Kashwitna River

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    Jule Harle
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      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.

      QUICK RIVER STATS:
      Difficulty: III/III+ (IV-) in Lower Canyon with high water
      Length: 46 miles
      Gauge:USGS Kashwitna NR Willow Gauge https://waterdata.usgs.gov/monitoring-location/15293200/#parameterCode=00065&period=P7D&showMedian=false&timeSeriesId=1582
      Shuttle: 48 miles
      Put-in: 61.99423, -149.29172

      Takeout: Kashwitna River bridge, mile 83.2 of Parks Highway

      Character: A challenging trip in the Talkeetna Mountains with truly Alaskan “packraft symmetry.”   A multi day scenic hiking approach rewards you with 1-2 full days of boating.  The Kashwitna has multiple sections that change in character & intensity throughout the run.  While there is significant whitewater- the upper section has two short class III stretches that can feel big when the water is high- there’s also 20 miles of slow moving oxbows to float through before arriving at the North Fork confluence.  Below here awaits a mostly class III/III+ canyon (up to class IV- with peak summer flows).  This trip can be done in 3 days, but 4 days certainly makes for a more comfortable pace.

      Water Level: You can refer to the Kashwitna gauge; but at the time of writing there were not adequate trip reports with water level references.  This description was taken in late August with a gauge reading of 172.3 ft.  The Kashwitna could be runnable as early as mid May, but the alpine passes in the approach usually hold snow through June; this changes annually & depends on that season’s snowpack.

      Mid-July through August are optimal months for this trip, as the passes are likely free from snow, but the river has enough water- making the oxbows less slow.

      The class III stretches in the upper section can be fast, bossy & big during June & July- engaging & fun for the whitewater enthusiast or terrifying for a class II paddler.  

      The Lower Canyon boasts some excellent whitewater from May-September, but unless you secure permission from landowners, you’d be trespassing as you navigate the maze of ATV trails that lead you to the North Fork put-in.

      Contact Alaska Packraft School if interested in hiring a guide. 

      Hike Description: Time: 2-3 days, 22 miles.  Hike begins at the Dogsled Pass ATV trailhead, about 25 miles down Hatcher Pass Road (if coming from Willow side).  Trailhead is on the left, immediately before the road veers right and begins climbing up to Summit Lake.  

      As far as terrain, this hike has it all: alpine tundra, scrambling through giant boulder fields, creek crossings, and hunting for game trails in valley brush.  Although this hike begins with 4 miles of ATV trail, expect to work for each of the three passes as you approach the Kashwitna River.

      Whereas there are several possible approaches to access the Kashwitna River, the route described offers the shortest shuttle & the least amount of brush.  This trip is ideally done with a weather window that offers good visibility, as the views of the Talkeetnas are impressive and make it worth doing in and of itself.  Not to mention, navigating up and down the passes & their north facing boulder fields would prove much more difficult and less straightforward if you couldn’t see!

      Beginning at the Dogsled Pass trailhead, follow the ATV trail up Craigie Creek Valley for 4 miles.  From here, you can see the next pass (north and slightly east of you) in sight. From here, the trail disappears and gives way to the first boulder field.  Continue along and down the boulders.  The best route down isn’t obvious from up high; it’s easy to find yourself cliffed out or performing awkward down climb moves as you negotiate a large rocky bluff.  An easier line down a “green alpine ramp” exists to your left; try not to shoot too far right or you’ll be scrambling down and around large rocks.

      Continue along the tundra, dropping down to about 3600/3700 ft elevation before climbing up towards the next pass, at elevation 4500 ft.  Once up here, Stegosauraus Pass is in view almost directly north of you, about 4 miles away as the crow flies.  The boulder fields continue again for ¼ mile as you descend, keeping the small alpine lakes to your left as you drop into the valley.  

      The boulder fields and tundra give way to light brush as you near the creek crossing.  After crossing, follow the path of least resistance through the brush, returning back into the alpine zone around 3600 ft.  Continue up the valley, crossing the small creek, and generally staying on the west/left side of the drainage.  

      As you approach the base of Stegosaurus Pass, stay right/east of the alpine lake to avoid an unnecessary climb up through large boulders- the hike up is MUCH easier if you go around the right side of the lake through the tundra before the final climb up.  Once at the pass, take some time to savor the views.  

      Expect to move significantly slower for the next mile, as you negotiate rocks and boulders of all sizes; travel cautiously, especially if it’s been raining- these boulders are particularly slick when wet!  Do not head down towards the alpine lake towards the right/east, don’t drop lower than 4500 ft as you will be eventually climbing back up a “mini pass” that spits you out into the valley to the west.

      As you descend into this valley, the boulders turn back into easier alpine walking.  Travel downhill, staying on the right/east side of the larger lakes.  The walking gradually gets more brushy, keep an eye peeled for game trails and paths of least resistance.  As the valley gradually swings more north (as opposed to west), you’ll want to cross the creek as the walking appears less brushy on that side.

      Continue the brushfest as you head down the valley.  Numerous game trails exist; it’s hard to determine “the best way,” but keep in mind YOU’LL WANT TO STAY HIGH as you near the last 2 miles towards the river.  There are 2 large ravines that you DO NOT want to go into.  Instead, head uphill, around both of the ravines, (aiming for as high as 2900 ft) before descending.  As you drop down towards the Kashwitna valley, aim for a flat “bench” on the left/west side of the drainage after hiking around the ravines.

      This bench sets you up for finding the game trail that makes travel down to the river easiest.  The game trail (which feels like a highway after hiking down the valley through the brush!) begins on the right/east side of the bench near a large white birch tree.  Seriously take some time to find this game trail, to save yourself an unnecessary and heinous bushwhack down to the river.  From here, you’ll descend over 1000 feet towards the river valley; once on the valley floor, expect the trail to dissipate and peter out, continuing heading towards the river.

      River Description: Time: 1-2 days

      Class I before the first rapid section, late July. Photo: Jule Harle

      This description is from the put-in waypoint.  There are numerous approaches & access opportunities for the Kashwitna.  If putting in above Bartloff Creek, the whitewater and gradient are much more challenging; class IV-V, depending on water levels.

      Upper Section: The first 2.5 miles offer a class I-II warm up; before the first rapid section.  The first stretch of whitewater lasts just under ½ mile; there are a series of stretches a few hundred feet long with class III maneuvers: big waves and holes to either hit or miss.  At higher flows these features will feel big, but are over quickly; sneak lines exist for those who can read high volume water.

      Rhane paddling the first rapid section, late July. Photo: Jule Harle

      There’s a break in the action for the next mile until it picks up again.  The second whitewater stretch is about 1 mile long; with the rapids feeling bigger and steeper than the first section.  Sneak lines still exist, the rapids are scoutable, and they are not completely continuous; unless the water is incredibly high, there will be short breaks between rapid sets.

      After these short n’ sweet whitewater sections, the Kashwitna returns to class II for a mile before the oxbows begin.  The oxbows go on for about 20 miles; they are incredibly slow moving at times as they meander right and left repeatedly.  Don’t be surprised if it feels like you are paddling back up the valley instead of down it sometimes…so it goes!  This section is class I and feels more like a “moving lake” than a river.  Depending on how consistently you paddle, the next 20 miles can take between 5-8 hours.  I hope you have some bad jokes or party favors on hand ;)

      The river gradually returns to class II about a mile upstream of where the North Fork Kashwitna comes in.  At this confluence, don’t be surprised if you see ATV’s & people who deter you from running the canyon.  Locals seem to think this stretch of river is Class V and often dissuade packrafters from continuing downstream.

      House Rapid, canyon stretch below North Fork confluence. Late July, Photo: Jule Harle

      Lower Canyon: The rapids on the Lower Kashwitna are more technical and challenging than the upstream portions.  This section is fairly continuous for the next 5 miles, with class II+/III- between the larger rapids.  At lower flows, the more notable rapids are class III, however there are 3 drops that can approach class III+ and possibly IV- if the water is high.  All 3 of these rapids are short & sneak lines exist. 

      The first rapid of note occurs ½ mile downstream from the North Fork confluence; as the river makes a left bend.  Island Rapid (III) is named so because of an obvious island in the middle of the river; either side goes and is of similar challenge whether you choose right or left.

      Left Hand Turn (III+), occurs ½ mile downstream of Island Rapid.  The river makes an abrupt left turn; with most of the water pushing into the right wall.  There is a large rock as you enter the turn; depending on the level you can run either side of this rock, but paddle hard left avoiding the wall.  At higher flows, the left channel might open up; this side still has features to dodge, but is less intimidating.

      The final rapid of note, House (III+) is obvious.  When you see a large house on the right followed by a rocky, steep horizon line- you’ve arrived!  This rapid has numerous lines down.  Consider hiking back up on the river left boulders to run again if you have the time and energy!  If you choose to scout this one, please respect private property, avoid scouting on the right side..

      After House, there aren’t any more significant rapids, although the river continues to hold your attention for the next 2 miles with occasional class II/III features.  Expect to see riverside homesteads and cabins as the river returns to oxbows for the final 10 miles to the road.  Although the lower oxbows are class I, they move considerably faster than the upper ones; you’ll still have to paddle, but there’s more speed and less monotony as you float towards the road.  Know that when you see the power lines, you’re about halfway through this oxbow stretch, with just over a mile remaining when the railroad intersects with the river. 

       

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