Happy River & Skwentna Rivers

Forums Alaska Rivers Alaska Range Region Happy River & Skwentna Rivers

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    Jule Harle


      Difficulty: Upper/above Indian Creek: III+, Lower/below Indian: III

      Length:  Happy: 34 miles (Upper/above Indian:16 miles, Lower/below Indian: 18 miles) Skwenta: 75 miles (from Happy confluence to roadhouse)

      Gauge: No gauge on Happy, USGS gauge on Skwentna https://waterdata.usgs.gov/monitoring-location/15294300/?agency_cd=USGS#period=P1Y&showMedian=true

      Shuttle: Round trip flights required, I recommend Nicks Air Service https://www.nicksairservice.com/

      Put in & Takeout: Various options, you can fly into Sheep Lake or Rainy Pass.  Luc Mehl has details about a route he conjured up on his website. (I did it in 2020 & highly recommend it if you’re looking for a challenging & super scenic hike before paddling) 

      Character: 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.

      Water Levels: The Happy relies on primarily snowmelt for flow; expect higher, pushier water earlier in the season (late May-June).  Late season rains can raise water levels.  Skwentna River is a high volume glacial run.

      River Description: From Sheep Creek or Puntilla Creek put-ins, 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. !!GUIDEBOOK AMENDMENT: When I paddled it in 2023 this channel no longer existed & this area had re-routed.  Hello #alaskafactor!

      After the 2020 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 may turn 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).  

      “There is a lot of wood scattered along the gravel bars, and while this section lacks whitewater, it still requires quick maneuvering and channel finding skills due to the wood hazard.” -Tim Kelley

      The Skwentna can be done in one day or broken up over two.  It’s 9-11 hrs from Happy confluence to roadhouse airstrip.  If flying with Nicks Air Service, he’s a BOSS at finding landing options on Skwentna River gravel bars, this can save a day of paddling if you’re not interested or don’t have time in your trip for this class II stretch.  Contact him for ideas.

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    Forums Alaska Rivers Alaska Range Region Happy River & Skwentna Rivers