by Jim Strutz
The Talkeetna River can be floated most of June through September. Optimal times are probably late June through August. River water levels can be found on the internet at https://www.weather.gov/aprfc/riverConditions
Best craft are probably self-bailing whitewater rafts & catarafts. Tub floor rafts can also be used. I have also used an inflatable kayak and others have used hard shell kayaks. The river has also been negotiated in open canoes by very skilled paddlers, accompanied by safety boats. Steve Mahay has driven a specially prepared jet boat all the way up, but then he did the same on the class VI, Devil’s Canyon section of the Big Susitna too. Of special note however, Steve was unwilling to drive the boat DOWN the river afterward. He was hoping video sales would be enough to pay for the helicopter lift back to town.
Logistics for running the Talkeetna River are quite simple. From Anchorage, drive north 120 miles to Talkeetna, pay an air taxi service for the shuttle, and load your gear into the plane. Smaller gear bags are better than larger bags, as they are easier to fit in around the boat and other bulky gear. Flight time is just over an hour. After the float ends, park your raft and walk the short distance to the airport to retrieve your car.
Figure on two people per flight in a Cessna 185 or equivalent, if you pack light with small/medium-sized raft or cataraft. If your boat is large or you don’t want to pack light, figure on another flight for the extra stuff. From listening to the pilots, I would assume that most people pay for the extra gear flight, but every trip I’ve done makes it tightly in one flight per two people.
Catarafts are heavier, don’t hold as much & take longer to take down, stash in the plane, and set up on the riverbank, but they also stow better in the smaller spaces of a light aircraft. To save space and weight, I once landed at Yellowjacket Airstrip with only part of a Cat frame. We lashed trees together for the extra pieces. Whatever inflatable you decide to use, consider bringing one of those $20 battery-powered air blowers. They’re cheap and one set of four D cells will semi-inflate 2-3 rafts.
There are several places that you can fly into on the upper Talkeetna River. Buck’s Airstrip is only 2-3 floating hours above Prairie Creek, for about 80 miles of total floating. Yellowjacket Airstrip is about a half-day float above Buck’s. Some air taxi operators don’t like to fly into Yellowjacket since it has a lot of loose rocks and bumps, and is also quite narrow with overgrown brush on the sides. As it is a bit farther as well, expect to pay more to be dropped off there.
The float from Yellowjacket to Bucks is almost all shallow braided river that some people want to miss anyway. But if this is a caribou hunt as well as a float trip, landing at Yellowjacket is a must, because that’s where you will most likely find them. Late August and into September are the best times for caribou. Earlier than that and you will have to climb a lot of steep hills to get to them.
Another option is to land on Murder Lake, just below Stephan Lake, with a floatplane, and then negotiate Prairie Creek down to the Talkeetna River. This may be a hardshell boater’s only option since in most cases the FAA no longer allows canoes & kayaks strapped to the outside of planes carrying passengers. You can hire a DeHavilland Beaver on floats that can carry kayaks inside but it might not be able to access Yellowjacket or Buck’s . In 2005, flying from Talkeetna to Murder Lake proved to be a less expensive option for several raft groups. If the salmon are running, take extreme care on Prairie Creek. There are plenty of bears that don’t like to share river space.
River Description & Features
Most of the Talkeetna float above Prairie Creek is braided river. At times it is shallow, and at other times it bunches up with a few short class I or II rapids. Prairie Creek is much smaller, with shallower water & quite a few more tight turns. There also may be some sections needing a portage on Prairie Creek. Camping areas are generally easy to find. Talkeetna River is moderately silty, but with a pleasant blue-green tint unless the water is high. Weather conditions and seasons will vary the amount of silt. The percentage of silt seems to decline farther downriver, until merging with the very silty Sheep River about 20 miles from the end.
After Prairie Creek the river stays more bunched up and there are a few more class II rapids for nearly ten miles. Camping areas are still plentiful, although perhaps not as easily found. There is one spot on river right, about a mile below the confluence with Prairie Creek, that has been quite popular in the past, but a local beaver dammed the small creek that enters here, and the resulting dam waters have flooded much of the camping area. You can still camp here with spaces for several tents, but it isn’t as pleasant as it once was.
Rather abruptly the valley walls close in on the river and a canyon begins. The rapids start with Entrance Exam, a nearly river wide reversal. There is a narrow sneak route on the left side. Depending on water level and craft type, all of your boat may not fit far enough left and somebody will get wet. Oh, the pity!
To identify this drop before it sneaks up on you, as the river turns to the left, you will see on river right, a large, high, steep bank covered with shrubs and alders. River left will have a large gravel bar unless the water is very high. Up ahead the water turns sharply right and disappears over the horizon line and into a narrow slot canyon. You want to get out on river right, tie your boat to an alder and scout the rapids. There are trails in here that lead you to an overlook of Entrance Exam, and by climbing over the high bank you can see Toilet Bowl Rapids. If you miss the scouting take out, just remember to stay left as you see the horizon line disappear into the narrow gap that the river has to run through as it turns sharply right.
By staying left, you can easily negotiate Entrance Exam. The water following will be swirling about in a short, narrow canyon. If the water is high, you will have to work hard to stay off the sides. Just keep your bow pointed into whatever wall you are close to and pull away from it. This quickly widens into a short calmer spot where, unless the water is high, you can get out on river right and examine the rest of Toilet Bowl. The usual route through Toilet Bowl is to enter on river right and do a frantic back ferry to the left to avoid the rocks that jut out on the right. Start this frantic back ferry right after you pass the first set of center rocks/holes. Alternatively, you can enter left of center and make your way through as best you can, but at some water levels this can be difficult. At high water, you need to stay close to the right side, but not so close as to smack the rock jutting out from there.
The water calms off, but remains fast for the next few miles before entering the Sluice Box. This is a 10-mile section that is often hemmed in by vertical rock sides, while the river continues dropping fast. There are several large wave train sections and numerous large holes to fall into. In here, at low to medium flows, there is also another large, nearly river-wide hole that needs to be negotiated river left. You can identify it by the rather straight and calm water above a sudden right turn around a rock outcropping on the right. Right there, at the right turn, you will be wishing you had paid more attention to these instructions, or had at least remembered the advice; “When in doubt, stay left.” For some reason that advice works for almost all of this river. Kayakers will often want to stop and play here. Them are strange folk.
At low to medium flows, there is one other drop in the Sluice Box worth noting where the river spreads out and turns left over a series of ledges. Again, the safest route is right next to the left bank. However, I have seen a cataraft accidentally run right through the middle of this. It’s usually pretty boney at low water and nasty looking at high water.
In fact at high water, the whole Sluice Box is a bad place to play. There is probably nothing so big as to stop a large, fully loaded raft if you are actively pushing it downstream, but once you start slowing your descent to gain maneuverability, you will seriously jeopardize your ability to climb the next wall of water. There are plenty of times you will want to move to one side or the other, but make sure you have sufficient momentum when you get to the next hole.
The rapids are more or less continuous for about 14 miles and drop at about 30 to 40 feet per mile. At low to medium flows, none of this is much over class III+, and most of it is just class II. But your boat will likely be full & heavy, and you are remote, so it’s best to be careful & conservative. At high flows everything gets faster and bigger, and pulling over for a rest is difficult. I advise doing it whenever possible, but you will have to very deliberately move to one side & grab any available eddy as it appears. As with most rivers, the Talkeetna gets easier after a few times down it. If this is your first time, caution is advised, and taking someone familiar with the river is generally a good idea.
The rapids end almost as suddenly as they start, as you exit through another narrow notch in the canyon walls. There are several good camping areas on an island just below here. Just below this, Iron Creek enters on river left and there is a good camping area on the gravel bar on river right. If the salmon are running, the upper end of the gravel bar is often a good fishing spot. About 12 miles below this, Disappointment Creek enters on river right and there is another good camping area just above the creek on the same side.
Right below Disappointment Creek, there is a small set of rapids, and the river runs through another narrow canyon for a few miles. There are a few places where passengers can get splashed, so be sure to tell them the rough stuff is over before they get there.
After a few miles the river finally slows and Sheep River merges on river left. The last twenty miles are on very silt-laden water. About the only interesting item remaining is passing Clear Creek on river right. If the salmon are running there may be hundreds of people lining the banks trying to get their share before the other guy does. It’s actually a fairly good place to fish and isn’t as crowded as the Russian River on the Kenai, but it’s close.
The take out is about eight miles down stream. After you cross under the railroad bridge keep left. There are several separated channels as the river forms a small delta before running into the Big Susitna River just as you come into town. There are several places to take out, from the small boat launch to the gravel bar at the end of Main Street, and even beyond, so don’t panic if you can’t get over fast enough to land where you want.
From here, walk back to the airport, retrieve your car, and load up. Have an ice cream cone and look around before driving back to the city. Talkeetna is an interesting place.
Drive to Talkeetna early and catch your flight upriver.
Assemble boats & stow gear.
Camping at Yellow Jacket Airstrip is good, but at Buck’s or Murder Lake it’s better to float a few miles first.
Set up camp anywhere you see a spot. There are plenty.
Camp once more above the rapids.
Check out Prairie Creek. There is an old cabin just upstream.
You can often see fish in the stream where it merges with the Talkeetna.
Salmon fishing is usually closed above Talkeetna Canyon. Check the regs for details.
There are also good tent sites in the woods here.
Run the rapids of Talkeetna Canyon.
Don’t do it all in one stretch. Take out a few times & enjoy it while it lasts. It ends all too soon.
I didn’t find any good camping areas in the canyon.
Camp on the island at the end of the Canyon, or just across from Iron Creek.
Float to Talkeetna.
The River is wide, deep & fast so rafting up a small group is possible for short stretches.
Take out & fetch the car for the drive home.
The river can be paddled from top to bottom in two very long days, but it wouldn’t be as much fun. If you are really in a bind for time, you can have a river taxi pick you up for a quick ride back to Talkeetna. No camping required, but I still don’t think it would be as much fun. It would be better to add a couple of days for hiking/exploring in the upper sections.
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.