Saturday, June 5, 2021

Coffee Pizza Beer Packraft

Updated below to include a May day on the Nenana with mom in 2021.

Most people know of this adventure as the "Coffee Pizza Beer Packraft". Aptly named because the loop up Carlo Creek and back down the Nenana starts and ends with at a restaurant that offers just that.

After a memorable search for our friend Allie's cabin and a leisurely coffee at the Cafe, we were on our way.

For better or for worse, an ATV trail allowed us to skip the joys of bushwhacking and we were soon climbing higher and higher through the tundra of Carlo Creek drainage.

Making our way up the winding river valley, the patches of snow slowly became more common as we reached 3,000 feet.

One of the awesome things about Carlo Creek was all the wildlife: there were sheep everywhere, and several groups of caribou. Two of whom even took it upon themselves to trot over to investigate us:

The arrival of the snow patches produced a sudden and significant decrease in my moral. Post-holing through the unsupportable snow I couldn't help but wonder why I was not at home watching TV.

Probably because I do not own a TV. Reaching continuous supportable snow was a relief.

The pass brought sun,

new views,

and the return of the wind. Note chunks of earth in flight:

Descending towards the Nenana, the search for a campsite was almost comical. Every few minutes a new wonderfully soft-looking spot would come into view, only to be more appropriate for swimming than sleeping. Eventually we found a spot that was not only dry, but also had a windbreak!

The next morning arrived with more typical Alaskan weather: cool and cloudy.

One last short descent through thick brush and game trails brought us to the Nenana.

The float was fast and generally mellow, but had a few fun and big waves that briefly submerged us.

A two mile walk back along the road, and the loop was complete. More importantly it was time for tapas and wine!

May 2021 Update:

After a day trip on the fast gray water of the Susitna River, then bikepacking under Denali on the Park Road, mom and I finished off our Parks Highway trip by paddling a section of the Nenana River I hadn't been on since "Coffee Pizza Beer" years ago. 

We stashed the shuttle bike in the woods next to the highway bridge over the Nenana, then backtracked to the washboards of the Denali Highway where we bounced along in the Subie until the road met the river. On the snowy hillsides were the tracks of sleepy wandering bears looking for breakfast.

There was new snow on the mountains above us and the cold bite of the northern spring was still in the air as we bundled up under our drysuits before inflating the Forager and pushing onto the winding brown river.

As the Nenana entered the wide canyon we left behind bending curves to be replaced by faster channelized flow with the occasional Class I wave. This kind of paddling was perfect for mom and I.

To our right, the overnight packrafting route from Carlo Creek dropped from the benches to the north down towards us.

At lunchtime we pulled off the river and out of the wind to soak up the spring sun and eat cheese and smoked caribou sausage harvested from the Clearwater Mountains just up the road.

It took us about 4 hours of paddling to cover the 20 river miles to the bridge where I hopped on my bike to start the spin thru Cantwell and out the gravel highway to the car.

Turning my bike east along the road, I looked into the mountains of the Jack River watershed. For my birthday five years ago we packrafted the Jack via Caribou Lakes. At high flow driven by the melting winter snowpack the upper canyon was a Class III boulder garden playground - another great wilderness birthday memory. 

22 miles of pedaling later my bike and I were back at the car. In the evening light I stopped to reminisce about how these bike shuttles have been such an integral part of weekend packrafting adventures over the years - from my first time out on Twentymile River, to the chocolate milk bedrock drops of Moody Creek, to chasing RVs up the Parks Highway after the Bull to Chulitna


  1. do you have a kmz file for your Coffee Pizza traverse? I'm trying to plan this trip later this summer. Sounds like all Class 2 or below for the float?

    1. I think its probably all Class 1 actually. You won't need a kmz, quite straight forward. Have fun!