Savage River

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  • #4927
    samhooper
    Participant

      Difficulty: IV (with one Class V rock sieve/mandatory portage)
      Length: 3 miles
      Gradient: 100 ft/mile
      Gauge: No gauge
      Shuttle: None, hike back to where you started

      Cutting through the same schist formation as Moody Creek, the Savage River shares a similar continuous, creeky character but kicks it up a notch. The handful of steeper drops on Moody Creek are a mainstay of the whitewater you can expect on the Savage. Rock sieve and undercut hazards raise the probability of a consequential swim, and there’s one mandatory portage (maybe it’s runnable by someone far more skilled than me?). Although the continuous nature and potential hazard increase the difficulty IMO, the majority of the creek is a series of Class III+ staircases/short drops that offer ample opportunity for read-and-run creativity, lots of boofing, and beautiful scenery in a non-committal canyon. All the major rapids are scoutable, but be prepared to catch some micro eddies. I recommend a smaller group size (2 works well) to not crowd the frequent but small eddies.

      Access: Take the free Savage River Shuttle out to the end of publicly accessible portion of the Denali Park Road. The shuttle schedule varies depending on the time of year, but mid-summer it usually runs every half hour or hour. You can drive your own car, but parking is extremely limited and you might waste your time getting out there only to have to turn around and take the shuttle anyway. Put in just below the Park Road bridge. Note that the NPS usually establishes a wildlife closure for Mew gull nesting during the first half of the summer, so you might have to walk a little further down on the maintained trail. Take out when the canyon opens up and walk back on river left. A social trail weaves between river level and 100-200 feet above it if you can find it, but if you stay reasonably close to the river, the brush is not too bad. Hike back to the maintained trail and follow it back to the Park Road.

      River Description: The gradient gradually picks up in the first mile as the terrain transitions from a wide glacially carved valley to a narrow canyon. You can warm up on a series of short wave trains, boulder gardens, and small drops before the Savage River Trail footbridge, shortly after which appears the first horizon line. There’s a decent eddy on the left just below the bridge to scout this Class III+ staircase. Below this, a succession of long bouldery rapids are punctuated by short sections of mellow gradient before a prominent bedrock ridge comes down to river level on the left, marking the mandatory portage (63.758142°, -149.288958°). Several eddies exist on the left and right to get out and scout; the portage is easier on the right (the left requires down-climbing some boulders), but finding a secure eddy to put back in is easier on the left at low water. I recommend getting out well ahead of time on the right to come up with a portage strategy that works best for you.

      Another continuous stretch of technical drops brings you to another potential portage around an undercut rock hanging over the river on the right ( 63.761007°, -149.290082°). Numerous eddies on the left offer scouting and portage options. A low water run will likely require a portage, whereas higher water offers more room to maneuver to the left through the rocky drop above the undercut rock.
      While you’re out of your boat for the scout/portage, you might as well walk a little further downstream to scout the last major drop of the run, just below the undercut rock. At higher water, a bouldery entrance rapid leads to two 3-4 ft drops in short succession, giving the rapid a twisting S-curve feel. At lower water, the two drops are much smaller with more space between them.
      Bottom of the last major rapid

      There are several more Class II-III rapids before the canyon peters out and the gradient relaxes again into an open river valley.

      Water Level: I’ve only paddled this twice, so I can’t say too much about typical water levels. Note that although this river has a glacial history and is silty almost all summer, there are no longer any glaciers at the headwaters. The river, therefore, does not respond much to warm weather after the typical snowmelt season in June. From my limited experience, if the water is translucent, it will likely be a pretty low water technical run. If it’s silty and opaque, expect higher water and more continuous rapids, but with more room to maneuver. The picture below shows the Savage River bridge on the Park Road at what I would consider to be the lowest recommended level (and the water level of the linked video).

      Savage River bridge showing low water level

      video link:

      #4934
      John Schauer
      Keymaster

        That looks like an ideal level for Savage. I was on the probable first descent in about 1990 with Jim Remington, Brad Dietrich, and Cris Bataille in three 13’ Perception Mirage kayaks and a Prijon T-Slalom. It was mid-May and much higher water and big snow banks.  Pretty tight in long old school boats, and it’s a pushy IV+ in high spring runoff.  We went out to Stampede Road. Ran Hines Creek to Riley the next day. Did another run in kayaks at lower water in about 2004. Most years it gets really bony for most of the summer unless it’s been rainy.

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