Saturday, June 20, 2009

Honolulu Hoop

Honolulu Hoop * * *
29 miles 2-4 days
Moderate Expense
N. Talkeetna Mountains hike
Some forest, brush; mostly tundra
3,250 foot gain
12 mile walk
Honolulu Creek paddle
PR 5(6)
Low volume –150 feet/mile
17 mile paddle

A scenic hike in the northern Talkeetna Mountains to run the steep, challenging and technical but beautiful Honolulu Creek (Class IV+). Hike involves forest, brush, and extensive tundra walking with views of Denali’s east side and the Talkeetnas. Best done in June when upper North Fork of Honolulu is runnable and alpine and subalpine vegetation not fully leafed out. A loop trip that begins and ends at Parks Highway Crossing of Honolulu Creek. A remote, difficult run in a brushy canyon.

Description A thirty mile weekend of serious wilderness packrafting. The 6-10 hour walk-in is mostly tundra, open forest, moose trail, and easy brush (B4 or below). Paddling begins with an hour and a half on the North Fork of Honolulu Creek (PR 3-4). Camp above the confluence of Goat Lake Creek and Honolulu Creek. Early start with good communication and paddling skills needed for the long day (8-14 hours) down the 12 miles of Honolulu Creek with some PR 5 paddling unavoidable. Start Parks Highway at Honolulu Creek Bridge, 63.0637 N 149.54335 W. Finish A Loop.

Introduction Honolulu Creek has been called the best Class IV kayak run in the State of Alaska. For packrafters who have mastered low water runs of Ship, Six Mile, and Canyon Creeks, this wilderness run of a steep creek can be very rewarding and exciting. Kayakers fly-in to Goat Lake south of Honolulu Pass and run the creek in a day, but walking in adds-up as a two-day trip: a day to walk in and a day to paddle out. The hiking is easy and enjoyable with little brush, most of which can be avoided by judicious use of game trails and meadow linkage.  It is important to travel light, as the technicalities of the creek require quick moves and portages may require steep gorge climbs followed by fight brush in alders and willows.
 Hiking Starting at the Honolulu Creek bridge walk north along the Parks Highway about a quarter mile or less, looking east 20 yards for the start of a low ridgeline across a steep erosion gully, itself hidden below overhanging alders. The ridge leads to the edge of an ancient alluvial bench 100-200 feet above the forested flats of Honolulu Creek. Follow the edge east for about an hour or so through open spruce-birch forest with some alder patches. En route cross over a few gullies and creeks and beneath the Fairbanks-Anchorage intertie power-line. Eventually (2.5 miles) this rim swings north, parallel to a tributary of Honoulu Creek that leads into the high country. As the rim swings north, intercept a moose trail that weaves in and out of rim-side alder patches (B4). Avoid heading directly up-stream, and instead stay in blueberry meadows among thick alder patches in an effort to gain the left ridgeline. Stay high to avoid alders (B3) on intermittent caribou trails, dropping down to follow the creek upstream of an old moraine. Tundra walking and scree climbing lead up the pass and beyond to the North Fork of Honolulu Creek. During spring run-off, this little creek is runnable from below the 3,400 feet elevation. A good place to put in is where two creeks come in on river left with little incised gorges.
Other hiking involves several likely portages along the whitewater run of Honolulu Creek. The first portage past the “Decapitator” (upstream of Goat Lake Creek junction) on river right is easy tundra walking on river left. Portages past the upper and lower “Sand Bag Falls” and “Right On!” are more rigorous and exposed (these are marked as red lines across Honolulu Creek on the map). Longer portages (black) follow moose/bear/caribou trails on river right, some of which can be very distinct but can also disappear in thick B4 alders or willows. Portages past other rapids (red lines perpendicular to stream on map) are short: the first two in open shrubs and tundra, and the last three are creekside.
Boating Honolulu Creek from just below Goat Lake Creek is a Class IV+ kayak run. It’s located a dozen miles from the road in an alder-choked valley with two sharp-rock gorges, one granite sieve-type gorge, and snow-melt whitewater dropping up to 180 feet/mile.  While its flow is in the 250-400 cfs range, its steepness, blind corners, and microeddies  make the potential for cut tubes, foot entrapment, and run-away boats a serious run for packrafters. Secondly, aside from its technical difficulty, sustained rigor, and hazards, Honolulu Creek is poorly documented by the whitewater community. Many hardcopy and online descriptions are confusing. 
Putting-in on the North Fork after the hike-in offers a quick, comfortable 2.5 mile ride (100 feet/mile) to an interesting drop (the “Defibrillator” rapid, PR 4, scout on river left). The creek is splashy, low volume, and fun, well above tree-line, with no real hazards. Below this snaking drop is an easy canyon (PR 3, 125 feet/mile) leading 1.5 miles down to the reach just upstream of the “Decapitator” (Class V) and the confluence of Honolulu with Goat Lake Creek. You will recognize bad rapids are approaching when a large, ten-foot high rock outcrop appears midstream.  This is a good place to get out and portage left past two rapids (the second of which is the kayak community’s Class V “Decapitator Drop”) neither of which looks particularly fun in a packraft. Put in below the Decapitator at the confluence with Goat Lake Creek. 
I consider the run to the road from Goat Lake Creek in nine distinct sections: The first section (blue on map) is a sustained PR 4 section (180 feet/mile) in a shallow gorge for 15 minutes to the first waterfall, “Upper Sand Bag Falls”. Watch for a creek river right about 15 minutes downstream of the confluence of Honolulu and Goat Lake Creek. Eddy right early on for an easy portage or river left late for a shorter, steeper one. If you miss the creek, you’ll see the alarming horizon line and narrow slot. “Upper Sand Bag Falls” looks doable in a packraft, but is best portaged, as a swim looks inevitable and the rock is sharp and the slot narrow.
Section two  (red and yellow on map) is a longer (2 miles), more intense PR 4-5 section, the hardest on Honolulu for a packraft, as the creek drops 170 feet/mile in a deepening gorge of sharp-schist with several probable portages, including “Upper and Lower Sand Bag Falls” (water in between runnable).  Many rapids will require scouting, and some portaging. Swimming is dangerous because of the sharp rocks, small eddies and surprisingly frequent undercuts and sieves. Most of the creek is set 75-100 feet into the gorge, itself topped with alders. Minimum party size ought to be three; but the creek may be too small for much larger parties. At its easiest, this section suggests the first canyon in Six Mile Creek; more often it feels like a high-volume version of the Kenai’s Canyon Creek. Many drops are constricted and powerful. Packrafters may elect to bail out and portage before the canyon ends. River right seems to have the best animal trails.
Section three (black on map) may best be portaged (half a mile) to easy water downstream of the first mapped river right stream and river left pond. Section four (green on map) is relaxing PR 2-3 in an open, broad valley that’s over all too quickly. It drops fast  (125 feet/mile) but easily. 
Section five (red on map) appears as a shallow, granite canyon (90 feet/mile) with two memorable 3-4 foot ledge drops (“Cave Drop Rocks” and “California Ledge”), each framed by big boulders (PR 5). Many PR 4 drops follow the reach below California Ledge which is the best, difficult section of the run for packrafts. While guidebooks and online material suggest this is the hardest section, from a packrafter’s perspective, it is not as difficult as section two in the first canyon below Goat Lake Creek confluence.
Section six (green) is a another, clean, relaxing PR 2-3 section dropping 90 feet/mile through boulders, starting in a gorge and passing through a cottonwood flat (interrupted by a possible PR 4 portage at a river right creek), then ending when the creek takes a sharp turn left into a narrowing canyon and signaled with a steep, fish-tail shaped cascading creek entering from river left.
Relaxation is interrupted in section seven (three red lines across creek), a short, sharp-schist gorge with three powerful drops (PR 5) that can be portaged bankside, the first on river left, the next river right, and the last on river left. The last two arrive back to back. All are runnable in a packraft.
 Johnson’s Alaska Whitewater describes section eight (red on map) as a “manky boulder garden” (2 miles, 90 feet/mile, PR 3-4). It goes on for nearly an hour with big waves and steep channels  among short splits in the creek. Wood becomes an increasing concern.
The final section, an almost relaxing (40 feet/mile, PR 2-3) three miles to the car, takes about and hour through a wide valley with cottonwood sweepers.
The best advice for judging an appropriate water level seems to be to look at the boulders at the Parks Highway bridge over Honolulu Creek.  Looking upstream from the bridge are some large rocks on river left (looker’s right -- see on the right center of photo below ), adjacent to the parking area. If they are fully dry, the run is too low; if there are holes it’s far too high. If you are unable to judge the flow as in the 300-400 cfs range, don’t go.

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