2012 Alaska (4/4): Talkeetna Mountains

Places Alaska. Talkeetna Mountains
Time & length September 2012, 12 days
Partners solo trip
In mid-September, when the first snow fell, I went on my last hike for this season. Starting in Eureka I went north, crossing several passes and rivers until I arrived at the Talkeetna River, where I put in my packraft. From there I wanted to raft all the way to the village of Talkeetna, but due to heavy floodings I had to fly out.
On September 10 the whole Alaska Range was covered in snow. At that time I had another 2 ½ weeks left to spend in the US before my flight would take me back home to Germany, so of course I needed to go on one more trip. The conditions forced me to stay in the southern part of Alaska so I looked at my maps searching for a route in the Talkeetna Mountains that could serve as a nice packrafting adventure. Within just a few hours the decision was made: I wanted to hitchhike to Eureka, a place between Palmer and Glennallen on the Glenn Highway. From there I wanted to follow an ATV trail northwards and then continue off-trail northwest all the way to the Talkeetna River – so the hiking part was 200 km. About 30 km above the confluence with Prairie Creek I wanted to put in my raft and float down the 120 or so km to the village of Talkeetna. I expected the rafting part to be challenging, but not extremely dangerous. I read about some serious rapids in that river, but nothing deadly like I encountered in the Eureka Creek Canyon just a few days before.

At that time I didn’t know that there once was an Alaska Wilderness Classic Race with the same start and destination, but I’m sure the participants back then chose a much more direct route than what I had in mind. There are several options to make it from Eureka to Talkeetna – I was planning on a semicircle, doable in about 12 days. So I cut out some pages of my Alaska atlas (1:300.000) and hitchhiked to Eureka.

September 10 was a beautiful day after a long period of rain. The weather was supposed to stay like this for longer now, but I already had the feeling that it was going to rain very soon.
The first night it cooled down to -12°C, then I woke up the next morning under a blue sky.

I followed an ATV trail that goes north towards the Denali Highway, hunters use it a lot. In the first two days I saw a few of them, then I was alone. Anyhow, hiking on this trail under the warming sun of a beautiful autumn day was amazing. Look at the pictures!

On day 3 I hiked up the Little Nelchina River and indeed the weather changed rapidly: deep clouds everywhere, rain and snow. I pitched my tent at Horsepasture Pass and hid from the snow outside. For a few hours the light was good the next morning, so I took some pictures at 7 am before I continued my way north towards the Little Oshetna River. There I turned left and hiked over another pass until I hit Gold Creek, where the trail disappeared eventually.

In the afternoon of September 14 I crossed the Oshetna River and hiked up to a pass where I camped somewhere between Twin Hills and Crater Lake. For the third time on this trip I had snow at night which didn’t really bother me – but now I had to deal with dense fog in the morning also. To navigate over the plateau I had to rely on my compass since I could barely see anything, but just a couple hours later it cleared up and I continued my way down to Black River.

Just like most other rivers in the Talkeetna Mountains the crossing of Black River was relatively easy, much easier than the hiking conditions on the other side: I stepped into a narrow valley covered with swamps and some brush. But it was that valley where I saw the biggest caribou herd I have ever encountered in Alaska so far. There must have been at least 70!

In the morning of September 16 I reached the highest pass of this trip, something above 1500 m. Up there I found myself in deep snow, fog and cold. A few caribou passed by.

Down in the next valley I crossed Kosina Creek and hiked up John Creek towards another pass that finally led me to the Talkeetna River, after I bushwacked down into the wide valley. The hiking part was over.

It was raining when I inflated my packraft and started rafting down the river. Due to all the rain of the past days the water level was higher than I had expected, but rafting was still fairly easy. At least at the upper Talkeetna – I knew that it would be way more difficult further down.

After paddling for two hours I searched for a place to camp and I saw a few little cabins on the left hand side of the river. It turned out that four men spent their summer vacation there, hunting and enjoying free time in the outdoors. They asked me to spend the night there, which I did, and since it didn’t stop raining the next two days either, I accepted their invitation to stay at their place for a couple more days. I had a wonderful time with these guys doing some hunting, cutting firewood, relaxing and also having a few drinks at night. A warm cabin, good food and interesting conversations was so much more pleasant than navigating through the rapids of a rising river in the rain.

The Talkeetna River rose to a tremendous extend, it saw its biggest flood since 20 years or so, people told me. I saw big trees drifting down in the current every minute and the guys I stayed with feared it could take away their little landing strip and the bush plane.

In the morning of September 21 the water level reached its highest point – the whole valley was flooded. Using the satellite phone my hosts found out that they had to evacuate houses in the village of Talkeetna, the fire department was busy all over the place. I felt like I had got very unlucky this year – this was September, typically a relatively dry month in Alaska!

My friends in the camp asked me if I needed a fly-out and of course I accepted the offer. I guess nobody would float down this river in a packraft in such high water and with all the trees inside. It would have been ridiculous and after I almost drowned in Eureka Creek before I was not willing to do the same mistake twice.

When I was in the plane looking down on the river it became totally clear that flying out was the right decision. The rapids were enormous!

In the afternoon of September 21 I was back in Palmer. Obviously my “Alaska parents” heard what was going on in Talkeetna and were happy to see me back happy and alive.

I was very fortunate to meet these 4 men at the upper Talkeetna River. It’s not just that I spent a couple of days with some very fine personalities or that they offered me a safe way out of there – they are also thinking of doing some commercial recreation projects in the area and are looking for a guide that could help them get their business going. We talked about their ideas for a while, later I met one of the guys again in Anchorage, finalizing some goals. I might get involved somehow.

At the end of September I left Alaska after 13 weeks. Again, I had a wonderful summer, just the weather was quite hard on me this time. I will be back next year doing more guiding – hopefully I will have a little more sunshine and a little less rain.
On my way home I felt the urge to spend some time in a warm and dry place as soon as possible. So right now, while I’m working on this travel report, I’m already making plans for a trip to Uganda – Karamoja – in February and March 2013. If that’s going to happen I will feel quite a climate change!