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Beaver Creek

packrafting and skiing a classic Interior Alaska route on the edge of seasons

Story by Heath Sandall March 25th, 2016

Beginnings

Our original idea was to simply do a late season float and hike of Beaver Creek from Nome Creek to Borealis cabin and then out the summer trail to Wickersham dome. However, a recent snowstorm dropped about a foot of snow in the area. The good part of the snow was the chance to ski out instead of hike. The bad part was a potential for our access, the US Creek Road, to be impassible. Thankfully Jay knows everybody and had heard from a friend that we should be able to get in without a problem. We left Fairbanks early on Oct. 22. after a stop at the local coffee shop to pick up my dinner. Much to my dismay, their flatbreads were not ready and I had to settle with a sandwich. (Note to readers: ACRC doesn’t have flatbreads until 11 am!)

The float

Hands down, this was my favorite trip to date. The aesthetic was so unique, Jay is one of the greatest guys to trip with, it was kind of a unique itinerary, and we had a few really cool experiences.

1. A Bear. It’s pretty rare to have a *close* bear encounter without almost crapping your pants. Early in the float I got hungry. (Should have eaten more breakfast). I started digging in the bag on my boat deck and pulled out a mildly soggy roast beef sandwich. I picked it up, got a little sour-pussed about the wet bread, but pulled back the paper to take a bite. Right then, Jay somewhat stangely, yet timidly, yet forcefully called, “ Uh Heath! Bear!”. I slowly turned to my right, and the bear was RIGHT THERE. Like 10 feet away towering over the river. Easily within chomping distance. But once my eyes fell on him, he’d made this imperceptible yet subconsciously recognizable decision to turn tail and run. Deep within me, I knew there was no danger even though we were so close. So I never had that adrenaline rush, I just got to experience it. I got to look at him. I didn’t drop my sandwich in the river. We had a pretty good laugh about it afterwards as Jay had thought I’d seen it and was getting my camera hence the atypical bear warning.

2. Grayling. As night fell late in our float trip, fear started to penetrate the shell of my drysuit. You’ll hear more of that in a minute, but suffice it to say, we almost got ourselves into some shit. Once it was pitchblack, and we were navigating by headlamp, it was inevitable that the beam of light would turn into the inky water. And when it did, magic appeared. Grayling! And a LOT of them. Darting, diving, twisting. Our lights reflected off their iridescent bodies, casting ghostly glows all across the river bottom. So that was nice.


But, on to the photographs. Photos 1,2,4 are Audrey’s. She let me use them.



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Portaging

While most of the river was open, a few places required a little portage. Getting out of the boats was challenging. A set of ice picks or a hatchet would have helped substantially.


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Getting a little soupy

As we moved further downstream, the ice thickened. At one point, the current coalesced the ice into a thin ribbon flowing down the middle of the channel. Later, the ice pans would get larger while expanding to fill the entire channel. Pretty cool, except it didn’t leave much space for a paddle blade!

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uhhhh.....

The drawback with such a late date was the dwindling length of daylight. We knew we’d be in for a 12-ish hour float, but maybe hoped to float a little faster. We both knew the river well enough to be aware of the general channel, but being in the dark, in heavy pan ice with numerous previous ice dams was a little more than we bargained for. In fact, probably a little outside our comfort zone.

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Transitioning

Day 2 had us depart the Borealis-Lefevre cabin to cross Beaver Creek and find the winter trail. Not knowing whether the little slough would be open or not, we decided to drag the packrafts behind us. While the ice over the slough was a little thin, we were able to cross without incident. On the other side, we tucked ourselves out of the wind to pack the boats and mount skis. Every time I pack/unpack my packraft, the theme song to Transformers comes to mind.

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Ski out

For so early in the season, the trails were in surprisingly great shape. We covered ground so quickly that we ended up finding a pocket of cell service at the bottom of Wickersham Wall to call Tom (who had graciously offered to pick us up) and check if he could pick us up early.

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Logistical details

We certainly lucked out on timing because after a few more days, I think the river would have been impassible. Flows were decent (gauged at ~2.7), but we still had a 12 hour float. If I repeated this trip, leaving a few hours earlier and in the dark would be the best bet as Nome Creek is pretty slow. I’d rather have the dark at the beginning than end. The ski out is about 20 miles. We both wore drysuits, although mine had a hood which was REALLY nice at those temps. We kind of fought cold hands the whole trip. A set of neoprene or other waterproof mittens/pogies would be ideal for this. Lastly, ice picks and/or a hatchet would be great to have for getting out of the water.

The hardest part of the trip is the car ferry. From Fairbanks, it’s a ~2 hr drive to the put-in and a ~1 hr drive to the takeout. But ~3hrs between the two. Fortunately, our awesome friend Tom and my awesome wife Audrey were awesome and took care of us. Big thanks to them!


Jay has a great report on his site here