Gulkana River Report
by Jim Strutz
(Based on two trips in June 2002 and August 25-28, 2005)
The Gulkana River is probably the most popular multi-day float trip in Alaska, and there are plenty of good reasons why this is so. The logistics of running it, the nature of the float, and the superb fishing are just a few of those reasons. It is also designated as a National Wild and Scenic River. Both of our trips started on Paxon Lake, down the East Fork, to where it joins with the Middle Fork, on to where it joins with the West Fork, and ending at Sourdough Campground. Some people either start at Sourdough or continue on down the lower Gulkana to where it crosses the Richardson Highway, a few days later. There are also alternative starting points to run the Middle and West Forks, but the logistics of the launch are more complex. Also the Middle Fork has some additional rapids as well as shallow water.
The first trip I did in late June was pleasant enough except for the bugs. The mosquitoes were amazingly ferocious and cover every inch of exposed skin when stopped. There were also several sections along the second and third days where the river was covered with some other type of bug hovering just about head high while sitting in a boat. Always take a good head net on this river. I kept mine on top of my hat, ready to pull down at a moment's notice. Bug dope is good too, but it is the head net that will save you from insanity. The second trip, done in late August was just the opposite; a thoroughly delightful time with very few bugs. A few obnoxious flies were encountered, but I only used bug dope in the early evenings and never wore the head net. I have been in Alaska pretty much all my life, and know this is typical, but it still amazes me to see the difference between June and August.
To get to the put-in from Anchorage, drive the Glenn Highway past Glennallen, turn left at the Richardson highway, continue on towards Paxon, and take the exit down to the lake. This road is not marked well, but if you get to Paxon Roadhouse, you’ve gone way too far. Drive down the gravel road until you get to the lake, offload your gear, and go park your car.
You will of course need to do something about a shuttle to make sure you have a vehicle at the end of the trip. If you have an extra vehicle, just park it at Sourdough Campground on the way up and when you’re done, drive back up to the put-in and get your other vehicle(s). If all your vehicles are full of people and gear, dump your stuff at the lake, and shuttle all vehicles to the takeout and drive one back. At the end you will have to drive the shuttle again with one vehicle to fetch the car left at the top. Perhaps a better option is to get someone else to shuttle your vehicle for you. Just north of the Sourdough Campground entrance there is a small diner & gas station on the west side of the road. The ladies in there will do the shuttle for you for $35 per car (2005 price). Just give them an extra key and describe the car that you will leave at the put in. It will be waiting for you at the take out.
It’s nearly two hours to do the shuttle, and I find that if the group is large, some people can run the shuttle while others assemble boats and load gear. The shuttle is usually done before the boats are, but maybe you’re faster than I am. At the end of the trip, tearing the boats down and stashing gear is generally faster than the reverse shuttle, but it’s not a significant wait.
We brought along a small outboard to pull us across the lake to the start of the river. On the last trip we had only two rafts, so this was pretty simple, but the first time we had four rafts and three kayaks so we were moving slow in a long train affair. This was still twice the speed we could row the rafts, so no one was complaining.
The East Fork starts at the southern end of the lake, where it gets shallow and grassy. It flows out through a small lagoon and finally to the river itself. The Gulkana is a brackish clear water stream for its entire distance, and the water temperature is quite warm for Alaska. Perhaps that is why there are so many grayling. You can also catch rainbow trout and several species of salmon. Check the fishing regs before you go. This stream is heavily fished so there are important limitations.
The pace picks up right after the lagoon and starts heading downstream quickly. The water is usually shallow, and if the flows are medium to low, plan on dragging boats in places. Perhaps lots of places. You should not be heavily loaded for this trip. It is way too much work if you are. You want a shallow draft boat for the East Fork section.
The typical East Fork trip tries to reach the confluence with the Middle Fork on the first day. This only takes a couple hours from the lake, if you don’t have to do too much dragging. The East Fork will separate into two channels, heading off in two completely different directions, just before the confluence. You can take either one, but the largest campsite is available only if you take the right channel. There are other good campsites along the left channel just above the confluence, and several more just below.
The main campsite is just across the Middle Fork as the right channel enters it. There is plenty of room for 50 or more people. There is also a pit toilet, picnic table, and a cast iron fire pit. However, there is no firewood, and the woods surrounding the area has been picked clean of burnable wood and brush. If this is an issue, you might be better off moving on to one of the other spots above or below here. Packing some firewood is an option in a raft, but perhaps not for three days and certainly not in a canoe or kayak. You can find sufficient driftwood along the way to replenish a one day supply if you bring a small chainsaw, but most of the lesser-used campsites have some firewood around if you look long enough. Both of the times I have been in here, the weather was warm during the days and cold at night, so an evening fire was always appreciated. The late August trip had frost on two of three nights.
Usually when I go camping with my friends Al & Lucy I am envious of the food that they make with just one frying pan on an open fire. This trip, for the first time, I took a dutch oven and several good recipes. I cooked the dinner meal for all of us each night. I am totally hooked on this thing. What an amazing way to camp cook. As soon as we pulled out for the day, I got out 20 briquettes and started them up. I then set up a table, mixed and layered the ingredients into the oven, and set the whole thing on a few briquettes with most reserved for the lid. Then I went about setting up the rest of my camp. By the time I was done, so was the food. And by lining the pot with foil, I pretty much eliminated cleanup chores. I bought a 14” anodized aluminum one, and while not cheap, it is lightweight and never needs seasoning. You got to try this.
After the confluence with the Middle Fork, the river slows way down. There are several sections that move less than one mph, and one of them is quite long. They are interspersed with faster sections, but no whitewater. I’m not sure what, if any, the restrictions are on the use of motors, but we did find that an outboard would be useful on the second day. But these are also great fishing areas, so you might not want to speed through here anyway. The catch and release grayling fishing was surprisingly fun.
On my first trip, in June, we had moderately high water, and we got to and through the canyon on the second day. But it was a long day. The second trip, at lower water, was too slow, so we camped several miles upstream of the canyon. This proved to be a more pleasant camping experience, as the canyon campsite is quite heavily used. Some groups stay right there for a day or two. Some even take small inflatable toy boats and swim the rapids with them. Bring a wet suit if you want to try this.
You can spot the canyon by the warning signs on the left bank. There is a trail on river left that starts more than a sufficient distance above the rapids. The trail is probably less than ¼ mile total, but why pack any farther than you have to? You really can maneuver safely downstream and closer to where the trail starts heading up and over the hill. Regardless of how proficient you think you are at running rapids, you owe it to yourself and your riders to stop and scout this before running it. The pack trail is well constructed and goes high over the hill on river left, but to scout the rapids you have to get closer to the riverbank. At different flows I have picked entirely different routes, and scouting from the boat would not tell you what you would like to know.
I have heard this section rated anywhere from class II to class V. I think class III is close to the truth. At very high water I’m sure it gets more interesting. Good canoeists have run it many times, and other canoeists have lost their boats in here. It’s actually quite easy to wrap a boat on any one of several rocks in there. In spite of its relatively low whitewater rating, it is not easy to run unless you have scouted it first. There are several shutes that look good from above but are clearly not when you see what is below them. Scouting this section really is a good idea. Besides, your boat is full of gear & you might want to lighten your load first. There are some sudden moves that are required.
The first time I did this was with a large group, with no one else was willing to run it. So, while they carried their gear over the trail, I rowed their boats through. I was getting quite good at it by the end. The last time I did this trip we only had two rafts, and the other oarsman wanted to run the canyon but not with a loaded boat. So the four of us made two trips over the trail with most of the gear. Somehow I got stuck packing the outboard and fuel on the first pack. By the time I got to the end I was thinking that this was payback for all those times I got to row on the first trip.
I went through first on my double IK rig. This is a raft made of two inflatable kayaks tied together with a small rowing frame on top. I was fully loaded, but the boat is only 10 feet long so I was still light. It sits very low with only 12” tubes, so while I got very wet, I had no trouble. I tried to stay close to the other boat to play safety, but they got twisted up at the start and never regained the anticipated line. Still, other than bumping a few rocks they did well. I’m just not sure scouting helped much.
At the end of the rapids there are a couple of small eddies where you can pull out or put in if you pack everything over the trail. This is the end of the portage trail so there is the second improved campsite with a pit toilet and cast iron fire pit. This campsite is only 13 miles below the one at the confluence with the Middle Fork, but the water is slow, so it is a very full day of travel. This campsite is not quite as large as the first one, but it would still hold quite a few tents and several separate groups. There is a trail that heads up to Canyon Lake that starts here. There is also a trail that leads out to the highway, as there is one at the first campsite. There are other places to camp both above and below here too. Personally, I would pick one of those.
From here on to Sourdough the river never completely slows down. The next ten miles are swift and rocky. At low water you will probably drag bottom and deft maneuvering will be required to avoid at least some of the rocks. This will probably get tedious. At higher flows this is just a fun section that goes by way too fast. Later, the river slows a bit, but it also gets deeper with fewer rocks to dodge, so your overall speed may improve.
Typically most groups try to get to, or near, the confluence with the West Fork for the third night of camping. We did that on my first trip, but due to low water, we camped far short of it the second time through. Again, we found the alternate campsites more to our liking. There were plenty of options to choose from.
The third improved campsite is actually on both sides of the West Fork right where the East/Middle fork joins it. If your boat is heavy, you will have to do some swift rowing to get to the far side, but the area on river left at the confluence is nice too. Both have a pit toilet, picnic table, and cast iron fire pit.
The float from here is on a considerably larger river, and while not slow, it is not as fast as the previous section, but you do have to watch for shallow rocks through here.
The take out is just past the Alyeska Pipeline Bridge on river left. You can’t miss it.
Like I said at the beginning, there are plenty of good reasons why this is such a popular multi-day float trip in Alaska. Great fishing, good scenery, and easy floating with only one significant whitewater section, and it can be portaged. It can be done in a raft, kayak or canoe with little experience, provided you don’t mind the portage. There are lots of people who do this same section year after year. The only problems are the heavy use of some campsites, and the horrid mosquitoes and other bugs in the early summer. Both can be largely avoided by an August float.
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.