Sunday, August 1, 2021

Packrafting Shangri-La - July 2021

The 4th of July weekend found us driving north after work on Friday night with the goal of day tripping the classics of Broad Pass. We camped along the East Fork of the Chulitna while clouds of mosquitos feasted on us then on Saturday morning hiked into the woods from the north bank of Honolulu Creek.

For four miles we waded thru waist deep grass, crawled under Jurassic ferns, and surfed alders to the brush line. The surprisingly legit bushwhacking slowed our progress as we worked towards the alpine. 

Reaching the tundra, visibility, and easy travel of the valley, we cruised towards the pass that would bring us to the headwaters of Honolulu Creek.

There was still ice on the lake as we crossed the pass and started the descent towards Honolulu Creek.

As we descended towards the creek, the raw, crumbling, and beautiful mountains so classic of the Talkeetnas spread out in front of us. I mindsurfed skiing these mountains covered in a hypothetical blanket of thick and stable maritime snow instead of the faceted and weak snowpack that normally lurks here. 

The water looked low and draggy for our boats when we reached the creek. Doubting there was enough water to scrape along, we walked downstream in search of a few tributaries to add volume. After two miles we gave up on more water and inflated our boats to starfish, walk the dog, and butt boat down the upper section. I bet this part is draggy at all reasonable water levels. 

Things started to improve at Defibrillator - the manky Class IV drop marking the upcoming canyons - then just got more fun from there. Scott:

I'd previously only run the lower creek from California Ledge and didn't know exactly what to expect. The upper canyons were awesome, with set after set of Class III and IV pool-drop style rapids. 

We portaged the Decapitator rapid then continued on thru more glorious rapid-filled canyon towards Upper Sandbag Falls. Decapitator:

Photo Scott Patterson


At the undercut 15 foot pour-over that is Upper Sandbag we hopped out, crawling our boats up the steep, slippery, and sketchy south wall of the canyon. Upper Sandbag:

Photo Scott Patterson

From the bench above the incised creek we looked down past the falls to see more quality paddling and immediately wanted to get back in there. So, Scott and Nyssa led the charge around the falls finding a precipitous scree chute to surf down while trying not to shred our boats on the flakes of sharp rock in the chimney. 

The scree chimney surf was funny and memorable, but for those looking for less adventure the north bank would have been a much easier portage. Below Upper Sandbag and back onto the water, the fun continued with more beautiful pool drop paddling into the unknown tight canyon. Mike:

Photo Scott Patterson


Photo Scott Patterson

Losing our sense of time and space, we regained our senses of reality and location only with the arrival of California Ledge. Dane: 

Past California we had a few more bedrock slides, boulder gardens, and waves and then were cruising down the boogey water back to the bridge.

14 hours after leaving we were back at the car incredibly happy with our day. For reference, the water level was just touching the gauge rocks at the bridge. With 3" more of water we talked about how the character of the canyons would change significantly from pool drop Class IV to continuous and consequential IV+. Everything had to go right to nail this as a day trip, but with spectacular alpine camping opportunities this would make a magical overnight too.

By 11 on Saturday night we were at camp inhaling dinner and mosquitos while plotting for Sunday on the East Fork Chulitna River. In the morning we chained Scott's bike around a few alders and drove north to park at the Middle Fork Chulitna bridge. We hiked across the gravel pit and followed the creek that doubled 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 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 tarns.

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. 

Driving north to the Denali Highway, we zigzagged the Subie down the switchbacks to the Nenana crossing, inflated our bumper boats, and paddled across to where the muddy glacial water mixed with the aquamarine of Wells.

Rolling up the boats and stuffing them in our packs, we started along the cruiser ATV trail to the upper basin. We could hear Austin and Lizzy hooting as they bounced through the water playground in the valley below. As we climbed out of the Nenana river valley the ragged and glaciated peaks of the eastern Alaska Range rose above us.

Where the creek consolidated from the wide gravelly plain into a channelized boulder garden we descended to the put in. Afterward we talked to Austin and Lizzy who'd hiked higher to paddle the upper reaches of Wells. They reported excellent adventure up there - I'd love to go back and check out that section. There are other cool linkups to investigate here too.

With a last look at the views of the mountains rising above the sweeping plain, we slipped into our boats and paddled towards eight miles of whitewater. Water levels were very similar to last time we were here; based on the vegetation along the banks, boulder sorting, and no other obvious signs of frequent high flow events I think that this isn't a flashy system with relatively consistent flows. My guess is this because the upper basin is low angle and filled with lakes and other storage.

We bounced thru boulder gardens reminiscent of Willow Creek's Guardrail section. Then, two thirds of the way down the run, a large horizon line signaled the arrival of the creek's Class IV pourover. We pulled out in the eddies on both sides to scout and run safety. Taking the left line, Scott and Dane styled the rapid while I gave it two goes and went swimming twice. Looks like I'll have to go back for it!

Below the big drop the creek slowly mellowed from Class III to I as we traversed one last pretty canyon painted with rusty red and yellow walls before the ferry across the Nenana to the car. At the parking lot Lizzy and Austin were gone, but they'd left treats behind!

Reese's on the trunk:

Gummies for the passenger:

Curry cashews for the driver!

And for Scott's bike a milk carton of power for the next activity. Thanks guys!

No comments:

Post a Comment