Bull River & West Fork Chulitna

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    Jule Harle
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      SOURCE: The Alaska Packraft Guidebook: Premier Rivers & Creeks in the 49th State (1st ed) Copyright: 2022 by Jule Harle.  Refer to the guidebook for additional info, photos, waypoints or detailed river maps. Author permission required to reproduce, duplicate or transfer following content.

      QUICK RIVER STATS:
      Difficulty: Low: Class III, Medium: Class III+, High: Class IV-
      Length: Bull: 8 miles, West Fork: 13 miles
      Gauge: None
      Shuttle: 16 miles
      Put in: Varies, below description: 63.27497, -149.35933

      Character: Many packrafters have gotten in over their heads on the Bull; if you don’t enjoy class pushy IV- rapids in canyon walls, best wait until August or September and catch it at lower water for your first run down.   The Bull has two distinct canyons, with the second being more difficult.  Just as engaging as the Bull is the 12 mile float out on the West Fork Chulitna- this makes the Bull an all around classic packraft day trip IMO: a relatively short hike for great whitewater followed by a beautiful higher volume glacial river that cuts through a stunning canyon.  

      Water Levels: The Bull River has no gauge. Many packrafters hold off on the Bull until late summer or early fall, as the second canyon can feel pushy and near class IV in difficulty with higher water from early June/mid summer snowmelt. (…so, if you like class IV rapids- go in June!)

      Gauging water levels is difficult, as it is far from the road and there isn’t anything nearby with a gauge. The Bull is glacially fed, but early summer snowmelt seems to contribute significantly to its volume. It’s usually runnable from late-may through September. Medium levels render it class III, while many paddlers have been underwhelmed with a class III- late season low water run. Even when it’s low, the Bull is still worthwhile, as the scenery and “packraft symmetry” are great.

      Hike Begins: Drive about 4 hours north of Anchorage on the Parks Highway.  Near milepost 194, just after the Middle Fork of the Chulitna crosses the road, there’s an obvious pullout/camping area on the left.  Follow the obvious ATV trail that heads West.

      Takeout: Take out about 18 miles south of put in/where the hike begins, on Parks Highway.  Near milepost 178, look for a large open gravel lot on the west side of the highway; a little over a mile south of where Honolulu creek crosses with the road. 

      Hike Description: (4.5 miles, 2-2.5 hours)  Follow the ATV trail heading west from the Middle Fork Chulitna pullout.  The trail is easy walking for the first mile and a half, before the bog begins.  When the trail first forks, go right.  When you get to the bog sections, the trail often disappears; it’s usually easier to hike around it, then search for where the trail picks back up.  The first bog section, it’s easiest to trend towards the right side, the trail more/less heads towards an obvious knoll to the southwest- keep this in mind as you negotiate through the boggy sections. (this knoll often occupied by hunters August-September- you may even see obvious tents set up) As you get closer to the knoll, the trail becomes obvious again, near waypoint 63.26667, -149.30989.  From the knoll, head downhill following ATV trail remnants before “picking your line” through the willow and heading down through the brush towards the river; the thickest bushwhack comes at the end as you descend the final hill.  

      Bull River Description: From the put-in, near waypoint 63.25281, -149.25868, the first canyon begins less than ½ mile downstream.  The first canyon, Class III- to III at any level, is significantly easier than the second; it never truly “walls in;” the river only constricts slightly.  The river does, however, become studded with large rocks, which creates most of the rapids and features.  At lower water, these rocks are visible, but with medium to higher flows, holes form. Either way, there is plenty of time and space to maneuver around them.  After 2 miles of this, the river opens back up and turns into mostly class II for the next 2 miles.  

      Between 1st & 2nd canyon

      2nd canyon entrance, late July, low water

      Two miles downstream from the end of the first canyon, you’ll notice the action increase as canyon walls tighten.  There are a few class III entry rapids before the river makes a sharp left hand turn.  You can get out and scout on the left here, before entering “The Narrows,” walking along the rocks, but you aren’t able to see any significant rapids yet.  The next ½ mile has multiple class III rapids; most horizon lines have eddies above them to boat scout, but at higher water many of the rapids would be difficult to get out and look at.  

      The river widens after the Narrows and returns to class II for ¼ mile before one of the more difficult rapids, “Sieve City.”  The river has numerous large, broken, manky rocks throughout this drop; the best line at most levels is entering on the left before driving hard right to avoid the side wall; steering clear of the sieve rocks in the center of the river that create a pretty munchy hole at high flows.  You could scout/portage on the right, but you’d have to catch the eddie pretty early at higher flows. (read: easier to portage at lower/medium flows)  Stay on guard for the next 1000 ft, as the rapid continues with more class III+ read and run hole dodging and wave punching.   The river soon opens up and calms back down to class II for another ½ mile… but the action isn’t done yet!

      Expect a few more class III-III+ rapids (IV- at high water); with the most difficult one being an “S Bend” near waypoint 63.20217, -149.47340.  After these final rapids, the river widens and mellows out until the confluence with the West Fork of the Chulitna.

      End of 2nd canyon, late July, low water. Photo: Jule Harle

      West Fork Chulitna River Description:  After the confluence, you’ll negotiate glacial braids for the first mile before the river channelizes and soon cuts through a beautiful canyon.  The canyon does not have any significant rapids, but you’ll have the occasional class II+ wave train, big hole to avoid as well as squirrely boils and eddy lines near the canyon walls.  About 10 miles into it, near waypoint 63.08221, -149.59416, there’s a mile long, read and run, fairly continuous class III- section with larger waves, more holes and features to maneuver through or around.  1.5 miles downstream from the end of these rapids, look for the East Fork Chulitna & Honolulu Creek coming in on the left (you’ll see the different color water, often crystal clear or blue looking).  Take out on the gravel bar downstream of the confluence where the ATV trail begins.  

      Hike the most obvious, well defined ATV trail up Honolulu creek (crossing the railroad a little over 1 mile into it); please respect private property and personal cabins along the trail.  After crossing the railroad, the trail heads towards the highway before paralleling it for the last ¼ mile before ending at the gravel lot.  

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