Talkeetna Mountains traverse: Eureka to Talkeetna, pushing the limits of tennis shoes


As I started looking closer at the maps and seeing the weather forecast for Southcentral Alaska ("first storm moving away from southcentral with a more powerful second storm on the way"), the doubts over our trip started creeping in.  Sherrie and I planned to hike from the Eureka Roadhouse on the Glenn Highway, 60 miles overland to the headwaters of the Talkeetna River.  From the small roadside town, we'd walk for 2.5 days (most off-trail wilderness travel), over a 4800' and 6000' pass, before rafting 40 miles of the Talkeetna River.  At the confluence with Prairie Creek, we would meet friends who'd flown in with a cataraft and raft the famous class IV Talkeetna River canyon ("the longest stretch of continuous whitewater in Alaska" and one of the state's most classic river trips) to the town of Talkeenta.

As I really started thinking about the logistics, the thoughts of all that could go wrong rushed in with a vengeance.  I haven't been nervous for a trip in awhile, but I have to admit in many ways it felt good to try something I wasn't sure I could do.  We made contingency bailout plans for the inability to cross high passes due to weather, packed a little extra food in case we had to hike out without the cataraft to travel the high-volume canyon, and left a good communication plan in case we didn't make it out. 

Leaving the road at 5:30 pm, we made it to Caribou Creek and camped along its banks. 

Starting out with termination dust on Gunsight Mountain behind us . . . all smiles for the journey ahead!
Surprised and ecstatic, our first full day of hiking up Caribou Creek was graced with sunshine!!  Given the multiple thigh-deep river crossings of this glacial stream, and blessed with peak fall colors, the bright skies made our day super enjoyable as we covered ground.

Did I mention that we were thankful for the sun?  Sherrie shares her joy!

Sherrie making progress toward Chitna Creek confluence with Caribou Creek, one of the day's major milestones

Me headed into the upper Caribou drainage - foreboding skies ahead, but sunny for now!

Me loving the tank top weather and peak fall colors - all the gorgeous mountains made us want to come back with more time to scramble up them!

Caribou Creek shrinking as we neared the headwaters - just upstream is it's super dramatic canyon
We made it to our goal of a lake just below the final climb to our first big pass, arriving at camp in a mix of rain and snow.  We awoke to a white world, and a super cold morning, but were thankful that the conditions still looked okay for travel.

Awaking to a snowy morning at camp 2 . . . brr!!

My shoes were so frozen after all the river crossings the day prior that I had to use pliers to get the laces free . . . I finally thawed them in the icy cold river to be able to get my feet in - now there's a way to start a morning!

 We hiked out of the Caribou Creek drainage and over a gentle pass to the high country in the upper Oshetna River valley.  Opting to "cut the corner," we walked the caribou trails of the grassy hills instead of travelling the creek, rewarded with panoramic mountain views and serene lakes to walk by. 
Heading into the high country - leaving the final trickle of Caribou Creek

Rounding the corner into the upper Oshetna River valley
Me passing one of three lakes as we traveled to the Oshetna River . . . peaceful and stunning country
Sherrie adds a splash of color to the Talkeetnas!

Making progress - our route was just around the backside of the peak in the foreground . . . caribou trails made our travels so nice!!

Caribou kept us company much of the morning . . . should we have brought skis?!?
We had great travel conditions for the morning, the frozen ground creating a nice walking surface, cushioned with a covering of snow . . . greeted by caribou, beautiful lakes, and changing scenery, we were super stoked!  Lurking in the back of my mind, however, was a wonder of what we'd find as we approached the pass - the mountains around us were pretty snow-covered and the wind was picking up - thoughts of avalanches started creeping into my mind.  As a skier, I should know better than to get caught in a windslab, and we had approximately zero appropriate tools (i.e. shovel!) to respond if we did.  But, you never know til you go, so on we went, knowing that we could always come back and raft out Caribou Creek if we had to.  One thing was readily apparent: we were definitely going to be pushing the limits of tennis shoes!!!

Our first pass at 4800' finally in view . . . what's next?

Headed up the pass, looking down to the Oshetna . . .

The landscape got stark, but no less beautiful
On the backside of pass #1, with 6000' pass #2 around the corner - starting to look more like a headwall than a pass!

Sherrie with the outline of switchbacks above her . . . looks like we can probably make it over!!
Standing on the headwall - I have to admit I was hoping to see a little less white than this . . .

Travelling the moraine-from-hell . . . this kind of travel is hard enough without 6" of snow obscuring the appropriate places to step!

Uggh, the moraine goes on . . .

Finally off the rocky moraine and back into snow-covered tundra . . . a much appreciated reprieve of wondering if I was going to break an ankle every step! 

 Thankfully, Alaska let us through and we were able to safely navigate our way over the headwall (after going over it, I am no longer calling it a pass!) . . . I had hoped for a gentle slope off the backside, but instead I found myself plunge stepping into thigh deep snow down its steep flanks.  Spirits plummeted as we walked across the glacial moraine on the backside.  Comprised of rocks, their interstitial spaces filled with snow, it felt like a broken ankle (or femur!) was a threat on every step.  Sherrie characterized our friendship as "old love" as we walked in irritated silence, mentally preparing ourselves to be in snow for the duration of our overland travel.  The Talkeetna side of the mountains is the wet side, but this was more snow than we'd really expected! 

Not shockingly, we awoke to more new snow on our third morning, but with only 11 miles remaining until packrafting time, and knowing it would only get better as we lost elevation, we were off!

Another cold morning - a good chance to multitask with stretching hips, warming toes on my hot bottle, and drinking coffee all at once!!
Our river walk transitioned to a game trail as we headed away from the creek and onto a gently sloping flank to the river . . . back in peak fall colors, the tundra reds burst into our gray landscape.  As we descended, the sun came out and graced us with warmth and views of the Talkeetna Glacier and big mountains surrounding us.  As the river came into view, we were pscyched to start making progress off our feet!!

Good travel, out of the snow, making progress = happy Kellie!
Looking back at the white world we'd come from!
And looking down to the river we were headed to!
Sherrie in peak fall colors yet again, checking out the potential for rapids in the upper river


Still not sure if it was going to fully break, the clouds added surreal feel to the big open country we were in

The Talkeetna Glacier and upper river
We made it to the river just after noon and took a breather in bare feet on the sand, appreciating the moments of sunshine as we prepared for the next section of the adventure.  We had 40 river miles to cover, with beta that it started class III and then mellowed out . . . lured by the sunshine, we did not put on nearly enough layers and spent most of the day super cold until we finally gave into putting puff coats on under our drysuits!  It's been awhile since I've been this persistently cold, and I started to accept that winter is definitely on its way!! 
The upper river was splashy and fun!

So wonderful to enjoy the views off of our feet!  Packrafts and river gear are heavy and cumbersome to carry, but sooooo worth it!
By some combination of good fortune and perseverance, Sherrie and I made it 40 miles downriver in about 6.5 hours, meeting our friends according exactly to plan A.  They had flown in that morning as planned, rafted Prairie Creek, and setup a luxurious camp.  With a dutch oven, coolers, big raft, and cotton clothes our lives were about to change! 
All smiles in the morning as we headed toward the Talkeetna Canyon!
 At the ~8000 cfs level we had, the Talkeetna was considered "low," but the toilet bowl entry rapid and the 14 mile long "sluice box" were exciting all the same, and still much bigger water than I'd want with a packraft!! 
Under sunny skies, Denali and the Alaska Range greeted us in Talkeetna!!
Overall, the trip was awesome.  At no point "in the bag," the adventure continued with every step and wave along our journey.  It was definitely an experience that re-energized me for big Alaskan traverses and throwing it to the wind every now and again :-)

1 comment:

Nor' Norwest said...

Great Post Kellie.. Dylan took few pix when he made the trip..Nice to get a real report, complete with pictures..

Keep on posting..

Amauq Bill