Sunday, September 20, 2020

Chickaloon River Packraft - September 2020

Saturday started as a beautiful, crisp, and clear fall day waiting for Mike Meekin at his airstrip above the Matanuska Valley. Around noon he was back and chatting our ears off as we loaded our backpacks into his 185 for the flight to the pass between the Chickaloon and Talkeetna drainages.

The ground fell away as we lifted off and banked north. Covered in the burnt colors of fall, the Talkeetna Mountains rose around us.

We flew past the jagged monolith of Mount Monarch covered in a white blanket by snow showers the night before.

After Monarch we crossed the colorful landscape of Chitna Pass, and then were over the Chickaloon River and looking towards its namesake glacier. Years ago we tried to go skiing up there. The terrain is great, the snowpack can be less so.

Then we were coasting towards the strip at the pass. From the air we could clearly see the distinct trail that we would follow to the river the next day.

25 minutes after taking off we were back on the ground and jumping out under the shadow of Sovereign Mountain. The flight cost $600, which I felt was a bit steep, but was happy to pay given my limited mobility.

We dropped our packs at the lake and hiked east to explore the huge valley.

Following fresh caribou tracks we climbed into a hanging valley:

We found the caribou near the snowline. With hunting season in full force, they were jumpy, and quickly climbed over a ridge and out of sight.

Back below the snow we stopped for a snack of Swedish Fish, reminisced about past memories, and dreamed about future adventure ideas in the area.

One of those dreams is Sovereign. Hopefully snow, weather, stability, partners, and work will line up for a safe ski descent of that someday:

Walking back to the lake, we set up camp in the evening light, and read while I unsuccessfully did my best not to fall asleep.

The next morning it was time to follow the trail south towards the river. It was hard to leave the alpine heaven of the pass. I'd love to come back in the future for a basecamp hiking trip.

The trail was a highway, complete with large cairns to mark the gorge crossings. In true Talkeetna Range fashion, small landslides had partially wiped out the switchbacks across the gorges - but anyone with two fully functional legs would have had little trouble.

At one point, feeling like were were being watched, we looked up to see a derpy young sheep curiously watching us. 

The sheep weren't the only critters using the trail, there were tracks left by bear, caribou, moose, hiking boots, and wolves.

Lower down the purple blueberry bushes were at their peak. 

Some were comically large, looking more like grapes than the small alpine berries. Nyssa would stop to feast then jog down to catch up with me. We stopped to roll around and eat more.

We were able to follow the trail all the way to the glacial outwash plain where we packed our boats under a shockingly hot September sun.

Across the way we watched Thai and Rus trying to catch afternoon thermals above the river floor - they'd stop by our camp that evening to catch up - apparently they landed at the same strip thirty minutes after us.

Once on the water I was quickly reminded just how cold glacial rivers, and wished I'd had the foresight to wear more layers under my drysuit. Even with the relatively low fall flows we made quick progress with almost no dragging on the cobbled bottom. On the mountainsides above we saw bears, caribou, and sheep hurrying to pack on reserves for the dark months ahead.

After 15 miles on the water we pulled off to find a camp on a gravel bar covered with the intermingled tracks of wolves, brown bears, and moose.

On Monday we woke to howling wolves in the distance. We packed up camp, inflated our boats, and readied to push off. The night's rain had significantly raised the river, turning yesterday's blue water into chocolate soup. Based on Jule's pix from the day before, the river had risen 6 inches overnight.

I haven't figured out how to keep glacial silt off my "waterproof camera", so there's no pictures from our last day on the water. Instead I've stolen a couple from a day that Charlie, Katherine, and I did on the lower river a couple years ago. Looking at this next picture, the water was close to a foot higher than last time.

We stopped to scout at Hotel Rocks, following moose tracks along a trail above the river that was ringed by lingonberries. There were no woodjams in the rocks, but the river piled boiling pillows of water against the constrictions as it pushed through.

Generally, the brown water was intimidating, powerful, and exciting as it poured over and around the boulder gardens of the lower river. At these high flows the paddling felt like continuous Class 3+.

Lower down, Nyssa ran the Ledge rapid cleanly, but I got turned, flipped, and swam in the hydraulic. Its funny feeling out of form both mentally and physically - I'm looking forward to being back at full strength, but imagine my mental game will probably always be a little different.

Another 15 minutes on the water and we were pulling out at the bridge across the highway where we found Nyssa's car fortunately intact along with dry clothes and coldish beer.


  1. i feel your pain on being off game mentally and physically. besides COVID keeping me pretty isolated this summer, i've been dealing with a chronic joint injury that has kept me from running/long trips in the mountains. not having the climbing gym also made jumping into summer climbing totally weird, and my mental game was way off for that. surprisingly, this summer has been my best boating summer ever because, like you, it's been kind of my only option with my knee injury. found myself pushing my limits in this sport and having something forward to look through. anyway, thanks for the chickaloon write up. we were hoping do to a day float on it a couple weeks ago but opted to take advantage of low levels on six mile instead... maybe we will get to it this summer or maybe we will try to head in next year for a longer trip like this.

    1. Chronic injuries are so frustrating Emily. Like you commented about boating, its nice to have so many ways to get outdoors, and quite fulfilling to finds ways to make it happen!