East Fork Chulitna-Mistakes Made & Lessons Learned

18 06 2015

I’m not sure why, but every time we start these trips, we try and avoid getting our feet wet at all costs, knowing full well it’s just a matter of time (and usually sooner than later) that our feet will be soaked. In the first 1/4 mile we ran into a large puddle/pond in the four wheel trail and bushwhacked around it. This was the first (and really only) bushwhack of the first day….Less than 20 minutes later our feet were soaked for the duration of the trip.

After going through bushwhack hell on the last trip using the Hardage Creek Route, we decided to take the northern route this time-we’ve seen great reports of little bushwhacking and decided to give it a try.

Beautiful views of Denali and the Alaska Range. Another amazing, sunny, warm weekend in Alaska.denali view beginning

After we left the easiness of the four-wheeler trails, we found some great high alpine game trails.

Boone hiking up towards the pass.

boone hiking

Jeff & Sarah climbing towards the pass.

sarah & jeff hiking

After reaching the pass, we looked at the map. Previous packrafters had taken the ridge left (headed slightly farther upriver), descended towards the creek, then made another pass before getting to the East Fork Chulitna near Crooked Creek. The East Fork Chulitna seemed so close! We decided to roll the dice & try our own route, knowing quite well the odds were greatly against us. Crazy thing is we succeeded 🙂 By doing this, we probably cut 3 miles off the hiking portion of the trip and only sacrificed about 1/2 mile of floating. We decided to stay high, traversing the ridge right.

Boone & Kasey.

 kasey and boone hiking

We started descending the nose & found a good place to take a break and fuel up before what we thought potentially could be a long bushwhack to the river. Here’s the view looking up river to Crooked Creek area. Once we descended to the valley floor, we wound up hiking in the general direction of up river, ending about 1/2 mile below the confluence of Crooked Creek.

checking maps

View down river & faintly the Alaska Range.

 group view of valley

We managed to find a route down, all tundra hiking. From the top we scouted several treeless areas & headed towards the first one. We easily linked up open areas with animal trails through the trees. It was definitely not a bushwhack. We even found a large downed tree to cross the creek on.

Sarah heading down the nose.

   sarah hiking down

Camp! I love Alaskan summers! I took this at 10:30 pm.

camp

Our put-in to the East Fork Chulitna.

yak

The first few miles of the paddle went smoothly. Fun, Class 2. Splashy. I’ve done this paddle before and loved it. The two canyons were challenging and the rest was pure easy fun. I led the paddle into the first canyon-a Class 3/3+ canyon. After making the first few rapids, I made a costly mistake-I got to close to a boulder, got high sided, from which I couldn’t recover and went for the swim of my life. I’m not sure if it was complacency  or just the littlest/giant mistake. Going into that rapid, I thought I had it. There wasn’t even a question in my mind. Now, instantly, I knew I was in pretty big trouble. There are few small eddies in the canyon, mostly rock walls, and I had 3 big drops to go & probably 125 yards till the river calmed back down to a fast Class 2.

I managed to hang on to my raft and my paddle, trying desperately to right my raft & when eddies appeared swimming desperately for them. I was almost able to catch one or two before the current grabbed me & threw me into another rapid. I was being thrown into boulders & over drops, getting pushed underwater, then being able to come up for air in time for the next one. My crew was desperately trying to catch me & help, doing everything possible. At one point, Kasey got to me, but I was unable to get close enough to her to grab her boat before we got separated in a rapid. Finally, my boat got caught on a large boulder (upside down) in an impossible place in the river. Boone caught up with me at some point & I was able to grab onto him for a second before we came upon the next rapid and had to let go. I was absolutely exhausted and knew I had to keep fighting. I kept swimming with my paddle, the river tossing me around like Raggedy Ann, with my head headed straight into a boulder. I narrowly missed bashing in my skull (how I don’t know, I was suprised-Boone saw it and was trying to figure out how he was going to get me unconscious or dead out of the river.) Regretfully, I had left my helmet at home. Definitely, won’t be doing that on future trips. Finally, I dumped out of the canyon into Class 2. The river isn’t terribly deep here-knee to mid thigh-just super fast. Boone managed to get to me, with Jeff right behind him. I grabbed onto the rope on the rear of his boat and he managed (I don’t know how) to get us to shore-NOT in an eddy (He said it was like dragging 3 boats). He jumped out of his boat, grabbed me with one hand & his boat with the other hand. I was so exhausted I couldn’t walk. I laid on shore breathing hard & exhausted-happy to be alive.

My hands were frozen-screaming barfie style, but the rest of me was relatively warm & dry. I felt like I had been through Fight Club-exhausted, my legs were so beat up-deeply bruised muscles, with visible ones on the surface (some bigger than my hand), as well as some good gashes. But I was ok. I did get a hole in my brand new Stowaway Tough drysuit by Alpacka-although, I truly believe this would have happened in my regular Kokatat drysuit as well. My long underwear was also ripped and I had a gash in my knee where the drysuit was ripped. I stayed pretty dry despite the hole. In the end, my pack broke the Packtach rope in half from the water pressure & floated downstream. Boone was able to jump in his boat & grab it. The pack coming off knocked the boat off the boulder into an eddy. Kasey & Sarah had managed to eddy out and grab it. Also, it happened to be one of the fewer parts of the canyon they could hike out of-so they packed up everything & hiked out to us.  I was so happy to see them.

Since I was to exhausted to boat the second canyon, (and the big class 3/4) rap, we had to hike around it (maybe 1 or 1 1/2 miles). I mean bushwhack. It was the hardest hike ever due to my legs being completely sore & beat up. My muscles barely wanted to put one foot in front of the other, much less with a pack & climbing over hills.  Thankfully, my crew grabbed my boat, paddle & pfd to take some weight off my back. Sometime after the big rapid, we managed to hike down to the river & paddle the rest of the trip. The rest of the float is a fun, splashy Class 2 all the way back to the highway. Although, I tried to enjoy the rest of the paddle, and definitely had some good moments, it just wasn’t the same for me. We got back to the car a few hours later than we expected due to the swim, and ended up getting “stuck” in Talkeetna, due to the Sockeye fire in Willow. It was 80F and a good place to chill out, relax, & reflect over a few beers on the banks of the Talkeetna River with the sun setting over Denali.
sunset denali talkeetna

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East Fork Chulitna-The Hardage Creek Route

23 07 2013

This is the BEST SUMMER EVER in Alaska. Hot and sunny. Blue Skies. It’s the summer I’ve always dreamed of, but only got to experience in bits and pieces in the past.

The East Fork Chulitna should be on every packrafter’s list of to do’s. Heading up the (southern) Hardage Creek route, you definitely work for every ounce of it, but the beautiful scenery and float out is worth it! That being said, I think I’ll check out the northern route to the river next time…..

sign

Easy hiking on the muskeg up the power line. At some points the muskeg was so bouncy it felt like a trampoline. Initially, we were skeptical to abandon the easiness of the power line to penetrate the thick spruce and find the atv trail to the east. Surprisingly, this bushwhack was super easy and actually not much of a bushwhack…..

powerline

Wildflowers were abundant! Lupine and wild irises were still in bloom. Fireweed, monks hood, bluebells, and loads other flowers (as well as cow parsnip) blanketed the hillsides.

dylan fireweed

Looking down on the Hardage Creek valley. To the left of the image (headed up valley) the valley is completely choked with alders and no real open spots. After much debate, we opted to climb above the crazy bushwhack below, hoping our elevation would save us the frustration of the bushwhack and be easier. It was NOT a good idea. I’m not sure what would be a good route through this area, but going high was brutal. We were side-hilling 45-50 degree slopes (my ankle was not so happy), with some bushwhacking,  it ended up taking us approximately 4 hours to go 2 miles. We ended up having to drop down and do some more bushwhacking to the creek anyway, then hike up the other side once we neared the moraine, so going high, unfortunately, had no advantage. 😦

the bushwhack maze

Dylan taking a break on our hike up the Hardage Creek valley.

taking a break

Dylan checking the map, while I cooked dinner. Each doing what we do best 🙂 Without friends with good map skills I’d probably still be out there 🙂

checking map

A curious caribou kept approaching us, then prancing off. He was super fun to watch.

caribou

Headed up into the rocky moraine. In the middle of the photo, right where the closer hill meets the mountains in the back is the pass. It was a pretty awful, sketchy climb. One step forward, two back. Kicking down loose rocks (we had to each climb up separately as to not kick rocks on each other), and the even walls were not stable with deep cracks. We managed to pull a large suitcase size part of the wall down.

shadows looking up to pass

The descent to the other side of the pass was super easy. Long chutes of shale made for an easy and fun descent. We ran into a herd of 25 caribou in the valley. Super fun to see. Once they caught wind of us, they hightailed it over a pass.

valley

Plentiful camping opportunities every mile or two from here to the river. For the most part, this part of the hike was easy tundra hiking, following game trails through the brush. Although, there was some bushwhacking (especially the last mile to the river) and we did have a few creek and drainage crossings that were interesting 🙂

The Chulitna!!!! We put in about a mile or so above the Crooked Creek drainage. We were happy to (finally) be in our boats!

put in

The whole length of the river the scenery was stunning. When we started paddling the Chulitna is a flat, windy river with spawning salmon racing up river, and a curious caribou with a gorgeous rack, that followed us down river. When Crooked Creek dumps in the Chulitna picks up the pace and gets fun & splashy, but an easy Class 1 & 2. The first canyon is by far the hardest (Class 3), with some big drops! I wound up with an amazing amount of water in my boat, making it super unstable. I was able to eddy out in the canyon (luckily) and dump my super heavy-with-water boat out. We were able to scout the big rapid (Class 3+) at the start of the second canyon and ran it without any problems. It was super fun! The rest of the canyon is much easier than the first. From there on out it’s a fun, 1 hour 20 minute, bouncy Class 2, float out to the highway. Definitely my favorite float to date!

early river








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