Dadina River

Forums Alaska Rivers Wrangell-St. Elias Region Dadina 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: III/IV-
      Length: Dadina: 34 miles, Copper 30 miles
      Gauge: None
      Shuttle: Bush flight, I recommend Copper Valley Air, Martin is AWESOME!
      Put-in: Bush flight, see hike descriptions

      Takeout: Chitina airport on Copper River

      Character: This 3-5 day trip is a personal favorite- both the river and the hike are demanding, but you’ll be rewarded with great views and technical whitewater. The Dadina is a glacial river draining from the Dadina Glacier and impressive Mt. Zaneti; the character changes throughout the run.

      The highlight of this trip is hiking through and spending time exploring the Sanford Plateau area- with good weather you’ll soak up impressive views of some of the Wrangell’s biggest mountains: Sanford, Drum & Zaneti.

      Water Level: The Dadina has no gauge. It can be paddled from late May through mid September. The water will likely be clear and low throughout most of May and again in the fall. Keep in mind the Sanford Plateau hike will likely have snow through the end of June.

      In June & July, the Dadina will be pumping from peak glacial melt. This makes the rapids below the canyon class IV-, whereas they are in the class III range during lower flows. If one were to attempt the canyon, lower flows are highly advised, as the features would be more manageable for packrafts- although at the time of writing (2023), no packraft attempts had been made.  I’m planning on checking it out the next time I’m in this area,  but will go in with the “A Team” with lower water levels.

      Put in via Airstrip access: 

      Sanford Strip (hike in route option) OR Upper Dadina Strip, Cabin Strip (river only option)

      Hike Description from Sanford Strip:  11 miles, approx. 9-12 hours (1-2 days)

      The easiest/simplest approach to access this run is flying into the Dadina Airstrip; an easy 1 mile walk to the river bar. A more involved route involves flying into the Sanford River airstrip & hiking up the Sanford Plateau before descending into the Dadina valley.  

      From the Sanford strip, hike upstream towards the glacier; the walking is easier closer to the riverbed. Eventually you must either blow up boats & ferry across the river, or scramble up onto the moraine to access the plateau. The 1300 ft climb onto the plateau is not straightforward; expect some bushwhacking and challenging terrain as you ascend slowly. The surface on the plateau is a mix of rock and poorly drained/wet tundra.

      Have your fingers crossed for good weather once you’re up there; the plateau is around 4700 ft; the views as you’re sandwiched between Mt. Drum and Mt. Sanford are pretty bitchin IMO- you’re hiking between some of the Park’s larger mountains. This area can also hold dense fog in addition to acting as a wind tunnel. If you’re trying to camp on the plateau with foul weather, know that there is an old weather port- more or less a large metal box near waypoint: 62.09836, -144.44963 if you’re trying to escape the elements. Caribou frequent the area, keep your eyes peeled for wildlife as you travel through. If you have time and decent weather, this area makes for excellent day hiking and base camping opportunities.

      (Rachel Taylor found the metal box! Photo: Jule Harle)

      Descending the plateau into the Dadina valley can be tricky. Numerous routes exist, but many end up with steep cliffs or negotiating talus and rock fields. As you descend, it’s good to be on the eastern side of peak 5980 on USGS maps. If you aim for waypoint 62.06609, -144.42871 and gradually work towards the right, trying not to drop down into the drainage on the left, staying high, above the rocky sidehill- you’ll be in a good way. Stay alert for animal trails through the brush once the river valley comes into view.

      Once you get down, if you’re near clear water, it’d be a good idea to fill up, as the Dadina is murky and full of silt. From here, it’s about a 1/2 mile walk to the river.

      River Description:  

      Upper Dadina, Above Canyon (III): 23 miles, 4-6 hours

      The upper stretches of Dadina truly feel Alaskan with the fast pace, glacial water and epic views. The river is steep, rocky and continuous class II-III boogie water with few eddies for the first hour. After 3 miles, the Dadina begins to braid out; choose the channel with the most water for the next 9-10 miles. Glacial rivers often change course; they feel very “young” in that regard- the challenge of where to go and which channel to take are ever-changing. After braid negotiating and channel choosing, the river returns back to a single channel, but the difficulty remains in the class II-II+ range for another 3 miles.

      The action picks up with read and run class III rapids; negotiating between rocks and holes with recovery time after most rapid sections. This continues for another 5-6 miles before the canyon begins.

      At waypoint 61.85718, -144.82031, the river makes a left bend suddenly and immediately starts to wall in. Get out here on the left, well before the large boulder on the left- this marks the canyon entrance. At the time of writing, the canyon had not been paddled.  From rim scouts I’ve done, the difficulty appeared to be in the class IV-IV+ range, depending on water levels. The river through this section is littered with numerous large and sharp rocks; sieves are plentiful…not a great place to be out of your boat. Massive waves, holes and pushy water make this run not only demanding, but also committing. The first 2 miles you are completely “walled in” with zero opportunities for escape beyond Helicopter evacuation; canyon walls tower hundreds of feet above you. Most of the canyon has enough rock on the side of the river to get out, scout and/or explore portage options, but when you’re in, you’re 100% in, without exit options.

      Portage Hike: 3-4 hours, approx. 3 miles

      You’ll need to fully deflate and pack up for this one, as walking around the canyon involves a 2-4 mile bushwhack, depending on where you want to put back on the water. Good route finding skills and ability to find and follow game trails will help you here; ie: there is NOT an established portage trail/route. Do not expect to find one!

      Pro tip from Jule: If you’d rather camp here and save the portage for the following day, there are actually good openings and flat spots for camping if you venture a few hundred feet back into the woods.

      If you want to get a good look at what’s in the canyon, hike along the rim to see what you’re missing. However, there are less downed trees, the brush is thinner with side-hilling if you hike south of the rim, out of view of the river, (See map in guidebook for suggested route). 

      Follow game trails and areas of least resistance for the next 2.5 miles; trying not to lose or gain too much elevation in the journey. Our party dropped in and descended back into the canyon at waypoint 61.85270, -144.87031, following the nose of the rib all the way down to the river. There is camping at the river in the trees, albeit less ideal for bigger groups.

      Lower Dadina, Below Canyon (IV-): 10.5 miles, 2 hours

      It is possible to put on further upstream, if you’re up for a steep & spicy hiking descent and more challenging whitewater. Our party put on at waypoint 61.85655, -144.87154. This section maintains a pretty continuous class III+ character with the occasional steeper class IV- boulder garden drop that seems to “come out of nowhere,” especially when the river bends or turns. Expect to be on your toes for the next 5 miles, the river keeps this character throughout with short reprieves and breaks between rapid sets.  This is my favorite section when the water is high!

      After 5 miles, the gradient lessens, canyon walls widen and the cadence slows to Class II with an occasional class III- feature. The final 2 miles before the Copper confluence braid out and slow down even more. Keep an eye out for wood here until the confluence.

      Copper River (II): 30 miles, 5-7 hours

      Once you get to the Copper, turn left, haha 😉. This stretch to the Chitina Airport takes 5-7 hours depending on water level, how intently you paddle, and how hard you get spanked by the infamous upstream Copper-Chitina confluence winds.

      After the Lower Tonsina comes in, the river channels widen and braid; trend right if you’re aiming for the Chitina airport takeout. This is my preferred takeout, as it’s 4 miles shorter than getting out around the Copper River bridge and feels like a safer place to leave vehicles & less chaotic esp during dipnet season. Keep an eye out for fish wheels on the right, signifying the airport. There is a big pullout/turnaround if you hike your boats up just up the hill.

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    Forums Alaska Rivers Wrangell-St. Elias Region Dadina River