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Through the Wrangells

A hiking and packrafting trip from Nabesna to McCarthy in Wrangell-St.Elias National Park & Preserve, Alaska

Story by Heath Sandall August 3rd, 2016

AH CRAP.

Is it bad if you start having problems before a trip even begins?

Jay pulled up to my house a little past noon loaded with barbecue pork burritos for dinner and optimism for dessert. We packed up quickly and sped away from Fairbanks on a nice big highway. That nice big highway delivered us to a nice little paved road heading deep into the mountains. Then that nice little paved road turned into a nice little dirt road. Then that nice little dirt road turned into a narrow little dirt road. Then that narrow little dirt road got all eaten up and swallowed by a mean little river. So much for dessert.

I got a little concerned, I don’t think Jay did. We stood in the road and brainstormed options. Drive to McCarthy and fly back to Nabesna to start? Walk the extra mileage to our planned start? Hike over to the Jack Creek and start our float early? We decided to scout the river and see if it might be floatable. I slipped off my flip-flops and pulled on running shoes before heading into the woods. As we wove between relic flood channels, I looked down and saw we were walking on porphyritic volcanic rocks. I don’t know a lot about rocks, but I know I like them. And I know these were really cool rocks, and somehow seeing them made me realize this was going to be a great trip, and nothing would knock us down.

Jack Creek was flooding, full of the same runoff that had eaten the road. But that gave us plenty of water for our little packrafts. We walked back to the truck, parked it in the shrubs, and headed back to the river to inflate our boats and start the trip 10 river miles early. As 10pm approached, the little inconvenience ended up being a great gift. Minutes after starting the float, two mature Great Gray Owls dropped from the trees and buzzed across the river mere feet in front of me. The light deepened. The clouds parted and pink tinged yellow rays of light painted the mountainside. Sandpipers, Ducks, Warblers and Sparrows flew in and out of the river channel, in many instances guiding a clutch of chicks. The water got fast and splashy. On one blind corner, we eddied out to peek around a tangle of driftwood. It looked questionable and it was late. Looking across the river, we saw some flat gravel bars tucked into the willow beckoning us to ferry over and set up camp.

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Testing the channel for depth
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Into the country

Jack Creek was a surprise. From other trip reports, I’d expected clear water and maybe a mellow float. But flooding had filled the river with sediment and kept the speed high. The start of this day’s float brought more birds, a few splashy sections, a set of whitewashed cliffs, an abandoned cabin with a tempting outhouse, and a clearwater stream where we stopped to refill our water stores. Stepping over bear prints and crouching at the clearwater edge, Jay pointed out a diving water beetle. I dipped my bottle in the water and Jay crouched to suck through a Lifestream filter straw he had brought to play with. I couldn’t help laughing as his eyes bulged and his face turned red. The straw was a bust.

An hour later, we’d entered the slow stream meanders. The pace slowed and I was getting antsy for the upcoming Nabesna River. As the longest interior glacier in the world, the Nabesna Glacier stretches ~75 miles through the heart of the Wrangell’s and creates a massive outflow river. I knew we’d be in for a major change of dynamics, but even though I was mentally prepared, it was still a shock to meet the silt laden freight train of glacial water. Glancing at my GPS watch, I realized we’d accelerated an order of magnitude from 1 mph to 12 mph. Cliffs stormed closer as I reached to the right and dug my paddle into the milky grey water in an effort to drag myself out into the middle of the river. As we hit the main channel, five foot standing waves erased me from Jay’s view. We shot up and down as the silt ricocheted off the boat floor sounding just like a puncture in the tubes. Before we knew it, the river separated and we ground to a sudden stop on a hidden gravel bar. It’s kind of bad form to have this happen, but I was content that it gave me a second to pause, look around, and breathe. I slowly turned a 360 degree circle standing there on the rocks as it sunk in that we were now in the heart of the trip. BIG country.

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THEN WE WALKED

After a couple hours rocketing down the Nabesna River, we pulled over on the cobbled outwash of Cooper Creek. This would mark our transition to foot power for roughly 100 miles save for a few miles of packrafting on Notch Creek along with a little paddling to cross the Chisana River.

It’s hard to describe the variety of country we travelled through. Sometimes we crawled, sometimes we stumbled, sometimes we trucked along at 3 mph. There was good trail, bad trail, no trail. Mountain passes, glacial moraines, mud flats, scree slopes, thick brush, cobbled river bars. But at all times, there was raw and humbling beauty.

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texture

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solo Mountain cabin

Built in the 1920’s, the cabin is perched at the base of Solo Mountain and is available for public use on a first-come, first-served basis. It was a welcome respite from the rain that we’d plodded through all day. I was clearly getting spoiled by good weather because the idea of staying at the cabin was really exciting. There’s a tradition of using cabin walls as a logbook, and dozens of names and details were written throughout the interior.

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A view of Mt. Bona's summit from the cabin porch.

Critters

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"is that a nutwasher?"

‘cause if it is, that could be dangerous.

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Upper Chitistone.  Quite fast and getting deep so we inflated and used boats to cross.
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photo by Jay Cable.
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Skolai

2/3 of the trip has passed. After dropping down from the Solo Mtn area, crossing the immense White River plains, navigating over medial moraines abutting Skolai Pass, you reach Skolai Lake and your gaze stretches across the valley and turns UP to find Chitistone Pass. This pass marks the entry to the trip crux, the Goat Trail and its scree slopes.

In Skolai the country gets bigger, but your world gets smaller. It’s rugged, raw, and beautiful although it happens to be serviced by a handful of air charters daily (when the weather allows). We’d end up seeing three groups transit in or out of this area in a 24 hour period (including a couple from Fairbanks). For me, the little people didn’t detract from the big country, but they did challenge the concept of “wilderness”. Utilizing air charters for trips in Alaska is often standard operating procedure and I’ve done it many times, but it’s always disconcerting to have walked a long ways into a piece of very remote country and watch a little plane zoom in and spill out it’s two-legged contents.

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CHITISTONE

Once you’ve worked through the intricacies of Jack, Nabesna, Cooper, Blue, Notch, Chisana, Geohenda, Solo, White, and Skolai, you enter Chitistone. Tadow. We came over Chitistone Pass in a foggy rain. Somewhere above us, massive hanging glaciers were slowly melting and releasing trickles of water onto, into, and through moraines of sand and rubble. These trickles would grow and form a large ribbon cutting through bedrock and tundra before making a 90 degree turn towards the center of the earth.

Looking left, you see the river disappear. Looking right, you see thousands of vertical feet of sand, scree and rocky cliffs painted with a subdued multicolor palette of yellows and reds. We needed to go right, and Up. In planning, I’d been most worried about this section of the route, the infamous “scree slopes” on the Goat Trail. Reports and guidebooks can’t predict or explain how you’ll feel when confronted with a challenge. People had interpreted this section in significant variations from mildly challenging to downright terrifying. Once reaching it myself, I ended up falling into the sufficiently disturbed category. But Jay was there and seemed nonplussed. He led, I followed. One very slow step at a time.

After passing through this steeply pitched gateway, we travelled down and around the mountainside to a small plateau for the evening. The next day we’d drop back down to the river and walk its banks until the water settled down enough to unpack our boats and join its current.

The "goat trail" scree slopes with two hikers in the bottom left of the frame.
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Jay "tempering" his boat by adding air after submerging it in the river.  Cold water = limp boat.
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the final leg

The Chitistone’s water swirls into the Nizina’s just downriver from mile high cliffs. The night before, somebody had jumped off those cliffs in a wingsuit and silently glided over our campsite. At the time, we had no idea it was happening. Crazy.

The Nizina carried us along at >10 mph but in such big country it almost felt like the landscape was creeping by slowly. I began to reflect on our trip and felt an overwhelming appreciation for the experience. I had been dreaming of doing this route for over a decade, well, maybe it had even been two decades. Even with meticulous preparation, a reasonable timeline, and the appropriate equipment, it’s never a guarantee that a trip will “go”. But this did, and in a wonderful way. At this point in my life, I don’t go into the woods to test myself, push as hard as I can go, or see where my limits are. I go to have an intimate experience with a magical place. And then I like to come back to civilization stronger, healthier, happier. I’m immensely grateful to have this luxury.

A few hours after entering the Nizina, small red lines poked out of the background and slowly coalesced into geometrical shapes. The shapes grew larger and assembled themselves into the decrepit Nizina bridge that had been dismantled by the river in the 1960’s. The bridge marked our exit and we eddied out to pack up boats for the final time. A dreaded 9 mile dirt road walk waited, but the dread turned to elation as a great guy Greg pulled his side by side over to offer a ride to town. A couple hours later, we were flying directly over the highest mountain glaciers in a silver-sided Cessna back to Nabesna.

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Details

This is a historic pack route dating back over 100 years. While a “trail” doesn’t exist, in modern times the route has been used by the Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic, NOLS, intrepid folks that used bikes on it (which I personally would not recommend), and a long list of Alaskan adventurers and endurance athletes. It’s incredible country. With a solid and developed wilderness skill set, it’s a wonderful trip. However, the regular suite of Alaskan wilderness objective dangers do exist: glacial rivers, deep and fast river crossings, unpredictable weather, bears, bugs, no trails, hypothermia, exposed scree slopes, limited exit options, packrafting, etc.

We spent 9 days on the route in late June/early July with almost constant motion over an 8-10 hr traveling day to cover 160 miles. If I did it again, I’d prefer 12-14 days to facilitate a few day trips, more birding, rock hounding, and most importantly time to just sit around staring at it all. 14 days of food would make your pack overbearing and I’d utilize one of a few options for flying in food. There are several air charter services based out of McCarthy that could be used to deliver food to Chisana, Solo Creek strip, or Skolai strip. I’d recommend giving McCarthy Air a ring to ask about options. The pilot Gary was a great guy that flew us to Nabesna.

There’s a decent amount of information scattered around the internet for research purposes, and Jay has all the details on our trip written out. A big thanks to him for compiling that info, and for all kinds of things on making the trip a success.

I’d also like to thank Devil’s Mountain Lodge for permission to land on their airstrip!

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