Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Valdez to McCarthy Wilderness Classic

Download the kml here if interested

Ok so this really doesn't start in Valdez, but rather at the elbow on the Richardson Highway at Thompson Pass. And it doesn't finish in McCarthy either, but rather at the Lakina Bridge, 15 miles west of McCarthy.

As a 130-135 mile traverse of the Eastern Chugach in the Wrangell St. Elias National Park Wilderness, it is indeed a classic. It's as burly as the Nabesna to McCarthy route is fast and easy. Nabesna to McCarthy is open and dry, with essentially no brush, lots of open gravel bars and animal trails, and a handful of ATV trails near Nabesna, Chisana, and McCarthy. Valdez to McCarthy can be slow going, mostly when dealing with alders and devils club. It is wet, with few gravel bars, and no ATV trails. It also has spectacular views, valleys, mountains and waterfalls.

I did it solo from July 8-- July 12, 2012. I think a week or ten days would be a good length, as well, although heavy loads in the Bremner and Little Bremner Valleys of Very Bad Brush will be challenging.

In addition, it was the bushwhacker's route for the 2012 Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic and while I found it a really neat route, worth doing again, a number of others either tried it and didn't  find it worth racing again, or didn't finish it. In particular, the brush along the Bremner and Little Bremner is EPIC and so was the Lakina Brush, perhaps surprisingly.

From a packrafting perspective there are 4 pieces: 1) The Tasnuna River (described in Embick's "Fast and Cold") 2) Crossing the Copper 3) Running the Klu (low volume steep creek leading to meandering easy float in picturesque valley, turning into steep bouldery river) and 4) crossing the Chitina. I would suggest crossing the Lakina and hiking to the road as soon as possible as the walking along the Lakina is really horrific in my opinion.

Starting at Thompson Pass most of us contoured on really nice, open benches eastward until the second or so gully heading down. We linked snow-filled gullies and open alder patches (record breaking snows of 2011-2012 led to long-lasting snow) down to the creek that feeds into Heiden Canyon. That creek above Heiden Canyon has many open meadows linked by good animal trails leading to the open flats and gravel bars below Marshall Pass.

Those of us who stayed on the river right side of the Upper Tasnuna had the best going, although the deep snows burying the brush made for really good travel, suggesting that late June might be good in other years, taking advantage of deep snows that cover the brush to make the going fast and easy.

We dropped into a side canyon of glacial fed trib from the south that I was unable to ford so stayed river left until just above the confluence with the main Tasnuna. There I put in -- the others traveling near me put in lower. It was Class II+ maybe III (for those of you who know the PR system, it was PR3-4) with cold water and big waves but very few holes for a mile or two. I put in right around the 900 foot elevation on the side stream.

The 20 miles below the upper section was smooth sailing, although afternoon headwinds pushing up from the Copper were a bit bothersome. With the couple other big glacier tribs coming in the Tasnuna is a real river, fast and cold but easy. There are very few trees in the valley, most likely because of the steep slopes and high snow that crushes them under avalanches as they grow. Some beautiful peaks and waterfalls to the south rise above the carpets of alder on the valley walls.

It took us about six hours to make the 12 miles to the put-in (race pace!) and another six hours to get down to and across the Copper to the Bremner Dunes.

Crossing the Copper is straightforward channel hopping and bar walking. Make sure you do it in the evening when the winds have died (after six PM perhaps?). It would be hard to do in the big winds and a bummer to lose your boat.

I'd been to the Bremner Dunes 15 or so years ago on a Chitina to Cordova hellbike trip with Paul Adkins and Bob Kaufman using mtn bikes and Sherpa Packrafts so I looked forward to hiking them.

I hit the dunes at their most upstream end and walked along the edge with the vegetation until a bear trail took me in and I crossed a channel that comes down from the Peninsula. Fifty yards of brush and I was back to dune walking along the Bremner. The sand is firm and delightful and at night the light and the mountains and the wildness of the place is magic. The Bremner Dunes are certainly among the neatest places I have been in AK, mostly for the scenery , the views the good walking , and the novelty of the sand.

Walking upstream on river right of the Bremner I linked really good moose and bear trails in open sandy blow-outs for a couple of hours. These gave out eventually when the sandy ridge that separates the willow choked wetlands at the base of the mountains from the mixed alder/willow brush along the  Bremner narrowed. The best going was along the beaver trails on the Bremner side, although occasional forays inland to creek gravel bars and meadows led to good walking, too. Still, my best categorization for the stretch to the Little Bremner is as Class III-IV brush (very little V until you reach the steep corner when even on a relativley well-defined bear trail you must climb over and slip under on hands and knees perhaps big alders and some small cliffs).John Lapkass reports that crossing the Bremner to the other side is no better. Josh Mumm waded out into the foot deep waters and quicksand to the islands and made good time, using his boat to get back to the mainland. Mixed in with all the northside brush, especially at the sloughs of the Little Bremner, are nasty, knee-deep bog-slogging stretches.

We found that walking up the western channel of the Little Bremner to get to the Little Bremner proper was expedient: Cris-crossing a small shin deep stream for an hour or two to the Little Bremner. Walking up the river right Little Bremner is best. Bar walking gives way to bar hopping gives way to canyon after a couple of hours and it's here where you might want to head east for the magic 3000' contour line and contour into the East Fork Valley on its south side. The walking there is excellent and spectacular alpine tundra with great views of waterfalls in what seems all directions.

I stayed on river left (climber's right, i.e. south side) of the East Fork all the way to the pass over to Harry's Gulch (this is opposite what the Falcon Guide to Wrtangell St Elias says). The north side never looked appealing and I made very good time (check the graphic at my blog http://packrafting.blogspot.com/2012/07/2012-wilderness-classic.html).

Descending Harry's Gulch in late June would likely be similar to what we encountered: fast snowpack from avalanches. Down near the two tributaries at about 2500 feet the brush returns. The first trib has a 400 foot cascading waterfall that can't be seen well from below or above, but can be seen from across the creek. In any event, right around this 2500 foot contour stay river left as the Harry's Gulch creek starts canyoning-out and getting very steep. I linked meadows and clear passage to the climber's left of the big waterfall, not immediately left, but up a shallow gully just before it. It was one of the highlights of the route for me, as it was brush free to the top of the waterfall, across a snow bridge above the waterfall and then all brush-free travel from there and into the next valley east and up that and over into the Klu. The views were as good as the walking and it highlights what people fly into these Chugach to experience.

The pass into the Klu was full of new snow from near 3000 feet on the wet southern side to about 4000 feet on the drier northern side. This is another neat area.

I was able to put in on the Klu at 3800 feet which was running perhaps a bit low that morning at about 150 cfs. For a couple miles it is a steep  creek, drop pool architecture, with some pretty sharp rocks, maybe Class III (PR 3) in places. More water it would be IV-ish. I ran it in my decked scout with a Sawyer paddle and would have preferred my real whitewater paddle and a bigger boat. There was no wood in this stretch and it's all runnable by an experienced creeking packrafter, even on its 200 foot/mile section.

About where the first major trib comes into the Klu from the soiuth, the Klu cuts into a bunch of willow and the going is weird and sieved out by willow brush. After this section the river opens into a beautiful valley with very picturesque side valleys and isolated spruce. The going was mellow enough that I almost fell asleep. Around 3000 feet the Klu heads north and then northeast and starts dropping faster and is full of granite boulders. The volume is quadruple what it was above the first southern trib and it feels like a small river. There is lots of beetle killed spruce here and it's been washed onto the corners by floods. I never had to get out for any but it does keep your attention.

By the time the Klu heads east again at 2700 feet it is pretty much continuous Class II+, feeling a bit like Class III. I had a dry suit, but no helmet nor PFD nor partner and wanted those for this section. I was nervous and wanted a bigger boat and better paddle (I'd broken my Sawyer bade off the shaft and fixed it with a strap and a trekking pole) as the river was maybe 750 cfs and felt like the filler on Little Su at that level. I had originally planned to run the Klu and the  Chakina with a whitewater-skilled partner, but they had all bailed on me, and as I paddled down in my little Scout all alone I was glad that they hadn't come and we had not committed to the Klu-Chakina in July. The water is beautiful and fun but it drops steeper and more constricted.

I got out at the first major trib on river left, downstream of Coal Creek, at about 2500 feet. I was happy to get out and start walking up this trib.

The walking on the climber's right side was terrible. Luc Mehl and Josh Mumm, who did not float all the way to this unnamed creek, cut the corner and said that the walking on climber's left after cutting the corner was "not bad". It took me 2-3 hours to get up and above the lower canyon.

This creek has some spruce and good willows for a fire before heading high into the Steamboat Hills, and over those and down. There's a benchmark called "Shut" on the USGS topo just north of the extreme headwaters of Steamboat Creek (named on the map). Just east of the Shut benchmark is a shoulder and I followed steep tundra to alders to spruce to a burn to the banks of the Chitina through some pretty slow brush. I left the pass on the south side of "Shut" at about 9:30 and reached the Chitina River itself by 2:00 PM. That's like 5 miles and 4500 feet down in about 5 hours or so.

The Chitina crossing was easy, even with a bit of wind, and I climbed the easternmost, lightly vegetated open bluff on the north side, then headed northeast-ish to get to the Lakina.

My advice would be to cross the Lakina as soon as possible and get to the Road. The going along the Lakina itself was as bad as along the Bremner, in my opinion.


  1. The Bremner/Lakina brush sounds awful, but how would you compare it to Brooks Range tussocks? While you were meandering through the new Classic course, I was putting myself through my own bit of misery up in Gates, hiking out from the North Fork to Nolan via Delay Pass (aptly named) and Glacier Pass, which must be the main Winter Classic route to Wiseman. Delay Pass, while relatively brief, has gotta be some of the worst stuff to walk through up there if you've never had the displeasure of taking that route: knee- to hip-deep tussocks mixed among long stretches of chest-high dwarf birch.

    Keep on having fun.

  2. Steve,

    Tussocks vs brush? hmmm. equally frustrating, each sometimes painful. Tussocks are faster but may be worse in that they mess with any pace you want to set. That Delay Pass is tussocky. we went on north side and not so bad.

    1. We also went north, and stuck to the trees as much as possible. Good walking in there, but the dwarf birch stretch is almost unavoidable. The folks from upstate NY who were along on this trip were blown away by the terrain they had to hike through.

      Weren't you up in Gates earlier this summer for creeking? If so I'd be interested to hear how that went.

  3. Many thanks for the description and kudos for not giving up in the brush (although going solo!).

    I will arrive in Valdez on Aug 19. Do you know by any chance whether it is easy to find a hitch hike from Valdez to Thompson Pass? (I did not find any shuttle services operating this route on a Sunday.)


    1. Generally hitching in AK is pretty good, if you look clean and have a pack. You should be able to catch a ride, Volker.

  4. Many thanks, Roman. At the beginning of the tour, I will look very clean. And from McCarthy-ANC I have already booked a shuttle. So they will have to take me no matter what ^^



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