Sunday, August 1, 2021

Wells Creek Packraft - 8.22.2020

Updated below to include another trip to Southcentral Alaska's Shangri-La of packrafting at Broad Pass over the 4th of July weekend 2021.

After hearing from Cam about the aquamarine water, engaging paddling, and hero hiking of Wells Creek, we were itching to check it out. So, after a nice warm-up on the Bull, we headed north for the Denali Highway. At the Nenana crossing we were greeted by the local porter - with attention to detail, enthusiasm for the job, and good people skills he quickly had us ready to put in.

Across the river we waved goodbye to our new friend, repacked our bags, ate grape-sized blueberries, and found the ATV trail to nirvana. A couple miles later and we were above the valley floor and looking down on the unreal blue water of Wells Creek.

In the front of us the huge peaks that make up the headwaters of the Nenana and Yanert rose of into the clouds in the distance.

But we were not as far away as it seemed, and the peaks quickly grew as we followed the cruiser trail towards the alpine.

As the ridge curved north we climbed out of the shrubs and got a better view of the creek.

I'd thought this area could be fun for hunting caribou - we saw little sign and few tracks, but lots of evidence of bears and wolves. Around us the tundra was telling us that fall had arrived.

Where the river bottom changed from an incised V-shape to the classic glacial U we unpacked our packs and inflated our pool toys. The landscape and technicolor tundra reminded me of a fall trip through the Clearwater Mountains to the east fork of the Susitna years ago.

Eventually I finished putzing around and we pushed into the crystalline water. Within minutes we entered the incised micro-valley where the fun immediately started.

The creek was continuous fun. Surprisingly steep and filled with boulders it reminded me of the Little Su near the Gold Mint parking lot. Especially given how continuous the whitewater is, I think that Class 3 is a very fair rating.

Except, of course, for the large 6-foot pour-over that's about 3/4 of the way down the paddle. This drop is larger than any single feature in the 1st or 2nd canyon of Sixmile and is Class 4. Given that my ankle is still a cobweb of healing bone we decided to portage it. Cam and Connor took a cool line down the river left of the drop, but I could see center punching it at the right water level. The drop is marked by a a giant horizon line and a nice eddy as you approach - you won't miss it. 

Below the big drop the boogey water continued down to the confluence with the Nenana. I haven't figured out a good system to keep the lens of my camera free of silt, but at least here's a picture of the blue water straight from Cancun:

Where the beautiful blue of the Wells mixed with the brown mud of the Nenana we ferried back to the car and set up camp on the bank overlooking the river. 

This is one of my all-time favorite day trips. It ranks right up there with Moody Creek. Wells, Moody, and the Bull would make a great weekend of paddling in the Southcentral packrafting Shangri-La.

July 2021 Update:
For our 4th of July smash and grab we had incredible pool drops on Honolulu Creek for breakfast, beautiful alpine hiking on the East Fork Chulitna for lunch, then the blue waters of Wells Creek for dessert. 

We zigzagged the Subie down the switchbacks from the Denali Highway 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 playground in the valley below. As we climbed out of the river valley the ragged and glaciated peaks of the eastern Alaska Range rose above us.

Where the creek consolidated from the gravelly wide 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 from 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 the eight miles of whitewater ahead. 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 still think that this system isn't flashy with relatively consistent flows. My guess is this because the upper basin is low angle and filled with lakes and other storage.

Two thirds of the way down the run the large upcoming 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 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 on Scott's bike was a milk carton of power for the next activity. Thanks guys!


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  2. awesome to see you are out adventuring again, and babying the ankle. Thanks for sharing your many good trips to be done!! (sarah of the knee scooter!)

    1. Hey Sarah of the Knee Scooter! Thanks for checking in. The knee scooter was great!