Alaska is a Kayakers Paradise
Like many I have always been one who has thought of Alaska as a far fetched location to visit and something I could only dream to paddle in. A very small amount of kayakers head to Alaska to kayak, the area is known worldwide for its amazing fishing and wilderness bus trips however we need to think of it more as a kayakers paradise. I was lucky enough to help lead a trip for a group of young kayakers to experience and explore the Alaskan rivers from Fairbanks to Anchorage with Explore Expeditions and what a trip it was.
No matter what kind of whitewater kayaker you are, Alaska has you covered with so many different rivers to choose from. It is known for its cold and fast moving water with very minimal eddy’s to stop and have a break which makes for fantastic non stop action. Cold as everything is mostly glacial or runs off cold mountains so a good drysuit is absolutely key to having a fun but safe experience on the water. Fast as everything in Alaska seems to have constant gradient, as opposed to the rest of the world eddies are something that come around few and far between, so finding a good eddy is something to be cherished as you regain your composure to get ready for the next section of mind blowing rapids. The biggest thing about Alaskan rivers is the grey water color due to the silt created from the constant grinding rocks in the glaciers upstream.
Our adventures kicked off in the Denali National Park area, widely known for its wildlife, most who head up to Alaska head to Denali to sit on busses that travel through the National Park where you can see wildlife and mountains that just never stop. Most tourists that head to the area are retirees who have saved to head on their big adventure on a bus. Please don’t be like the thousands that head here and wait till you are old and unable to experience the fantastic rivers of Alaska. Be sure to pick up a copy of Fast & Cold, A Guide To Alaska Whitewater by Andrew Embick as it is a great resource for rivers in Alaska.
We seemed to be the odd ones out as most in the area are over 60, and the first river we took on was the Nenana, a classic river that winds its way past the park and into an exciting gorge full of fantastic class 3 rapids. The rapids are big and bouncy and although is roadside for the start, really feels quite remote. As you enter the canyon you feel walled in as the cliffs jut up above you.
We then flew into the Yanert river which is a fork of the Nenana just upstream of the Denali visitors area. This was crazy to see a group of 20 people, mostly kids, fly into the wilderness to take this on. There is nothing quite like the excitement of flying into an unknown river like this, full of adrenaline, and then the deafening silence that you face when the Helicopter leaves and you are surrounded by total and utter wilderness. No roads around for miles and miles and only one way out, down the river. So we set off and paddled what I would say is one of the most consistent class 3 whitewater trips I have ever done, hardly any eddies, we just kept bouncing down the river not stopping for much until after a few hours we hit the confluence of the Yanert and the Nenana. Here you could literally feel the difference between the two rivers, one fork remarkably colder than the other. As we paddled out on the smaller rapids, we were met with huge rocky mountains that made a very prominent feature on the landscape. It flows back into the same Nenana section of whitewater and a few adventurous souls decided to link both sections to take on a huge stint of whitewater in one day.
We awoke the next day and packed up our camp, filled with excitement of what was to come next, we drove to the Denali Visitors Center and headed into the park a few miles to get a vista that will remain with us for quite a while and then down towards the rail guard section of the Willow Creek, unfortunately it was way too low so we pushed ahead and drove over hatchers pass. One of the most spectacular roads I have ever driven, this pass has scenery that photos don’t give it justice, with a beautiful small lake at the very top, a handful plunged into the bitter cold lake to prove their sense of adventure.
We put on at the Lions Head section of the mighty Matanuska River for a day of paddling big cold whitewater. This is a well known section that is as cold as a river can be since one bank is literally a glacier. Big and bouncy doesn’t describe it enough as the waves crash and holes are formed, the team was pushed by how big flowing this river becomes, especially during warm weather such as the afternoon and especially after a rain storm which melts ice faster. A few decided to run it twice while most took a well deserved break in the afternoon.
Ice climbing was the next big adventure, something totally different that is very unique to cold parts of the world and allowed the group to experience the mighty Matanuska Glacier up close and personal. Such a pretty glacier that is receding at a rate that made us all question what we are doing to prevent global warming.
A huge high of the trip was our next day where we met up with helicopters and flew into the Chickaloon river, slinging kayaks and 20 paddlers into an area that is so remote. This was by far the best river trip of our time in Alaska and something that I encourage everyone to put on their bucket list. Without a doubt this river is truly and utterly a kayakers paradise with the most consistent class 3 kayaking run I have ever done in my life. 28 km or 18 miles of pure kayaking bliss in one day to the Matanuska and without any kind of an eddy to stop, you literally have to paddle to the side and hold onto the bank if you want a break, that’s how consistent this section of whitewater is. We were completely blown away by the quality and consistency of this whitewater and were thankful that we got out to scout the Hotel Rocks section. Here we found a large log jam which made it very dangerous to paddle, combined with the swirly water and undercut rocks we made the sensible decision to walk around which added an hour portage that made us earn our turns on this run. By the end of the river the team were mostly just sitting on a rudder stroke as everyone was completely exhausted from this day. Combining this with the paddle out on the Matanuska river, we paddled 33km or 20 miles, everything hurt, we were all tired and hurting but had a huge feeling of achievement. The Chickaloon is one river that should be known world wide, trust me, you should try to get on this section. Your mind will be completely blown.
We packed up camp and headed to the town of Hope, a small town south of Anchorage where we were able to paddle the Six Mile Creek, a more technical section of whitewater that weaves its way in between three very different gorges. We slowed this trip down to make sure that we all made it down safely, but was a vastly different river to what we had been paddling previously, technical, rocky and totally walled in. Another highlight came throughout the night as we were able to experience the northern lights, the sky completely lit up as green and blue streaks covered the sky from one horizon all across to the other. The group could not contain their excitement for an hour everyone’s draw dropped watching the show.
The Nirvana and Zen were the perfect boats for this trip, super dry in the cold glacial rivers, no holes to allow water in at all and kept the bow up and over the constant waves that hit us. Manoeuvrable, easy to boof, comfortable and dry, plus super easy to heli into the middle of no where.
Finally we completed our trip with a paddle on the infamous Portage Lake Glacier, seeing a glacier up close and personal was fantastic and seeing large ice chunks of it fall off and crash into the lake was something we will never forget.
I am so thankful to be able to have been on this trip, it was something that I only dreamed about and I will never forget it.
Here are some awesome blogs from the kids that show how much fun and adventure Alaska has to offer.
Day 2 – Heli Kayaking Yanert & Neenana – Freddie (age 13)
Today was an amazing day definitely my favorite river I’ve ever done. When we woke up, I was feeling very tired and exhausted from the day before. I knew that a 5 mile hike to the Yanert river was going to kill my legs and shoulders. I have been preparing to do that hike and make sure I’m ready to do this hike. One we got our dry suits on we got into the van and drive past the Nenana river I was trying to figure out how the hike was going to be like, such as was it going to be up a mountain, down, or would it be flat. Jez answered and said that it would be flat and we could drag them. That would help the hike a ton, but of course we were all still complaining about how the planes we were supposed to take got canceled because the water was too low to land. We pulled into a driveway which we all thought was it.
The time we’re we would have to walk 5 miles with a kayak but I saw a sign that said helicopter pads Jez told us that it was just a wrong turn but about 5 minutes later we were all amazed with our jaws all dropping when Jez said, “hey mates today we will go on a 5 mile hike to the Yanet river, spike we are going heli kayaking. We all screamed with joy. As we got our boats loaded and connected to the helicopters the pilots gave us a safety briefing mainly telling us where not to go and where you can go, also where all the med kits and survival kits are. After that we split into different groups for order of the flights I was last with 3 others, one being Claire. Once we took off we put on the headsets and were amazed by the views going over mountains and even seeing a couple of mountain sheep. We scouted the river briefly as we flew over the river.
Once we landed we took out all the paddles and boats and had beef jerky for a river snack. Once we set off we had a couple miles of boogie water. In that I was talking to Jez and saw his jaw drop and I looked back and saw a massive 6+ foot bear I have never been more scared and more amazed at the same time I joined Jez and everyone else with their mouth opened in amaze. That bear stood up then a couple seconds later he ran away everyone screaming in happiness in one of their goals to see a bear. Down stream the boogie water stopped into massive wave trains.
Some of us threw kick flips and landed some tried and failed, I failed but I still tried. The water is so much different then the southeast where we are all from because once the rapids started they never stopped with so little eddies and little flat water. Since the water has lots of silt the water was very dense every wave and hole we hit felt like hitting concrete after about 20 miles of river and rapids on the Yanet river we got to the take out. We were mostly all exhausted but a few of the older kids and Instructors were able to go to do a lap on the Nenana because it was just downstream. The people who did the Nenana lap had kayaked 30 miles. That was an exhausting day and we fell asleep right after dinner.
Day 7 – Heli Kayaking the Chickalooon – JJ (Joseph Jardina)
Today was SICK! Yesterday our instructors told us that Bill (our guide) was going to fund helicopters to get to an Alaskan classic, the Chickaloon. They prepared us for an early morning, starting at 6 am. We also had to prepare everything to be packed up in an hour. This morning we woke up and got packed up as soon as we could. As we packed up we had a breakfast of oatmeal and pop tarts. After packing up we started driving to the helicopter landing strip.
Once we arrived I was instantly surprised by the beauty of the area we where in, if you looked straight there was a tall mountain that looked like a volcano. But when I looked over I was even more surprised by the Beauty of the steep bluffs. We quickly geared up and got our boats ready to fly to the put in. After the boats took off We waited for the helicopters to head back to where we were. When we got up to the helicopter I was super surprised by how little the helicopter was, it only sat four people! When we were up in the air it felt like we were flying into a jungle with steep creeks, canyons, mountains and bluffs. By the time we got to the put in I was stunned by the Beauty if the forests and rivers. Once everyone was together we prepared to get into the river. Once we got into the rapids I immediately realized that this WAS NOT going to be a cake walk at all. I was super excited and paddling as hard as I could. After a couple minutes of whitewater I realized I needed to start conserving my energy, and I boy am I glad I started conserving my energy. After about 15 to 20 minutes we eddied out at hotel rocks
After about 15 minutes of communication it became evident that we were not going to run the rapid. When we actually saw the rapid I agreed with the instructors decision, the rapid had Hotel sized undercuts and sieves for about 100 yards. To say hotel rocks was beyond sketchy was an over exaggeration. We started the hard and challenging portage with steep hills and a skinny trail. After about 100 yards we got a steep part where we had to repel our boats down a steep slope. Once we got down the slope we started hiking our boats another 100 yards.
Once we finished with our portage we sat in our boats. I was so tired, all I wanted to do was chill and eat. After we finished eating we got on the river. Once we started paddling we hadn’t even gone 5 min when I felt warm liquid in my lips which I realized was blood, dang it! I had another nose bleed I quickly got my nose plugs on the bridge of my nose and luckily it stopped, after that I wore my nose plugs every rapid. From there it was continuous class 3 whitewater for the next 10 miles, when you look on both sites you see large canyon walls. It was awesome whitewater and scenic canyons. It was one of the best perspective of our world that I have seen. After we finished the next ten miles of whitewater we came into a more narrow section that was even more challenging, we paddled and booted the rest of the way down the river to the confluence of the Matanuska and Chickaloon. Once we got to the Matanuska we started to relax a little bit more after another mile or so of waves we came up to the takeout. After we arrive to the takeout we began taking off our gear and waiting for shuttle to arrive. Once the shuttle arrived we began packing up the boats and putting our gear into the trailer. Once all the gear and boats were packed we embarked on our 4 hour journey to our campsite. The Chickaloon was a wild and challenging river that just may have spoiled us all. I am so thankful for Bill and how fortunate we are. Today was one of the best days I have had on the river ever.