Monday, August 2, 2021

East Fork Chulitna - June 2020

With an exploded and non-weighting bearing ankle, summer 2020 was one of creativity and flexibility for me and the lovely people in my life. In late June, looking for a weekend compatible with a Nova Scotia Duck Toller, crutches, and Charlie's new Forager, we drove north on the Parks Highway for a weekend road-to-road run on the East Fork Chulitna River. After staging the shuttle car at the Chulitna Bridge it was on to our campsite where the East Fork meets the highway.

I'd never been in a Forager before, and I don't think Juniper had either. As we pushed off from camp into the wave trains I vividly remember watching the little dog levitate into the air as the boat crested a wave then fell away beneath her. In the moment of weightlessness that followed she looked around in confusion before plummeting safely back to earth between Charlie's legs.

As we floated downstream the gradient of the river decreased and we left the waves behind to be replaced by the classic gray water and gravel bars of Alaska's glacial rivers. Charlie told me about his last time floating this section and the brown bear cubs whose mother had charged their rafts from the bank.

The day became a routine of paddling under cottonwoods adorned with snoozing eagles with breaks for games of fetch for Juniper and ankle elevating for me. 
Photo: Charlie Procknow

Past the confluence with Honolulu Creek we paddled under the swaying footbridge covered in loose spikey wires that we have previously used on our way to Ohio Creek. Here's a fun picture memory of that schwak with Jordan, Rey, and Conor:


Below the sketchy bridge we entered the colorful canyons whose walls are rumored to hold car tire-sized ammonite fossils. I think I've seen one of these big prehistoric nautilus here in the past, but its hard to get a good look as you go whizzing by. 

With 40 miles down, we pulled off on a gravel bar to camp under the shadows of the foothills of the central Alaska Range.


In the soft sand of the gravel bar were evidence of recent visits from the claws of bears, hooves of moose, and pads of wolf paws. Meanwhile, hiding from the wind in the nooks and crannies of old stumps, flowers clung to life. 


Sunday morning dawned gray and rainy; we paused for a quick dad and dog photoshoot, wiggled into our cold drysuits, then paddled hard to warm back up.


Recent rain on snow in the Alaska Range had swollen the river to flood stage undercutting banks and tossing full grown trees into the water. With air smelling like a sawmill, we swerved between floating trunks grounding to sawdust against each other and the cobbles of the river bottom. 


13 months later Nyssa, Scott, Dane and I went back to check out the upper reaches of the river. We started the weekend with a sublime day of whitewater on Honolulu Creek, camped at our would-be takeout on the banks of the East Fork, then in the morning chained Scott's bike in the alders and drove north to park at the Middle Fork Chulitna bridge. 

We hiked from the gravel pit and followed the creek that doubles as an ATV trail into the woods. Soon the trail brought us out of the woods as we snaked through tundra benches and across old moraines towards the valley that would take us to the pass to the upper East Fork.


Following trails made by countless generations of caribou and walking on grass like putting greens, the hiking in the valley was blissful. I think it would be really fun to come camp here for a weekend of day hiking and skinny dipping in the tarns of the cirque.


At the headwall we scrambled up the talus of a rock glacier to peer down on the Chulitna below us. From this point many people turn left to cross one more pass and put in higher on the splashy upper sections of the river. The day before was full and we were looking forward to the next day on Wells Creek, so instead turned right to prioritize whitewater. 


Dwarfed by Denali we followed a sheep trail along the ridge to Point 5479. 


Sitting on the sunny summit we ate gummy bears, pizza, bacon Cheez-Its, and probably fig bars and looked up Ohio Creek into the heart of the Alaska Range. I didn't think that Ohio Creek from the Bull was all its chalked up to be, but I've heard of an interesting route starting from the Denali Park Road that sounds memorable.


From our perch we pointed for a series of game trail adorned ridges and grassy noses dropping to the valley floor.  


As we approached the flats we could see an ATV trail weaving from our mountainside through the beaver ponds, spruce, and alders of the wide valley to the put in at the creek.


We followed the trail used mostly by bear and moose and less by wheels to the gravel beach along the splashy emerald waters of the East Fork.


A short section of Class II boulder gardens that would be lots of fun at high flow brought us to the entrance rapid of the canyon. The feature was a complex set of converging and constricting rapids into the accelerating water of the bedrock channel. One of us swam in this rapid - its easy to see how someone could take a long swim in the fast water here.

The clear water of the canyon was generally easy but fast and pretty as we left the incised valley walls of the East Fork behind and moved into the gravel cut banks characteristic of Broad Pass. We kicked back in the mellow water for the float to camp as king salmon more like red submarines swam upstream around us.


Waking Monday for the end of our 4th of July smash and grab weekend it was time for feast on the blue waters of Wells Creek for dessert. 

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