Wednesday, October 19, 2022

Little Nelchina to Tazlina Raft Trip - June 2022

Every summer I look forward to mom's annual visit. Its a chance to share our love for Alaska, the great outdoors, and a bit of misadventure. Its also provides the fun challenge of scheming up an exploit that is enjoyable for all. With road access, moderate whitewater, and a surprisingly wild feel, we settled on the Nelchina - Tazlina raft trip.

From the put-in next to the frost heaves of the Glen Highway, we'd float the brown waters of the Little Nelchina River to its confluence with the gray Nelchina River. Once reaching Tazlina Lake where it mixes in swirls with the glacial Nelchina, we'd paddle across the huge loch. Then follow the Tazlina River down its crumbling canyon to the take-out on the old gold-rush grade that is now the Richardson Highway.

We left Anchorage in a caravan with Nyssa and Bob to set the 55-mile car shuttle between the two highways. Between commuter traffic from the Valley, never-ending rockfall around the blind curves of Chickaloon, and the kamikaze moose of the Copper River Basin, this drive is a chore. Arriving at the pullout where the Little Nelchina crosses the Glen, we were all relieved to be done driving.

Its been a persistently wet year in Southcentral and the rivers have stayed stubbornly high. With its waters lapping over the bank, the Little Nel was no exception. We stuffed our gear inside the roomy cargo compartments of our two-person Forager packrafts and pushed into the chocolate milk of the river.

There wasn't much for rapids as we made our way towards the Nelchina, but with the fast waters of snowmelt, our attention was focused on avoiding the sharp spear-shaped snags of black spruce drowning in the river.

The highlight of this section for me was seeing permafrost exposed by the sinuous river eating into the S-shaped bends of its curves. Permafrost is any ground that remains completely frozen for at least two years - it isn't necessarily filled with ice - it can be frozen rock too. But, this boggy boreal landscape is wet and full of ice, and we watched ice lenses reminiscent of flying saucers dripping into the river as they emerged from the ground.

Just short of the confluence with its bigger sister, the hazard of the Little Nelchina ramped up with a river-wide log jam. Even on a smooth river like this, the danger of these pileups cannot be ignored - water is so powerful. So, we quickly eddied out and prepared to portage. The portage was relatively short, and as if knowing they had limited time to feed, the mosquitos attacked our exposed skin like a buzzing cloud of needles. Bob was recovering from his nasty knee injury, and a portage of crawling thru the thicket of alders and crutch-eating mud was no easy task. This portage would have been a bear with a bigger raft or more gear.

At the confluence with Nelchina we were all ready for a break. We pulled out on a gravel bar scoured by the power of water so to be free of brush from where the hungry bugs to stage an ambush. I think I see cheez-its, clementines, pub mix, peanut M&Ms, cream cheese, and some mysterious smashed gross yellow thing in there. Fuel of champions.

On the big glacial waterway we made fast progress towards the lake. Under us we could hear the slight pinging, hissing, and popping noises of the suspended sediment bouncing against our inflated boats. As we flowed downstream in the current Nyssa and Bob spotted a solitary grizzly bear wandering the bank in search of its next meal - good eye guys!

Approaching the lake, the channel spread into the fingers of a delta. These shallow braided sections are always a chore, but also a good opportunity to practice reading the river for shoals and the best route. Where its alluvium met lake, the delta was a couple miles wide, and we hoped that by taking an easterly channel we could save some slow paddling on the still water. Scooching thru the shallows we chased the water as it disappeared to hide in the porous gravels below, and were relieved to pull out on the shores of the Tazlina to camp.

We ate dinner amongst driftwood tossed 50 feet from the water by waves more reminiscent of the ocean than a lake - it gets nasty here. Looking twenty miles south to the namesake glacier from where Tazlina Lake is born, Nyssa told us about her ski traverse through the Chugach to Valdez.

To the east we drooled over the giant peaks of the Wrangell Volcano Field lying like a series of gargantuan warrior's shields across the Copper River Basin. I'd still love to get on top of some of those.

Then, with the midnight sun kissing the glaciers of the high peaks we crawled into our tents for the night.

The lake is huge and has a reputation for bad winds: I think we were all a bit intimidated the next morning when we pushed off into the massive bathtub.

In the calm cool of morning, the winds were light and the lake was still. Measuring over 21 miles long, there's a lot of distance for swell to build up - the sensation of the long rollers propagating under us had the feel of an ocean.

Photo: Bob Lieberman

In its tranquil condition, I really enjoyed crossing the huge surface of this lake at the toes of the Chugach Mountains. The rhythm of paddling over the deep water felt a bit like drippy meditation.

The outlet to the river was announced as a gradual narrowing of the lake and slow acceleration of flow. We stopped here for lunch and to scout the exit rapid.

Like I said, all rivers in the area were high, and the Tazlina River was no exception. The exit rapid was a shockingly huge series of waves and rooster tails as the lake escaped over its bedrock dam. It would have been fun to send this wet roller coaster in our whitewater boats, but we had no business touching it with my mom and pair of crutches. Instead we sneaked the edge of the feature, trying not to make eye contact with the ravenous rapid and give it any bad ideas.

With its time crossing the ginormous settling basin of the lake, the water had dropped its heavy glacial sediment and turned from the opaque gray of the Nelchina to a beautiful milky turquoise in the upper reaches of the Tazlina. Working our way downstream, we watched the slow transition as the strong current lifted the glacial dregs back into suspension and returned the river to its concrete color. 

I really enjoyed our time on the Tazlina in our Foragers. It likely would have felt mellow and slow in our one-man whitewater boats, but at high water there was plenty of whitewater action for our tandems. With arms, legs, and paddles akimbo, mom and I went sideways through several rapids that somehow only dumped us onto the floor instead of out of the boat. Less burdened by the anchor of 35 years of practice communicating with one another, Bob and Nyssa did a much better job keeping their vessel pointed downstream.

On a sandbar ornamented with fireweed, wild green onions, and plenty of bear tracks we called it a day.

It was Bob's turn to make the group dinner. His dish of sausage and couscous topped with freshly picked green onions was perfect.

To make a good meal even better we celebrated my birthday with Nyssa's delish carrot cake. These last 35 years have been amazing - I can't wait to see what special adventures with lovely family and friends the next 35 bring!

Our third day on the water, we awoke to the buzzing alarm clock of mosquitos ready for breakfast. Years ago I made the mistake of sleeping in zipperless tent on the banks of the Chulitna. There was a ring of blood plastered around the walls of the tent in the morning. Carrying the extra ounce of a zipper sure is a small price to pay for sanity and several pints of blood.

Back on the Taz, the character of the river was much the same as the previous day. A consistently strong current carried us forward through waves and holes that were plenty exciting for our group of ranging ability levels.

Popping out of the boats to stretch our legs and unstretch our bladders, we almost stepped straight into someone's unfinished king salmon lunch. Who knows if the big bruin was sleeping feet away in the bushes, but it was a good reminder to be especially careful in these intersections where bears and people are likely to have a surprise encounter.

We looked for but did not find the aptly named "Oxbow Rapid" apparently formed when the hungry and impatient river ate through a bend in favor of a more direct and tumultuous route. I assume that over time the river has healed its wound and smoothed out the remains of the grave of the old bank that made this feature. When we saw the Trans-Alaska Pipeline on its journey from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez we knew it was time to start looking for the pullout at the big eddy just past the Richardson bridge. 

85 miles and three reasonable days after pushing off into the Little Nelchina, we were back at Bob's car. It was time to puzzle over how to stuff all of our wet rafting gear into the trunk for the ride home. 

Photo: Bob Lieberman


  1. Looks like a great adventure and a late happy birthday. Love the photos as always.

  2. Thanks for sharing the trip and the story, Mike.

    1. Of course Missy! Nice to get to spend so much time with Bob this year.