Tuesday, August 21, 2012

7/4-7/12 Clearwater Mountains/Susitna River Backpacking/Packrafting Loop

This is why I bought a packraft. You can put it in your backpack, hike, find a river, and float away. I copied this idea from Ed Plumb. It's a wonderful trip with lots of untouched backcountry. After crossing the first creek we didn't see signs of people for the next 30 miles. Let's try to keep it that way.

On Independence Day Jason and I drove to the Denali Highway from Anchorage. We found the Valdez Creek Road just East of the Susitna River Bridge. We found the first stream crossing we had to drive through in the first half mile. If you want to keep driving up this road you need to have a 4x4 with good clearance. These stream crossings are all easy on foot. At a split in the road past the current mine activity we took a right towards Roosevelt Lake. We followed trails to near Luck Gulch and parked.

We followed an ATV trail across Valdez Creek and quickly abandoned the trail, as it was heading away from out route. Within 2 miles we were past the low brush and found easy tundra walking. I'm not sure if it is always like this, but we never walked more than 500 feet without getting or feet wet, so it's no use trying to stay dry; it just wastes time and energy. There are lots of places to fill up water bottles on the whole hike, so it's easy to fill bottles. 

Above treeline the hiking is easy. Over the entire 30 miles of hiking there is only 3500 feet of elevation gain. It was a challenge to find flat ground for camps; the ground is wet and there are tussocks everywhere. There are many way to get to the East Fork of the Susitna, but there is no doubt you will see caribou; we saw at least 40. 

The descent to the river is very easy. There is only a couple hundred feet of easy bushwhacking. Once on the river pay attention for the first half mile; it is swift and braided with a few bushes hanging in the water. After this section it is class I for 9.5 miles. Once you get to the rapids you can either run them or portage; either way it's only 1.5 miles and fast but brushy wet walking on game trails. There is one class III drop and class II the rest of the way. We decided to portage since we lacked the safety equipment (and my pack weighed more than was optimal); I definitely learned to lightened my load to run rapids.

After the rapids the river mellowed again. If you want to camp after the rapids you better do so within the next 3 miles. After that there is no gravel or dry ground until the place we camped. After the last gravel bars there are several miles of very shallow water where you will float, get stuck, then walk through silt that swallow your legs. After our camp the floating was easy back to the bridge. 

We stashed a bike in the woods for our return to the bridge. Jason rode the bike in pouring rain to retrieve his vehicle while I slept and ate in my tent. This officially makes him more bad-ass than me. This is a highly recommended trip that really helped me start getting my packrafting packing systems down.

Unless you're moving fast I'd recommend 4 days if driving from Anchorage or Fairbanks. We hiked 7 hours on the first day and 10 hours the second. We hiked/floated 16 hours the third day. We floated 3 hours the next day, and Jason rode his bike for 3.5 hours to get the vehicle. Just an idea of travel times; it's definitely doable in 3 long days. The total mileage including the bike ride was 75 miles.

 Fording Valdez Creek.

 Watch out for hunters!

Willow Ptarmigan (AK state bird)

 Jason brought the bear fence...cool!

 Big country!

Tons of caribou!



 Rock glacier I scrambled on to.

 Camp at the toe of a granite rock glacier. Some of the only flat ground we found.

Cool looking insect. Looked like a cricket combined with a mosquito.

 An example of some interesting mounds we found. They seem to be
associated with landslide in the area, but resemble palsas.

 Caribou super-highway

Dropping to the river.



 The extent of the easy bushwhacking is visible below.

 The river!


 The class III rapids. The rest is class II.


Made it!

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