Lakina River

Forums Alaska Rivers Wrangell-St. Elias Region Lakina River

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    Jule Harle

      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.

      Difficulty: III
      Length: 18 miles
      Gauge: None
      Shuttle: 14 miles back to McCarthy
      Put-in: Hike in route or bush flight, I recommend Wrangell Mtn Air

      Takeout: Lakina Bridge on mile 46 of McCarthy Road.

      Character: The Lakina can be done as a fly in trip, but the hike in option offers ideal packraft symmetry with 2-3 days of beautiful travel through the Wrangell St Elias National Park.  However, the hike isn’t for the faint of heart and presents a variety of Alaskan terrain challenges: glacial crossings, moraine walking, steep side hilling, creek crossings & continuous route finding among others. 

      There’s many stories of packrafters getting in over their heads on the Lakina,  resulting in long swims & lost gear.  This seems to be partly because folks are merely “tagging on” the river segment in addition to  hiking a highly sought after alpine backpacking route.  The Lakina is a solid class III river with significant wood hazards & sections of continuous whitewater around sharp & blind bends- especially with higher flows.   Take necessary precautions.

      Water Level: The Lakina has no gauge, but you can get a visual reference at the bridge.  It commonly peaks from snowmelt early to mid June, but is also glacially fed, so it has sufficient water throughout summer. Usually has good water levels until mid August.  Once water loses its glacial hue/gray brown color and becomes more clear, difficulty significantly decreases, class III-.

      Hike Descriptions: (you can also hire a guide through Alaska Packraft School or Kennicott Wilderness Guides)

      Fly-in: If flying into the cabin strip on the island, look for the trail behind the cabin that leads east towards the river, less than ½ mile walk with a few shallow water crossings.

      From McCarthy “Land of Oz” Route: This route begins directly from Kennicott; use the Root Glacier trail to access the glacier.  To cross the Root; some parties utilize the lake trail in the Donohoe Basin, while others stay on the glacier the entire time.  Another option is to fly into the Fosse airstrip to forgo traversing the glacial ice & moraine.

      The glacier becomes impassible if you head directly towards Hidden Creek Lake; there are prominent cliffs and moraine that stop you as you attempt to get off the ice.  The exit is more manageable if you trend towards the debris fan near the Fosse airstrip; the airstrip is at 61.59203, -143.08806.  The glacier changes each season, so what works one year may not be doable the next; consider crampons or microspikes at least.

      From the debris fan/airstrip area, head south towards Hidden Lake.  Hidden Lake is responsible for the Jokulhaup event on the Kennicott River; the iceberg laden lake bursts and empties, causing a flash flood downstream.  After its annual draining, it turns into a graveyard of giant icebergs- worth exploring if you have the time.

      Look for the social trail on the north side of the lake; it will gain elevation and bring you into the Hidden Lake valley via some pretty steep sidehills.  Get used to this, as a lot of the route involves sidehilling up the valley with varying levels of exposure on steep terrain.  You’ll work your way down to cross Hidden Creek.  The Glacier Gulch confluence area has excellent camping opportunities.  The camping opportunities after here are limited until reaching the alpine lakes, referred to by locals as the “Land of Oz.” 

      Your route’s gradual climb up into this alpine wonderland will vary depending on what time of year you are hiking.  Throughout much of the summer, Hidden Creek has thick snow bridges in the streambed that make travel up the valley easier than the inevitable side hilling.  By late August/September those bridges are often melted or super thin, forcing you to hike in the creek or on the nearby steep slopes.

      Make time to camp or explore the alpine “Oz” area- impressive views and world-class subalpine scenery are sure to impress.  As you descend into the Lakina Valley, be sure to find the social trail.  It’s obvious if you’re looking for it, however this area often holds thick fog, making finding the route down more difficult; there’s a social trail heading down. The trail eventually gives way to some pretty real exposure as you descend; you’re in a good way if you end up in a narrow gulley on lookers left. Once you make your way down, head to the river!  Time to go boating after 2-3 days of hiking 20 miles.

      River Description: 3-5 hrs.  If you’re putting on near the glacier, you’ll encounter class III features for a mile or so, until the river gradually opens up and braids out.  From the airstrip put-in, you’ll warm up for 3.3 miles on class II braids as you take in final views of the Lakina Valley for about 30-40 minutes.

      Amy Christeson on the Lakina with low water in August. Photo: Tim Kelly

      It’s pretty obvious when the whitewater is about to begin; the river abruptly turns into a single channel after a left turn; with the gravel banks giving way to black spruce and thick brush.  This is often referred to as “the canyon,” however this term is incorrect, as it never truly walls in.  Instead, this section of the river has  constant sharp bends with long class III rapids; there is some recovery time after rapids, but don’t expect giant eddies.  Self-rescue skills are a must on this river, as attempting to swim to the shore can be dangerous in many sections, consider-ing the wood hazard.

      Aerial photo of Lakina “Canyon.”  Photo: Luke McKinney @mckinneymakesmedia

      The gradient and intensity pick up gradually; the rapids are typical “read and run” river features with large waves & holes.  For the experienced whitewater paddler, this river is fun & straight forward, although the glacial water may feel intimidating.  Large waves & holes are plenty and consistent throughout the run, but everything is avoidable with adequate boat control & the ability to read whitewater.  The most challenging stretches begin about a mile after the river initially channelizes.  The bends become sharper and the river feels more constricted.  The features do not become bigger than class III, however stay alert, as you can expect wood in the river- especially on the sides and near the larger boulders.  The tight bends and more chal-lenging class III rapids continue for the next 3 miles. 

      When you see a tan colored pixelated rock wall on the right , the river feels less intimidating as the valley opens up more & the bends aren’t as tight or blind.  Although the continuity of rapids tones down, the whitewater continues for another 3 miles until  the clear waters of Fohlin creek come in on the left.  The gradient continues to lessen as you go downstream, but stay alert, as the wood increases.  Expect the occasional class III feature and large wave or hole to keep your attention until the end of the run. The final 4 miles before the bridge have enough wood hazards to keep you awake, but are much less exciting and attention grabbing than upstream portions. 

      When you see a “pixilated” rock wall on the right, the canyon rapids are over. Photo: Jule Harle

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    Forums Alaska Rivers Wrangell-St. Elias Region Lakina River