water creates its own set of challenges, and just getting a heavily loaded raft down the East Fork without getting stuck multiple times is a feat all its own. However, at high water the rapids get quite nasty. I would probably do it in an inflatable kayak, but it is a better ride in a large raft. I wouldn't even consider a canoe at high water, but I have friends who probably would.
The usual put in is near where the Parks Highway crosses the East Fork of the Chulitna. This is at the beginning of Broad Pass, with Cantwell at the far end of the pass. Some people put in at the bridge where the East Fork crosses the Parks Highway. You can also free camp there. But you might find it easier to drive south about a half-mile to where there is a large gravel lot between the road and the river, and go back into where the gravel lot meets the river. There is plenty of room to set everything up for the launch, although the actual place to put boats in is rather bleak and swift. Alternately, you can begin your float by putting in where the highway crosses the Middle Fork, This adds about 4 hours to the first section, but this section is often too shallow if the water is low.
There is no glacier water in the East Fork, and high water comes from rain or snowmelt. There were several raft groups in here in June 2005 when it was very high from heavy snowmelt, and some of these parties reported problems at the time. One person had to be rescued with a helicopter. There were two inflatable canoes in one group and they reported 10-foot waves. They hiked out just below here as they didn't want to enter the canyon sections at such high water. Other raft groups were there at nearly the same time & they reported that perhaps the other guys were exaggerating their predicament, so I really don't know. I do know that rivers I considered a serious challenge at one time seem fairly domestic to me now, so perhaps experience is part of the equation.
I floated it in July of 2005 shortly after the water had receded a bit, and the biggest problem was finding a place to camp in the upper section. There are very few good places to camp most times, and high water makes most of those disappear.
For the whole float you're never far from the highway, but there are not many put in or take out options. Hiking out in the middle of the trip is reported to be very difficult as the brush is terrible & the climbing steep. Retrieval of boats and equipment after such an evacuation is best done by relaunching a new trip from the top.
The addition of the West Fork turns the Chulitna into a medium-sized river with some glacial silt. Shortly after this you enter the first steep-walled canyon for a few miles. At high water there are some very turbulent corners, with a lot of water pushing you into the outsides of turns, so keep your bow pointed at the wall, and be ready to pull away from it. Hurricane Creek, and several other clear water streams enter in this section, and they are decent fishing spots. You can see the railroad bridge crossing several hundred feet above Hurricane Gulch from the Chulitna as well.
Once the river opens back up Fountain River enters on river right and the Chulitna becomes considerably larger and siltier and for several miles braids out through flat sections. There are good camping sites on both sides of the river in this area. There are several more areas where all the braids of the Chulitna get together and run into another narrow canyon for a few miles and then wash out into more braids. A Verizon cell phone, using ACS’s old CDMA network connects in some of the sections where the river opens up. Not sure of other networks.
From the beginning of East Fork to the Parks Highway bridge near Denali Princes Lodge is an easy three-day trip. The takeout there is on river left just before the bridge. This is private land, but in recent years the owner has sometimes allowed the use of the beach and private road to access the highway. If for some reason the private road is closed, you have to pack your boats & gear up the steep bank just past the bridge. Using a pulley system with a very long rope here can make life a lot easier. Or you can continue downstream for another day to the highway bridge near Sunshine Creek. Here the takeout is on river right, just after the bridge. This is public land, and there is a road to access the beach from the highway, although there might be some standing water to cross to get there.
You can avoid the difficulties and braids of the upper section by just doing the lower part of the river. To do this put in at the bridge near Denali Princess Lodge. It's only a half-day trip from here to Talkeetna, or a short two day trip from here to where the Parks Highway crosses the Susitna River near Sunshine Creek. This section is all flat water, but the river is quite large & moves fast. We generally camp the last night just below Talkeetna on an island when we do this section.
If you intend on getting out at Talkeetna, or just stopping in for some mid-trip ice cream, you will need to take all the left channels as you approach the Big Susitna River. Talkeetna is an Athabaskan word for Three Rivers, and is the place where the Chulitna, Susitna, and Talkeetna Rivers join together. To get to town, you will have to move to the left side of the Chulitna as you approach the area, and then cross Susitna, and Talkeetna Rivers. Forget about making the Talkeetna boat launch, just get to the end of Main Street. You can walk the two blocks to the middle of town from there. In recent years the Talkeetna waterfront has lost a lot of ground to erosion, so if you want to access this area you might want to look this over before launching your trip.
This is a great 3-5 day trip with easy shuttle logistics and not too far from Anchorage. It is a fairly popular float trip, and it is possible, but unlikely, that you will encounter another group along the way. More likely you will run across a day trip from Princes Lodge to Talkeetna, but it's doubtful that anyone will be taking your favorite campsite.
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.