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The Alaska Peninsula & The Aleutian Islands
The Alaska Peninsula extends over 500 miles into the Pacific Ocean. Its rugged shorelines, steep mountains, and clear, cold waters offer some of the remotest reaches of wilderness on the planet.
South Central Alaska
The city of Anchorage, with Mount Susitna ("Sleeping Lady") in the background. Anchorage has half the population of the state and is the most popular base camp for visitors looking for wilderness adventure in Alaska.
The Eastern Arctic includes the entire eastern portion of the Brooks Range, extending from the mighty Yukon River, nor to the Beaufort Sea, bounded on the east by the Canadian border and on the west by the Dalton Highway (the "Haul Road" to Prudhoe Bay).
The beautiful Nenana River, north and west of Denali National Park, is a destination for river rafters, fishermen and hunters. It is but one of many jewels waiting to be discovered in the Interior.
The Kodiak-Afognak Archipelago
The Kodiak-Afognak island group, including Raspberry Island, looms between Shelikof Strait and the Gulf of Alaska like a green, forbidden land. Recreational opportunities abound for outdoors enthusiasts of all interest types.
Extending north from Ketchikan to Skagway, the Alaska Panhandle encompasses the beautiful, sheltered Inside Passage, along with islands too numerous to mention, with exotic-sounding names like Prince of Wales, Kuiu, Admiralty, Baranof, and Chicagof. These islands, and hundreds more, together with miles of hidden passages, bays and coves, invite exploration in a way unlike any place else in the world.
The Kenai Peninsula
Lower Russian Lake, on the Kenai Peninsula, is a tributary to the Kenai River system, home of some of Alaska's most popular and prolific salmon runs.
The Western Arctic includes the entire western portion of the Brooks Range, extending north from the Noatak River to the Arctic Ocean. Its eastern border is the Dalton Highway (the "Haul Road" to Prudhoe Bay), and the region's western border is the Chukchi Sea.
The Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta
The Y-K Delta is laced with rivers, lakes and ponds and is home to several species of big-game, a great variety of waterfowl, and many species of freshwater and anadromous fish.
MP 17 on the Copper River Highway
USDA Forest Service, Chugach National Forest ; Cordova Ranger District
Coho and sockeye salmon, cutthroat trout, Dolly Varden
Alaska Fishing by Rene Limeres and Gunnar Pedersen
Alaganik Slough beckons visitors to explore the wetlands of the Copper River Delta. A five mile road rambles through a network of ponds and sloughs. This site features a wheelchair-accessible boardwalk, restrooms, viewing shelters and picnic areas.
The slough has a big run of coho salmon and smaller runs of sockeye salmon, Dolly Varden, and cutthroat trout. Dolly Varden fishing is good in the late spring when the salmon smolts are heading out to sea. Coho salmon fishing peaks in mid August, when the fish come from the ocean on the high tides. Early in the coho season, most of the action is in the lower slough near the end of Alaganik Slough Road. There’s a boat ramp there and also a 1/2-mile trail leading to the upstream holes. Later in the season, coho can be caught farther upstream in the holes along the Copper River Highway.
Hooligan (eulachon), a type of smelt, spawn in the slough each spring, during the highest tide cycles of the month. They’re unpredictable--but big flocks of gulls or eagles will signal that the hooligan are in.
Region 4 (west)
Rapids at midpoint below Kukaklek Lake are usually Class II+ but can run up to Class III. Steep terrain offers limited scouting in this area, but choosing a line through the rapids is not difficult for experienced boaters. Lining is not possible here. Brown bears may be found anywhere along the river, particularly after the summer salmon runs begin in June. Some boaters use electric fences to keep bears away from boats, sleeping areas, and food.
Fly-in from King Salmon, however charters out of Iliamna, Kodiak, Soldotna or Homer are also possible.
National Park Service, private
The Alagnak River meanders 67 miles from one of two lakes on the northern end of Katmai National Preserve; Nonvianuk Lake and Kukaklek Lake. The outflow of these lakes converge at "the forks" and the river meanders west to its eventual confluence with the waters of Bristol Bay. "The Braids", a long braided section below the forks, is a popular area to fish for rainbow trout.
The Alagnak is designated as a National Wild and Scenic River, and is administered by the National Park Service out of the town of King Salmon, where most Alagnak River adventures originate. King Salmon (AKN) is accessed via scheduled commercial flights from Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport (ANC).
There are no public facilities on the Alagnak, however there are several lodge operations in the area. Campsite selection is fair, with better options located below the forks area. Above the forks there are few gravel bars and the water can be deep right up against overhanging grassy banks.
The river contains excellent fishing opportunities for rainbow trout, grayling, char, and all five species of Pacific salmon, giving the Alagnak a world-reknowned reputation as a major fly-in fishing location in all of southwest Alaska. It is also home to brown bear, moose, beaver, bald eagles and other indigeneous wildlife species.
Firearms are permitted on the Alagnak, and many floaters bring a shotgun, rifle or handgun along for bear protection.
It is recommended that floaters take precautions concerning food storage. Coolers will attract bears, so many floaters opt for Bear Resistant Food Containers (BRFCs). These are available for rent from some gear rental outfits, or they may be purchased.
In the mid-1970's an effort was made by the federal government to study certain rivers in Alaska for inclusion in the National Wild and Scenic Rivers program. Teams were sent, often by helicopter, to rivers around the state, to study the recreational potential of these rivers. These teams kept detailed journals of their explorations, and they have been collected into a series of documents known as the Alaska River Logs. Though the information is somewhat dated, it still has great value to recreational users of these areas today. These reports are available here, and are listed by region.
Region 3 (east)
Short section of Class III whitewater above Ram Creek (it can be portaged). Upper section above Arrigetch Creek offers some whitewater and shallow areas, especially in the fall. The river is fed by runoff, and can rise quickly.
Fly-in from Fairbanks to Bettles, then to the river via wheel or float plane.
National Park Service, private
The Alatna offers a true wilderness experience, with clean, clear waters bordered by rugged mountains and scenic beauty. It is designated as a National Wild and Scenic River, beginning its course in Gates of the Arctic National Park before winding its way to the south before eventually flowing into the Koyukuk River at the village of Allakaket.
The upper river is fairly rambunctious, with stretches of Class II whitewater and a short section of Class III above Ram Creek. The pace of the river mellows considerably as you approach Arrigetch Creek, a popular put-in point for river trips. The river valley provides excellent opportunities for hiking and camping. Trip length can vary from between four and fourteen days, depending on the put-in and take-out locations. Some popular drop-offs are Circle Lake, Takahula Lake, and Gaedeke Lake. The latter spot is in the headwater area where the river is shallow and rocky. Portaging or lining are likely if you drop off this high.
There are no public facilities on the Alatna, however campsite selection is excellent, with many gravel bars backed by sheltering vegetation.
The river offers fishing for grayling and char. It is also home to grizzly bear, moose, caribou, wolf and other indigeneous wildlife species.
Firearms are permitted on the Alatna, however no hunting is allowed in Gates of the Arctic National Park.
Region 4 (east)
Short section of shallow water below Alexander Lake.
Floatplane from Anchorage or Willow to Alexander Lake, or via powerboat from the Ship Creek boat launch in Anchorage, or via powerboat from Deshka Landing on the Susitna River.
National Park Service, private
Alexander Creek is one of the most popular fishing and hunting rivers in Southcentral Alaska. From its source at Alexander Lake, Alexander Creek flows southeast about 40 miles to meet the Susitna River. The terrain around the lake is flat, and views of the Alaska Range, including Mount McKinley (Denali), are excellent.
In addition to Alexander Lake Lodge, which lies on the south end of the lake, a half-dozen cabins are scattered around the lakeshore. A platform at the southeast end of the lake provides a dry area for inflating rafts. Otherwise, there is little dry ground on public land near the lake's outlet. Three sites are used informally by campers on private lands around the lake.
Alexander Creek is 1 to 5 feet deep and from 50 to 200 feet wide with an average gradient of 3-5 feet per mile. It meanders through spruce, birch, and cottonwood forest, often between high banks or through willow thickets and tall grasses, so scenic vistas below the lake are generally poor. Motorboats are not allowed from Creek Miles 23 to 38,3 (almost to Alexander Lake) from May 15 to August 20.
There are no public facilities on Alexander Creek. Campsite selection is fair at low water levels when gravel bars are exposed, however rains can quickly raise the water level, forcing campers out into shoreline vegetation where campsite selection is poor. A lodge is available at Alexander Lake, complete with guest cabins and other amenities. A limited number of lodge operations exist in the lower river near the confluence with the Susitna River.
Alexander Creek is a popular river for anglers, particularly for King and Coho salmon. It also offers some opportunities for grayling. The upper reaches are scenic, with views of the Alaska Range. Class I water encourages high use by beginning floaters. The lower reaches contain native archaeological sites, historic roadhouses, and the Iditarod Trail.
The area is also home to brown / grizzly bear, black bear, moose, wolf and other indigeneous wildlife species.
Firearms are permitted on Alexander Creek, and many floaters bring along a firearm for protection against bears.
Region 4 (east)
Braided and shallow with sharp rocks above Ulaneak Creek. Some braiding throughout the drainage.
Char, grayling, sheefish
Brown/grizzly bear, caribou, moose
Wheel plane access on upper river gravel bars. Air charter from Ambler, Bettles, Fairbanks or Kotzebue.
State of Alaska, NANA Corp.
Rising from the Schwatka Mountains of the Brooks Range at Nakmaktuak Pass, the Ambler River flows in a southwesterly direction for 80 miles to its confluence with the Kobuk River. Small and clear, the Ambler is a single channel for the first 15 miles from the confluence of two headwater forks, with many small rapids flowing over sharp rocks. The river passes through a narrow, constricted valley with steep mountains on the right bank. In its midsection, the forested valley broadens and the river is shallow and braided for about 35 miles before becoming a single channel once again a mile above Lake Anirak. From this point, the Ambler meanders 30 miles through a broad floodplain to its confluence with the Kobuk at the Eskimo village of Ambler. The Ambler flows almost entirely through a forested region.
Campsite selection is generally good, with large gravel bars backed by tall willow and other vegetation to block the wind.
The Ambler is a popular river among both fishermen and hunters, and hosts subsistence activities of people coming upriver from the community of Ambler. The river offers grayling and char fishing, along with sheefish.
The area is also home to brown / grizzly bear, black bear, moose, caribou, wolf and other indigeneous wildlife species.
(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.
(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.
I think mid-July or August are usually the best floating times for the Copper River. Early July trips may encounter snowdrifts at campsites near glacier. Plan on at least 4 full floating days. At high water, it can be done in three, but it’s a nicer trip if you allow for 5 days. The trip is about 150 river miles, and the water is fast & flat for most of the way.
13-18 foot rafts are probably the ideal craft for the Copper, but I used a smaller cataraft. Sea kayaks, and inflatable kayaks work well for this river, and to a lesser degree, whitewater kayaks. There is no real reason for not taking a canoe on this river, except that if you did tip over mid-stream, you would probably need to be close to a more stable craft to help you out. Swimming to shore is usually not an option, hypothermia would disable you before you got there.
If you are paddling a small craft that might get turned over, or you might fall off of, you should consider tying yourself to the boat with a thin tether. If you were to fall out, and the frequent wind is swiftly blowing upstream, you would quickly get separated from your boat. Other nearby rafters may not be able to row fast enough to fight the wind in time to retrieve your now drowned body. Make sure any tether has a quick release.
For most of the trip, you will be able to see parts of the old railroad that runs near the bank on river right. This was built in 1910 to create transportation for copper ore from the Kennicott Mines near McCarthy.
This old rail bed has been converted to a road for much of its length. The 70-mile section from McCarthy down to Chitina and then on to at least O’Brien Creek is all driveable, and the 50-mile section from Cordova to the north end of the Million Dollar Bridge is as well. It’s the section in the middle that is missing, and as you float the river you can see many signs of the old rail bed. There have been attempts at finishing the conversion to vehicle traffic but has run into many logistical, financial, political, and environmental roadblocks. The most popular plan in the last few years has been to forget about much of this old rail bed and put a road in from the Richardson Highway, down the Tiekel River, and thence to the north end of the Million Dollar Bridge. It may never get done.
Along the float you can see one section where one of the rails still holds as it hangs high over a river valley, totally unsupported. Obviously this is a continuously welded rail. Much of the old rail was removed years ago and sold for scrap. The only sections with actual rail remaining are in the middle where it was too difficult to remove. Much of the rail bed that runs opposite of Bremner Flats has been washed away, and you can see sections of rail that run off into the water, and a few miles downstream reappear the same way.
This is a very large & fast river. At higher water levels it is often over a mile wide & flooded bank to bank. It takes a long time to move a heavy raft from one side to the other. Its average speed is 9 mph, one of the fastest rivers in North America, and at high water some sections are considerably faster. Abercrombie Rapids was doing over 20 mph the last time I saw it. I have never seen a river move so fast without being vertical.
Mostly this is flat water. In the first constricted section, Wood Canyon, ten miles downstream from Chitina, and just below O'Brien Creek, there are very large & powerful eddies, whirlpools, and reversals near the edges of the river. Most of these should be avoided, as some of them can be very difficult to get out of.
After you finish the canyon Haley Creek comes in on river right. In the recent past it has been possible to drive four-wheel drive vehicles this far. In 2002 or 2003 some of the road had washed out just above O’Brien Creek and I’m not sure of the conditions of any of this road at present. You can find many decent campsites along both sides of the river from here on.
The Uranatina River enters at about mile 30. Just below here there is a railroad tunnel that has been camped in before, and should make for a decent shelter if needed. The Tiekel enters at about mile 50, and across the river near where Dewey Creek enters is another good campsite if the water’s not too high. At mile 75 the Tasnuna River enters on river right with the sand & silt fields of Bremner Flats on river left. The wind is most often blowing upstream for most of the trip and you will often encounter the blowing silt from the flats. It’s often advisable to wait until the wind dies down in the morning to run through this section. Unless the water is running high, this is a slow section, and competing with the wind & silt is not worth the struggle. In the morning it is usually a comfortable 20-mile float.
The current generally flows fastest down river right through the flats, and you want to finish this section near river right if the water is high. What looks like deep water on river left is not and has caused me considerable grief.
At about mile 100, Baird Canyon narrows and picks up speed. There are good camping areas on river left, by the way. The river then widens briefly and has more current on river left, but you must move to river right before it ends. This is very important and not as easy as it looks, as the merging current tends to push you river left as the river reforms for Abercrombie Rapids. So start moving river right early and swiftly. You can see the rapids coming up by noting the disappearing horizon line that approaches.
At low water there are no rapids at Abercrombie, but at high water it is at least a Class III, and the waves can reach ten feet or more. There read one report of a group of boaters encountering a flash flood as they approached these rapids and they estimated waves of 20 feet height. A natural dam gave way in heavy rains, draining a lake into the river, with the resulting flood coinciding with their arrival at the rapids. There is a good write up of the story in the book, "Cheating Death" by Larry Kanuit.
It is usually fun and safe to run right down the wave train near river left, but the rapids are more commonly avoided. This is easily done by staying river right, although at very high water there may be an absolutely huge hole on the far right side, followed shortly thereafter by an even larger eddy that can be very difficult to exit. Usually you will want to take out on river right to scout these rapids, but be careful of the frequent bear visits to this convenient and popular fishing area. Get your flare guns ready.
As you exit the rapids, move river left and stay to the left side as you enter Miles Lake. It's about seven miles directly across, but unless the water is quite high the sandbars in the middle section will be an island blocking your path. The easiest way to the other side is found by sticking to the left side of the lake. There is a fairly strong current there and this also allows you to get a closer view to Miles Glacier, which calves directly into the lake.
For most of the summer, there are a bunch of icebergs floating in the space between the glacier and the start of the shallows towards the middle of the lake. Try to stay to the left of these icebergs as long as possible in order to keep your boat in the fastest current. You want to end up on the left side of the lake just before the bridge.
Alternatively, you can stay on the right side of the lake and pull out on the north end of the bridge. But I understand that camping is better on the left side.
The lake narrows near its southwest corner and reforms as a river and runs under the Million Dollar Bridge. The bridge was built at the beginning of the 20th century for the narrow-gage railroad that went from Cordova to the Kennicott copper mine. There is quite a story about its construction and its near-collapse during the 1964 earthquake. You can read about it from the signs near the bridge.
Just upstream of the bridge, on river left, is a slow moving eddy with a sandy bank and good camping above. If you walk around here you can see this is a small area of sand dunes with a few tractor trails. You can take a short walk up to the road and access the bridge. On the other side of the road from the dunes is a real, honest to goodness, US Government campground, with clean pit toilets and everything, including a 50-mile dirt road to Cordova. However, in recent years the river has changed channels and taken out one of the bridges along this road, and it still may not be open. At the far end of the campground, overlooking the river, there are a couple of covered viewing stands. Across the ¼ mile wide river is the 600 foot high, calving face of Childs Glacier. This glacier runs directly into the river’s path, forcing the water to take a hard left. The river, in turn, forces the glacier to shed large sheets of ice into the water. It's like a continual battle between two gigantic forces, each unwilling to yield to the other. The calving is most active during warm weather in July and August. This is probably the best view of active ice calving you can get anywhere in Alaska, and the noise is amazing. The thunderous sound can be heard for many miles upriver.
If the water is high the waves from the glacier calving can be extremely violent as they crash onto the opposite bank. While running past this, you need to keep away from the left bank. In the middle of the river waves will just be smooth rollers. If you see one coming, head directly into it, not away from it. If the salmon are running these waves will often blast fish onto the bank and strand them on the rocks. It seems that both the bears and the campers know about this, and in the past there have been some unpleasant confrontations about particular “ownership rights.”
After you pass the glacier, you will be traveling with a lot of recently freed ice, some of which comes in large chunks. There is a certain fascination having an iceberg bobbing under your cataraft. You can reach right down & knock off a piece for your cooler. However, the larger pieces ground out as the river gradually shallows. Then they roll over and rise straight out of the water. Just watching one get upended forces you to realize that you need to steer clear of the big pieces.
After you pass the glacier you need to keep your boat river right. The river starts to form its delta and spreads out into dozens of small rivers. Take all the active channels that lead to the right. Some of them may reunite with a more direct, and left channel, but most don’t. Your goal from here on out is to end up on the right bank of the far-right channel if there is still water in it. There is a decent place to take out on the upstream side of the bridge. There is also a parking lot and driveway leading up to the road. Cordova is about 20 miles west.
Much of the land that the Copper River runs through is owned by AHTNA native regional corporation. In order to legally camp on their land, you need to get permission first. Some of the native corporations have regular fees for this. Always check first, and camp accordingly. I believe it is always permissible to camp on the old railroad right of way, but some have argued that this is not so. Also, many islands have good camping areas. Wherever you camp, make sure that you are far enough up from the river to deal with rising water.
Chitina is over 250 miles from Anchorage on mostly good roads. Head out the Glenn Highway and just past Glennallen turn right on the Richardson Highway for about 60 miles. Then turn left on the Edgerton Highway and drive 20 miles to Chitina. Most services are available, but may not be open late or even every day.
One good put-in is a mile or two past the town of Chitina on the way to McCarthy. Just drive straight through the gap and out towards the McCarthy Road. Most people launch across the Copper River Bridge on the upstream side of the road. There is adequate parking and camping areas, but some of this area may flood in very high water. The Chitina River enters on river left just below the bridge.
Alternatively, you can drive south along the river’s right bank to O'Brien Creek and put in there if the road is open. You're likely to encounter numerous fishermen at both places. Camping is better at O'Brien Creek but may be more crowded, and you miss the first several miles of the river. Also, the road is often bad.
Take out is at Flag Point at the far west side of the river, where it crosses the gravel road going out to Childs Glacier and the Million Dollar Bridge. It's about 27 miles west to Cordova. The airport is a few miles closer. From the airport into town the road is paved. Years ago a shuttle service was available to Cordova, but since the bridge washout it may not be available. Last time I did this, it was still $25 per person, with boat & gear-hauling included. In the past you could take out just above the Million Dollar Bridge and avoid drifting in front of the active glacier, but I don’t think that is an option anymore.
It is over 250 miles from Anchorage to Chitina, almost all of it paved. Plan for five hours.
There are several ways to do travel & shuttle logistics. I’ve done these three:
1) Shuttle vehicles to Valdez, use shuttle service to Cordova and the ferry back to Valdez.
2) Have someone drop you at Chitina and pick you up 5-6 days later in Wittier.
3) Have someone drop you at Chitina and pick you up 4-5 days later in Cordova.
We used the local shuttle service that charged us $25 per head and they carried all of our gear and boats in a rather interesting bus. For our large group they dropped us off at the hotel, held our gear for the night, and picked us up the next day to deliver us to the ferry terminal. Call Copper Rivers/Northwest Tours for more information: (907) 424-5356. Or look at http://www.cdvcoastal.com/Shuttle.htm for a different service from Cordova Coastal Outfitters. There may be other locals willing to do this as well.
In any case, you will have to take the ferry from Cordova to Valdez or Whittier. Last I used them, the Alaska Ferry Service required all boats gear to be on a truck or trailer. However, we discovered that you can (almost) always find empty trucks waiting in line for the ferry, who are willing to haul your stuff if you offer them money. In fact, the bus driver may even find the empty trucks for you.
For more information you can contact one of these businesses if they are still in business.
Alaska River Rafters
PO Box 2233, Cordova, AK 99574
Copper River/Northwest Tours Box 1564, Cordova, AK 99574 (907) 424-5356
Cordova Coastal Outfitters
Cordova Taxi Cab Co. Box 2083, Cordova, AK 99574 907-424-5151
Drive to put in & camp.
Get the boats & gear ready launch.
Run shuttle to Valdez if necessary.
Stop for a short break at O'Brien Creek and make sure everybody still knows which way is downstream.
Wood Canyon. Stay near the middle of the river, especially if the water is high, to avoid whirlpools.
Take a break and regroup after the canyon. Then continue on to a good campsite.
Drift up to or into the Bremner Flats section, to a good campsite.
The scenery is fascinating along the way, especially if the sun is shining
There can be a phenomenal number of waterfalls in the passing hills, depending on the weather.
If the wind is blowing upstream, you will start to get a lot of silt in the air as you approach Bremner Flats.
Bremner Flats is a slow water section.
It’s better to camp before going too far into the flats and finish in the morning when the wind dies down.
To the last campsite
As you finish the Bremner Flats you will want to be near river right as it is too shallow and slow on the left.
As Bremner Flats ends, Baird Canyon begins, which ends in Abercrombie Rapids.
Before you see the horizon dropping away, quickly make your way river right to scout the rapids.
Drift the left side of Miles Lake, near Miles Glacier & through iceberg fields. Stay left on the lake.
Take out on river left above Million Dollar Bridge. Check out the bridge and watch the glacier battle the river.
You can camp here or a couple of miles below the glacier on river right
Float to Flag Point.
Run the glacier section by staying 50-100 yards off the left bank.
If any large waves develop from ice calving, charge right into them. Stay away from the left bank.
Avoid following any large icebergs, as they suddenly rise out of the water as they hit shallows.
Stay river right and take all right channels, as you want to end at the bridge at Flag Point, not some other bridge.
Take down boats and pack gear.
Catch your ride to Cordova
Day 5 or 6 - Catch the ferry to Valdez or Wittier.
Check the ferry schedule before you go or you might have to kill some time in Cordova.
Get to the ferry terminal early, check-in & buy your tickets, and then look for empty trucks heading your 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.
June 21-27, 2003 -- Fortymile bridge on the Taylor Hwy to Eagle -- About 100 river miles.
Planned for six days but extended to seven due to low water & other factors.
Drive out the Glenn Highway, past Glennallen, to Tok. Turn right on the Alaska Highway & drive about 20 miles south. Turn left on the Taylor Highway and drive to mile 112. You will have to turn left when you get to the Top of the World Highway or you'll end up at the Canadian border. The put-in is on the east (right) at the south (near) bank of the river. You can drive to near the edge of the river, but if you don't have four-wheel drive, be careful. Parking is available across the highway in a decent parking lot that also has an outhouse.
The take out is in the town of Eagle. Look for the signs directing you a little upriver from downtown Eagle. You can drive down a steep access to the river's edge when loading up at the end of your trip. Most services are available in Eagle but may not be at all hours. You may want to schedule your trip so that you don't end up doing your shuttle on a Sunday. It's about 450 miles from Anchorage to the put in. The take out at Eagle is about 50 miles further.
The lower Fortymile River is mostly flat water with a couple of small rapids and one moderate, class 3 canyon a few miles above Clinton Creek. However if the water is high this rapid was determined to be unrunnable in rafts & canoes. It may have changed again in the years I last ran it, so you should ask for more recent advice. Portaging or lining your boat through these rapids is an option unless the water is very high. Like most rapids they change depending on water level. The Yukon River is a large fast-flowing flatwater river in this section.
Take breaks every few hours to stretch and explore early Alaska/Yukon mining historical stuff. There is also good fishing for Grayling and Rainbow Trout. Also some King Salmon, Red salmon, Lamprey, Steelhead, and Dolly Varden.
We found the water at near-record low levels for June. The rapids were no more than class II at this level. The Canoers didn't even scout them first, but probably should have since they nearly swam twice.
At very high water, campsites might be difficult to find, but they are there. We had 15 people in six boats, and all campsites we used would have been fine for 30+ people.
There are a number of options for put-in and take-outs in the Fortymile River system. Some require a fly-in drop off but most can be accessed from the road in a few places. But the river level goes up and down fast depending on snowmelt and the last rainfall. At low water the channels get narrow and the water slower, but they are usually still floatable. I think the Fortymile is my favorite Alaskan river to float.
Drove from Anchorage to put-in at mile 112 of the Taylor Hwy.
This is about a 10-hour drive if you don't stop. The road slows down and deteriorates the farther you go.
We camped about 1/4 mile past the bridge in a field on the right.
We later found a better, unofficial camping area 50 yards downstream from the put in.
One couple in our group went to the Canadian border customs to check in. They didn't have a clue what to do.
The rest of us didn't bother but found out later that we were supposed to call the customs office in Whitehorse first.
Shuttle cars to Eagle - float to the first river campsite.
Figure on two hours each way for the shuttle.
Some in the group can assemble boats & rig gear while the others do the shuttle.
My car was the shuttle return rig. We left the rest of the cars in Eagle for a quick departure.
I got a flat going to Eagle and got it fixed there, but I completely destroyed a tire on the way back to the put in.
Turns out I had no jack handle. -- Oops -- All this caused about a four-hour delay.
There are parking areas for your vehicle both at Eagle and across the road from the put in.
You could shorten the trip by doing the shuttle on day one, but it would be a very long day from Anchorage.
At higher water, some of the ripples we encountered would be gone, but other larger rapids would appear.
Several active mining operations were visible. Some more active than others.
After we crossed the border we saw no more active mining.
We camped on a high sand bar at the end of an island.
The old Campways boat had hard gear piled directly on the floor & they had to stop and patch holes three times.
At our first camp we rigged a pole frame for that raft & moved some of their gear to my boat.
They were using only paddles and couldn't keep up in the slow sections, so we pulled them through some pools.
Floated to the next campsite.
Ran Dead Man's Rime w/o trouble but my wife got wet.
From then on she kept handy a garbage bag to quickly wrap around her legs.
We suspected this rapid was coming because the topography seemed to start dropping around the corner ahead.
Topography & geology were very interesting. We repeatedly saw oddly recognizable shapes in hills & mountains.
Some high clouds started moving in, but it was mostly sunny & warm.
We hadn't had much trouble with mosquitoes but did once when I chose to step into the woods for a minute.
We camped on a wide gravel bank that would have been flooded at normal flows.
However, there was a good campsite high up in the woods here as well.
My wife, who does not camp or float rivers, went this time only because she wanted the Yukon River experience.
She had a great time, partly because I brought a port-a-potty and a thick inflatable bed, with a large tent.
We also had the usual assortment of tables, coolers & miscellaneous stuff. Camping was comfortable.
The canoers didn't bring a stove & cooked everything on a campfire, in a cast-iron skillet. They had the best food.
Float to the campsite at Clinton Creek
Ran Canyon Rapids, class III at high water. Easy to see it coming. Scout it on the left.
Continued rock dodging for about 1/2 mile. At high water this could be rough.
After this the river started to slow as the valley started to widen.
The wind started to blow in our faces, and we had to row/paddle through several slow sections
Sunshine was on & off but was still warm. The weather was great for most of the trip.
We saw several bears. A sow with two cubs, and another with one. Several other animals as well.
Before Clinton Creek you can see a road cut into the hill on river left.
Coming into Clinton Creek the canoers pulled off to play on the river crossing tram.
As they were heading back to their canoe, they heard a thrashing in the woods & out came a cow & calf followed by a bear.
The bear chased them across the river to a spot about a quarter-mile from our next camp.
We camped at the mouth of Clinton Creek which sometimes flash floods during rainstorms
Clinton Creek is a mining area abandoned in 1979. There is a bridge and a road leading up to the Top of the World Highway.
From the road there is a 1/4 mile trail leading to the old townsite of Fortymile.
There were several cars parked at Clinton Creek, and some Parks Canada and US Park Service trucks.
Explored the old town of Fortymile and beyond.
Short 2-3 mile float from Clinton Creek to the end of Fortymile River, at the old townsite. Most of this had to be rowed.
It was named in 1886 for being about forty miles down the Yukon River from the former Hudson's Bay post of Fort Reliance.
By the 1890s there were about 1000 people living there.
The 1898 Klondike gold rush in Dawson, about 35 miles upriver, emptied most of the town of Fortymile.
Many old buildings and relics still survive, and the area is now being restored by Parks Canada.
There was a guy from a college conducting archaeology digs with the help of high school students from Whitehorse.
They had found a spear point from the pre-bow and arrow era – circa 800 a.d.
The area has been occasionally inhabited for well over 1000 years. Mostly it was a fishing & hunting area.
We also encountered a Boston gent doing a solo canoe trip to the Haul Road bridge.
He mentioned that the day before a large group of Boy Scouts had invaded the area on their way downriver.
We floated onto the Yukon & downstream about 20 miles to our last river camp on an island.
Floated to Eagle
The weather was deteriorating, but still partly sunny with no/low wind.
The river is wide & fast with numerous islands creating channels. Some of which are slow & shallow
The Yukon was running at about average flows, maybe a little low, but not much.
We encountered the Yukon Queen II, a fast catamaran traveling upriver with about 100 people on board.
This excursion/tour boat travels from Dawson to Eagle & back every day.
They slow to a no-wake speed while passing other boats and cabins.
We rafted up for about an hour at a time, to keep together, swap stories & play games.
Late afternoon weather turned foul with wind & rain. We had to stop & gear up to keep from getting too cold.
We arrived in Eagle in the middle of a heavy downpour.
We packed up and headed to the café for dinner.
The sun came out, and we drove back to our original put in to camp for the night.
Traveled back to Anchorage.
We stopped in Chicken to buy a tire. I think this might be a common occurrence.
Checked out the Jake Wade Dredge, and drove back to Anchorage. (No longer there, unfortunately.)
(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.
(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.