36.6-mile attempt to run the Kashwitna River, in the Talkeetna Mountains
Some trip reports are inspiring. Some are informative. Others are warnings.
On the last day of June, 2018, Brett Woelber, Dre Benitez and I set out to float the Kashwitna River via the MCA’s Holden Hut site in the Talkeetna Mountains. Construction of the Holden Hut was planned from June 26 to July 8, and once completed, the new hut would encourage visitors to explore the craggy glacier-studded wilderness north of Montana Peak. One obvious route from the new Holden Hut would be to drop north onto the Kashwitna and float the river back to the road system. The middle and lower Kashwitna has been tackled by packrafters before, and the river is generally written up as a swift, splashy Class I with a couple short sections of easily-portaged rapids. We couldn’t find a record of anyone attempting the upper Kashwitna, but the river’s braided morphology and volume didn’t look too different from the lower sections, and we chalked the lack of boaters up to access.
We were wrong.
Day 1: Meatsticks in Paradise
After picking up Dre and leaving a car at the Susitna Landing, we drove the Hatcher Pass Road past caravans of Jeeps and RVs towing four-wheelers. The pre-Independence Day weekend forecast called for blazing temps and sun, and southcentral’s gas-powered partiers were already out in force.
We parked at the Reed Lakes lot, sorted out the last of our gear, and then headed upvalley.
Brett and I have been on the Bomber Traverse route many times, and the climb up Glacier Creek toward Snowbird Glacier is nearly as familiar for us as Flattop is for casual Anchorage hikers. Still, we were surprised at the sheer volume of snow lingering in Glacier Creek nearly two weeks after summer solstice. Just over the first step up toward the pass, we had to pull on our snowshoes.
We crested 5120-foot Snowbird Pass (aka Glacier Pass) and slip-walked down onto Snowbird Glacier.
The walking on the glacier was excellent. We probably didn’t need the snowshoes, but I was still happy to have them. If the snow on the glaciers rots, they can become all but uncrossable. It once took me three hours to make it from Snowbird Pass to the hut with a group, postholing to our waists the entire way.
We tried to stay on the highest parts of the glacier and avoided low spots, which could signify moulins or other surface features. The Bomber Traverse glaciers arguably aren’t even glaciers, but rather “glacial remnants” because they are too small to flow downhill. Nevertheless, the features on these pseudo-glaciers–especially the moulins–still demand respect.
We passed the Snowbird Hut cutoff and tromped around the edge of the deep blue, unnamed lake forming at the toe of Snowbird Glacier.
There are a near-infinite number of ways to zig-zag down the granite rollovers, tundra benches and trickling waterfalls between Snowbird Lake and Bartholf Creek, and every time I come through this section I do so a little differently. As we neared the brush line, Brett stopped on a tundra knoll to wait for Dre and I. Instead of catching up with him though we just plopped down on tundra benches ourselves, silently soaking up the sun, smelling the sweet funky tundra and gazing down the elegant U-shaped Bartholf Creek drainage.
After chomping down caribou meat sticks we rock-hopped across Bartholf Creek, swatted through the light brush between Bartholf and Bomber Creeks, and trudged up the moraine toward the Bomber Hut. By now our heavy packs, sturdy mileage and full day in the heat were starting to tire us out. Just as our pace began to drag we crested the last rise in the moraine and the silver Bomber Hut came into view, perched cheerily as always above a glassy tarn.
At the hut we met Matt Nedom and Tom Smayda, stopping over on their way back from a couple days at the Holden Hut site. They offered us advice on the route, and as always the conversation drifted into other backcountry travels, gear, and various tales of old. A plastic bottle of cheap whiskey was produced and passed around as the Talkeetnas slipped into silvery midnight dusk.
Day 2: It’s A Beautiful Day in the Drebourhood
July kicked off with a glorious start. We said our farewells to Matt and Tom, hoisted our packs and set off into the boulder-strewn badlands of upper Bomber Creek. There is some debate about the best route from the Bomber Hut to Nelteni Pass; most people stick to the base of the valley, but after a day trip last year through the area I’m convinced the better route is somewhat higher, between a set of cliff bands and the steep south face of Nelteni. The route is more direct, has better views, and has vastly better footing than the unstable valley floor–though it does require some routefinding to avoid exposure. After bumbling along the valley floor we cut up to this higher route.
As we moved around onto the eastern side of Nelteni, we found ourselves back in snow and out came the showshoes.
This was my first time backpacking with Dre, and it was good to see that he was not only totally comfortable with the alpine terrain but also seemed capable of outpacing us. He blazed up the steep snowfield toward Ozone Pass, while Brett and I huffed and puffed in his kicked-in footsteps. In fairness, the weather seemed more typical of Dre’s birthplace in Colombia than the Alaska that Brett and I grew up in.
From the pass between Nelteni and Ozone, the MCA’s route zig-zagged through a cluster of tightly-spaced glaciers, steep faces, and passes before dropping down to the Holden Hut site north of Montana Peak. First, we crossed a rotten snowfield over a small glacier clinging to Ozone’s northern face, spacing out to mitigate any possible (if unlikely) avalanche danger.
After threading a small rocky pass we dropped down onto a gorgeous tongue of snow-covered glacier between Ozone and Mt. Besh.
It’s always exciting discovering a new drainage in the Talkeetnas, especially one as big and dramatic as the glacier-filled northern bowls of Montana Peak. We scrambled down a steep, rocky moraine to the valley floor and then pulled on snowshoes to cross the slushy base of the valley.
At last the hut came into view, its white weather wrap shining like a beacon against the dark blues, greens, and blacks of the Talkeetnas.
At the hut, the large crew was busy moving the last of the heavy insulated roof panels into place. We’d brought work gloves and safety glasses, as per the MCA’s instructions, but it was clear that there was already no shortage of helping hands or hungry mouths. We made camp, fired up our stove to make dinner and chatted with anyone who drifted by. Eventually the building crew wrapped the hut in plastic sheets for the night and turned to dinner in the large group dome tent.
Helicopter-delivered Broken Tooth beer and conversation flowed inside the tent. Cory discussed mapping in the Talkeetnas, and Dave Staeheli explained how he’d helped choose the Holden Hut location. Tom “The Goat” Choate treated us to a theatrical reading of Robert Service’s “The Ballad of Blasphemous Bill.” Anastasia, the youngest person in the hut crew, confided that she’d been angry when she saw us approaching camp because she thought we’d take all the food.
Day 3: The Bad Kash
We slept in and didn’t regret it.
As we ate breakfast Tom Choate ambled by for more mountain chat. Tom is a living encyclopedia of Alaska alpine lore and history–a history in which, by any account, he is a cheery recurring character. One could never guess from his patient gait and age of 83 that only five years ago he’d climbed Denali–becoming the oldest person to ever do so. He is also an inexhaustible font of puns. Call him a legend to his face and he’d likely reply “to which map?”
As we packed up, construction on the Holden Hut was back in full swing. The last roof panels had just been affixed and volunteers were starting on the forest green metal siding.
As we packed up and said our goodbyes, someone called after us “be careful down there!” I said we would.
We left the noise and bustle of hut building behind us as we descended a beautiful, steep moraine toward the Kashwitna.
A few hundred feet above the river we collided with brushline. We scrambled down fern-filled ravines, hopped a couple alder-choked creeks, and poked our way across moss-covered boulder fields.
At last dropped our packs on the flood-smoothed rocks of the Kashwitna riverbed.
For at least a few bends in the river upstream from us, the Kashwitna looked like a fun, fast-moving continuous Class II. But directly below us it roared into a tight canyon, boiling over huge boulders and churning in the kind of powerful holes that haunt the dreams of whitewater kayakers. We knew from looking at satellite imagery beforehand that this part of the river was rocky and probably unrunnable, but it was humbling to see just how utterly unrunnable it really was.
We decided to bushwhack along the near side of the river until it braided out again about two miles downriver. Nobody really enjoys bushwhacking, but it must be said that ‘shwacking the Talkeetnas at brush line can be uniquely maddening. The summer weather here is both wet and relatively warm, allowing thick brush and water-loving Devils Club to flourish. Worse still, much of this brushy forest apparently grew over old boulder fields and we frequently found our feet plunging straight through the forest floor and into cool musty voids.
The views we had of the river weren’t promising.
Even the braided sections below the canyon were running high, fast and spooky in both channels, with plenty of big waves we could see and probably more we couldn’t. With our hopes of floating today quickly deflating we cut away from the riverbank in search of better footing, and bashed through a giant garden of Devil’s Club thriving in a series of wet, slippery ravines. Some profanity ensued.
Finally we met the river again and burst out of the undergrowth onto a gravel bar. The sudden sense of openness and light breeze were an immense relief. We could see the sunset-lit mountains and stretch our legs with full strides. Best of all the river looked splashy but downright runnable.
We set up camp on the gravel bar, right next to the bank in case the water came up at night.
Do I need to include this in the trip report? Fine: while we were thrashing in the brush the safety on my bear spray came off and disappeared, and when I set my pack down the spray discharged for a fraction of a second on my lower leg. I peeled my long underwear and socks off and washed my legs and hands thoroughly in the river, but somehow the spray remained and bedeviled me for the rest of the trip. It found its way onto my legs, hands, hat, hair, on my face, into my eyes via sweat, and in my clothes. It was both insulting and somehow fitting to spend the rest of the trip struggling with this indignity.
Day 4: Show Down and Blow Down
We decided to give it a shot. Just the first couple bends, we promised ourselves, and we’d reassess. No running anything without a visible eddy. No blind corners. Play it safe.
We quietly made breakfast, inflated packrafts, unraveled dry suits, and clipped paddle segments together. Dre fit all of his gear inside his big new Gnarwhal boat, while Brett strapped everything to his bow and I split the difference with my sleeping bag and tent inside my old Yak and my backpack and camera on the bow. And just like that, as the sun began to blaze over the valley floor, we were off–first Dre, then Brett, then I peeled out of a thin eddy and one-by-one were gripped by the current.
The first turns of the Kashwitna were quick and sprightly. The river reminded me of Resurrection Creek in Hope at high water–technical enough to require constant attention but not so difficult that our hearts were racing.
But from the maps, it looked like we only had a mile of floating in this braided section before the river constricted again, and as we passed the half-mile mark the backcountry angel on my dry-suited shoulder whispered “this has been good, no need to push it!” I bungled an eddy and ended up knee-deep in water, and we all pulled out to scout the next section.
The river whipped around a bend before braiding one last time and then entered another canyon. We couldn’t see the river itself past the lip of the canyon, but the tops of the trees on either side of the channel dropped away steadily and rooster tails of whitewater occasionally fluttered from beyond the edge. Luckily, there was a long, shallow eddy line before the river braided and entered the canyon–a large takeout target, albeit with high consequences if it were somehow missed.
Dre did some bushwack scouting and gave us a report: two avoidable holes, with a manageable wave train between them. Dre pushed off first, followed by Brett, and I brought up the rear. Sure enough as I rounded the corner I spotted the holes–but the path between them was bigger and whiter than anything we’d floated so far. As I dropped into the trough of the first wave I momentarily thought I’d buried myself in a hole and then I was out–soaring over the crest and paddling hard for shore, where Brett and Dre had already hauled out. The eddy line brought me to the rocks with the gentleness of a mother laying a baby in a crib.
That was it. With the high temperatures and late spring snowmelt the Kash was running too big and too fast for our comfort–canyons and bushwacking aside. As far as I know, nobody else has put packrafts on the Kashwitna as high as we did. Or any boat for that matter. Alaska has a way of disappointing people who claim firsts though, and I can’t say that carrying paddling gear for over a dozen miles over glaciers just to run one mile of Class II+ river is a particularly big accomplishment. The real challenge now was how to get ourselves out.
After consulting the maps we decided to bail up the Bartholf drainage, which at this point was only a half-mile away. This would lead us straight back to the Bomber Traverse, and we could hike back out over Snowbird Pass. We didn’t know anything about the Bartholf drainage except that Roman Dial had called it “horrible.” But who knows, maybe Roman just hiked it in bad weather? (Future note: guessing that Roman might be wrong about backcountry conditions is a strong sign that you’ve entered the land of wishful thinking).
We deflated our boats, pulled on bushwacking gear and began climbing up steep, open spruce glades, angling toward Bartholf Creek. Eventually we neared the creek, where it tumbled in an roaring vertical waterfall toward the Kashwitna, bouncing off of cliff faces. The brush was so thick that I mostly saw the waterfall in the form of rainbows hanging in the mist between the alder leaves–but the few glimpses I got of the water itself were humbling.
Sure enough, the Bartholf was buggy, brushy, and boggy–in a word, well: horrible. The faint game trails were frustratingly short, often carrying us less than a hundred feet before vanishing into tangles of alder (though one amazing trail took us over 3/4 mile!). There were bogs, moss-covered boulder fields, steep riverbanks, and hillsides of downed alder covered by ferns. At times we stopped to discuss how we’d move through a thirty-foot section, then a ten-foot section, then a five-foot section. The sun was blazing hot and despite being next to Bartholf Creek, we struggled to drink enough water to replace our sweat. We made a little over half a mile an hour, while we were moving.
When we couldn’t go any farther we made camp on a cluster of massive tundra-covered boulders. It was too buggy for Brett to sleep in his bivy sack so we packed all three of us into my two-person Nammatj.
There wasn’t enough room for me to inflate my sleeping pad so I just lay on the tent floor, on top of the springy warm tundra, used my rolled-up pad as a pillow, and instantly blacked out.
Day 5: Independence Day
We weren’t back on the Bomber Traverse yet, but we were within striking distance. The last section of ‘shwacking was especailly rough, and then, after slogging across a spongy bog we were back in the tundra and knee-high brush of upper Bartholf Creek.
With the continuing hot weather and ample snow supply, the creeks in the upper Bartholf drainage were hammering their beds and ripping at their banks. Crossing both Bomber and Bartholf Creeks was surprisingly difficult, and required careful scouting, rock-hopping, and wet feet. But once we were over Bartholf we felt like we were home free. It’s a funny realization, that you’re on the far side of a glacier and alpine pass and yet somewhow feel like you’re already done with the day. But that’s what a long trip will do.
Instead of following the creek and the new lake off the toe of Snowbird Glacier, we scrambled up the moraine and hiked into the Snowbird Glacier Hut, where we found a couple dozen kids from SoCal and their heavily-armed chaperones. We offered what advice we could, made hot food in the hut, and wrote a warning in the log book to stay out of the Bartholf drainage.
The rest of the day was pure, midsummer Talkeetnas alpine joy. Fast travel, familiar country, and beautiful weather.
We breezed across Snowbird Glacier and snowshoed straight up the pass. There’s some debate about whether this should be called “Glacier Pass” (the traditional name) or “Snowbird Pass” (the more informative, and probably more common name). I’d also nominate “Reception Pass,” since there’s a direct line of sight to the cell towers in Palmer, and the crest of this pass is often heralded by a chorus of cell phone notifications.
During the course of our trip an enormous amount of snow had melted out of the Glacier Creek drainage. On the way in, we had pulled on snowshoes just above the first step, at an elevation of about 3400 feet. On the way down we pulled off our snowshoes at the top of the third step, at about 4400 feet. About a thousand vertical feet of the Glacier Creek drainage had become hiking-accessible in just four days.
In the parking lot I peeled off my boots and hobbled barefoot to Brett’s car.
We drove back over the pass to Willow to pick up Dre’s car, and then rendezvoused in Palmer at a wing joint. Dre lent me a clean t-shirt in the hopes that we’d get seated before the staff realized we hadn’t showered in five days.
We were the only ones in the restaurant. As we dug into a mountain of wings we could hear the distant pop of fireworks, the finales of Independence Day parties nearing their ends.
Don’t try to run the Kashwitna from below the Holden Hut. For the most part the river is a mess, and the bushwacking is bad. Don’t ‘schwak up the Bartholf–at least not if you have other options. The brush is thick, game trails are meager, and the valley is longer than it looks. You’ve been warned. But if you do do these things anyway, go with people who can adjust plans, tolerate nasty terrain, and stay close enough to positive that at the end of the trip, when you’re all mainlining calories in silence, the whole thing still feels good.
Before the trip, I’d e-mailed Roman Dial to ask if he knew anything about the upper Kashwitna. I didn’t get his response till we returned. It said, in part:
“Not sure of the upper Kashwitna, but you could check the gradient and see if it exceeds 100 feet a mile. If it’s braided and 100 feet a mile, then it’s likely ok, but if it’s all canyoned up and 150 feet a mile, maybe a bit more like Class IV than Class III.”
The section of the upper Kashwitna that we bushwacked alongside drops 890 feet in roughly 3.27 river miles, for a gradient 219 feet per mile. The section that we floated drops 90 feet in 1.1 miles, for a gradient of 83 feet per mile. Right below our takeout point, the next canyon drops at 151 feet per mile to the confluence with Bartholf Creek. After that, the Kashwitna averages a drop of only 33 feet per mile for the next 12 miles, though there are still several canyons apparent in satellite imagery that might require portages.
If we had done the numbers before the trip, we would have known that the majority of the Kashwitna below the Holden Hut and Bartholf/Kashwitna confluence is not runnable, even for expert packrafters. Frankly, the section we ran at 83 feet per mile was more than exciting enough, especially considering the consequences of flipping a loaded-down boat in a remote wilderness area.
It’s possible that we made the highest packraft put-in on the Kashwitna to date. While this would be a fun item for the outdoor resume, I’d consider it more of a novelty than an accomplishment since it was the result of idealistic trip planning and required an utterly disproportionate bushwhacking sufferfest. During the first couple days of the trip we joked about what to name our traverse. The “Kash $?” the “Holdin’ Kash”? In the end, I settled on “Bad Kash”–an allusion to counterfeit money. Sure, it looks good at first glance, but try to use it and you’ll find you’ve been had.
For those interested in packrafting the Kashwitna, the approach that Roman describes in his “Independent Sheep” writeup looks far better than ours. This route starts at Hatcher Pass and follows higher-elevation tundra benches before dropping to the Kashwitna. Roman’s route cuts away from the Kashwitna and then floats the Sheep, though it would certainly be possible to stay on the Kash and simply portage if necessary.
Shortly after returning from the Kashwitna float, another can of Costco bear spray deployed inside my backpack. Somehow the safety had fallen off of this can too (no bushwacking required) and was nowhere to be found. I disposed of both cans of partially-deployed bear spray and replaced them fresh cans of Counter Assault from REI. While these cans were more expensive, they are also a bit larger and have a piece of elastic connecting the glow-in-the-dark safety to the bottle. It’s hard to appreciate how strong bear spray is until you get it on yourself. I don’t recommend it.