Nenana 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.

      Difficulty & Length: See Sections

      General Character: The Nenana is a fast, big & powerful glacial river.  It’s the most commonly commercially rafted run in Alaska, due to its proximity to the highway & Denali National Park.  Multiple put in & take out options exist with varying degrees of whitewater & river difficulty. Upstream of Carlo Creek is mostly class I with occasional class II features.  The Nenana is gauged, but the gauge was not in service early spring/fall season @ time of post. 

      Carlo Creek to Mckinley Village Section

      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: II/II+ (2 class III rapids)
      Length: 10 miles, 2-3 hrs
      Gauge: USGS Nenana River at Parks Hwy Gauge: https://waterdata.usgs.gov/monitoring-location/15518040/#parameterCode=00060&period=P7D&showMedian=true NWS Nenana River at Parks Hwy: https://waterdata.usgs.gov/monitoring-location/15518040/#parameterCode=00060&period=P7D&showMedian=true
      Shuttle: 8.5 miles

      River Description:  This section is referred to by locals as the “backyard run” & is a common afterwork run & training ground for newer packrafters. 

      You’ll warm up with 1.5 miles of slow class I until the splashy class II begins.  An excellent surf wave exists 4.1 miles into the run near waypoint 63.59679, -148.82741.  There are a few surf options and excellent eddy service on either side of the wave at most levels.

      The first class III rapid (approx 7 miles into the run), comes into play when you see a brown & tan rectangular rock wall on the right.  The rock wall is easy to identify from far upstream.  Locals refer to the next few hundred yards as both “Ovary Crusher” & “Elizabeth.”  The river gradually turns left with numerous hit or miss waves, rocks & holes.  You can thread either through or around all features- choosing to punch features, attempt to surf them, or avoid them entirely.

      Another mile goes by before a massive gray cutbank on the right; you’ll see the road in view up high shortly after.  Another splashy class III rapids exists slightly downstream of, similar in character to Elizabeth’s poor crushed ovaries.  In less than a mile you’ll float under the highway bridge; take out at Mckinley village on the beach on the right unless you’re continuing downstream. 

      Mckinley Village to Glitter Gulch Section

      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 (2 class III rapids)
      Length: 11.5 miles, 1.5-2 hrs
      Gauge: USGS Nenana Gauge
      Shuttle: 7 miles 

      Put in: McKinley Village.  From Cantwell, drive 25 minutes North on the Parks Highway.  Near mile 231, turn right onto Yanert Rd into McKinley Village before Highway crosses the river. 

      Takeout: Commercial raft put-in for Nenana Canyon. From put-in, continue North on Parks Highway for 7 miles.  As you arrive at the “Glitter Gulch” area/town epicenter, turn left into the rest & parking area shortly after the hwy bridge crosses the river.  

      River Description:  This stretch is a small step up from the upstream portion.  Class II lines exist, but hit or miss class III features are more common.  Isolated play holes are abundant & large waves generate on the outside of most bends.

      The most significant rapid is 4 miles from the bridge, a few hundred feet upstream of the Yanert confluence.  There are large waves here & possibly boulders to dodge; good lines exist in the center or on the right side.  Be sure to steer clear of the massive hole on the left; it has the potential to flip large rafts & is retentive at many water levels.

      The silty brown waters of the Yanert soon mix with the gray hue of the Nenana, contributing noticeably more volume.  The pace picks up shortly after Riley creek comes in on the left.  In “Fast & Cold,” Embick describes the sharp left bend soon after Riley Creek comes in as “Terror Corner.”  The river suddenly feels steeper & more powerful than the water upstream; there is a higher concentration of river features & obstacles as it sweeps around the bend. ( I agree it could be terrifying for beginning packrafters)

      After Terror Corner you’ll soon see the Jonesville bridge.  Numerous takeout options exist, but the easiest is perhaps the commercial rafting use area.  Look for the colored raft carpets on the right a few hundred yards after the bridge.  You can take out here, walk uphill to the public rest area/bathrooms.  Please mind the large raft groups & do not block this area with your vehicle.

      Glitter Gulch to Twin Rocks Section

      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 (2 III+ rapids)
      Length: 4-5 miles, 45 min-1hr
      Gauge: USGS Nenana Gauge
      Shuttle: 7 miles 

      Put in: Commercial raft put-in for Nenana Canyon OR Riley Creek day use area. (my preferred put in is at the Riley Creek Day use area- especially if you don’t want to deal with peak season rafting tourism chaos. Instead you’ll paddle 1/3 mile of class II-III boogie water on Riley until the confluence with Nenana.  This confluence is about ½ mile upstream of the commercial raft put in/rest area)

      Take out: The Twin Rocks pullout is unmarked, it’s a large gravel pullout between Grizzley & Fox Creeks, about 3.5 miles North from Glitter Gulch. 

      River Description: The river action continues to pick up and increase in difficulty when compared to previous upstream sections.  There are 3 named rapids in this section; these rapids are much more powerful and pushier than anything thus far on the Nenana.  Independent of the rapids, the river continues to have fast class III boogie water with large river features to power through or paddle away from. 

      The first named rapid occurs about 3 miles into the run.  The gradient steepens & waves & holes increase once you see the power lines overhead.  The sharp left bend immediately downstream is called Squirrel Corner.  The water is powerful and one must ferry hard left to avoid getting pushed into the rocks- expect some squirrely water and boily features as you near the large rock on the right. 

      Jule playing in Razorback Rapid 

      Another ½ mile of less exciting water gives you a moment of rest before Razor Back.  This rapid is easily seen from the road; it can be scouted beforehand or at water level by eddying out on the right- also a great spot to stage photos, you can walk down from the highway to water level.  For years this was the site for the Nenana Whitewater Festival’s rodeo event.  A landslide changed the rapid however, and the massive playhole is no longer there- but this rapid changes frequently so maybe it will come back & be even better one day:)  A calm lead-in soon turns to big crashing waves.  There is some recovery time in the event of a swim before the next rapid another ½ mile downstream, Iceworm.

      Iceworm (named from Iceworm gulch coming from the right) is a ¼ mile long stretch of massive breaking waves and holes.  At most flows the biggest and most meaty waves are on the left, although holes to power through or ferry around exist throughout the rapid.  Timid paddlers can sneak the meat and avoid the bigger features by hugging the right shore.  Iceworm can be scouted on either side.

      This section’s grand finale, Twin Rocks, is near the gravel pullout/takeout area & can be scouted beforehand OR at water level on the right when you see a rocky beach about ¾ mile downstream of Iceworm.  Two large holes fill the river; the left entry hole barely washes out while the lower one right of center can turn into a massive wave at higher water.  Lower flows can render the bottom right hole quite difficult to get out of and give an entertaining beat down for nearby spectators.  You can start center and work hard left to avoid the bottom hole, or take the right line, avoiding both features completely.  The second hole will likely provide an epic beatdown if you nail it; at many flows it can surf a packraft, endo a kayak and send someone through the washing machine a few times before releasing them.  You can take out above or below this Twin Rocks rapid, unless you’re continuing on to paddle the canyon downstream.

      Gerard popping bucket boat wheelies in the hole at Twin Rocks before having an “out of boat” experience

       

      Nenana River Canyon (from Twin Rocks to Healy power plant)

      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+/IV (III at lower flows)
      Length: 7.5 miles, 1-1.5 hr
      Shuttle: 11 miles (Twin Rocks to Healy Spur Rd takeout)

      Takeout: From the Twin Rocks put-in, drive North almost 8 miles before turning right onto Healy Spur Rd.  Continue 3 miles until the pullout area on the left, shortly before the bridge.

      Water Levels:  Most commonly packrafted flows are under 12 ft on the USGS Nenana gauge.  The canyon is a solid class IV run around 12 ft. Above 11 ft is still a big water run, with giant holes and massive waves to punch or avoid, however lines that avoid the major features exist.  The eddy lines are strong while the weird water, interesting seams and strong currents within the canyon are still powerful.  You don’t see many, if any, packrafters in the canyon during mid-summer higher water flows, although large rafts & kayaks go down this section daily.  At flows below 10.5 ft, the river is class III/III+ and loses some of its punch; however the gauge is usually discontinued/out of service by this time. 

      River Description: Both Iceworm & Twin Rocks rapid are good indicators of the character of the Nenana canyon…but then add strong eddylines & boiling “funny” water due to the constriction of the canyon walls.  This section feels very reminiscent of the Grand Canyon on the Colorado river- calm flat water lead-ins soon turn into big water features.  It’s possible to “sneak the meat” and avoid the larger features for those adept at reading high volume glacial water and with good boat control.

      Cody Deane shivering at beginning of Cable Car rapid, September, super duper low water

      Scouting Cable Car Rapid in August…BIG waves!!

      You’ll know you’re at the first rapid, Cable Car, when the Moody Bridge comes into view up high, about 1.5 miles downstream from Twin Rocks.  It’s worth scouting on the left side, especially if you’ve never seen it before- this can help you decide if you’d rather ride the massive wave train or sneak it on the left.  There’s a calm lead in before the giant 15-20 ft crashing waves.  When scouting, take note of the massive hole in the center of the river, about 100 ft downstream of the wave train.  Both right and left lines exist to avoid this feature.

      !!GUIDEBOOK AMENDMENT: Page 44 Photo caption “Low water levels in the Nenana Canyon  often have clearer water…and snow.  Cody Deane in Cable Car rapid, Gauge: 11.7 ft” (this gauge reading is INCORRECT, gauge was out of service at that time when photo was taken, more like 8ft)

      After Cable Car, the river has some class II+ boogie until nearing the Moody Bridge.  This is where you truly enter the canyon.  Leading into the bridge expect some larger waves and class III features, especially where the river turns left immediately after the bridge.  The larger waves & holes are on the right; easier lines exist on the left side, although be wary of strong boils & eddy lines.

      Once you see the railroad bridge, there’s a break in major rapids for about a mile.  Although the water is less difficult, the canyon is much more constricted- so mind your eddy lines!

      When you see a large black rock pinnacle on the right, followed by a sharp left turn, you’ll know you’re at the “Knife” also known as “Split Rock” rapid.  This rapid is easily avoided by skirting it on the left, however a split in the boulder is visible and at lower flows, a sporty “threading the needle” opportunity exists for the skilled/brave paddler.  (hot tip: it’s worth checking for wood, if you’re feeling sendy & that’s a line you’re hoping to try).  At lower flows you can run a line to the right of the split rock boulder, but expect a massive hole to be waiting for you- another line worth scouting before doing it.

      Boxcar, the last large rapid, is 1.5 miles downstream of Split Rock.  You can scout (and even portage) on the left side (albeit you’d be walking on large rocks- very doable, but not the easiest walking).  Boxcar is usually run on the left, although a right line also exists.  If starting left, be prepared to work your way back to center while minding large holes that litter the rapid.  At the end you’ll negotiate an awkward and squirrely wave train before the rapid is finished.  The right line can be easier at lower flows, but requires you to work hard as you hug the inside of the bend to avoid the larger holes.

      Gerard Ganey entering Boxcar Rapid

      After another ½ miles you’ll enter the narrows, also referred to as coffee grinder.  A very picturesque rocky pinch creates some turbulent, super squirrely boil features and eddylines that try to flip and upturn small boats.  From here, you’ll float the final 2 miles to the Healy Bridge.  Enjoy some grand finale waves and boil lines immediately before the bridge- be prepared to ferry to the left so you don’t miss the take out. 

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