McCarthy Creek “Up & Over” Upper Section

Forums Alaska Rivers Wrangell-St. Elias Region McCarthy Creek “Up & Over” Upper Section

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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+/IV- (IV canyon)
      Length: 16.5 miles to downtown McCarthy
      Gauge: None
      Shuttle: 5 miles (Kennicott to McCarthy) $5 shuttle rides from MXY
      Put-in: Rock Glacier

      Takeout: Downtown MXY, where bridge crosses creek

      Character: A Wrangell mountain classic, McCarthy Creek is small, filled with boulders & has continuous drop.  Home to Alaska’s first and only Packraft Festival, this creek became Alaska famous for its racing options & annual festivities in July whenever KWG host this event (at time of writing, last festival was pre-covid)  There’s two primary routes to access the creek, the “Up & Over,”  for the upper section and the “Z Rock” approach for those interested in only the middle or lower stretches of the creek.  Contact KWG if you’re ISO more info or hiring a local guide who’s just as fun as they are skilled.

      Water Level: McCarthy Creek has no gauge.  The easiest way to get water level info is to check in with Kennicott Wilderness Guides.  Most of the staff are paddlers; they guide and run safety courses on the creek regularly.- a friendly bunch who will happily share infor-mation.  The creek generally runs high in June through early July from snowmelt, but significant rain can give it a healthy boost too.  Peak snow melt makes the upper section a more commiting class IV- run.  Lower levels in the class III range are found in May and later again in August/September.

      You can also get a taste for what’s in store by checking out the gauge rock at the put in at the rock glacier.  If water easily goes around this rock, anticipate a lower class III run, if water almost or barely laps over it a medium level class III+ run, and a higher water class IV- run if water is completely covering the rock, creating a small hole.

      Hike Description: From downtown McCarthy, hop on board the shuttle for a 5 mile ride up the hill to the town of Kennicott.  Walk through the town of Kennicott towards the glacier access & Bonanza mine trailheads.  The first few miles of hiking are on an established ATV trail/old mining access road. Follow signs & stay on the Bonanza Mine trail; staying right at the trail junction with Jumbo Mine trail. After 2.8 miles, continue hiking towards the left near what locals call “the knoll,” a popular spot for picnics, day drinking & bachelor parties- You can easily bop up there to take photos.  After the knoll, keep your eyes open on the right for an easy to miss, less established ATV track, about ¼ mile from the knoll.

      This track heads down towards the historic Angle Station; these buildings are private property- please be respectful of the local landowner who has granted access.  Pass between the 2 towers, and keep your eyes open for animal & social trails through the brush, leading towards National Creek drainage.  Please keep in mind while you’re hiking in the area, that this is Kennicott’s source for drinking water, LNT bitches, don’t do dirty stuff! The drainage steepens considerably as you near the base of the pass.  Take the climber’s right gully for the final 500 ft ascent.  The gully is steep, but soft dirt & rock walking will take you up to National Pass.  It takes most people 2-3 hours to arrive at the pass from Kennicott.

      You’ll descend the pass through alpine; multiple options exist here, but you’ll eventually want to stay in the drainage on to the left of the rock glacier for easier walking, IMO.  Stay walking down the left side of the rock glacier to avoid steeper rocks and cliffs on the right side.  As you near the bottom of the rock glacier, remnants of a historic road cross the rock.  Keep left as you walk through the brush and down the final steep descent towards the put-in beach.  Many descent routes exist, but there’s a well traveled trail & a less steep route on the left.

      River Description:   From the put in, the rock glacier on the right constricts the creek to a narrow channel- a pretty unique way to start the run.  Within 0.4 miles, the creek makes a sharp left turn; locals refer to this as “The Tease” as many first timers mistake these class III+ boul-ders, tongues & waves to be the canyon.  Alas, you’re not quite there yet! 

      Immediately after The Tease, the creek turns right and drops again with a large protrud-ing boulder at the bottom.  You can take this rapid from right to left and you’ll be set up nicely to grab the eddy that is directly downstream on the left.  This is the best eddy to portage/scout the Narrows (IV).  If you miss it, there are other micro eddy opportuni-ties within the class III entrance moves, but be sure to get out before the canyon begins. 

      The Narrows consists of 3 class IV rapids; it is a committing run; be sure to take time to scout the canyon’s entirety (you can only see the first rapid from the portage trail, you have to scramble up high on the nearby bluff for better vantage points) as wood collects here often & avalanche debris is common early in the season.

      Follow a social trail on the left through the brush to scout or portage.  It’s a short scramble up the dirt slope to a worn-in trail over the hill before working back down towards the creek. (if scouting the Narrows, once on the hill/mid portage, head right to get a better canyon view)

      The canyon begins with Squeezebox (IV-) as the creek squeezes through a jumble of steep boulders where the canyon pinches together.  The chute ends in a boiling pool with an undercut roof on the right.  After a left turn, you’ll see the horizon line of Sweetheart Falls (IV).  At most levels this is best run starting right, then working left down the main tongue.  

      Moose’s Tooth (IV) comes soon after, pushing against the left wall before turning a sharper left with a 4 foot drop between rock walls.  It is often run just left of center with a boof off the large pourover.  Be aware that there is a large rocky debris chute on the right, just upstream of this rapid, feeding sharp rocks into the creek/creating unseen sieve potential that changes season to season.

      From the canyon end, or the typical por-tage put on, McCarthy Creek resumes its class III bouldery character.  You’ll soon see the clear waters of East Fork McCar-thy Creek confluence coming in from the left.  About 1.5 miles from this confluence, there’s a slight increase in gradient as the creek turns right into a short rock walled canyon & a class III entry rapid called Up-per Tunnel.  Keep your eyes on the right and you’ll see a historic tunnel in the rock walls.  The section after the Upper Tunnel canyon includes some fun class III boulder gardens until the confluence of Nicolai Creek, on the left.

      After Nicolai, you’ll paddle just over one mile before the character of the creek changes & rapids become more demanding.  The creek makes a sharp right turn at the head of a steep island; there are right and left channels, however the left channel usually has more water and less wood…and is slightly less messy.  This rapid is Big Rock (III+), and is susceptible to changing annually or after rain events as the river bed is steep & rocky here.  Big Rock is notorious for being chunky and manky- the line can feel technical, thin & messy as you squeeze through the mess of giant boulders.  Stay alert for wood. 

      After Big Rock, the gradient is steeper while continuity of the rapids increases for the next 1.5 miles.  This section calms down after one of the most technical and continuous single rapids, Lower Tunnel.  This rapid begins with a gradual bend to the left & a noticeably calm water at the top, especially on the right.  Numerous lines exist at the beginning, all with their unique style of chunkiness; the water channelizes near the second half and is often run on the right side.  Locals consider the Lower Tunnel drops some of the best on the creek.  If you look to the left at the bottom of the rapids, you’ll see why this is called Lower Tunnel Rapid. From here, you’ll continue with the typical McCarthy Creek class III boogie with the next notable feature being “Z-Rock” with Nizina Stimulator (III) directly above it, a sharp left- right 180 degree turn that is incredibly boily with spinning eddies & converging currents- reminiscent of the initial rapid when exiting the Nizina Lake into Nizina River.

      Z-Rock is named so because of the black wall on the left with a white “Z” markings. Downstream lies the cobble bar on the left; a common put on for the middle & lower sections.  See McCarthy Creek: “Z Rock” Middle & Lower for river description.

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    Forums Alaska Rivers Wrangell-St. Elias Region McCarthy Creek “Up & Over” Upper Section