Monday, September 2, 2019

South Fork Matanuska Packraft - August 2019

Connor and I had been dreaming about an August trip. We wanted the Talkeetna, but at 9,000 cfs it was above my packrafting pay grade. With the hot and dry weather, paddling options were limited - technical glacial rivers were pumping while everything else was bone dry. The South Fork provided a nice compromise of glacial volume without the packraft eating holes that a technical river would bring.

On Saturday morning we met Cam at the Lionshead shuttle, dropped a vehicle, then found Alex and Evan at Caribou Creek. The crisp morning air warned of the changing seasons as we pushed off for the short first float.

At the Caribou-South Fork Matanuska confluence we ferried across, rolled up our boats, and hiked up the drainage towards the Matanuska Glacier. About a mile of minor bushwhacking along game trails covered in moose poo and we were at the glacier.

Next to the glacier we cruised on old moraines and out-wash bars.

Another mile of hiking, and the glacier closed out against the rock wall of the gorge leaving a bedrock canyon in front of us. With a floor made of punch bowls and rounded boulders it was easy to imagine the days when a gray torrent of glacial water flowed through here.

Its not every day that you get to do canyoneering in Alaska, and we all got a kick out of hopping, clambering, and stemming over the white rock.

We crawled out of the bedrock slot to find the high Chugach staring us in the face:

So much ice, so many crevasses. Its hard to imagine that these peaks live in the rain shadow of even snowier Mount Marcus Baker.

After the canyon, we dropped down on the the grippy and dirty ice of the lower glacier. Too bad there is so much crevasse and avalanche hazard in this part of the Chugach, the terrain would make great skiing. Connor and Cam under Mount Fog:

Travel on the lower glacier was exquisite: a highway of ice with moulins, crevasses, and meltwater streams for scenery.

Eventually the crevasses got too wide to jump and the ice too slippery for running shoes, so we climbed the crumbling lateral moraine and followed exquisite trails above the glacier. There were moose tracks and bear poop everywhere; somehow we didn't get charged, stomped, or mauled.

Walking on the moraine also changed the scenery from the lower glacier to its carved gorge and the huge ice faces flowing down Icing Peak:

We followed the moraine until reaching our creek towards the pass. Contouring along the valley wall, we traversed over cliffs, gravel, and vertical grass looking for a way to the creek below. 30 minutes of searching found a steep crack full of thorns, bushes, and gravel that we could slide down. Presumably there is a better route, I'd highly recommend against this one, especially with a big backpack.

At the creek, we were all out of water, but no one was stoked on drinking the silty gray slurry rushing by, so hoping to find clear water we started upstream. On a normal year there are likely small clearwater creeks all along here, not this year. After a few miles we found a slightly less gray puddle to slurp up.

Under the shadow of the Baltic Peaks was our last climb to the pass. It was also time for dinner, more silty gray water, and our camp.

This camp spot was absolutely spectacular and, if it wasn't already awesome enough, made the trip.

I'd love to come back here for days, base camp, explore, and climb these peaks.

Iceland Peak:

The last sight from our warm sleeping bags was alpenglow on the dangling seracs of the huge peaks.

Next morning we woke up to snow. No one was ready to jam their cold feet into wet shoes and start moving. But, it sure made everyone eat breakfast and pack up a lot faster. This is also when I realized that I'd forgotten my rain jacket and pants.

Photo: Evan Geilich

The brothers Geilich hiking towards Estonia Peak. Evan lives in Seattle and called Alex at noon Friday to see if he should come up for the weekend. Yes, definitely yes.

The pass to the Powell Glacier was gorgeous, windy, and frigid. No one even considered stopping as we shivered and power-walked into the wind. I'd like to come back on a warmer day and enjoy it here.

On the east side of the pass a sheep trail switchbacked down to a hanging valley. The trail looked more like it had been built with shovels than hooves. After chasing Connor up and down Matanuska Peak on Friday night my tender quads were so thankful for these engineering sheep.

We continued to down the drainage towards the South Fork. At 4,200 feet the creek constricted around us and we headed head towards the obvious point to avoid the gorge. From there we had a good view of the toe of the Powell, its unvegetated trimline, and how much its shrunk.

We took one last look at the beautiful U-shaped valley, then dove into the brush.

The bushwhacking to the river wasn't too bad, and in an hour we were blowing up our boats and squeezing into drysuits for 20 miles of paddling.

This was Evan's second day in a pack raft, and the river was pretty exciting the begin with lots of fun Class 2 whitewater. Nice work Evan!

Photo Cam Brailey

Within a mile the river mellowed out and we tried to stay in the main channel of the glacial milkshake. On the gravel bar to the left a brown bear lumbered along. Confused about why there were weird monkeys in colorful pool toys in its river, the big bear stood watching us til we were out of sight.

At Caribou Creek, Evan and Alex took out - Evan had to be at the airport in three hours. Then Connor, Cam, and I paddled into Lionshead to finish our Sunday evening with some whitewater.

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