by Zack Fields
My dream whitewater run would have an endless series of steep drops and small waterfalls, with low enough volume and long enough pools to make recovery possible and drowning unlikely. That’s pretty much a summary of Bird Creek’s “Lower Sanctum” at low water. Bird Creek’s stairstep drops are a must for Class IV+ paddlers, although I’d guess I’m the last one in Anchorage to finally make it out and paddle this nearby creek.
Packrafters first descended Bird Creek a decade ago, back when packrafts were seemingly designed to backender. Now that Alpacka packrafts have been refined to the point of near-perfection, steep pool-drop style creeks are much easier to descend.
There are a couple different ways to access Bird Creek. Roman Dial details a route that runs directly upriver from the takeout, but it’s easy to start at the official Bird Creek trailhead as well, which is the large gravel lot located at the end of Konikson Road. In an ideal world, you would hike right to Bird Falls, then proceed upriver on the east side of the creek, scouting rapids as you head upstream. More likely, you’ll blunder around in the woods, stirring up yellowjackets and brown bears in search of the creek. Here’s my best attempt at directions to the put-in: From the trailhead, go north on the main trail. After crossing Penguin Creek, generally take the left fork of ATV trails, which with luck will take you to a viewpoint above Bird Falls. Note the ten to fifteen foot drop above Bird Falls as well--you will probably plan on portaging above this, to river left (east bank of river). Continuing upstream, you will see the six or so rapids located between Mushroom rapid and Bird Falls. I’d suggest putting in below Mushroom, which is a death sieve with bonus logs stuck in the center drop. If you end up getting lost and putting in further upstream, keep an eye out for Mushroom, which can be easily portaged on the right. It is marked by a sharp right hand turn in the creek with cliffs on the left. In addition to the death sieve at Mushroom, be on the lookout for wood in other Bird Creek drops. Strainers present themselves frequently and often can’t be boat scouted due to the creek’s steepness.
Below Mushroom, there are nearly continuous pool-drop ledges all the way down to the falls. In order of appearance, the rapids are named Commitment Cauldron, Elbow, Whirly Bird, Center Falls, and Bronco. “Commitment” is a straigthtforward series of ledge holes. Elbow (aka Dog Leg) reminds me of Merry-Go-Round on Six Mile, since it has a series of ledges and holes leading into a ninety-degree turn terminating in a hole that can be sticky at certain levels. The largest drop in the series is Center Falls, a roughly 10 foot ledge with a nice spout into a small pool. At low levels, the water insta-boofs packrafts into the pool, but make sure to charge this drop and clear the backwash below. The last rapid before the falls, Bronco, looks innocuous but is surprisingly retentive. Even at very low levels, it tends to drag boats’ sterns into its hydraulic. Boof aggressively and be prepared to get pirouetted as you emerge from the hole. If you do flip, self-rescue quickly because the most serious drops are quickly approaching. Take out on river left to portage both a ten-to-fifteen foot slot and Bird Falls. Expert kayakers run this series, but it strikes me as extremely difficult in packrafts. Be aware of the underwater cave below Bird Falls, which is one of the hazards, in addition to potential spinal compression from such a large drop.
Below Bird Falls, it’s about a ten minute paddle down to the tidally-influenced reach of Bird Creek. Take out on river left, under the large transmission lines, where there’s a well-used trail that leads up to Powerline Road. Perhaps you stashed a bike or car here for a shuttle, or if not walk Powerline Rd to Konikson and the Bird trailhead. It’s about a 15 minute walk on gravel roads.
Bird Creek is an exemplary creek for advanced packrafters. It’s just a shame Ship Creek isn’t open on base so we could have some more close-to-home creeking opportunities during periods of low water.