Kuskulana Gorge

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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: IV (low water)
      Length: 9 miles
      Gauge: None
      Shuttle: 5 miles
      Put-in: Dry Creek, or further upstream for more class II paddling

      Takeout: Kuskulana trestle bridge, mile 17 McCarthy Rd 

      Character: There is nothing in Alaska quite like the Kuskulana Gorge.  For 8 miles, the river cuts a narrow and deep vertical canyon through Chitistone Limestone & Nicolai Greenstone.  The river is fed by the Kuskulana glacier, coming off the southwest face of the tallest of the Wrangell Mountains, Mt Blackburn at 16,390 ft.  Typical summer flows from snow and glacial melt are raging, un-runnable and likely lethal (in the words of Andrew Embick).  However, lower flows (early & late season) make for an incredibly scenic and truly epic whitewater adventure through this deep, constricted and completely committing gorge.

      This run is no joke- once you’re in the gorge, there are very few opportunities to exit.  There are several undercuts throughout the run; many of the rapids have multiple sieves.  Only a few of the rapids are portageable, although all are can be boat scouted if you catch micro eddies above the drops.  In the slot canyons, the gorge becomes incredibly narrow- a dangerous place for log jams; stay vigilant for wood.   If you aren’t a confident class IV paddler, you don’t have any business being in this gorge!

      Tim Johnson, author of Alaska Whitewater & insta/YouTube famous “Truck House Life” has paddled the gorge over a dozen times; he’s remarked that each time he goes down, the river has changed & he’s surprised by a new rapid every time.  Tim says “Each time feels like a first decent,”- as is the nature of the effects of frequent rockfall and giant boulders tumbling into the canyon from above.  He has some pretty sweet videos of this gorge on his YouTube channel among other ridiculously entertaining items.

      Water Level:  No gauge.  You have to check the river visually from mile 17 of the McCarthy Road & make an estimated guess.  Flow, the water color and time of year are tools you can use to predict water level.

      Summer flows (June-August) from glacial melt are silty gray and anywhere in the 1500-6000 cfs range…this is too high to run!  Ideal levels are found in either early-mid May (after breakup, but before peak snowmelt) or again at the end of the season in September-October.  Ideal levels are between 250-800 cfs.  Generally, if the water is running clear, it should be good to go.

      In October 2020, a group of 5 of us ran it.  The river was clear Friday when we departed Anchorage & headed to the bridge, (a local took a photo from the bridge and sent it to us) levels rose and water color changed to a translucent gray tone from the rain event the mountains received while we were sleeping that Friday night.  We were expecting a low volume run in the 250-350 cfs range, but were pleasantly surprised with a more full-on run in the 400-600 cfs range.  Check the weather before you go! -Jule

      Put-in directions: Once on McCarthy road, drive 13.7 miles before turning left onto Strelna road.  (keep your eyes peeled, it’s not marked very well).  This dirt road is suitable for most vehicles; although lower clearance cars may have a harder time at the end.  Keep driving past the cabins; after 2 miles you’ll reach a small stream crossing & a trail junction.  Park here and start hiking up the ATV trail to the right.  (OR if you’ve got a quality 4WD vehicle with high clearance, you might be able to entertain driving further down the trail- there aren’t many good parking spots though; better idea if you have a shuttle driver)

      Hike Description: 2-3 hours, 5 miles. The approach into the Kuskulana Gorge is pretty straightforward.  From the trailhead, take the trail heading left towards Nugget Creek.  After about 4.5 miles of ATV trail walking, Dry creek intersects the trail; this is the first significant drainage/water source of note.  Head down the left/uptrail side of the creek, and follow the path of least resistance.  You’ll walk through brush for the final ½ mile, but nothing too thick; best to stay out of the creek bed for an easy descent.  The final few hundred feet are the steepest before emerging out onto the gravel bar.

      Alternatively, you can continue hiking for another 3-4 miles and drop down to the river via Squaw Creek or Sheep creek if you’d like better views of Mt Blackburn and/or more class III warm up boating.  Heck, you could even hike the full 11 miles up to the public use Nugget Creek cabin and spend the night!  Start your trip from the glacial headwaters the following day for a “lots of bang for your buck” in regards to epic scenery.

      River Description: From the Dry Creek put in, you’ll warm up with 1.7 miles of straightforward class III until the river makes an obvious bend to the left where it begins to obviously wall in.  Probably a good idea to get out here, blow up boats and take care of any last minute needs before entering the canyon.  (There will still be opportunities to get out, blow up, drink water, etc in the gorge- but none as large/spacious as this area)

      The canyon eases into the “gorge” feeling for the first mile with more class III action.  At waypoint 61.52466, -143.98555, the canyon becomes considerably more constricted- here begins the first slot canyon!  After this entrance rapid, get ready for more to come!  If flows are low, (200-400 cfs) these rapids will feel like class III-IV with a pool drop character; however at medium levels, (400-800
      + cfs) the rapids are class IV, pushier and with less recovery time.  After ¾ mile, the first slot opens up; there’s a big eddy on the left (often with a healthy amount of wood in it).  You’ll notice a BIG landslide/scree field on the left as well (waypoint: 61.51876, -143.97456); if you did not like what was upstream- THIS IS YOUR EXIT POINT, get out here and hike 7 miles back to the road or 3 miles back to the put in. Further downstream the rapids are steeper, more continuous and considerably more technical than what was upstream- many are impossible to scout or portage.

      Soon after this eddy, the second slot gives way to more class IV whitewater action for the next ½ mile.   At lower flows, these rapids are again pool drop, but feel a lot faster with more water.  Most of the rapids in this slot are boulder garden style with several tight slots to thread.  The second slot opens up again with some class III reprieve until you get to a big landslide on the right.  This landslide marks the entrance to the third & final slot series, and what used to be the most difficult rapid on the river, “House of God.”  Depending on the level, you may have to run the entrance of the rapid- stay right & eddy out immediately afterwards on the large pile of rock debris.  Get out and scout here; stay alert for falling rocks!

      “House of God” was named so because there used to be an enormous undercut boulder in the center that most of the river flushed into  (“House of God” referred to where you’d be going if you missed the move and got flushed into the boulder).  That enormous boulder has since been washed away- a testament to how frequently the gorge rapids can change from natural events.  

      This rapid usually has a series of linked moves; the line is usually trending towards the right on your way down the rapid.  (you can portage this first part on the landslide).  After the landslide the river abruptly turns left and continues with the final tongues and sieves to negotiate through; depending on the level (or what rocks have recently fallen!) far left is usually the preferred line.  

      Below the House of God, the Kuskulana still has a handful of pool drop rapids and action for the next mile as you finish out the final slot canyon, although none are as difficult or continuous as anything upstream.  Once the gorge turns towards the right and begins trending in the direction of the road, the river remains class II for the final 3 miles, allowing plenty of opportunity to admire the awesome gorge you’re in.

      “House of God” Rapid, middle part. Can scout, portage, or set safety on the right. Photo: Jule Harle

      The best take out is just under ¼ mile from the road bridge on the right; look for a large rocky beach.  From here, it’s light bushwhacking a few hundred feet up to the road….but it’s steep, especially the last stretch!

      Low water, Jack Teague and Jule Harle, Photo: Tim Johnson

      Tim Johnson entering the left turn sieve after House of God, Photo: Jule Harle

       

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    Forums Alaska Rivers Wrangell-St. Elias Region Kuskulana Gorge