2012 Alaska (3/4): Eastern Alaska Range

Places Alaska. Eastern Alaska Range, Eureka Creek
Time & length September 2012, 6 days
Partners solo trip
This trip was meant to be a 12 days packrafting adventure, unfortunately it all came to an early end after I flipped over and lost my paddle in the Eureka Creek Canyon.

On September 1 I hitchhiked to “MacLaren Summit”, my trip’s starting point on the Denali Highway. The idea was to hike north towards Eureka Glacier, raft down Eureka Creek and continue eastwards all the way to the Robertson River Bridge on the Alaska Highway, between Delta Junction and Tok. It would have been a 300 kilometers hiking and rafting adventure with challenging river stretches, a snowy pass and a difficult glacier crossing at the end – but I never made it that far.

Anyhow, after hitchhiking to MacLaren Summit I followed a short trail on the north side of the highway to its end, pitched my tent and went to sleep. It was raining, not just that night but for the whole time I was out there.

Nothing much happened on the second day. I continued hiking northwards through the trailless tundra, the rain was pouring down on me all the time. There was not much to enjoy, even the beautiful fall colors couldn’t catch my attention – too cold, too wet, too boring.
I passed Sevenmile Lake but continued straight north towards Eureka Glacier which I reached on the third day.

Up there I encountered tons of caribou. It thought it was funny because before I had met all the hunters on the Denali Highway who were sitting on their ATV’s, wondering where all the game was. It was hunting season – this is the time when the animals are most likely found at places that can only be entered by foot.

When I reached the very headwaters of Eureka Creek in the afternoon of September 3 I put in my raft and floated down the river. There was whitewater and some rapids, but generally spoken the upper Eureka is fairly easy to raft, there are just enough difficulties to never get bored. Nice rafting, in other words.

I spent the night at a spot where the river flows into a canyon with much more technical water. At night I thought about what to do – I knew that other packrafters had rafted Eureka creek before but they all portaged the 5 km long canyon (as far as I know). I made the decision to keep rafting and take a look into the canyon. I thought, if it’s too difficult, I could just give up and climb out of the canyon. I was wrong.

Rafting the canyon was stupid because of several reasons.
1. I was alone. You should “actually” never go rafting alone.
2. I didn’t know this stretch of whitewater. People who portaged it and looked into the canyon from 100 m above described it as class V water and “beyond packrafting level”.
3. Even groups of experienced packrafters, who could have secured each other, did not raft it.
4. I had all my gear attached to the boat which made navigation harder and the boat less flexible. To re-enter the boat or to pull it out in case of a flip can be very hard with the heavy pack on it.

On a solo trip, when I’m responsible for nobody else than myself, I’m often taking higher risks than in a group. But there is a fine line between taking as risk and being stupid – usually my decisions are well considered, but not so much this time.

Once I entered the canyon, rafting quickly became more challenging, but I had fun. My GoPro Cam ran out of battery after a while and I was not in the mood to stop and change it, so the video below unfortunately doesn’t show the “interesting” part.
After a sharp right turn the formerly 20 meters wide river turned into a 3 meters wide stream with steep rock walls to both sides. Getting out of the boat was now impossible. The waves became extremely high and my boat flipped in a rapid that was much bigger than everything I’d rafted before. Now I was under water.

Swimming wasn’t possible. The rapid held me, it twisted my body as if it was a little toy. I didn’t know what’s up and what’s down. My boat was gone and I just had the paddle in my hand; seconds later I let it go, too. Somehow I managed to escape the rapid, found air to breathe and instantly fell into the next rapid, which kept turning and rattling me like the first one. This happened a few times, I barely found enough air to breathe, instead I swallowed a lot of water and hit the rocks with all parts of my body. I was in the middle of a series of class V rapids with an incline of maybe 20%, the water was all white which made swimming nearly impossible. There was nothing I could have done – I felt like a fragile stick, the river did with me whatever it wanted to.

I didn’t know where my boat was. Sometimes I was able to sneak a peek at what’s around me but I couldn’t really see what’s going on. There was just one thought in my head: do not die! Not now, not here! You have to survive! You have to escape!

And then I got very lucky. The current pushed me into a little side pool where the water was a lot calmer. I couldn’t feel the ground under my feet, but I was able to breathe and to swim. My first instincts told me to climb out of the water, instead I turned around and looked for my boat. In precisely that moment my boat with all the gear attached to it drifted down the river, right behind me. Reflexively I swam back into the current, not too far, obviously, but far enough to reach my boat. I managed to pull it into the pool. Swimming in the water, I turned my boat around in order to let the water flow out and hold it with one hand while using my other hand to climb out of the pool onto a little rock plateau. For now I was safe.

All I lost was my paddle and my crocs. Could have been my life, though. Or all my gear, including camera and lenses.
I had bruises all over my body, some rocks hit me pretty hard. But I was happy to be alive and without any injuries. So I crawled out of my drysuit, took a few pictures and got ready to leave. Which, by the way, was again very difficult: I was facing an extremely steep climb, loose rocks and gravel, 100 m high. It took me 2 ½ hours to get to the top – by far the most dangerous climb I have ever done.

Once I was back in the tundra I took a longer break and thought about everything that had just happened. There were two dominating feelings: first of all I felt unbelievably lucky. I really couldn’t believe how lucky I was – everything could have happened to me in this river and I got out without any major losses. Second, I felt like a stupid, stubborn little boy who didn’t listen to a good advice.

There is not much left to say about this journey. Without a paddle my trip was over – I could not continue. So I started hiking south, towards the highway. While hiking through the wet tundra I thought about what could have happened if I had lost the boat with all my gear attached to it. A 40 km hike without shoes or food…

I hiked until dark and pitched my tent at some place from where I could reach the highway the next day. And indeed, I made it back to the road and then back home to Palmer on September 6.

One day after my arrival I went down to Anchorage and bought a new carbon paddle. It’s not that I’m scared of water now, not at all. Of course I already had plans for the next packrafting trip in mind – and it started on September 10. But I told myself to be a little more careful next time and to make a little more thoughtful decisions.