Chasing Alaskan Foliage on the Chickaloon River by Tyler Stallings and Nick Coulter.

Alaska: The last frontier, The birthplace of Packrafting, and one of the few truly wild places left in North America. Nick Coulter and I started our trip off with a detailed Itinerary, a plan to paddle 5 class III rivers in 6 days, and three checked bags full of packrafting and camping equipment. We landed in Fairbanks, bought food, some camp fuel, and an ample amount of bear spray, then raced towards our first night's camp; The paddle first river we planned to paddle was 4 hours from the airport and hundreds of miles from any major Alaskan City. We learned soon enough that all of our Pre-trip research couldn’t have prepared us for what Alaska ACTUALLY had in store for us.

The second day in Alaska, we woke up at sunrise, packed our things, and began walking the State Parks Highway just outside of Denali National Park. The first river on our itinerary just so happened to also have the longest hike and the most difficult approach to the put in. Information on the internet was scarce, but we found a trip report from 2014 that claimed there was an ATV trail you could walk for 8 out of the 10 miles to the put in. We spent hours searching Google Earth’s satellite view and found that exact ATV trail. The trail is 4 miles north of the camp we stayed at, so we began walking the highway and sticking our thumbs out to hitchhike. Alaskan locals were extremely friendly and we only hitchhiked for about 10 minutes before being dropped off at the ATV trail. Once we saw the trail with our own eyes, it became apparent that it had been flooded for what seemed like miles. Some local hunters told us that trying to walk to the river from there would be near impossible as the entire area becomes swamps after the snow melts and the autumn rain begins.

 Nick Coulter hitch hiking for a shuttle lap with packrafting gear

After deciding neither of us wanted to hike 8 miles through swamps during Moose Rutting season, we moved to our backup plan. We set out on the highway, with our thumbs stretched out to attempt another possible route to our put in. This route was behind an abandoned building off of the highway and seemed promising. We followed game trails and footprints behind the Building, excited that we had finally found a path, until we were met with an impassable forest of alder. These thick branched bushed made it impossible to get through with our backpacks. We spent several hours looking for alternative routes, but decided it was best to use what daylight had left to go paddle another river. We raced back to the highway, getting one last hitchhike back to our cars, and headed an hour north to our new river. While driving back the way we had come from, both of us started to realize maybe, we had taken on more than we realized. Neither of us had ever been to Alaska, and although we both have over a decade each of route finding and wilderness experience, we started to wonder if Alaska was an entirely different kind of undertaking.

The river we decided to paddle as a backup plan was Riley creek. This river is mostly class II, with two solid Class III rapids towards the end of the run. The traditional put in begins 4 miles into the South Three Lakes Trailhead, and requires a small amount of bushwhacking. Not confident that we had enough daylight for the entire run, we instead decided to take the north end of the Three Lakes Trailhead from the Denali National Park Visitor’s Center and hike 4 miles before diverging off trail to the river. The hike is mostly flat and very easy, and you follow along the river for almost the entire way.

Nick Coulter walking along the highway crossing over a creek

Nick and I quickly began inflating our Kokopelli Nirvana Spraydeck packrafts and suiting up for our first real Alaskan river run. The Scenery was beautiful and, even though we were next to a hiking trail the entire run, it felt like a true wilderness experience. Riley creek was very low flow and I bottomed out quite a bit on the run. The rapids were splashy and fun, but required no technical skills as they were all easy to navigate through. The first class III rapid was over very quickly and we questioned whether it was really class III. The second Class III rapid, however, came at us unexpectedly and lasted several hundred yards before spitting us into the confluence with the Nenana river.

Nick Coulter blowing up his Nirvana Spraydeck Packraft with a Feather Pump next to a river

Our first Alaskan river run was over and We were all smiles on the short hike back to our car.

The boats were so lightweight that we decided to just carry them and pack them up at the car rather than deflating them at the river. Soon after arriving at the car, Nick noticed something terrible. I had torn the neck gasket on my Drysuit! We started the car and began driving the 5 hours to Anchorage so that we could find a replacement.

We got to Anchorage late at night and stayed in a hotel downtown. The feel of Anchorage is a complete 180 from Fairbanks and had more of a big city vibe. We found a local kayaking shop, and while they couldn’t repair my drysuit, they did have drysuits for rent. I Rented a drysuit that was much nicer than the one I had ripped, and we hit the road to our next destination: The Matanuska Glacier.

The Matanuska Glacier is an incredible Icefield with slot canyons and glacial lakes. It drains into the Matanuska river, which in itself, is a Class III+ to V river depending on the season. We were excited to have a fun day paddling around in the glacial lakes and slot canyons; especially after our disappointment in the day before. When we drove down to the access road for the glacier, we were met with a closed gate. We knew that the road to the glacier was private property, but you could pay to enter and access the icefield. When we walked inside the gift shop to purchase access, we were told that due to a recent accident, the property owners are no longer allowing self guided tours on the glacier. While this was a definite roadblock in our plan, we told them that we were happy to pay for a guided tour, and just wanted to paddle around in the lake. The woman we were talking to called the property owner and he met us with an absolute and resounding “NO”. They are now only allowing guided group tours, and not allowing any activities aside from hiking.

Tyler Stallings glacier in Alaska packraft trip

Both of us were determined to paddle on this glacier, and we knew that although the road to it is private property, the glacier itself is not. We drove to one of the only two businesses in the town that hosts the glacier and began asking the locals what they thought we should do. Eager to help us on our mission, one of the local restaurant owners put us in contact with a helicopter pilot about 15 miles down the highway. We went to the helicopter pilot’s property and he offered to help, but began showing us pictures of the glacier where we could land. He notified us that as of that week, the slot canyons were all dried up, and the glacial lake that we wanted to paddle was only accessible through the road we were denied access to. Both Nick and I were heartbroken. Two days in a row, we felt defeated.

We began to feel dread about what unknown challenge would await us during the third river on our itinerary: The Chickaloon. The Chickaloon river is accessed by bushwhacking and following large game trails for 8 miles. The appeal of this river is that it is pushy, fun, and consistent class III with gorgeous teal water color and amazing access to some of Alaska’s best fall foliage. We found a camp at the confluence of King’s creek and the Matanuska river, just 15 minutes from the Chickaloon takeout. Our camp for the night boasted a fun Class II+ park and play rapid, so we inflated our boats and took a few laps. Knowing that we shouldn’t underestimate how difficult the next day would be, Nick and I got to bed early. The weather forecast had freezing rain for the remainder of our trip, so another day of defeat would likely mean an end to our Alaska packrafting mission.

The morning of our Chickaloon run, we awoke to below freezing temperatures and light rain. It did not look good. Knowing we only had this one day, we drove to the parking area for the Chickaloon, and hoped that the rain would stop. We parked at an old covered bridge and began to get our hiking gear ready. From what we had read, this approach starts in a rural neighborhood on some public ATV trails. The homeowners do not like outsiders, and from what we could tell, that neighborhood had to have the highest concentration of “No Tresspassing” and “Keep Out” signs in the world! Immediately after we started walking the road towards the ATV trail, to our pleasure, the rain stopped! The sun came out and the temperature began rising. Our luck was turning around.

Tyler Stalling cooking dinner along the highway

The hike to the Chickaloon started on a double wide ATV trail and then narrowed to a single track after about 2 miles. We came to a large fork in the trail, one route heading uphill, and the other heading towards the river. We chose to take the trail towards the river, and began hopping along gravel bars until we saw the trail re enter the forest. There were moose, caribou, and deer tracks all over the trail, as well as a large set of brown bear tracks. The bear tracks became deeper and deeper and eventually, we came across the carcass of one of it’s kills. Right in the middle of the trail was piles of wet, torn fur, and the back half of what appeared to be a deer skeleton. Needless to say, Nick and I kept one hand on our bear spray for the rest of the hike.

Nick Coulter crossing a stream on a backpacking paddle trip After about 5 miles, the trail disappears and we were forced to follow a large game trail that meandered through the woods. Every so often, we would see human boot prints, so we were confident we had headed in the right direction. We started to head a small creek, and knew that we were close. We had planned to Put our boats into the chickaloon river only a quarter mile past Doone’s creek. We fought through some mud and bushes to find the creek and a convenient log that allowed us to cross. We linked back up with a game trail and it brought us straight to our put in. The final bit of forest before we reached the river had one last surprise for us: A (literally) steaming pile of bear poop. Knowing there was a bear closeby, we hurried to inflate our boats and get our PFD’s on. The TiZip’s on our boats made it easy for us to quickly pack our bags away for the run.

Nick Coulter with his Nirvana Spraydeck packraft in Alaska

The 8 mile Put in for the Chickaloon river starts off immediately with a long Class II+ rapid, then enter some pushy water through a stunning undercut canyon. The top of the canyon walls get so close to each other that it feel like you are paddling through a tunnel. We couldn’t get distracted though because immediately upon exiting the canyon, you have to paddle hard to the left to avoid a massive, 10 foot tall log jam! We paddled through two large rocks and came around the bend to the most magnificent display of foliage that I have ever seen.

Though at the furthest we were only 8 miles from a road, The chickaloon river feels like you are hundreds of miles from civilization. There is nothing but the river, trees, and animal tracks while you paddle through it’s splashy water. With the exception of a few minute long stretches, the entire river is pretty much continuous, long rapids. The class II rapids even seem like a rest because the majority of the time you are paddling through hundred yard long Class III/III+ stretches. The most notable rapids, however are about 2-3 miles from the takeout at the Glenn highway bridge. The first of which is called, “ The Ledge” it is a class III drop that forms a tongue when the water is lower. We followed the tongue and paddled through the narrow gap between the rock wall sticking out of the water. The second notable rapid is about a mile later and comes at a sharp right turn. You have to paddle as fast as you can to avoid being slammed into a larger wall, but if you venture too far right, then you could be flipped on the aggressive eddy line.

Nick Coulter packrafting in Alaska

You can continue past the Glenn Highway Bridge to meet the confluence with the Matanuska river and add another few miles to your paddle, but we decided to get out at the bridge since it was near where we parked. As soon as we took our boats out of the river, the sky opened up and it started raining cats and dogs on us. It was as if we were granted the perfect amount of good weather for our run. We packed our boats and stashed them in some trees, then ran to our car to drive back and pick them up. After putting the boats in the backseat, we both had an astounding feeling of relief; It was a mission success.

Nick and Tyler packrafting in Alasaka

What was supposed to be a perfect itinerary of Alaskan rivers turned into only one and a half runs, but all of our defeats in the beginning of our trip did nothing but make the success of our last run feel that much more important. The Chickaloon is the most fun I have ever had on the water, and I consider it a MUST DO for any fall packrafting trip in Alaska. Nick and I left Alaska with not only a feeling of accomplishment, but also a newfound feeling of respect for The Last Frontier. We will return to Alaska someday next season with more time, knowledge, and a greater understanding of what it takes to paddle up there. The Foliage, the Wildlife, the breathtaking mountains, and the kind people were icing on the cake to Alaska’s stout, beautiful, and wild rivers.

Nick and Tyler after a successful paddling trip

Put in: 61.862667, -148.391000

Take out: 61.785812, -148.454132

Parking:61.787100, -148.464249

January 31, 2024 — Tristan Burnham