Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Jack River Packraft - June 2016

For my birthday last year we mountain biked for two hours, then ran six miles barefoot on the beach, then went climbing, then did a class III float, and finished with a sunset hike. This year, after throwing around a few equally unreasonable ideas we settled on the Jack River over Caribou Pass as a logistically feasible combination of birthday fun.

Starting along the Parks Highway 3.6 miles south of Cantwell, we followed an ATV/bear/moose trail across the flats and were soon gaining elevation.


ATV trails are an interesting contradiction for non-motorized users: they leave eroded scars on the landscape, but without them, vegetated trail-less areas would be nearly impenetrable. Perhaps they are the true multi-use trail? Andalyn is probably debating this conundrum here:


At 3,000 feet we began to sidehill and wrapped SE into a valley towards the pass to the Middle Fork Chulitna drainage. As sidehilling goes it was quite pleasant.


After about one mile of that sidehill ankle training, the alders along the creek thinned, and we dropped down to follow gravel bars along the water.


By early afternoon gravel bars transitioned to easy tundra walking complete with a few caribou, sheep, and ptarmigan.


Reaching the pass, Caribou Lakes and a beautiful panoramic carved by glaciers came into view. This would be a gorgeous campsite. To the left and right of Andrew (in red) several old terminal moraines are visible and marked by horizontal drifts of snow.

Following the contours we dropped down towards Caribou Lakes and the Chulitna drainage. Here there was a new kind of wildlife hazard: baby ptarmigan hiding in the grass. So cute, so invisible, and so helpless.


Hopefully the great ptarmigan god will forgive me for the one I accidentally stepped on. The valley floor was dominated by huge alluvial outwash fans whose well drained gravels were generally a dry and easy surface to walk on.


Dry is a relative term:

Photo: Justin Wholey

Dodging the baby ptarmigan that were waiting to ambush us at every moment we reached the lakes by early evening.


The second lake had all sorts of nice, dry, flat campsites on the old lateral moraines overlooking the lake. As we ate dinner, the evening sun lit up the peaks. The Jack River is immediately in front of these peaks.


In the morning, we woke up to the patter of rain on our tents, cooked breakfast in Justin's circus tent, and started the short hike to the river.


Walking thru dense alders next to the lake, we reached an area that smelled distinctly like a dead animal. As we thrashed loudly forward, a wolf shot out of the bushes 10 feet away from me. Running effortlessly over the tussocked landscape it was a gray blurr - what an animal, and what a great way to start my birthday! At the river we blew up our boats on a gravel bar complete with alarmingly large bear tracks.


Then we were onto the river and entering a spectacular canyon!


The water was fast, continuous, and exciting! Perhaps at lower levels its different, but we found several fun Class 3+ sections. By the end of the day we had all gone swimming. I don't have many pictures cause I was generally just trying to hold on, but it looked like this:


Two hours into the float, Andalyn's boat decided to rip and quickly deflate. Attempting to patch it in the ongoing heavy rain was a challenging team building excercise, but thanks to Justin's patch kit it seemed to work. As the East Fork of the Jack joined us, the river's character became calmer; the views remained incredible.

At the lower canyon several of us portaged the main rapid. Justin successfully ran it, while I flipped, but was able to jump back in my boat in the big pool below.

Justin in the lower canyon.

Andalyn's boat took the opportunity to deflate again. We tried a few more patches, but with the ongoing rain it was so wet and already 6 PM.


So, we packed up Andalyn's raft, she jumped in my boat, and I jumped on the back of Andrew's boat. Which did not work.
Photo: Justin Wholey

Rearranging, Andrew positioned me more securely between his legs:

Photo: Justin Wholey

And we were off on eight miles miles of fast Class I and II. Thanks Andrew!
Photo: Justin Wholey