Happy River & Skwentna (July 7-9, 2020)

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    Jule Harle

      Upper Section: III+

      Lower Section: III

      Skwentna gauge: 40 ft

      Happy River has no gauge; estimated estimated 500 cfs at put in, 1100 at confluence; water was clear. The Happy relies on primarily snowmelt for flow; expect higher, pushier water earlier in the season (late May-June).

      A truly remote wilderness experience that changes character throughout the trip. Andrew Embick’s “Fast and Cold” summarizes it well: “The Happy River is a magical wilderness river of moderate difficulty which traverses a variety of dramatic terrain.” In the crystal clear upper sections, the Happy is high above tree line; the water is technical and low volume; class III+ rapids are studded with boulder gardens. As flow and gradient increase, the creek matures into a river. Additional volume from tributary streams adds to the volume before the Happy churns through snake-like, twisting, and constricting high-walled ravines and canyons.

      River Description:

      Happy River total: 6-9 hours, depending on flow (3-4 hours before Indian, 3-4 after Indian)

      Skwentna total: 9-11 hrs

      The happy starts off as crystal clear, with a lower volume creek feel through slow moving class II braids and channels. A few miles in, the pace picks up with some class III- continuous read and run low volume granite boulder gardens.

      Soon after (approx. 1 mile from Iditarod trail intersection with river), the Happy thins out and in 2020 the main channel pulled left swiftly through brush and overhanging shrubs; this woody section can be portaged or aggressively navigated by those with excellent micro eddie catching skills and ability to maneuver quickly. Be wary here, as a swim could be dangerous.

      After the brushfest, the river moves through open alpine country for 4-5 miles of class II-III boogie water as the gradient increases. The river becomes larger in volume, with glacial tributaries entering the main channel. The rapids go for miles, you’ll be negotiating Class III+ rapids with big waves that can pack a punch at higher water levels. Shortly after the Moose Creek confluence, you’ll go through a scenic class III mini canyon (it never truly walls you in) with sharp turns and twists; this continues before the confluence with Indian creek on the right. (3-4 hours from Puntilla creek put in)

      As the volume increases with Indian, Squaw and Glacier creek tributaries the water turns a grey-green color before entering a rock wall canyon several hundred feet deep. The twists and turns alongside with the rocks studding the riverbed create big water class III rapids until things mellow out before the Skwentna confluence.

      This section of the Skwentna is a high volume, flat, glacial river that braids and winds downstream for 75 miles to the town of Skwentna. There are a few interesting sections with canyon walls and rock monoliths; but really the most entertaining part of this stretch are the epic vistas from the surrounding Neacola mountains and the Alaska Range (fingers crossed for good weather). The Skwentna can be done in one day or broken up over two.

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