Chitistone River

Forums Alaska Rivers Wrangell-St. Elias Region Chitistone River

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    Jule Harle

      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.

      Difficulty: Lower: class II.  Upper: class III-IV (III low water, IV high water)
      Length: Lower: 8 miles, Upper: 10 miles
      Gauge: None
      Shuttle: Bush flight
      Put-in: Numerous options, see below

      Takeout: Numerous options, see below

      Character: The lower Chitistone, from Glacier Creek down, rather than being a river to run for it’s own sake, it is best considered as a means to access raw wilderness in the heart of the Wrangells. However, the upper stretches deliver continuous whitewater not for the faint of heart- the gradient is steep & rapids are non-stop & bossy.

      From the Glacier Creek airstrip you can hike upstream as far as the headwaters near the Chitistone Glacier OR access it via more demanding backcountry routes like the Goat Trail.

      The stretch above Toby Creek is class IV during peak snow & glacial melt in June & July. Many packrafters approaching the Chitistone from the Goat Trail walk down & put in below Toby Creek when the water is this high.

      Water Level: The Chitistone has no gauge. It is a glacial run, peaking mid June-mid July, and gradually lessens in volume through September. It can be paddled from mid May-September, although packrafters favor lower water levels if attempting stretches above Toby Creek. In June & July, sections above Toby Creek are VERY continuous and demanding class IV; a swim would be not only dangerous, but difficult to recover as the whitewater is busy and eddies are few and far between. Those adding the Chitistone to a larger wilderness route may opt to hike downstream during high flows, putting in below Toby.

      Put-in options: From Glacier Creek landing strip, hike ½ mile down to Glacier creek, OR hike up Chitistone as far as you’d like (12 miles towards Chitistone Glacier)

      Takeouts:  Numerous options.  You can hike out 8 miles to downtown McCarthy via the Nizina road (upstream of the red bridge to nowhere, before the canyon).  You can paddle down the canyon, taking out at the Kennicott River for a 5 mile hike upstream on the river bed.  Various airstrips: Tractor creek, lower Nizina. Or continue down Nizina & Chitina to Copper confluence for another 3-4 days.

      Hike Description from Glacier Creek airstrip:  Start at the Public Use Cabin- it’s less than ½ mile from airstrip, follow signs on north side of strip. Follow the social trail on the north side of cabin to open dryas and the Chitistone river bed. You can put in here for a class II experience, or walk as far as you’d like; it’s 12 miles to the glacier.

      The walking is fairly straightforward and through mostly open river bed for the 3.5 miles up to Toby Creek; this takes about 2 hours. The infamous Toby Creek crossing has turned numerous parties around- take this crossing seriously. At times of high water (June/July) the creek may be too high to safely cross.

      After Toby Creek, pick up the social trail on the cutbank next to the river. This trail comes & goes, but makes for easier bushwhacking. In less than 1 mile, you’ll approach the first landslide. Choose your line carefully for the next mile as you negotiate loose, large rocks with some dead & downed trees. After the landslide, return back to the river bed.  The second landslide is about 1.5 miles from Toby Creek. After the initial climb up and crossing, keep your eyes on the left, as you can return down to the river bar to walk on lichen & river bed vs stumbling across the loose rock up high.

      Continue walking upstream, finding the path of least resistance along river rocks and through cottonwoods- the going is generally easier closer to the river vs in the woods. Walking closer to the river also allows you the opportunity to scout as you hike up.

      What’s labeled as a historic trail on old USGS maps, is one of the best places to cross; you might render it easier to cross the Chitistone vs walking up lookers right/river left, as the brush increases & there is open river bar on the opposite side. This will likely not be an option if the water is high, although you could then ferry across. Hiking options exist on both sides either way.  About 11 miles into the hike you’ll come up to a stream emptying the Chitistone Gorge. If you’ve made it this far, it’s well worth taking the time to explore this area.

      Upper River Description: Upper, Chitistone Glacier to Glacier Creek: 10 miles, 2 hours. Class III-IV

      The run begins with a mile of class I, if you put-in near the Chitistone Gorge tributary. (If you put-in close to the actual glacier, there are class II-III rapids) After 3 miles from the Gorge tributary, the gradient increases and whitewater begins. Here the rapids are continuous and the most technical features in the run- a swim during higher class IV flows would be dangerous and difficult to recover from.

      Take extra caution as you near both landslide areas- the slides deposited wood into the riverbed- it is both hidden and submerged, prevalent throughout the slide areas. It is difficult to see this during higher water, but a swimmer could easily become swept under hidden trees.

      The final 1/4 mile above Toby Creek is steep and technical again. After Toby Creek, you’ll feel the additional volume, however the gradient lessens and whitewater is significantly less technical.

      Lower River Description: Glacier Creek to Nizina: 8 miles, 1.5 hours. Class II+ (III)

      Moderate class II for most of the run- the biggest challenges are deciding which channel to be in throughout the fast moving braids.

      There are class III features upstream of Lime Springs Creek, about 4 miles from the Glacier Creek confluence. The large rock debris that fell into the river creating some hit or miss waves & holes, although class II lines exist. As the valley opens up, the final 3 miles are thin & braided, you may have to get out of your boat or have some scootchy-scootch butt drags 🙂  

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    Forums Alaska Rivers Wrangell-St. Elias Region Chitistone River