Tonsina River

Forums Alaska Rivers Glennallen-Valdez Region Tonsina River

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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/III+
      Length: 26 miles
      Gauge: NWS Tonsina River gauge:
      Shuttle: 23 miles
      Put-in: Richardson Hwy bridge, after Squirrel Creek Campground, Mile 79

      Takeout: Mile 19.3 Edgerton Hwy bridge, Mile 19.3 (see hike put-in or takeout option below)

      Character: The Tonsina delivers fun & exciting class III+ whitewater with distant views of the Wrangell Mountains.  The actual rapids section is only 5 miles, possibly leaving the whitewater enthusiast underwhelmed or craving more action by the day’s end, as there is a long class II section from there to the take out bridge.

      However, the Tonsina River Trail offers opportunities to hike in or out after the rapids.  You can turn this into a proper packraft trip: those seeking to paddle the whitewater section can hike out of the valley, while class II paddlers might be interested in the opposite: hiking down to put-in below the rapids.

      Water Level: Refer to Tonsina River Gauge.  The river peaks in mid June-early July from both glacial & snowmelt, but can spike again with substantial rain.  The river is class III- when below 8 ft, class III near 9 ft, and class III+ when over 9 ft.  Early and late seasons are commonly 7-8.5 ft;  the Tonsina peaks in mid-June with levels ranging from 9.5-11 ft.

      Hike Put-in or Takeout Option: One can also hike out via the Tonsina River Trail.  This shortens the river portion by 9 miles, but still includes the rapids.  The trailhead is at mile 12.3 on the Edgerton Highway.  The trail is marked at the parking area, but not at the river.  Hiking in to paddle the Tonsina via the trail is also possible,for those not interested in the technical rapids upstream, but seeking to meet up with a group or for a shorter class II run.

      The Tonsina River Trail is 1.5 miles and takes 30-45 minutes.  If using it as a take out, it’s highly recommended to either use the waypoint: 61.67619, -144.84920, or hike the trail to scout out the exit beforehand- it’s easy to miss as you cannot see the trail from river level.  You’ll bash through some brush briefly as you make your way up the steep social trail that ascends the ridge before joining with the more well-established trail.

      River Description: 4-6 hrs.  From the put-in, you’ll warm up with 3.25 miles of class II.  The rapids begin with an “S” bend; there’s a sharp right turn with a cabin sized boulder near the right bank, followed by an immediate left turn.

      The next 6 miles of the Tonsina have a big water feel- Tonsina allegedly means “Big Water” in Athabaskan; large waves & giant holes salt & pepper each rapid.  The lines will feel fairly straightforward for those comfortable in class III/IV higher volume rivers, as major features are avoidable, but only for those who can paddle aggressively and make moves early to avoid downstream obstacles.  The run, especially at flows higher than 9 ft, will likely intimidate a newer class III paddler.  It’s possible to scout on the banks, however, as the rapids are lengthy, it may take some time to get the views you’re hoping to get.

      The most technical/often largest river feature occurs 1.5 miles into the rapids section; immediately downstream of massive logjam (as of 2021) on river right.  Locals refer to this rapid as Twilight (III+).  A large center hole is followed by a giant ledge pour-over on the right; you can go either right or left of the initial entry hole.  If going right, be sure to ferry left, towards the center immediately after to avoid the pour-over on the right.  This feature is scoutable on either side.

      After Twilight, the excitement continues downstream in a similar fashion, but consider that move the crescendo. 

      If it’s your first time down recently, of the season, or ever, it’s ALWAYS worth staying extra cautious & alert for wood.  In 2021, there was a kayaker fatality due to a hidden log in the river.  The wood was not visible at water level from upstream, resulting in an unforeseen boat pin, swim & drowning.  The banks of the Tonsina are heavily wooded & have large rocks throughout the river channel, creating the potential to house “secret” logs and pieces of wood- a dangerous recipe for small boats.  This hazard changes not only from year to year, but also within each season.  Whereas the rapids stay within the class III/III+ range, the wood potential is present and demands caution.

      Although the rapids subside 9 miles into the run, the river stays splashy and keeps you alert with the occasional class III feature.  It’s possible to hike out via the Tonsina River Trail at mile 17.

      In the final 4-5 miles, the river braids out and has multiple channels; in 2021 most channels were open, but logjams were plentiful throughout.  This last stretch can really drag on & feel long, especially if you’re gifted with an upstream wind from the Copper River Delta.  Oh hooray!  Takeout at the pullout on the left, upstream of the bridge.

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    Forums Alaska Rivers Glennallen-Valdez Region Tonsina River