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Packrafting the Susitna and Talkeetna rivers, twice each!

If you’re a packrafter, or even someone who might be mildly interested in packrafting (or read the first of the series of articles I wrote about packrafting for American Whitewater; page 14) you know that Alaska is not only the birthplace but also kind of the motherland of packrafting.  Heck, for that matter, Alaska is practically the birthplace and motherland for nearly all outdoor adventuring; there’s a reason that tales of adventure from Jack London and the Klondike gold rush to the Iditarod to epic climbs in the high and unforgiving peaks of the Alaska Range are the stuff of adventure lore.  Packrafting has historically been a bit less dramatic, starting with a need to simply cross rivers while on big walks or bike rides, but over the last decade or so packrafting in Alaska has gained popularity as its own thing, and given the juxtaposition of a lot of mountains and a gazillion miles of river miles  packrafting is is indeed a great way to see the wilds of our wildest state.  So when there was talk of an AK packraft trip this summer, I was keen. I have done 7 or 8 trips to Alaska, and while I’m about 0.5 for 3 on ski trips and 4 for 4 on river-oriented trips, I was optimistic that another packraft trip would be great.

The last ski trip
The last river trip;
which looks more fun?

I am fortunate to be able to have a few friends who not only are packrafters in AK, but are literally the pioneers of the activity.  Brad Meiklejohn (shown above on the Alsek) and Roman Dial have both crawled and paddled around Alaska for seemingly more miles and trips than one lifetime can support, and fortunately are happy to provide info on their experiences, and Tim Kelley, a young packrafter with an old soul has done a lot of trips there both as a NOLS instructor and on his own.  Since one of the big problems with trying to do a packraft trip in AK is simply deciding where to go at a macro level:  Brooks Range?  East or west?, (it’s 700 miles long!) north or south slope?  Coastal rivers in the SE or the Wild West up in the Bering Sea, the Kenai peninsula, the vast interior which includes the Wrangells, Talkeetna mountains, and Alaska ranges, among others, we did a lot of consulting with Roman, Brad, and Tim. We finally decided that since it’s all good, we’d do a trip that was in the relatively easily-accessible Talkeetna range, using the Talkeetna and Susitna rivers as our main conduits. 

One problem with Alaska is that there are so many things to do that there’s not much infrastructure associated with any given adventure.  If you want to paddle the the Middle Fork or Main Salmon or Grand Canyon, there’s an entire industry for each that helps with the shuttles and logistics.  In AK, if you want to do something, you gotta find someone who will help you out with it, but fortunately there are plenty of folks out there who are willing to enable adventuring, so we found someone who hired a nice couple to drive five of us and our gear for most of a day to where the Denali highway crosses the mighty Susitna:

We had a great crew:  I met Benj over 20 years ago in Ecuador, and it turned out that Ashley had lived in a house with Benj in Seattle well before that, then Paul connected with him when Benj became Paul’s counterpart at the Northwest Avalanche Center:

Benj is an extraordinarily good photographer as well

Chip is a friend of Benj’s from Seattle, and is the rare person over 60 who is comparably strong to brother Paul, and even with his diminutive size had no problem slinging a heavy pack over his shoulder and thrashing his way up steep alder-choked hillsides:

Chip is not young nor is he big, but he’s got no problem slinging on a heavy pack and marching hard, and despite not having much whitewater experience, has plenty of the mojo needed to give’er in whitewater.

Brother Paul has been a great pard on many a mission for….about 56 years for me, and it was Paul who took the lead on deciding where we were going to go and eventually became our route-meister:

Benj’s brother Tim was going to round out our fivesome, but a tweaky back reared its ugly head not long before our departure and he had to bail, but the world’s first Professional Packrafter Jeff Creamer was able to fit it into his busy Western packrafting schedule and make a quick trip happen:

Our trip began where the Denali Highway crosses the Susitna River, and I actually needed some edification on what the Denali Highway was; I assumed it was the main road between Anchorage and Fairbanks, since it indeed goes “right by” Denali National Park and has views of the mountain en route.  But this is not the case:  that highway is called the “Parks Highway” and the Denali “Highway” is mostly gravel and cuts off due east from the Parks Highway,  away from the park and the mountain.  Though I guess if you were on your way from the no-doubt-thriving community of Paxston you’d be going towards the park and the mountain….

Here’s the Susitna relative to the rest of Alaska
Denali Highway in red

In any case, as we made our way to the put in the road would dive down into a drainage and we’d say “is this it?” but they were all just tributaries.  We clearly were unaware of just how big the Susitna was, because when we got there, there was no question that this was The River.

the Susitna river felt like the Mississippi (pic by Benj)

I have said in the past that I like maps and used to think that I liked maps more than most folks, but the truth is that most adventurers are more mappy than me, at least in the preparation of a trip. This became evident when Paul said something to the effect of “well, we are only going 5 miles down the Su now.” To which I replied “I though we were doing something like 40 miles before our first hike!”  Clearly I didn’t know, but fortunately didn’t buy my food planning for a few days of floating before shouldering the packs….

The route was thus:  start out on the “Su” for just a few miles, but because there’s about 65 miles of flatwater in a big horseshoe, our plan was to hike up and out of the Su drainage to another creek feeding the other side of the horseshoe, get back on the Susitna, then take out again and hike up and over a plateau to a tributary of the Talkeetna river, go down that to the Talkeetna, float that down a ways to another random get out point, then climb up and over another to close another horseshoe to a trib of the Talkeetna, and down that back to the main stem where we’d float out to the town of the Talkeetna, where it actually meets the might Susitna again!  A little confusing and it may seem a bit contrived, but there was some method to it; both the Susitna and the Talkeetna sport sections downstream of where we took out that have some BIG whitewater.  The Devil’s Canyon section of the Susitna is infamous as one of the more challenging big water runs in North America (I skimmed this; there’s a lot of “so stoked!”), and while the canyon section of the Talkeetna is not quite as big/scary as Devil’s, this was not the trip to do that canyon either (perhaps in the future with the new Alpacka Valkyrie???).

We started out in typical AK weather:  a good rain. 

I knew Benj and Chip -being from Seattle – would be totally at home here.

We floated our first five miles, then started our “hike”, which is probably better characterized by the term “bushwhack.” 

I have said more than once that I have never been sure if I’m cut out for Alaskan adventuring due to the three B’s:  Bugs, Bears, and Bushwhacking!  The three are in good supply in AK, and coming out of the Su was a good first taste of it:

pic by Benj

But the good news is that in AK the treeline is pretty low, so it wasn’t long before we got into tundra walking, and we were surprised – and, I’ll admit, a bit pleased to (literally) stumble into an unforeseen ATV double track goin’ our way:

As we saw in the Salmon Mountains in the spring, wolves are totally

It went to a small hunting camp:

they had forgotten these
Which led to some slow “hiking”

not far from the meager headwaters of Watana Creek, which was a bit on the low side of floatable::

a little walking
but mostly boatable

Eventually we picked up enough tributaries to make it pretty fun., and we had a nice float down to the Susitna, which had clearly picked up plenty additional other tributaries in the 65 mile-long horseshoe:

In addition to the three B’s of AK, the other great thing is the rest of the wildlife beyond the grizzly bears.  It was on the Su that we saw our first caribou: 

Benj is not only a good photographer, he’s fast on the draw

The Arctic Refuge (as Brad Mickeljohn likes to say: “don’t call it ANWR; the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is not an acronym.  We do not call Yellowstone YELL or Central Park CEPA.  The oil industry wants you to forget that this is a refuge that belongs to all of us) seems to be the place where the legendary ginormous herds of caribou roam and migrate, but what is lesser known is that there are plenty of caribou in the south, but they seem to be more solitary (at least, they don’t have enough of a population to make nice trails through the brush the way they make nice trails in the Refuge! At least, we didn’t find any….). 

Apparently caribou like to do a little “wheelie” (hoofie?) when they turn to blast away. I was lucky enough to snap a shot just as this guy was doing that.

Our second exit from the Susitna was longer, and got us up on a plateau that looked like it should have decent hiking, but looks can be deceiving; even without steep alder-covered hillsides, the going was still tough with tripper vines, long grasses, and bogs.  

note the dead trees; apparently there’s a spruce beetle that – like the pine bark beetle down here – has devastated the spruce in this part of Alaska.
The mark of a good pard; thrashing through muck with a grin.
pic by Benj

 At one point we got onto a section that started to undulate under our pressure; it was a “quaking bog.”  Thinking this was pretty cool but not a big deal, I went for a direct route that had the quaking bog part actually under a foot of water, which proved to be fine ‘til…..I plunged through.  Perhaps it was the first time in a while that I’d gotten water up to my crotch that made me squeak in terror, but I actually think it was a instinctive reaction to the concept that with my heavy pack on my back I was about to plunge through a foot of water and a couple of feet of bog-mat and get an up-close experience with dinosaur extinction. 

I am feeling a bit more desperate than I look, tho I look a bit desperate.. Fortunately I have friends who are happy to get a pic of me lunging for my life!

Fortunately the bottom of the pond that we were apparently traversing over the top of was only a little over waist deep and I was able to sort of drag myself through the water and on top of the bog-mat to safety.  And then tried to avoid the cool quaking bogs. 

Paul with better weight disbursement across the Quaking Bog

We had seen on the maps that the plateau we were crossing had a couple of lakes, and given the challenging nature of the walking we were ready to get out the `boats and blow them up to paddle across the lake in lieu of walking on shore, despite the fact that the first one was only a mile long.  The second was four miles long, which made our de-rigging/re-rigging feel a bit more valuable. 

pic by Benj

We paddled across the Stephan Lake – the long one – into a pretty steady headwind, which made our already-on-the-slow side packrafts feel like they were even slower.  Our goal was to make it to the lake’s outlet – Prairie Creek- where the USGS map had indicated “cabin” and we gamely thought that perhaps there would be a flat/non-brushy spot or gravel bar at the outlet.   The lake had a couple of points and coves, which we would kind of hunker in and rest out of the wind, and at one point as we exited a cove around the point we were surprised to see not a cabin but a full-fledged house, a dock with a small houseboat and a fishing boat, and other various buildings.  We pushed slowly through the wind – with plenty of time to contemplate the unusually dark clouds out beyond the lake that were being blown towards us –  to arrive at the dock.  Jeff and I were slightly in front of the others, and at the beach I saw this sign:

The back of the sign said “Go away!” Guess it depends on what mood they are in.

So I figured, hey, that probably applies to packrafters as much as anyone!  I tromped up to the large deck of what was clearly a lodge and walked on in, surprising a young guy surfing his phone.  “Howdy!  We are a bunch of packrafters; any chance we could buy a few beers from you?”  Our lad didn’t have the authority to say, so he suggested we get on his ATV and head up to talk to his dad.  So as Benj, Paul, and Chip paddled into the little cove they saw me blasting up the hill hanging onto the back of an ATV at the first sign of civilization we’d seen in 4 or 5 days. 

The lad delivered me to another cabin, where I walked in and saw a huge guy parked on a couch watching Fox on the big screen.  It turns out that the guy – Bill?  John? – bought the Stephan Lake Lodge and the lease for all of the land surrounding the lodge, including all of the hills we could see, stretching from the Susitna to the Talkeetna rivers – only seven years ago, and being that he and his family was from Virginia, it was clearly a big adventure for all! (as long as they had a big screen TV and the kid had wifi on his phone).  “Bill” was happy to give us a few beers, and as kind of an afterthought I asked “hey, how much would it be for us to stay here?” and he said, “Well, all the guests are out for a bear hunt so the lodge is empty, but my employees are still there and looking for something to do, so if you talk up the place I’ll do it for $100.”  My first reaction was a dumb one:  “total??!”  Um, no, each.  Still a great deal, especially with dinner and breakfast thrown in. 

I walked back down to the lodge (I think it took me a shorter time to make the direct walk on the trail as the lad had driven me on the ATV; kids these days!) and told the crew the deal.  With the now-quite-dark clouds upon us, at the end of a tiring day, the opportunity loomed large, and we aren’t always as committed to the dirtbag life as we should be:

They musta rushed to get the “Scent killer” soap into the packrafters’ bathrooms….

The lodge was interesting; hunting is The Deal there.  As with all hunting lodges, dead animals that they hunted were everywhere:  grizzly, moose, wolverine, caribou, and others. 

At the moment their guests were out on a grizzly hunt, which – having been near the sharp end of a grizz a couple of times myself – I was curious about; how did that work?   The kid enlightened us:  “well, there’s just the simple baiting season, and when that’s done then they kill a moose and gut it and leave the guts to attract the bears.” I’m not sure how that differs from “baiting”, but apparently that’s different.  In any case, the concept of throwing out bait and then hiding in nearby trees – or fortified blinds?  I didn’t ask – didn’t seem much like sport or even hunting to me, but clearly that’s not how other folks see it.

By the time we came out of the hot showers all warm and clean (with the “scent killer” soap) and it was pouring rain outside we weren’t too worried about hunting ethics. And of course, a few folks had to check the interwebs, at least a little:

Jeff was not to be bothered….
Our lovely cook and new friend
Benj working on his swing. Apparently there are plenty of balls in Stephan Lake awaiting retrieval from some ambitious kid….

It was still raining in the morning as we ate their generous breakfast, but with our clothes all dry and being in drysuits and the ability to load our boats under the roof on their deck, we didn’t even notice the rain (we realized that rain is only a negative thing at the transitions:  from boating to hiking, from traveling to camping, from camping to traveling) as we paddled the last bit of the lake to Prairie Creek. We had been warned that Prairie Creek was a bit “beary” due to the salmon running, and sure enough only a few minutes down the small creek we saw multiple bright red torpedoes blasting under our boats, with some of them even hitting our boats as they thrashed angrily past us:  “we got spawning to do!” 

pic poached from the Web

In anticipation of those who dine on fish, we were prepared:

spray at the ready; can Benj actually reach it?

Prairie Creek is pretty short, and soon enough we arrived at the glacier-fed Talkeetna river:

back to another ocean-feeling river

Not only is it of course one of nature’s great feats that salmon return to where they were born, it was amazing to us that they were able to identify this obscure little creek as they navigated up the very-turbid waters of the Talkeetna (which they had to identify coming up the equally-turbid Susitna, in an area with braids that eventually confused us).  At the end of the trip we saw some fishermen near Talkeetna who were fishing for trout, because apparently the trout troll along behind the spawning salmon eating their eggs.  Kind of natural baiting? 

Shortly after reaching the Talkeetna we saw a caribou on the bank, with its signature profile of head kind of thrown back, perhaps to balance their huge rack?  Apparently he didn’t like the steep bushwhack that awaited him if he tried to escape us on shore, so instead he charged into the water and adeptly swam across the river in front of us to a welcoming gravel bar, shook off, and trotted away. 

Soon enough our pleasurable floating along the Talkeetna came to end as we got to The Point where we were to hike up and out of the canyon. Shouldering our packs, we braced ourselves for the upwards thrash that inevitably awaited us:

Benj is all smiles at the riverbank…..
But after a bit of this….
comes the grim determination!

But soon enough we were happily in the tundra far above the river, where not only was the walking easier, we could stop hollering to alert Momma Grizz to our presence (as if our grunting and thrashing about in alder thickets wasn’t enough to scare all wildlife away). 

The hike between the Talkeetna and the Talkeetna was a bit of a longer one, which took one full day and half days, through beautiful terrain, albeit much of it in foggy/cloudy conditions:

Pis by Benj

We did have to do some navigating, and even with gps tracks we came somewhat close to plunging deep into the wrong drainage:

“is that big lake on the map?”
no caribou trails, but they been here….
some beautiful lichen up there (Benj photo)
It was surprisingly chilly at the high elevation of 3000 feet in mid-July, so the Tyvek brothers busted out their secret weapons…

But we knew our tundra rambling was going to end, and the thickets below started to loom:

And this time they included the dreaded Devil’s Club:

pics by Benj

We ultimately landed on Chunilna Creek, or as everyone seems to refer to it there, Clear Creek (weird, and too bad; Clear Creek is such a generic name, and sorta steals the native name…). 

The World’s First Professional Packrafter is so efficient with every transition he got plenty of reading down whilst the rest of us diddled with our gear.

It too was a bit on the low side and had some log that were easily dealt with, but with over 20 miles of floating we went past plenty of tributaries that added water and the river canyoned up so the quality improved steadily as we descended, with great gravel bar camps:

pics by Paul
With some requisite riverside Scrabble. I am forced to say that Jeff was the trip champeen…..

Fun class 3. pic by Benj

About the time Clear Creek flattened out we met the Talkeetna again, this time with motorized boats zipping up it so we knew that we were near civilization once again.  A few miles later a railroad bridge and the ocean of the Susitna loomed ahead, signaling our takeout in town:

Gratuitous gear explosion shot

Talkeetna is a very different place on a sunny summer weekend day than the gloomy, cold days I saw it in April a couple of years ago; it’s clear that Talkeetna is a must-stop place on the Tourist Tour.  But we didn’t care; beers and big meals that were far better than yet another dehydrated dinner more than made up for the scads of people trying to figure out what to do in a tourist town. 

Route-meister Paul had found us a bus to take back to Anchorage, and it stopped at a fancy lodge not far from town, and we had such a brilliant day that the bus driver made a big deal out of saying “you gotta go out to the back deck for the view of the mountain!” Which even she did, and she was right:

Pic by Benj

Brad Mickleljohn was kind enough to meet us in Anchorage when we arrived, and presented Paul and I with “The Wild Trails”, a recently-self-published book of essays that Brad has done over many years of recreating on and in fierce defense of wild places in Alaska and beyond. 

Thanks again to Brad, Roman, and Tim for their generosity in providing invaluable beta, great thanks to the eternally helpful and cheerful ex-Utahn-turned-Chugach Avalanche Center director Wendy Wagner and John for letting us borrow their car.  And thanks again to Brother Paul, Chip, Benj, and Jeff for being such solid partners; even a great trip with mediocre pards is not really all that good, so doing a great trip with great folks is extra special. 

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