2011 Alaska (3/3): Packrafting on the Gulkana River

Places Alaska. Donnelly Dome, Paxson Lake, Gulkana River
Time & length September 2011, 6 days
Partners solo trip
Together with my friend Becky I spent two nights at Paxson Lake and hiked up Donnelly Dome. Then I floated down the Gulkana River to Sourdough Camp in my Packraft.

This is the third part of my Alaska journey in 2011, look here for part one and part two.

At the end of September Becky and I hitchhiked to Paxson Lake, located a few kilometers north of the town of Paxson. As explained earlier I met Becky weeks before in Palmer at my friend’s place, we got along very well and did some hiking together. Now, after I had returned from my Denali trip there wasn’t much time left for bigger adventures, so I decided to go packrafting and made my decision for the Gulkana River which is quite easy to raft and it offers good access as well as some beautiful scenery. Becky joined me to do some hiking before I started rafting, so we hitchhiked over to Paxson Lake and pitched our tents at the Campground which was already closed. Yes, it was late in the season.

On the next day we left our tents behind and hitchhiked further to a hill called Donnelly Dome, somebody told Becky that it would be nice to climb it. Well, it didn’t take us long to get up there, I guess we both expected the hill to be a little more spectacular. Anyway, we had a good lunch and a nice afternoon there and got back to our campsite the same day. Some beavers were waiting.

After sundown we spent a few hours talking on the campfire. When we were about to go to bed I saw something green on the horizon, barely visible. Northern Lights! They got more and more intense, after 30 minutes they were dancing all over us in different colors – what an unbelievable moment. I had never seen anything so beautiful before.

I tried a few adjustments on my camera and took several pictures. At midnight the lights were gone and with the thermometer showing 11 degrees Celsius below zero we went to bed.

The next morning we said goodbye to each other and I jumped into my tiny little Packraft. While Becky hitchhiked up to Fairbanks and later back to Palmer I was looking forward to a great floating trip but first I had to paddle across Paxson Lake: easier said than done with the wind blowing in my face.

The rafting began with a few stones in the water but it was quite easy to navigate around. In general the Gulkana River is not hard to raft, the rapids aren’t deadly and there are no undercuttings or other major hazards.

In the early afternoon it began to snow. Rafting in the snow was actually quite fun in the beginning but then I got cold and fortunately found an old abandoned gold rush cabin right next to the river. Inside it was very dirty but there was enough room to pitch my little tent – and that’s what I did.

I woke up before sunrise in a clear morning but shortly before I put in my raft it became all foggy. That made the landscape appear very calm and soft, floating down this calm section of the river was so peaceful… Then it cleared up and I kept paddling for two days, the second night I spent just beside the river. On the way I took pictures of many Bald Eagles waiting on trees for some fish to catch.

A few kilometers before my drop out point I made camp again and spent some solitary hours at the campfire recalling the last three months. It was such a great summer: first my time in Ladakh and then Alaska with the failure in the Brooks Range on the one hand, but later some great hiking further south on the other hand. I thought about the different valleys I have seen, the wildlife I have encountered and the people I have met. And of course I thought about what to do next summer. It was beyond question that I would return here to Alaska again. And so I went to sleep lately at -10°C: not too bad for a starlit September night in Alaska.

On the next day I just paddled for two or three more hours and then reached Sourdough Campground where I put out and hitchhiked back to Palmer. Happy to see my friends and family I arrived back in Germany just a couple days later.

And I missed Alaska. But not for long.