A Wrangell St Elias Rafting Adventure
Day 1: We’re Not in Totopia Anymore
We are finally embarking on our multi – day training trip from McCarthy to Chitina. Energies are high on the banks of the Kennicott as we take the final steps to prepare for the launch. 11 humans, 3 dogs, 4 rafts, 4 days on the river… the perfect recipe for adventure. Today we float the Kennicott River to its very end, where it joins the Nizina River and continues south. The valley begins to constrict once we hit the Nizina until we find ourselves in a narrow, goosenecked canyon. Here, the water forms strong eddies and boils as it cuts through the rock. Maneuvering around these hydraulics is challenging, but the reward is great- a perfectly sunny beach to call camp tonight. We set up tents and our kitchen by the river’s edge and get to work on dinner- a make-your-own-taco bar. As the air cools, the fire grows and our stomachs fill, Alaskan river veterans Nik and Sophie share stories and advice from their years of boating. A fiery sunset at 9pm says its time to snuggle into our sleeping bags and rest up for another big day on the water.
Day 2: Changing Pace on the Chitina
We start the day with pancakes, bacon, fruit, and ample amounts of hot coffee. Just minutes after we launch, our time on the Nizina River is over. After camp, the Nizina joins an even bigger river- the Chitina- that hails from 60 miles upstream, originating from a massive glacier situated between the Wrangell Mountains to the west and the St. Elias Range to the east. Today, the new guides begin to realize just how different the big water of the Chitina is from the splashy Kennicott we’re used to. The Chitina zigzags across the wide valley floor, separating into multiple channels to choose from. The little paddle boat has no problem maneuvering the twists and turns, but the oarsmen on the bigger boats fight to stay in line. Drifting out of earshot from each other, we use hand signals to communicate between boats- pointing to go one way or another, urging the boat behind you to stay close, or most often, flapping your arms and pointing to share the sight of a bald eagle high in a tree.
We stop for lunch on a gravel bar in the middle of the river and find several freshwater springs bubbling out of the rocks. We stock up on drinking water from one, and Logan decides to take a pre-lunch nap in the other…
After meandering down the Chitina River all day, we stop for camp by an icy blue creek at the base of Mount Nelson. While the cook crew makes barbecue chicken and garlic mashed potatoes, the guides line up on the beach to practice their throw-bag skills. The competition heats up when we decide the winner gets to eat dinner first, and we end the day feeling a little bit safer knowing our coworkers have excellent aim.
Day 3: Floating Through the Past
After breakfast, Nik leads our group into the woods to share a tidbit of history. Under inches of spongy moss and silt are 100 year old chunks of cut lumber left by people using the Chitina River to bring supplies to Kennicott. It is hard to imagine huge steamships making their way upriver in this valley, but before the railroad, the rivers were the primary avenue for mining materials and equipment. In fact, for many hundreds of years Ahtna Natives traveled on the Nizina, Chitina and Copper Rivers, hunting, fishing and collecting natural resources. Today, floating through the Chitina River valley, we get to see the land just as they did- lush and untouched by obvious signs of man.
Our group rotates among the boats, everyone getting a chance to row, paddle, or sit back and watch the scenery go by. The river is flat and peaceful here; we go miles barely touching the oars. When the sun comes out after lunch, we jump off the boats to let the river cool us down. It’s a perfect day to be outside, and even though we’ve been on the river for over 8 hours when we get to our final campsite, everyone’s reluctant to stop.
Camp tonight is a dried river channel that branches off from the main current and forms a peaceful respite from the swift water. It’s locally known as Potato Patch after the profusion of eskimo potatoes- fluffy vine-like plants with delicate pink flowers and edible roots. We stay up late around the fire, roasting marshmallows and reflecting on the trip. 3 days, 60 miles and 3 different rivers later, we are sore, sunburnt and silty, but ecstatic. The first taste of Alaskan backcountry is thrilling and addictive.
Day 4: Bagels, Bison & Big Water
Up bright and early to get a head start on the day. Today is short on river miles, but the final push to our takeout is notorious for strong headwinds that can stop a boat in its tracks. We aim to get on the river early today in hopes of missing the wind. There’s little time for a lavish breakfast, but we still get to enjoy bagels with smoked salmon and extra hot coffee. After 4 days of tying and untying straps, packing and unpacking coolers, we operate like a well-oiled machine, working together to get the boats ready. Before we know it, we are waving goodbye to Potato Patch and hitting the water.
As we get closer to our takeout, O’Brien Creek in Chitina, the air gets thicker with silt. Before we reach our takeout we must first cross the mighty Copper River, a huge and dynamic river that flows all the way from the northern edge of the park into the Pacific Ocean. The counter-current winds sweep gusts of silt off the riverbanks and up valley. Many good boaters have fought for hours in this wind, even more have lost their hats to it. Today, luckily, is mild compared to the stories Nik and Sam have of this place.
As our group draws closer to the confluence of these two great rivers, we spot a bison high on the bluff, stomping in the dirt. He belongs to the Chitina herd of bison introduced to the area in the 50s. Although the herd boasts over 100 animals, this furry beast is a rare sight due to the nomadic nature of the herd.
Looking downstream as we cross the Copper River, you can see for miles into the verdant valley. The river calls, but that’s a trip for another day. We pull the boats ashore at O’Brien Creek and unload them piece by piece, finally letting the air out of the rafts and rolling them up. The training trip is over, but the adventure of the summer has just begun.