Alaska-Yukon Expedition: Packrafting Adventures with Roman Dial (Video)
Yesterday I reached the Gulf of Alaska (Pacific Ocean) after a five-day paddle of the Copper River and some of its tributaries. National Geographic photographer Michael Brown and his “photo assistant” (also uber Alaskan wilderness adventurer) Roman Dial joined me for the float and for the four days prior (starting on the White River just west of the Canadian border) and we were remarking how something really memorable occurred on each day. Here’s the list.
The first spring rainstorm caught us while we were walking along the edge of Russell Glacier. It degraded into a blizzard–30mph winds, frozen sleet, and 100-yard visibility–as we headed over 5,800-foot Chitistone Pass. Miserable conditions, but certainly memorable.
Awoke to bluebird skies and 6″ of fresh snow. Left camp late in order to let some of the snow melt off, which was important because we then traveled along a super dodgy route down the Chitistone River drainage known as The Goat Trail. Huge exposure and tremendous views, world-class stuff.
Floated the Chitistone River and Nizina River into the old mining town of McCarthy, which has reinvented itself as one of the coolest towns in Alaska. We joined in on a beverage-enhanced game of softball among the locals. I hadn’t run the bases in years (or had a drink in months)–both felt great.
We slipped into our boats and floated 40 miles on three fun and splashy Class II+/III- rivers: the Kennicott, Nizina, and Chitina. We camped on a long sandy beach that was protected from the wind, that had a nice spring, and that had lots of firewood.
We reached the town of Chitina and were greeted by Ralph Tingey and his friend Rebecca. They had driven out from Anchorage to meet us, and they brought a feast: steaks, corn on the cob, bananas and oranges, salad, and chips and salsa.
Ferocious 20-30 mph headwinds pinned us down all day. On our first attempt we made it two miles downstream before having to take out, and ditto on the second attempt. The strong winds are standard in Chitina: cool Gulf of Alaska air rushes into the warm Interior via the Copper River valley, which is one of the only corridors to disect the Chugach Range.
It was calm enough and light enough at 4 am to get back in the boats. The sun came up soon thereafter and lighted up the northernmost peaks of the Chugach Range. Some of the best morning light of the trip.
After a long wind-prompted afternoon/evening break, we got back in the boats at 11 pm. We navigated down the river under a full moon for three to four hours before finding a sand bar to camp on until morning. When we woke up we were surrounded by snowbound mountains and glaciers that came all the way down to the river.
One of the glaciers that comes down to the river, Miles Glacier, carved out a large lake, Miles Lake, that was still partially frozen. The ice wasn’t thick enough to walk on but it was too thick to paddle through. In my packraft I had to “scooch” across the ice by paddling up onto it and then pushing myself across the ice with my 2-piece paddle, like how I’d use ski poles.
A half-mile from camp we floated right past the calving face of Miles Glacier. It was 5 am and the lighting was great. Another few miles down the river I floated within 30 feet of a wolverine that was running along the bank, which made for one of the coolest wildlife encounters I’ve ever had. The day ended at the 102-year-old Alaskan Hotel in Cordova.