Talkeetna River

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  • #3872
    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: IV
      Length: 53 miles
      Gauge: USGS Talkeetna River Gauge
      Shuttle: Fly in access from Talkeetna: Murder Lake or Buck Stewart airstrip (numerous backcountry route approaches exist)
      Put-in: Buck Stewart airstrip or Murder Lake

      Takeout: Talkeetna Boat Launch

      Character: The Talkeetna River is an iconic multi-day whitewater trip.  A classic wilderness glacial run that boasts big water rapids, unspoiled scenery & excellent camping opportunities.   It is commercially rafted, although it’s highly  unlikely you’ll see other boats on the river. 

      Water Level: Both the NWS & USGS have Talkeetna River gauges.  It runs steadily from mid May through September, with flows ranging from 3,000-20,000 cfs.  Ideal levels for packrafts are on the lower end, from 3,000-8000 cfs; often found in May or September.

      Under 3,000 cfs is still fun, but the difficulty reduces to class III+ or IV- in bigger rapids and III throughout the rest of the canyon.  At levels over 7,000 cfs, the water becomes gray & glacial; the whitewater becomes much bigger & pushier.  Some holes are massive & breaking waves can easily overturn a boat.  Swimming at these higher levels could prove to be long in some sections if one wasn’t quick with self-rescue.

      River Description: Fly on floats to Murder Lake OR on wheels to Buck Stewart airstrip.  If using Murder Lake, you must float Prairie Creek before getting on the Talkeetna- note that this low volume, clear water creek has a dense infestation of brown bears during salmon runs, mid July-August.  

      From the Buck Stewart airstrip, it’s about 12 miles of class II gravel bars before Prairie Creek.  The action picks up 4 miles downstream of Prairie with the first big wave train as the river makes an obvious right turn.  In another 3 miles the river makes another right hand turn with another series of warm-up rapids; wave trains and holes to maneuver around.  Right around this point, every bend seems like “this could be the canyon” especially if you’ve never been down before.  The canyon officially begins, however, at a river wide ledge hole, known as Entrance Exam (IV).  You’ll know you’re there when the river walls in on both sides and you aren’t able to see much downstream.  Get out and scout on the right.  There’s a well-used social trail with great views of both Entrance Exam & the rapid following, Toilet Bowl.

      Toilet Bowl as seen from scout. 4500 cfs

      Scouting Entrance Exam, the canyon’s first big move. 5500 cfs

      The easiest line on Entrance Exam depends entirely on the level; at higher flows you’ll want to avoid the center and right ledge as a huge hole develops; many large rafts have flipped here at higher flows.  Take the tongue on the left.  At lower flows, the hole loses its punch, becoming a V-wave, more options exist at these levels.

      After Entrance Exam, you’ll paddle briefly through a beautiful gorge; this is the only time you’ll be completely “walled in” and feel like you’re in a canyon you can’t get out of.  There’s plenty of time before Toilet Bowl (IV); you can get out on the right and scout this one at river level and even portage easily around it. The main move involves avoiding the giant rock in the center of the river at the end of the rapid; multiple lines exist on both right and left sides.  It’s possible to hike back up and do it again for a second flush.  

      Entrance Exam & Toilet Bowl are the biggest single rapids on the Talkeetna; however, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re the “easiest.”  Many packrafters have assumed that the challenging & technical whitewater is over after these two rapids- that is incorrect!  There are plenty of rapids, wave trains and giant holes to aggressively maneuver through and around downstream.

      Once you turn the corner after Toilet Bowl, the river calms down and stays mostly class II for about 3 miles before the action picks back up where the river turns left and canyons in again.  The whitewater feels pretty continuous, although there are still opportunities to eddy out and catch your breath.  About 1 mile into the action, the river turns sharply left- be sure to avoid the massive hole in the center and go left.  I’ve heard this referred to as “Double Trouble” or “Double Suck.”

      From here, there are opportunities and breaks in the rapid sections.  The rapids gradually taper off in intensity; it’s fairly obvious once you’re out of the canyon- you’ll literally see the walls open up, the “Exit Gates.”  After the Iron Creek confluence, you’ll encounter occasional class III features- mostly fun wave trains and a few squirrelly eddy lines, but primarily flat water as you paddle 35ish miles downstream to Talkeetna.  Expect this to take 3-4 hours, depending on the flow and how hard you paddle.



        Going to be hiking into the upper talkeetna and getting to the Prairie Creek area by  July 20. Trying to see if anyone is plotting a trip out there around that same time that wants to fly and meet us to run the canyon. We were gonna have a super cub come in with a re-ration, but could divert those funds to help out with your put in costs if you show up with a case of beer and want a crew to run the canyon with! Raft support would be so dope. We are a group of 3 that will have been out there for 10 days coming in from the Susitna basin.


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