Packrafting the Susitna River (Alaska)

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Packrafting the Susitna River (Alaska)

Postby jeremy089786 » Fri 13 Jan, 2017 12:22 pm

Hi Everyone,

A report of our packrafting trip on the Susitna River (Alaska) in June. Much fun had!

Pictures and report at:
http://adventuresandtinkerings.blogspot ... sitna.html

“Five days, spectacular scenery and some safe splashy rapids”. This was the brief we gave to every outdoors Alaskan we could find and almost unanimously the answer returned was the “East Fork of the Susitna”. So after packing up from a very enjoyable float with new friends in the lovely little town of Willow, we headed north on Highway 3 as Constance pieced together intel during sporadic periods of internet connection.

Thankfully, Ed Plumb of Edventures (http://edplumb.blogspot.com.au/2009/09/ ... color.html) had done an excellent job at documenting our planned route and USGS provides free topo maps (still lacking in Australia). Our one major concern was the season, as we had read numerous reports of parties setting out in late summer or autumn, but very few had tempted a trip in early June.

Stopping off for final supplies in the tourist hub of Canyon (aka Glitter Gulch) we now made tracks down the Denali Highway. This stretch of road through some of Alaska’s highest and starkest peaks is a drawcard unto itself and did a great job of filling our hearts with excitement and our lungs with dust. Passing all manner of wild looking vehicle and strange solitary outpost dotting the road, the thin snaking Susitna bridge pulled into view, signalling our turn off.

Pushing into the range, a small but seemingly powerful Windy Ck had burst across the Valdez Ck Mine Road, washing away our hopes of avoiding a 12 mile road bash to the track proper at the Roosevelt and Valdez ck junction. So now ‘trudgingly’, we started along the road which quickly saw us questioning our decision to pack so much stuff. About half an hour in, we were saved by Jesse, a Fairbankian who was kind enough to run us up the road with her 3 dogs and 2 horses.

Jesse spent her time between Montana and Fairbanks and was a semi-professional musher who had once placed fourth in an Iditarod. She was also an incredibly adept hunter who was out scouting for Moose for the upcoming season. Bumping our way up the valley while avoiding nips from some particular playful puppies, Jesse kept us entertained with her tales of hunting and trying to conduct a census up this valley in her youth - the miners in the region apparently don’t take particularly kindly to outsiders and are quick to reach for guns. Moving on to the subject of bear hunting, Jesse inspected our bear canisters with a look somewhere between puzzlement, ‘ah cute’ and ‘good luck’.

So as the road became worse, we finally came upon a particularly boggy river bed signalling our time to part ways. After a quick goodbye, we now headed up Valdez Ck on game trails, avoiding rattle of the mining camps that the road appeared to pass through. Midnight quickly came upon us and the cold started to fall, giving us a good reason to call it a night and set up camp in a slightly unboggy patch for a restful sleep.

In the morning the drizzle had abated, leaving us in peace to slowly breakfast and get ready to truck our way up the creek. Soon into our walk we heard a vehicle travelling past us on the other bank, letting us know that we had started scrub bashing a little eagerly rather than following the fast formed road. At the riverbank, ready to start the crossing, we looked up to see the remarkable sight of dogs and horses streaming down the opposing bank the herd was controlled by a rider adorned completely in leathers and dripping in guns – obviously Jesse. Since leaving, she had made it all the way up to Grogg Lake, had a quick squiz and then galloped back down, the valley, puppies in hand, to find us embarrassingly close to our departure point. “I was wondering whether I would see you out here, but I thought you would have been further up by now”. Proffering some embarrassed excuses about game trails or something, we then parted ways for the last time and watched this incredible Alaskan menagerie continue back into the landscape.

Back on a road we now made much better time up the valley and soon stumbled upon an abandoned miner’s camp. Decrepit caravans were dispersed among a field of rusting pipes, machinery and diggings. I liked to imagine the past occupants getting as far from the valley as they could amongst the onset of winter as hanging around here in the frigid cold would have been dire to say the least. Traipsing away, none the richer, we passed a collection of metal pipes home to a rodent particularly indignant about being disturbed and very happy to show us this by running up and down its pipe bellowing away angrily.

After the camp, we pushed up a delightful ridge offering us the first real views over the valley below. Snow littered the surrounds and up further Grogg Lake remained largely frozen, glistening in the evening sun. Now as another day came to a close an intense snap of cold made its way straight through our wet socks as we huddled by the creek cooking up something dehydrated. Chowing down and cleaning up at an alarming rate, we then proceeded back to tents to snuggle away from an icy night.

When the peeping sun found our tent in the morning, it quickly transformed our sleeping gear into nylon lava as we struggled away in desperation to strip off as quickly as possible. The morning light also revealed the extent of the snow cover past the now refrozen Grogg Lake. The morning chill had given the snow a firm crust making for good travel, however crossing the saddle above Grogg we were confronted with a bleaker outlook. Our intended pass between peak 6180 and 5640 was completely snowed over and looked ominous without any kind of winter equipment. To our north however was a snow free scree field which led to what appeared on the map to be a pass or a canyon. Terrain permitting, this looked like our best shot of reaching our valley.

Moving into the black unstable scree field, our experience on this terrain soon became evident. Seattle Scott dashed from rock to rock with grace and style, while the Australians skittered our way across nervously. This skittering took a considerable amount of time and quickly started to push back our lofty goal to get to the east fork proper or, if things got bad, a retreat back to Grogg lake to try a different exit.

Thankfully when the scree gave way we were presented with a clear pass and our first views of the Alaska Range. In the previous snowy valley we thought we had some pretty great viewing, but the distant snow-capped peaks of Mt Gidding, Geist and Skarland to name a few, were nothing short of breathtaking. Moving down the pass, a lofty snow bank presented itself and Scott, being always the innovator, fashioned himself a makeshift sled from PFD’s and raingear and proceeded to move down the hill at speed (actual speed can be determined in the video below).

As the day pressed on it became clear we wouldn’t make the east fork, so we chose to split the trip and raft Boulder Ck, down towards the end of a large plateau before it fell 300m (900ft) to the valley below. At the put in, the river consisted of deep and narrow channels which gave the illusion that we were paddling through the underbrush. This thick, low visibility terrain was also by the most ‘beary’ we had encountered and it soon had us singing the songs that would come to define the trip – ‘Ceclia’ by Simon and Garfunkel and ‘If you go out in the woods today’ by Bratton and Kennedy.

A couple of minor lakes interspersed the early river sections before the gradient increased, producing some fun splashy grade II rapids. These started to intensify towards gr III just as the temperature started to plummet and when we hit a bend in the river which forcing us out of our boats to scout it provided good excuse to call it a day and set up what must be one of the most spectacular camping spots in my time in the outdoors. To our North, much of the Alaska Range now reflected against the dying sun and to the southeast an even more impressive monolith glowed gold in the distance - the astonishing sight of Denali. In this wonderland we now rationed out the last of our food and enjoyed the company of a deer and a small swarm of mosquitos, all lapping up something or another.

Waking to more perfect weather, we followed Boulder Ck past its loud falls and into the Susitna catchment. Before us lay a huge braided river fed by a multitude of glaciers and streams. The travel down this stretch was fast and we soon found ourselves again putting into the brown and handsome lower reaches of Boulder Ck. This stream, now much reduced in intensity, seemed happy to meander with us along its course to the cold glacial Susitna.

For such a big river in such a formidable catchment, I was certainly amazed that I could become grounded… again and again and again. The silty glacial water did an amazing job of hiding the many gravel banks lying just below the surface. Just as one thought you were doing OK, the familiar scratching would start before quickly grinding the raft to a halt, forcing you out of the boat to dredge a path forward. Thankfully, the water was also very good at hiding river otters, which upon finding their cover was blown, quickly retreated downstream to exit onto the surrounding banks. If these sightings weren’t enough, bald and golden eagles occasionally broke out and cast imposing silhouettes on the surrounding skyline.

After a couple of hours of this maneuver affectionately known in the packrafting scene as “butt dragging” the river came together into a single channel, funneling us at an impressive pace, towards the precious food that awaited us in our car downstream. Down to our final Cliff Bars, every hill looked like VABM 6017 the peak above Susitna Bridge. After a couple of these phantoms (certain members of the team chose to eat their final snacks at the sight of the wrong hill), our hungry eyes were satiated as the thin spindly structure came into view and we pulled up at the ramp to find an adventure rigged van. The van was also home to 2 climbers who quickly offered us cold beers to put the cherry on a truly memorable trip.
jeremy089786
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Re: Packrafting the Susitna River (Alaska)

Postby jobell » Wed 18 Jan, 2017 6:56 pm

Wow! Thanks for sharing that. Sounds fabulous.
"Not all those who wander are lost." J.R.R.Tolkien
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