Tuesday, January 11, 2022

Happy River Packraft - July 2019

Every summer is a busy one here in AK. Between multiple stints of grueling fieldwork, an arctic trip, and family time, 2019 was another whirlwind of packing 12 months into three months of sunlight. When Khalial, Alex, and I had a few days where our schedules lined up with not just each other but also with the weather we jumped to snag a plane into the Alaska Range.

On a shady Friday morning with the light muted by low clouds hanging over the Anchorage bowl, we met our pilot Kip at Lake Hood. We stuffed our packs into the back of the Cessna, crawled in after, and buckled up as the big wheels of the bush plane left the ground and we pitched away from the city and across Cook Inlet.

With Kip doubling not just as pilot, but also as DJ, the tunes floating into our ears made our flight feel like a dream as we climbed thru wispy clouds and across the inlet. Back over terra firma, we flew past rivers that had left their angry rapids of the steep mountain gradient behind to be replaced by lazy winding oxbows.

We crossed the dusty braids of the Skwentna River which we would paddle a few days later, then mountains spray-painted in a thin coat of orange by the smoke of Siberian wildfires rose around us.

All too soon the flight was over, and we were bouncing down the gravel air strip at the Rainy Pass Lodge. Kip tossed out our bags, traded essential supplies with the lodge staff, then as we shouldered our packs he took off leaving behind a gust of dust followed by silence.

We looked at around at the big peaks guarding our valley, then walked off the strip, through the fireweed, and onto the horse trail.

Following the trail, travel was fast and efficient, and we were soon out of the brush and walking across the wide u-shaped valley carved by glaciers from a different time.

Curtains of wildfire smoke filled the air, leaving behind shadows of the big peaks for our imaginations to fill in the details. Part of the appeal of this trip for me had been the sweeping mountain views I'd seen on other blogs. I’d love to go back to this area another time when the visibility is a little better. Who knows if that opportunity will be in this life, or the next?

In the winter here, winds fight to get through the barrier that is the Alaska Range as cold and dry air from the icy interior drains towards the relatively warmer air above the Gulf of AK. The connected valleys are the easiest pipes for this flow, and that which isn’t buried by the snowpack, or safely above it, gets stripped by blowing debris.

In this land where life is a fight for survival, we passed from vegetation stripped by wind to willows girdled by snowshoe hares nibbling the young bark in a hungry effort to survive the lean months of winter.

As the Happy River arced west, we planned a cutoff through the mountains to our put-in nearer the pass. We left the valley-bottom behind and climbed west along ridges carpeted in blueberry and crowberry bushes.

We traversed through alpine basins of firm tundra while a dispersed herd of caribou grazed ahead of us.

As we approached, the curious creatures couldn’t resist coming over to inspect the strange animals walking on their back legs with paddles for antlers. I’d like to think we inspired at least a couple of them to give two-legged-life a go.

Climbing higher, we moved from the home of one ungulate to another – the sheep.

These civil engineers of the alpine had built a lovely system of trails, parkways, and on-ramps which took us all the way to the pass.

We stopped at the pass for lunch. I can’t remember for sure but with Khalial I bet we had Bear Tooth pizza.

Unlike the taller parts of the Range where the high mountains feed big valley glaciers with tumbling flows of ice, this dryer part of the range is highlighted by peaks bejeweled by cirque glaciers hiding from the sun high on the north faces of the craggy peaks.

With streams of afternoon sunlight beaming through the smoke, we began the descent to the put-in at Puntilla Creek's confluence with the Happy.

In theme with the trip as a whole, it continued to be cruiser, leaving us with just a short and mild bushwhack along the creek bed to the Happy.

By the time we were back at the river we’d made more than enough progress for our relatively short smash-and-grab, so called it a day and set up our tent on a gravel bar along the laminar upper reaches of the smooth river.

The three of us all like our sleep, so after a glorious long night complete with some glutinous morning snoozing, we eventually rolled out of our sleeping bags to boil water to pour into our dehydrated breakfasts. Rested and refueled, we carefully slid our gear past the fragile cargo zips of our packrafts, inflated our expensive pool toys, and pushed off the cobbled bank.

In the aquamarine water under us, small red submarines of king salmon the size of dogs darted away from our shadows on their one-way trip upstream. This part was particularly special for me – we often see a few kings in the rivers, but the abundance and visibility of the fish passing under us was superb.

After a few mellow hours of riffles and splashy Class I the banks of the river constricted around us as the channel cut a superimposed V-shape within the glacial U. The character of the river changed to become a garden of big, smooth boulders reminiscent of Willow Creek’s Guardrail section. At the low mid-summer flows it barely reached Class 3, though obviously it would become more powerful and continuous at high flows. I’d love to do it again at higher flows.

Photo Khalial Whithen

In the heart of the shallow canyon we pulled out for the night. We set up our tent in a cottonwood forest home to a family of industrious beavers and ate dinner on the cutbank next to the river. Across the water we watched a sow grizzly walking nonchalantly up the bank before disappearing into the thick alders of the floodplain. The next time we looked up was to see her bursting full steam out of the brush and diving headlong into a pool in the rapids to resurface moments later as a dripping mass of fur with a four-foot fish in her mouth. WOW.

With that image seared into our retinas we closed our eyes for the night. The next morning, we again weren’t in a particular rush and made sure to be fully caffeinated before leaving the tent for breakfast. As we sat in the cottonwoods eating breakfast and listening to the water tumbling towards the sea, a squeak from Khalial alerted us to a family of three brown bears who had obliviously wandered within 10 feet of us. Just like us, these giants had let their guard down, were equally surprised, and both parties were happy to go their own way.

Another memorable encounter in the books, we stuffed our legs back into the cramped cockpits of our bumper boats. The meat of the whitewater was behind us, and we chatted and shared embarrassing stories as we bounced down the mellow rapids to the confluence with the Skwentna. At the confluence, the clear blue water of the Happy joined with the tan of the big glacial river to form a swirling milkshake. 

The Skwenta is your typical big glacial river during summer in AK – windy, braided, and flat. Fortunately, it was fast and devoid of the shallow shoals that so often love to unexpectedly hang up our boats in these opaque waters. Floating sleepily in the lazy river, we watched as another family of brown bears perused the gravel bars next to us in search of their next meal.

Under the bluffs alerting us of our Finger Lake exit, we pulled out of the river, rolled up our boats, and started the vertical crawl through the jungle towards our float plane pickup.

It was a quick mile from the top of the bank to the lake, and we were early when we arrived.

Perfect - plenty of time for a long swim in the refreshing summer water of the lake before a guide from the lodge came by to say hi and give us a ride to the dock.

We chatted with the lodge staff, got a quick tour, then jumped back in one more time as Kip’s float plane buzzed over the trees towards us.

Photo Khalial Withen

Completing our weekend dream, Kip handed us each an icy brew as we clambered into his plane for the flight home – what an awesome guy.

Moments later the plane was breaking the surface tension from the water and leaving the lake behind to be replaced by fields of fireweed flowing past below us.

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