Tuesday, August 2, 2022

Upper Nenana Packraft - July 2022

Just like so many times in the past, last Friday night found us driving north on the Parks Highway for a weekend smash-and-grab in the land of Southcentral AK packrafting Shangri-La around Broad Pass. We planned to park at the confluence of Wells Creek and the Nenana where the aquamarine waters of Wells swirl into a muddy mix with the glacial Nenana. From there we'd use the primo Argo trail up Wells Creek to avoid as much brush as possible, then climb to the head of the watershed where we'd drop to the upper Nenana to float back to the car.

By 10:30 on Friday night we were parked at the picturesque little campsite at the confluence. We drank a beer, set up the tent, and took in the soft pink sunset over the river as campfire smoke clung to the edges of the valley.

Saturday morning started with inflating our boats for the quick ford of the Nenana. With our packs sitting in our laps we tried not to dump into the chocolate soup as we splashed across.

The trail usually has a bit of wolf and bear sign, but this time it was covered in the evidence of heavy wolf traffic. There was furry scat everywhere.

What started as the scattered sign of individual wolves soon became the highway left behind by a pack of giant feet. 

Leaving the cover of the drunkenly tilted black spruce forest behind, we looked down into the ravine incised by the blue water of the Wells.

The trail petered out as we approached the upper basin and the put-in spot for the day float down Wells Creek. From this point we tried to climb above the brush to contour along the valley wall, but we never got higher than the willows instead squishing and squirming thru a few miles of boggy brush before retreating to the creek. 

Staying along the creek is what we did last fall on our traverse to the Yanert, and how I would cross this section again.

At Thief Creek we were tired of marching thru wet brush, so hide behind an alder for a snack and a break from the sideways rain, then turned east into the Thief drainage.

Travel immediately improved as we used ridges of white gravelly granite to climb above Wells Creek. In this desolate land of scoured and deteriorating rock, we saw few signs of life, but death was everywhere as we passed skeleton after skeleton from caribou reclaimed by the land. With all the predator sign we'd seen its easy to imagine this was the work of wolves, but it could have also been the doing of a hard winter that killed half the Nelchina herd. 

Zack figured he'd try on a rack for size; I think he makes a good politician, and an even better nice caribou.

The driving rain was cold at the pass, and it felt like fall as we descended to the lake where we'd camp for the night.

We tucked our tent behind an old moraine for protection, laid out our clothes to drip during a break in the rain, and enjoyed the warm dinners pouring into our bellies.

Refreshed and reheated, it was time to continue the project of drying our clothes with a walk up one of the many summits above our camp.

Like some other weekend trips in this area, the high country was one of my favorite parts; I would like to have a full day up there just to explore. Particularly special were the giant glacial erratics teetering on the ridges and peaks.

We looked through the barren moonscape towards the clouds hiding the high peaks of the Eastern Alaska Range. I would not have been particularly surprised to see a goblin peering around the purple, brown, and white rocks of this wild land.

Then, ready for bed and with another round of rain on the horizon, we scampered back to our tent.

In the morning it was time to find a path down to the Nenana. From last night's summit we'd seen the telltale white of granite ridges snaking thru the willows towards the put-in and decided to utilize these.

The exposed ridges treated us well and we were soon connecting the last meadows to the flowing water.

I often find that the worst part of bushwhacking is the anticipation that its gonna get really bad, and this was the case here. The bushes were short and the meadows were well connected by moose and caribou trails; but there's no way to keep your feet dry here.

The first 8ish miles of paddling were splashy fun Class II that I think most anyone would enjoy; some Class III holes probably form behind the big rocks at peak summer glacier-melt flows. I had not brought my spray skirt and was excited to finally employ the techniques I'd read in Roman Dial's old school packrafting book about backpaddling to keep water out of my boat - Zack said I was acting like a canoer, which I tried to take as a compliment too.

We were impressed with the gradient and current throughout the first section of the paddle and were soon done with that and onto the last 12ish miles of flatwater. These last miles made we wish we'd taken the Forager. The two-person packraft would have gone straight and fast thru the lower miles, and would have been an absolute hoot in the rapids.

Just short of the takeout, only one thing separated us from beer and chips: an grumpy moose in the middle of the river. My first thought was "whatever, just another stupid pile of steaks, stews, and burgers". Then with eher ars flattened back and snorting angrily she started advancing up the river towards me. Realizing that I did not want to get drowned by the hooves of an angry swamp donkey, I grabbed my bear spray, crawled up the bank, and ran for a tree. What followed was a 30 minute standoff where Bullwinkle growled, snorted, huffed, and refused to let Zack pass while trying to decide if she'd rather chase me into the woods.

There were fresh grizz tracks on the bank as we finally snuck past the big ungulate. Rolling up our expensive pool toys back at the car, our best guess is she was pissed off and freaked out about a recent (or ongoing) bear encounter. Or maybe she was just trying to chase us towards the bear?

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