Route: Skilak Lake to Homer
Dates: April 24, May 1, 2023
Hike: 20 miles
Ski: 58 miles
Packraft: 15 miles
HOW THE TRIP WAS BORN
Liz Sampey invited me to traverse the Harding Icefield with her & Jeff Creamer earlier that winter. I met Liz in 2017, she hired me to advance her river skills in preparation for a bike-raft expedition. We hit it off & connected immediately- 2 petite ladies passionate about wilderness exploration, both guiding & teaching in outdoor industries. We stayed in touch via social media, but hadn’t seen her since. Jeff introduced Liz to “Ski raft-annering,” trips that integrate both packrafting alpine skiing. Jeff has created a name for himself as an AlpackaRaft athlete while pioneering this seemingly opposing multi-sport. Innovative with not only mountain travel, but Jeff’s also a class V whitewater packrafter who’s involved in designing and manufacturing Alpacka boats.
I knew of Jeff, only as an instagram stalker- naturally I was stoked to join a trip with him & my friend. My friend Dylan Van Rozeboom joined us, making a party of 4.
The Harding has multiple route options. The trips begin in Seward, getting on the icefield via Exit Glacier & off on the Grewink Glacier- although many reports suggest exiting the Grewink is becoming more technical & less straightforward each year.
I was fortunate to have a buddy fly me around Kachemak Bay & scout exit options. I considered the Dinglestadt Glacier most ideal for us- looked straightforward & you could ski directly off the ice towards the Sheep River headwaters. The Sheep appeared mostly class II, with the exception of a ¼ mile canyon with sharp bends and what appeared to be class III features at low water (I’m assuming difficulty increases with higher summer flows). The Sheep Canyon had never been paddled; the idea of a bonus “first descent” was pretty appealing.
Uninspired by the 8 mile slog to Exit Glacier (the road is closed through mid May), we paddled 6 miles across Skilak Lake towards Cottonwood Creek- where a trail near the lodge heads to the alpine.
The alleged Cottonwood Creek Trail is a “trail” in the Alaskan sense; unmaintained & not always obvious. We crawled through spruce deadfall & devils club, cursing as skis on our packs were stuck & pulled by alders. Eventually we climbed high enough, moving through rotten spring snow & post hole conditions; skis came on, adding to the obstacle ballet. Things opened up around 2500 ft; we made camp shortly after.
DAY 2: Fog & clouds made finding the most practical route up towards Iceberg Lake less obvious; we took photos of our ideal approach the evening before, anticipating that this might happen. These (and utilizing Gaia slope angle shading)proved helpful in navigating the avy terrain with poor visibility)
DAY 3: A casual ski across Iceberg Lake before approaching the Skilak Glacier. A friend suggested getting on the glacier here, as there are less crevasses & terrain challenges.
“Approaching the Icefield via Iceberg Lake was straightforward)
Most cracks were exposed while a few larger ones had sinking snow bridges; all were obvious. We roped up regardless & meandered through the initial crevasse stretch. Once we got a feel for the area, we skied the remainder of the traverse unroped.
Putting the rope away meant getting the packrafts out! I had never used my packraft as a gear sled, but WOW, WAS IT AWESOME. Around 50-60% of my pack weight went into the boat tubes and a few light items in the cockpit. I rigged 2 attachment points on the boat & one on my Hyperlite- distributing the 60 lb burden was a real game changer. Initially I was hesitant about the durability of the packrafts in this application, but was impressed at how well they held up- gliding smoothly on the snow without signs of damage or abrasion. Dylan was especially ecstatic during a long lunch break, realizing that in addition to packing easily & tracking well, they were also great for afternoon naps. “Why don’t these replace normal sleds, why doesn’t everyone use these!? They aren’t that heavy and you can even sleep in them! Packrafts are awesome!” True…just a liiiittle bit more expensive than traditional sleds 😉
DAY 4: We woke with colder temps in the 10-15 degree range. Dylan commented, “Crazy how it’s gonna be 112 degrees in just a few hours.” Our initial icefield days had blue skies; the intensity of the sun reflecting on the snow (referred to as albedo), creating a claustrophobic heat that ‘s hard to describe. (CAMP LIZ PHOTO: “alpenglow on the icefield”)
We skied almost 20 miles before making camp where we got a weather update from a friend in “the outside world.” Within the next day, a storm was forecasted to deliver heavy winds & a foot of snow. Damn.
DAY 5: We started early, eager to get off the ice & avoid the storm & made the most of our shrinking weather window. Fog eventually rolled in, limiting visibility to just 40 feet ahead.
As weather worsened, we played it conservative, getting off the icefield sooner than our original plan, instead via the Chernoff Glacier towards the Fox River. We camped near the moraine, excited to switch to “paddle mode” the following day.
DAY 6: Flying over this area a few weeks prior steered me towards the Sheep River vs the Fox River. Getting to the Fox River involved walking around 2 steep gorges through brush and steep walls, while upper stretches of the river looked too low to paddle. Both observations proved to be correct; this was a much longer day than any of us anticipated.
We stayed on the left side of the gorge; we nailed the initial exit off the glacier and into the river bed. Some steep rock walking & skiing before getting into the brush. We post holed initially, but found that skinning through alders was much less arduous than sinking relentlessly. We walked along the open river bar before the gorges forced us to put our skis back on and noodle around through brush.
The 2nd gorge was the crux. The rock walls pushed us into a mountainside with limited options. We had spent hours traveling through what we thought would be straightforward; by this time a few of us were already frustrated and losing patience. Haha, Jeff refers to this as the classic “Mountain meltdown.” Where you lose your shit, get angry, cry, shout at the sky for all of the burdens it’s given you; where ya smoke a cigarette (even though you don’t smoke,) while you sit down and pout, etc. “WHY ME!?” 🙂 I won’t name names, but someone may have been on the verge of a mountain meltdown episode…. Haha. I call this phenomena the “Alaska Factor.” I’ve done this so many times: looked at terrain with a casual attitude, only to get served and overwhelmed by it soon after.
The obvious option was to hike up higher, traverse a wide snow gully, before a long, thick, brushy walk down to the river. Dylan, being more of a climber and less of a bushwhacker, was convinced to find a rappel route down. He searched and eventually found one, involving a muddy down climb & 30 ft icewall rappel. We packaged gear and lowered it down separately from people. This took over an hour, but was certainly faster when compared to climbing higher.
Once on the river, the team split up. Jeff and Liz opted to inflate boats & paddle. I argued there wasn’t enough water to render paddling practical, that hiking along it was more efficient than dragging our heavy boats down such a low volume run. Dylan and I walked; taking half the time as it took them to paddle. Noted, upper Fox is too low in May. We had a big ol’ driftwood fire that night and dried our gear out before bed.
DAY 7: Not wanting to repeat yesterday’s low water butt bashing event, we began carrying both our skis & boats downstream- you know, to build character. Dylan couldn’t get over the irony, having both skis & boats, but unable to use either- wa waaaaa. At least the walking along the gravel bars was pleasant and relatively easy.
Jeff and I concurred that we’d paddle eventually, our maps indicated several tributaries gradually adding more volume. Sections of the river had ample water, but were too braided and thin to consistently float a boat. We walked until the Fox channelized; then immediately blew up boats. Ready to finally packraft!
Traveling on the Fox’s class I-II current felt fast and effortless when compared to earlier segments of the trip. We floated over 8 miles in less than 2 hours. The most notable hazard was wood; precise boat control and steering were necessary to maneuver through a handful of spots, although the Fox has no significant rapids or whitewater features. Although making good time, we made an early camp, continuing downstream was tempting, but would have exposed us to much stronger winds as the river transitioned to tidal flats. The following day’s forecast looked more promising.
We paddled a few hours before transitioning back into hiking mode; the Fox braids out and gets incredibly thin as you near the ocean. Attempting to avoid a tidal muck boat dragging event, we guessed where our exit should be, choosing a gravel bar a few miles upstream of the braids. This is where I wish I had done more research or sought out some local knowledge. I was aware of an ATV trail leading towards the Russian Orthodox community (our takeout, where our ride was going to pick us up), but unsure of it’s exact whereabouts.
We got off the water and bee-lined it towards where we thought the trail would be, walking ½ mile through swampy moose bog, tussocks & downed trees before finding it. Booo. The worst part is that only a mile downstream, the trail traveled nicely alongside the river. Whoops! Who doesn’t like a good old character building swamp walk?
The final 6 miles of our journey were certainly not a highlight: flat ATV tracks oscillating between slippery tidal muck & boot sucking ocean bog. The last 2 miles were home to a small cow herd; they walked with us towards the village. When I asked Jeff if he’d ever herded cows on his previous ski rafting trips, he replied “This might be the only trip I ever do that ends with crabs, seals and herding cows.”
Ski rafting trips require a unique blend of skill sets and backcountry travel experience. The snow aspect includes backcountry skiing with a heavy pack, winter camping, avalanche awareness/terrain management or potential glacier travel skills, while rafting requires its own set of river experience and boating ability. Not to mention planning a route in consideration to various factors, ie: weather, snowpack and current or anticipated water levels.
Ideal conditions for ski rafting in southcentral Alaska are certainly fiddly and can be difficult to plan. As ski rafting in the far North is a spring/shoulder season sport, it’s a gamble getting decent snow conditions to align with ample water levels. We are told to “expect the unexpected” regarding weather & terrain in Alaska; I believe this has potential to deliver challenges especially for multi-sport endeavors where gear is getting pinched on all aspects of the trip to save weight.
Combining two sports that are seemingly dual by nature and by season: water & snow, winter & summer require a minimalist & lightweight mentality in gear selection.
Packing and preparing for this style of lightweight multi-sport adventuring isn’t a matter of simply purchasing lighter weight gear. Executing this style of trip involves time & experience: knowing what gear you can cut, what you can safely manage without, or what you can utilize for multiple applications. Creature comforts are usually the first things to go; knowing what you do and do not need to function optimally is pretty personal; you won’t find your answers in an outdoor blog. Safety gear is often reduced; again, this requires expert risk assessment of not only your team’s skills, but the environment you’re traveling through & it’s potential hazards.
In a nutshell, I’m incredibly impressed with adventurers who execute challenging ski rafting trips. The exhibition of such a diverse set of outdoor skills, experience, fitness level and careful planning required to make these happen is inspiring. You must really love this sh*t; challenging yourself in the mountains and then again on the water. I hope your passion for adventure motivates & inspires others to explore our world, get creative & think outside of their box.