Sunday, September 26, 2021

Yanert Packraft Traverse - September 2021

The minute we first walked up the Wells Creek ATV trail last fall brought realization of the potential access to so much country and then the dreaming and scheming of potential adventures. One that immediately stood out was a traverse from the Denali Highway to Glitter Gulch at the entrance to the Denali National Park. It wasn't until a year later that our schedules would line up for the Wells Creek - Louis Creek - Yanert - Nenana Traverse.

On a cold and rainy fall evening we drove north, leaving a shuttle Subaru at the Parks Highway bridge over the Nenana River, then turning southeast for the Denali Highway. Where the Nenana joined the gravel road of the "highway" we drove down the zigzag access road to camp where the silty brown Nenana meets the spectacular blue of Wells Creek. The dawn brought a classic crisp fall morning with the peaks above us dusted in new snow. We inflated our packrafts, made sure the car keys were packed, and paddled across the big brown conveyor belt to the ATV trail on the far side.

As moose hunters in jet boats thundered past, we squished the air out of our dripping boats, rolled them up, and stuffed them into our packs.

Photo: Nyssa Landres

Then we followed the familiar trail into the woods. So many of these trails become mud pits straight out of the Fire Swamp from the Prince Bride, but protected from heavy pounding this one is a dryish treat.

Photo: Dmitry Surnin

Climbing out of the Nenana River valley and onto the high plateau, the foothills of the Alaska Range spread out in front of us.

Photo: Dmitry Surnin

Following the tracks of moose, caribou, bears, and wolves, we were soon looking down into the incised drainage that makes up the boulder garden of lower Wells Creek. One of many spectacular day trips in there area.

At the put in for lower Wells Creek we stopped for lunch and route finding next to water that looked like it was straight out of an ad for Cozumel. With valleys pouring into our basin, Dmitry pointed out that we could connect to Moose Creek, and we talked about the float down the upper Wells that Austin and Lizzy had described as "epic".

Topped-off on the usual adventure snacks, we continued upriver. Travel along the mossy banks and smooth gravel bars of the creek was easy and we were soon turning right into the east fork of Wells Creek. It was time to submerge our feet in the impossibly clear aquamarine waters and cross the creek.

On the far side the walking continued to be great with the brief exception of one extensive beaver complex so typical of these wide alpine valleys - this would not be our last water rodent encounter of the trip.

Photo: Dmitry Surnin

The great walking confirmed to us that we would like to repeat the upper Wells float that received such good reviews from Austin.

When the east fork angled away from our route towards Louis Creek we turned north towards another fork of Wells. Above the valley floor, we cruised thru a low pass paved with a road base of white gravelly granite.

It was evening by the time we were over the pass, and a new beautiful valley painted by fall colors and the saturating late day light spilled out below us.

Photo: Dmitry Surnin

Awestruck by the incredible landscape surrounding us, we stopped to snack on gummy bears and sour patch kids before one last push towards dinner and camp.

Photo: Dmitry Surnin

Soon we were descending towards the river bottom and then back to cruising along gravel bars. With braids, willows, and creek crossings and recrossings, travel was still fast if not wet. We passed a large recent landslide, where Nyssa commented on how crazy it is that in this big land entire mountainsides can come tumbling down without anyone even noticing.

17 or 18 miles after leaving the car, the U-shaped glacial valley started to constrict around us into an amphitheater of craggy peaks, and it was time to call it a day at a perfect camp spot above the creek.

Next to the babbling waters of the little creek we bundled up in our puff jackets, poured our rehydrated dinners down our throats, and tried to start a fire with the soggy wood we scavenged. But, even our best Boy Scout fire starting tricks wouldn't work on the sad twigs; so shivering we lean back to look at the peaks enveloping us one last time before crawling into our sleeping bags.

Photo: Dmitry Surnin

On Monday morning we peered out of the tent to find a group of curious caribou grazing on the hillside. They watched us as we packed up the tent, ate breakfast, and hiked towards the pass to Louis Creek.

With the snowline hovering just above above, we turtled into our rain gear and looked at our feet as the sky spit cold rain at us. Following the trails of caribou, our running shoes passed the evidence of the generations of animals that had come here before us.

Two miles up from camp and we were looking into the headwaters of Louis Creek. With senses enhanced by the taste of the unknown, we soaked up the sprawling valley draped in the gold, red, and purple of fall.

Below us, we watched as a group of caribou peacefully fed in the valley devoid of human impact. We tested out our best wolf howls on them, then descended a straightforward scree gully to the cobbles of upper Louis Creek. High in the basin, the creek was too small to float, so we walked the banks looking for more water.

After 4ish miles of easy cobble-kicking the stream had gained just enough water to try to squeeze our boats into. At the mouth of an incised mini-gorge we inflated our pool toys and slid into the little channel.

Focused on the unknown hazards of the creek, I took very few pictures of Louis. It had a little bit of everything: excellent boulder gardens, river-wide strainers, constrictions too tight to paddle, braids too shallow to paddle, alder tubes, and 5-foot pour-over into a sieve that we skirted. There were sections that reminded me of Ship, Magic Mile, and Little Su, then periods dragging across shallow rocks wondering what the hell were we doing here? The creek was steep - and I kept thinking about how unacceptably spicy it would be at high water - probably turning into a boiling Class V nightmare of pins, sieves, and undercuts. There's no point in providing specific beta here, if you decide to come here then bring a group ready for manky wilderness creeking.

Paddling unknown Class IV wilderness whitewater was intense and we were all relieved to float onto the Yanert with the only damage being a few new rips in our packrafts.

With the angular light of the sunset filtering around the mountains and through the black spruce we looked for a campsite along the river. In the cold water we watched a ridiculous porcupine who'd decided that swimming across a big glacial river was a good idea. With his wet quills plastered to his sides, he bashfully crawled onto a gravel bar like a large wet rat with a mohawk as we passed.

Where the green waters of Dean Creek mixed with the gray silt of the Yanert, we found clear water for our mac n cheese, pad thai, and lentil soup and called it a day.

Tuesday morning dawned clear and cold - a classically beautiful fall day. Leaving camp, the weak September sun soaked the banks in warm hues, but it did little to warm our tingling hands as they splashed in the icy water. 

Photo: Dmitry Surnin

I'd never been on the Yanert before and enjoyed the big waves of the canyon and dreaming about hiking the long ridges above us as we floated past Pyramid Mountain and the confluence with Moose Creek.

Meeting the Nenana, we were surpised to find its waters a clear green color and watched as they mixed with the Yanert to make the green milkshake characteristic of the Nenana canyon lower down. For an hour we floated past the crumbling yellow bluffs of the river, then slipped under the bridge and were at the pull out and the end of the traverse.

This adventure had long stretches of beautiful country, great travel, and awesome creeking; then there were the moments of manky and scary alder tubes of Louis Creek. Louis definitely isn't for everyone - but one thing is for sure: we're already dreaming of our next visionquest to explore the incredible real estate of upper Wells Creek.

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