Nelchina & Tazlina Rivers

by Jim Strutz

(Based on two trips, June 8-12, 2005, and June 2007)

This float typically starts off where the Little Nelchina River drifts under the Glenn Highway, at about mile 130, just a few miles past Eureka Lodge. The road from Anchorage is hilly and winding with almost constant construction, so plan on 3 hours driving from Anchorage. As you approach the Little Nelchina, get on the old section of the highway that cuts away on the north side of the road. On river right above the bridge there is access to a state-maintained picnic site with a good boat launching area. It has the last pit toilet you will see for several days.

The Little Nelchina starts off as a mostly rainwater fed stream with some silt in it. At normal to low flows this stream is shallow in several sections, and there is likely to be some boat dragging required. If you run this river in early to mid-June you are likely to catch substantial snowmelt runoff. This is generally good, as it eliminates the boat dragging, but it also makes the stream faster and harder to maneuver the sharp corners. Several of our oarsmen were weary of the constant need to row hard. There are also plenty of sweepers to avoid, and some may not be completely avoidable. This section isn’t all that difficult, but you do have to maintain constant diligence and a swift response.

After nearly 5 miles, you will run into the main stem of the Nelchina. We have camped a little before the confluence, and right after it. This is a short run of about two hours, but still makes for a long day due to the time to load, drive, unload, shuttle vehicles, assemble and load rafts. There were several decent campsites along the way, and we opted for a gravel bar on river left just before the end of the Little Nelchina on the first trip. I got up about 2 a.m. and took a picture of the setting/rising Sun. It lit up the whole northern sky with pinks & purples.

The Nelchina River is substantially larger and primarily consists of glacier melt, so the water is gray and full of silt. Since our trips were in mid-June, the glaciers hadn’t started moving much, and the river was low. This provided us with plenty of areas for beach camping in the upper section of the Nelchina, but not the lower Nelchina. The rowing was easy with a current of about 5-6 mph, and wide sweeping corners. There were no rapids to speak of, but there were occasional rocks to avoid. I would not rate it higher than class I at the level we ran it. At higher water levels this might change, but I suspect it only gets faster. For the first trip we had decided to camp near the end of the Nelchina River, a few miles before it dumps into Tazlina Lake, but had difficulty finding a suitable spot for our six tents. We finally managed to find an acceptable campsite right before entering the lake, on river right. At higher water our spot would not have been dry, but it looked like other areas would have then been available on either side of the river.

There are occasional ice dams on the Nelchina Glacier that can break and raise the water levels quite suddenly during the summer, so when camping, always securely tie your boats off with a long rope attached high up the bank and camp as high as possible.

From the map, the Tazlina Lake looks to be about 5 miles wide and 20 miles long. The Nelchina River flows into the lake about 8 miles before the start of the Tazlina River, which is at the opposite end of the lake from Tazlina Glacier. Somehow you have to move your boats across that 8 miles of flat water. Other than rowing, you have a couple of good options. You can do what we did – pack a small outboard. We had seven boats and two 3 hp. outboards, so we tied together two trains of boats and raced to the end of the lake. The weather was great and it was a pleasant way to pass the morning. The other option is to sail, which is not as foolish as you might think. Since typical adiabatic winds start falling off the mountain glaciers in the early morning and continue downriver valleys until midafternoon, you can generally rely on having favorable conditions for sailing, or at least sail-assisted rowing. Of course there is no guarantee, so a backup plan might be necessary.

I have sailed rafts before, and if the wind is with you it’s quite easy to set up a simple square rig. Place an oar vertical for the mainmast, lash it from the top to the sides, front and rear of the raft frame so that it cannot fall over. Optionally, tie another oar across the top of the mast for a square rig. You are going to have to figure out a way to tie this together while you attach sailcloth (think cheap tarp), and then raise it all into place. Straps and rope will be your main tools. Of course you can go upscale and design a sail that you can actually raise and lower with the mast in place. You can rig keel boards out of paddles or oar blades, but they should not be necessary with the wind directly at your back. You can also use another oar as a tiller by duct-taping it to the back of the boat. There are better tillers, but this does work. A large rowing frame works a lot better for sail rigging than a small one, with catarafts being the easiest to rig. With considerable thought and effort, you can design a cat-sail rig that can actually tack into the wind a bit. I’ve also successfully sailed inflatable kayaks. If you decide to sail, prep the masts the night before while camping on or near the lake, and get an early start, as this lake will take a while to cross and afternoon winds will probably not be as favorable.

From where the Nelchina River enters the lake, about a half-mile east, along the north side of the lake, Mendeltna Creek flows in. The mouth of the creek is a very nice, sheltered camping area, and we saw plenty of salmon in the creek. On the first trip we pulled over for a nice lunch break, and then continued to end of the lake, which took about two more hours. I suspect sailing would have only taken an hour or so longer, but with more prep time required. The plan for the second trip was to row to Mendeltna Creek for a night’s camp and then finish the rest of the lake the next day, but we like the spot so well we decided to spend an extra day right there. We didn’t travel close to shore, but from the boats I didn’t see anything that looked like another good camping area until nearly the end. There is also a cabin just east of Mendeltna Creek. You can also catch a short plane ride to the lake to start here if you just want to float the Tazlina River. Since the lake is only a few miles from flight services along the highway, this should not be expensive.

The lake and upper Tazlina River were blue-green much like Kenai Lake, but with a little more fine silt added in. Later in the year when the glaciers get more active, I suspect there would be considerably more silt in the lake and river. As it was, the river picked up additional silt as we went along. I imagine that this was silt that had been deposited on the river bottom previous years, or perhaps just from erosion of silt-laden riverbanks.

The lake gradually narrows, and at its end there is a lagoon on the left side with a good place to take another short break before moving on. It looks like a nice place camp, but I believe the property is owned by Ahtna Native Corporation and they highly value this spot for its historical significance. Just below the start of the river there is the first real whitewater. It’s just an interesting wave train on the left side of the river, and you can see it from the lagoon. At the low water levels we experienced, the wave train was fun to run even in loaded boats. I have read reports that there is a huge and powerful eddy in here that needs to be avoided at high water.

The river calms off for a short while before picking up speed again. It continues from here to the end as a Class I–II river with one class III area about halfway down the Tazlina. It’s easy rowing for the most part but you do have to pay attention. The current moves fast and there are plenty of small rapids and rocks to dodge along the way.

We floated about four miles from the lake and set up camp for the night. The camping areas along here are plentiful enough and spacious. The spots where we camped would have been available even in high water.

Before embarking on the first trip, I was told, “When you see the house size rock, stay left.” I wasn’t told where this would be, or any other thing about it. I had also been told about a class III section on the Tazlina and suspected that they were the same place. About halfway down the Tazlina, the river starts dropping faster and bunching tighter in a somewhat narrow canyon. Sure enough there was House Rock after a right-hand turn, and sitting near the right side of the river. I was in the lead boat and headed left as soon as I spotted it. Some others in our group didn’t start early enough, or just weren’t paying attention and were forced to run the middle or right sides. Fortunately at this low water, there was nothing in here that is likely to flip a boat if you are paying any attention at all. Even passing on the right side of the rock proved to be safe. I had a nice run, but I think the right side would have been more fun at this level. At higher flows, I understand this can be quite a violent spot.

One of our smaller boats nosed onto a rock somewhere right of river center, just above the House Rock, and proceeded to get stuck in an eddy. Right about then a cataraft came down the hill (Literally down the hill, as it is quite steep right there.), and ran into the smaller boat. The momentum pushed both across the eddy line and safely downstream. There were a few nervous paddlers, but there were no other problems. I think most of the nervousness was coming from this being unknown to all of us. The water wasn’t all that difficult and I don’t think I would rate it a class III at the level we ran it.

On the first trip we camped for our fourth, and last night just below here on river left after a big sweeping left turn. One good thing about camping with 20 of your favorite friends is that you have the manpower to do things. We hoisted a large driftwood log and carried it to our campfire. By duct-taping a stick to a Jiffy Pop, I was able to make some pretty good popcorn to celebrate with. The sun was shining for most of the day and provided us with a beautiful campsite at sundown. For the second trip the river had changed enough that this campsite was no longer suitable, so we camped a few miles down on river right on the top of a high gravel bar.

As the next day was Sunday, we had church. We sang a few songs that most of us knew, and Al preached. Then we packed up for the last time & headed downstream.

The last day of floating is mostly uneventful. I traded boats with Al for a while. He had been packing my young grandson for me while I was rowing two inflatable kayaks, tied together with a small raft frame. I was able to go anywhere I wanted, any time I wanted, as fast as I wanted. But I did have to wear a drysuit or get soaked with every little splash. So Al played with the little boat while I did time on the 15.5’ freighter.

There were plenty of interesting things to see along the way, but I’ll let you discover them for yourself. The Tazlina River has a fast current, and just enough splashing to keep it interesting, but not enough to terrorize your passengers. However there were always the occasional large rocks poking up, so you had to maintain a constant vigil or get a rude awakening. This actually happened to Al, as he broached sideways on a large rock, partially wrapped around it, and worked for 20 minutes to get it off. So while it is a seemingly safe river, rivers are never really safe – always keep an eye on what's coming up.

Near the end we started seeing some signs of civilization, and then suddenly we were at the Alyeska Pipeline Bridge. We pulled over for lunch since none of us wanted the trip to end just yet.

The take out is a few miles below, right past the bridge holding up the Richardson Highway. Move river right and catch the eddy directly after the bridge. There is a drive that leads up to a state-maintained parking lot. By the way, there is a sign that says “No Overnight Parking,” but I understand this is routinely ignored by both commercial and private parties. There were only a very few cars parked there, but since this is a common access point for the Copper River, it may get busy when the salmon are running thick. This spot is 50-60 road miles from our put in, and since we had parked all but one of our vehicles here, we simply loaded up and headed home, with a quick stop at the put-in to pick up the shuttle vehicle.

This is one of the nicest river trips I have been on. We were provided with typical sunny interior Alaskan weather patterns with a few sprinkles thrown in. The bugs were never a real problem and considering this was Alaska in June, this is quite remarkable. The rivers were interesting and diverse in size and color, with one lake and some mild whitewater thrown in. And the campsites were superb. All this coupled with easy logistics and good friends make for a great river trip.

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.