Nizina River

Forums Alaska Rivers Wrangell-St. Elias Region Nizina 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.

      QUICK RIVER STATS:
      Difficulty: II-III-
      Length: Varies, up to 41 miles
      Gauge: None
      Shuttle: Hike-in routes exist or bush flight
      Put-ins: Numerous- Nizina Lake Airstrip, end of Nizina Rd, Kennicott River

      Takeout: Numerous- Nizina Bridge (hike out), Kennicott confluence (hike out), Chitina confluence airstrip, town of Chitina

      Character: This high volume glacial run drains from an iceberg filled lake on the Eastern side of the Nizina glacier.  This massive chunk of ice is formed at the junction of the Regal and Rohn glaciers; it’s nearly 2 miles wide at the lake! Yowza. 

      There are various put-in and takeout options for this run.  Flying in, hiking in and even paddling to the Nizina from the Kennicott River are possibilities.  This river is often accessed and used as a part of longer backcountry travers-es & wilderness routes.  “Choose your own adventure” really rings true here, whether you’re looking for a lovely day trip in the Wrangells, or seeking to float its entirety to Chitina- perhaps even Cordova, for an iconic “source to sea” expedition adding the Chitina & Copper Rivers.

      Water Level: The Nizina has no gauge.  It will have enough water from mid May through Septem-ber.  Higher flows will be found in June and July; this can make the canyon stretches feel pushier with bigger features, but stays within the class III range.  With lower flows found in the early and late seasons, the braided stretches may be too low, requiring one to get out of their boat frequently.

      Put-in & Hike Descriptions: Step #1- Drive to McCarthy.  You can put-in directly above or below the footbridge on the Kennicott River or put-in at the lake to paddle into the Nizina; this puts you a few miles upstream of the Lower canyon.  This option is the most economical and requires no hike; it’s the most common way paddlers access lower stretches of the Nizina. 

      You can fly from McCarthy to Nizina Lake.  This is obviously a higher price point, but allows you to explore the iceberg and glacial Nizina Lake scene and floats through the magnificent Mile High Cliffs.  If landing on wheels, it’s a short walk to the lake or river from the airstrip.  You can also hike in via the Nizina Road; this begins downtown, where the bridge crosses McCarthy Creek. The straightforward approach misses the upper stretch through the Mile High Cliffs and Nizina Lake, but offers access to both canyons.

      This is definitely not an award winning hike- as it’s actually a locals access ATV road that’s notorious for bugs in the summer…but a creative & human powered way to paddle the Upper and Lower Nizina canyons & check out a historic bridge to nowhere.  From downtown McCarthy, you’ll hike 9 miles of ATV trail until meeting the Nizina River.  Please respect private property and the people who live in this community.  

      River Descriptions: 

      Nizina Lake to Trestle Bridge: 20 miles, 5-8 hours. Navigating the lake exit changes from year to year, sometimes icebergs will block the mouth of the river, requiring paddlers to hike up and around- hiking is better on the right side, but this can easily be scouted out beforehand.

      The initial river bend immediately after the lake can be boily and squirrely with higher flows.  After this bend, the Nizina has 1/4 mile of continuous big and splashy water; class III- during higher flows and II+ otherwise.  The action soon wavers off and main-tains a class II character

      The next 20 miles offer arguably some of the best scenery on the river.  You’ll float among numerous multi-stepped waterfalls and limestone cliffs over 4,000 ft tall.  Once past the West Fork Nizina (coming in from the right); take some time to explore or photograph the “Mile High” cliffs; the spectacular rock walls have multi-colored bands that would entertain any geologist. 

      While the initial few miles is a single channel, the river widens and soon gives way to braids.  Describing braided rivers is pretty asinine, as each braid is potentially a dif-ferent river- often with different characters, features & hazards.  The Nizina braids are often similar but at times incredibly different than its sisters.  However you slice it,  try to find the highest volume channel until the Upper Canyon.

      The river makes a 90 degree turn to the right (west), as the gravel floodplain of Dan Creek comes into view from the left (east).  This area has been prospected since the early 1900’s, yielding copper, gold and silver -there are still active claims today. A landing strip and several cabins remain; the airstrip is not public use, and much of the area is still privately owned.

      The river continues to really braid and thin out in this area; if you find yourself far right near Sawmill Gulch, you’ll encounter fun class III- waves, holes & eddy lines that offer opportunities for fun & varied lines/routes down- a welcome break from the braided calm.  

      Soon after floating by Sawmill Gulch and the Sourdough Mountain’s rock glacier, you’ll pass by the remains of the red trestle bridge.  A mining road once led from McCarthy toward May Creek.  The Nizina Road comes down to the river, about 1/4 upstream of the bridge remains on the right.  If you were trying to get out here and hike the 9 ATV road miles back to McCarthy, make sure to take out before the water pushes into the rock walls.  Waypoint: 61.36875, -142.77563.

      Trestle Bridge to Kennicott Confluence (Upper canyon): 10 miles, 2-4 hours. Downstream of the bridge, the river gradually narrows and speeds up as Canyon rock walls come into view.  The Upper canyon never truly “walls in” but more or less turns into a single channel with bigger & more defined waves & holes that one can either paddle or completely avoid altogether.  It’s obvious where the canyon begins, as the river makes a sharp right turn & rock walls become evident.  The biggest features are about ½ mile downstream of Fivemile Gulch, but it’s still “hit or miss” whitewater features.  At times, the river pushes against walls, creating “funny water” like boil lines or colliding currents, but all are manageable for small boats. There’s more class III- features when the Kennicott comes in on the right, as the canyon opens up.  If you’re taking out here to hike back up to McCarthy, it’s easiest to get out before it meets with the Nizina- this confluence comes up quickly, immediately after leaving the canyon- so keep your eyes peeled!  The area immediately downstream of the Kennicott/Nizina confluence looks like a fabulous takeout and even has a road, however it is private property.

      Kennicott to Chitina Confluence (Lower Canyon): 11 miles, 2-3 hours. The Kennicott noticeably increases river volume, as it’s about 1/4 the size of the Nizina.  From here, it’s about 8 miles until the Lower Canyon.  This stretch of the Nizina can be class III-, as there are some massive, boat munching holes and large wave trains that could flip an unaware packrafter…some features could even overturn a large raft if they were to hap upon them sideways.  All the major waves and holes are completely avoidable for those who can read glacial water.

      The Lower Canyon has a significantly different character than the Upper.  Not only is there more water, the bends are sharper, more narrow and walls higher- 350-500 ft in some places!.  The Lower Canyon is defined by its “weird water,” squirrely bends and boily features; these become more challenging for smaller crafts like packrafts at higher flows.  However it’s difficulty remains class III-/III.  It’s super pretty, but I don’t describe the lower Nizina canyon as “fun” whitewater.  Still worth doing if you’ve never done it though, IMO. There are excellent camping spots within the canyon as well as immediately afterwards at the Chitina confluence.

      The 3 mile canyon section begins when the walls become more narrow and turn right.  This initial  “S” bend is telling of what’s downstream.  The rapids are more/less water pushing into the outside walls; paddling far away from the squirrely madness may seem appealing, until you get turned around by the boil lines that lie on the inside of bends.  

      At higher flows, the third left turn is often the most challenging.  This is referred to by locals as “Tree Turn,” as a massive log lived in the whirlpool eddy upstream of the sharp bend.   At medium and lower flows, this turn isn’t really worthy of being mentioned, but higher flows render the water extra boily as you come around the bend.  Getting stuck in the whirlpool eddy upstream on the right is quite possible (especially for large passenger rafts) and would probably be frightening for a beginner boater.  This bend can be scouted or portaged on the left along the gravel bar.  Shortly after this bend, the walls open up and Chitina valley comes into view.  If flying out at the confluence, ferry over to the right side once the canyon opens, as the airstrip is immediately upstream of the spruce tree and rocky outcropping where it looks like an REI catalog might have a photo shoot. 

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    Forums Alaska Rivers Wrangell-St. Elias Region Nizina River