Placer River (August 31, 2021)

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    Jule Harle

      Willow Gauge: 930 cfs

      Rating: Class II+

      Character: Placer River is a must do for packrafters who are confident & comfortable on class II- or any paddler who enjoys soaking up epic glacial & mountain views of the Chugach. It’s accessible by the Alaska Railroad’s whistle stop train service, making this remote area & unique run accessible. It’s worth taking more time than you need if you’ve never been out to the Spencer Glacier- there’s plenty of camping, hiking & lake paddling opportunities around the area.

      Length: 12.5 miles, 2.5-4 hours

      Shuttle: 2.5 miles, bikeable, walkable

      Take Out: From Girdwood, drive 12 miles south on the Seward Highway. There are two bridges where the highway crosses the Placer, The first one is a lower volume slough, not the actual takeout. The second bridge is where the float finishes. Both have ample parking and are ¼ mile apart from each other.

      Put in: From Girdwood, head south on Alyeska highway for 9.8 miles. Look for the brown railroad depot building on the left side of the road, between mile markers 81-80. This is where the train picks up & drops off whistle stop passengers.
      To book a ticket, go to You’ll want to purchase a one way ticket in the adventure class for the “Glacier Discovery” train, with a pickup at “Portage 2nd Stop” & drop off at “Spencer Whistle Stop.” Schedules & fares can be found online; note that the train usually runs June-September and exact dates & times vary year by year. It’s possible for non-paddling friends to book a round trip ticket if they are interested in hiking or camping, but not paddling the Placer back to the road. In 2021 a one way ticket was $50.
      From the Portage 2nd Stop pick up point, it’s about a 30 minute train ride to Spencer Glacier; expect a brief stop near Luebner Lake on the way (passengers wait in the train while commercial raft company picks up rafts for their day tour)

      Hike Description: Once you get off the train, head to the right and follow trail signs for “Spencer Glacier.” It’s a flat 1.3 mile walk on a wheelchair accessible trail to the lake. You can scout the rapid sections that are above & below the bridge, from the bridge lookout or by walking onto the bridge itself; this might add ½ mile or so more walking.

      River Description:
      It’s worth taking time to paddle & explore around the lake- it would be a shame to leave the epic scenery and rush downstream. (note: the floating icebergs DO flip & move suddenly, give them ample space. DO NOT paddle close to the actual glacier, as they actively calve- giant chunks of ice fall frequently. This is dangerous in & of itself, but can also result in large waves after the calving event. Respect the ice & give it a wide berth)
      Once you’re ready to leave the lake, paddle east (lookers right) towards mouth of the river. The most exciting part of the run begins shortly after leaving the lake. At lower & medium flows, the ¼ mile stretches above and below the two bridges are class II, however with higher flows (mid June-mid July) it is faster & pushier; class II+ with a few avoidable class III features.
      Immediately below the 2nd railway bridge, lies the river’s biggest hazard. The river makes a sharp right bend with an island of railway debris on the center island. At higher flows the gravel bar island is submerged, but sharp metal pieces & leftover wood bits from the railroad are still obvious. It isn’t terribly hard or difficult to avoid these, however one must paddle aggressively or set up early to ensure a safe line.
      Expect about 2 more miles of class II paddling, with splashy waves around the bends. After 2 miles, the river then braids out and the challenge lies in picking the channel with the most water as you paddle away from root wads & wood hazards. The braids continue for 20-30 minutes, before the Placer turns into a single channel. You’ll soon see the railroad tracks on the right, and the trainstop where the commercial raft trips end and store their boats. From here, the class II gives way to class I for the final 7 miles. Anticipate actively paddling during this stretch, as the river feels more like a “moving lake” than an actual river- especially if the upstream winds pick up as you near the turnagain arm.
      You’ll know you’re almost to the road when you begin to see power lines. You can takeout on either side, but the left side is easiest and accesses the parking lot. If you didn’t stash a bike, it’s about a 45 minute walk along the highway back to the railway depot.

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