East Fork Chulitna (August 15-16, 2020)

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    Jule Harle

      Chulitna Gauge:

      Rating: Class III

      Character: A demanding hike (a mix of game and ATV trails, alpine scree, and real bushwhacking) rewards you with epic views and two unique class III canyons that seem to always have enough water. The boating is mostly class II, with two short & thrilling canyon sections. The first canyon has significantly more whitewater, however, the second canyon has the most technical drop. This is a great class III river for those who enjoy route finding and navigating through mountain terrain.
      Put in: Drive about 3.5 hours north of Anchorage on the Parks Highway. Near milepost 194, right before the highway crosses the East Fork Chulitna, there’s an obvious pullout/camping area on the left.

      Take Out: Take out where Parks Highway crosses the East Fork Chulitna (easiest spot is a few hundred feet downstream of bridge on left)

      Shuttle: None! You start and end at the car.

      Hike Description:

      Time: 15 miles, 10-14 hours (1-2 days) This could be done as a long day in the summer; most would enjoy as an overnight.

      Elevation Gain/Loss: +3300 ft, -1700 ft

      From the East Fork pullout, cross the highway and immediately begin bushwhacking uphill. When you intersect with the powerline continue heading north. We stayed on the right/west side of the bog and followed the path of least resistance through game trails and light bushwhacking before intersecting with an ATV trail that takes you up the Hardage Creek Valley. When the ATV trail nears Hardage Creek, it crosses it numerous times before arriving at the glacial moraine near 2900 ft; this is where the trail disappears. Hike up the knoll and follow the valley to the left (north) towards the alpine pass at 4600 ft. The scree and rock walking can get pretty arduous and unpleasant, especially if there’s no snow. The final few hundred feet are steep, but there’s usually a social/game trail to the top. From the pass, descend down, staying on the north/lookers left side of the creek valley for the first 1.5 miles before crossing (near waypoint 63.13298, -149.23997) and following whatever game trails you find on the right side of the valley. About 1.5 miles after crossing, the brush forces you towards a social trail that takes you down the nose of a rim leading you into a steep ravine. Immediately after crossing the drainage, you hike/scramble directly up and out of the creek bed (this short section is steep with some exposure- some may feel more comfortable taking off backpacks and handing them up) Climb out of the canyon and continue looking for the path of least resistance and game trails through the brush for another mile before dropping down and crossing the creek again; there is an obvious social trail that crosses the creek and parallels it for a while if you can find it. However, the trail eventually dissipates and you’re left on your own as the brush becomes thicker & more challenging as you exit the valley. The next 2 miles are INCREDIBLY THICK and probably the crux of the hike; follow the path of least resistance, keeping eyes peeled for some sort of game trail. Generally, the brush is less thick the higher you are…I would NOT want to be lower in the creek valley for this section on the hike- the brush looks heinous down there! As you traverse/side hill out of the valley towards the East Fork, consider dropping in when you see a good line down towards the Crooked Creek tributary. Even if the water in it is appears low, floating or scraping your way down Crooked Creek fares much easier than bushwhacking all of the way to the East Fork.

      River Description: Your bushwhacking efforts are rewarded with epic vistas of the surrounding mountains. The upper section of the East Fork is class I and II; giving you plenty of time to soak up the views and warm up before the first canyon.
      After 3 miles you’ll see canyon walls gradually come in; however. the rapids don’t begin for another mile. The rapid section starts when the river makes a sharp left turn; waypoint 63.18595, -149.22089; you can get out and scout on the right. The canyon continues with ½ dozen class III rapids; they are all “read and run” with a pool drop nature; at lower water there are literally pools after the rapids, but with higher flows, there is less recovery time. You can get out and scout any horizon lines that look too intimidating; although this will prove more challenging with higher flows. After ½ mile, the canyon walls open back up for 5-10 minutes of class II before the 2nd canyon begins.
      When you notice an obvious drop/horizon line (near waypoint 63.19116, -149.24693) get out and scout the entrance rapid on the left. This is the most difficult & photogenic 😉 rapid –of the entire run; be sure to have someone stage at the “photo rock” on the left to get some good shots! (Seriously, this rock is TOO perfectly placed for good pics). However, you can easily portage this rapid on the left if you’d rather not run it.
      The rest of the 2nd canyon is class II+; there aren’t any other significant rapids, but the water still pushes into the outside bends for the next ½ mile until the canyon walls open up. The remaining 6 miles are class II boogie water that gradually slows down and mellows out the closer you get to the highway bridge; stay on the lookout for wood, especially the last few miles.

      Time: 14 miles, 2.5-3 hours

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