Tuesday, September 12, 2023

Clearwater Creek Packraft - August 2023

As the place that I first learned to hunt big game in Alaska, the willowy valleys and small bald peaks of the Clearwaters are special to me.  The Clearwater Creek loop has remained lurking on my list for what seems like forever due to the drive-to-play ratio, proximity to other classics, water levels, crowds of hunters, and especially the ebb and flow of time.

With the Denali Highway deserted by a closed caribou hunt, a rainy weekend in August of 2023 seemed like the perfect time to finally check this little loop off the list. After the usual Friday night scramble to frantically pack and get out of town, we raced north on the Parks Highway through the pouring rain. By 1:00 AM, we were at the East Fork Chulitna bridge and ahead of the rain, so decided it was time to camp for the night.

The morning dawned dry with a hint of beautifully crisp fall air as we finished the drive. Stashing our packs at the Windy Creek gravel pit, we drove east down the gravel "highway" to the Clearwater Creek bridge. 

We parked the truck and started pedaling back down the blissfully abandoned road towards Windy. Normally this time of year here is a madhouse of hunters, ATVs, and trucks; it was a treat to slow down and appreciate this beautiful path across the doorsteps of the Eastern Alaska Range. 

Before long the dark clouds racing in from the south had caught us, and we finished the bike shuttle in Goretex and pouring rain. At the gravel pit we waded into the bushes to trade our bikes for hidden packs then started up the Windy Creek Road. Previously I've heard of people doing this loop via Valdez Creek, but that way is a bit longer, and we were tight on time. That being said, I'd love to explore Valdez Creek more in the future.

So much of our time outside is spent wading thru deep vegetation in the trail-free areas of our wild lands. We love these adventures, but you spend a lot of time looking at your feet or the bushes in your face as they unload water on you. The old road let us turn our attention away from off-trail tripping hazards below and focus on the beauty of the Clearwater Mountains. Passing each tributary drainage, we peered up the hanging valleys wondering what supernatural animals and ski descents might be hidden away out of sight.

By the end of the valley the rain had stopped, and we looked back over our shoulders as we climbed towards the pass.

At the pass we explored an empty mining camp while the group let me retell the story of my magical caribou hunt with the wolves here a few years ago. Starting the descent towards Pass Creek in the evening light, the little road faded into a double track then to a singletrack. Before the willows and beaver ponds could totally close in around us, we stopped for the night.

Crawling out of our tents in the morning, the cold rain had returned. I was thankful to have spent the previous day in the relative comfort of the dry road instead of the wet bushes ahead. Splashing away from camp, we weren't sure how far we'd have to walk before there would be enough water to float or how bad the bushwhacking would be. 

Crossing Pass Creek, we followed well-developed trails made by thousands of years of thousands of caribou hooves along the river terrace to the confluence with Clearwater Creek. At the put-in three miles later, it was a race to strip off wet clothes and squirm into our dry suits before our long undies were totally drenched.

Again not really sure what to expect, we were pleased to find the creek actually had a current and plenty of water to float. With paddles cutting thru the emerald water, we stared enchanted at the colorful gravels of the riverbed as they shimmered through the clear liquid.

We were shivering by the the confluence with the north fork, and tried to warm up by running suicides on the sand bar.

As we descended the crystal water, the river began to meander more and our progress slowed as we followed the sinuous waterway. Occasionally, we'd peak upstream through the willows to see the Charlies going the exact opposite direction as us around particularly circular curves.

On the lower river, hungry grayling surfaced everywhere as they greedily fed. Like so many times before, I wished I'd had my act together enough to pack my rod. Hopefully, one of these days I'll remember it. Maybe one of these days I'll actually give myself enough time to pack too.

After five hours of paddling we were at the bridge and stumbling out of the cold water. With uncoordinated corpsicles for fingers, we fumbled to unzip each other's dry suits, stuff our dripping gear into the bed of the pickup, and crank the truck's heat.

I really enjoyed this loop. The easy travel of the empty gravel roads was a nice change from many of our more untouched travels. Next time it would be great to spend a day or two exploring the headwaters of Windy and Valdez creeks, and maybe I'll even remember my fishing rod.

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