As the frost line drops and glacial melt slows, new paddling options open up on rivers that are much tougher at high water. While some people bunker down in the fall, September and October are prime time to get out on new rivers in our region. Here are a few to check out at what are often lower fall levels.
The Chickaloon River emerges from one of the Talkeetna Mountains’ largest remaining glaciers, and as a result its water level tends to fluctuate in response to temperature. By September and early October, the Chickaloon is often a perfect level for packrafting. Contrary to somewhat outdated guidance in guidebooks, it is not difficult to float the Chickaloon, and you don’t have to hire a plane to fly in. Simply drive near the end of the road that parallels the Chickaloon River, which intersects the Glenn Highway about an hour and twenty minutes northeast of Anchorage. Park in a pullout by the river a couple hundred yards past where the pavement ends, then walk in eight miles, first on an ATV trail and then on a single track hunters’ trail. The Chickaloon’s lower eight miles have Class III boulder gardens and ledges, and a remarkable overhanging rock gorge in which the canyon walls nearly touch one another at the top. This trip can be done as a day trip, or hike a little farther in for a liesurely overnighter.
Below 9.3 feet on the USGS gauge, Six Mile changes character from a fast, pushy Class IV creek to a more technical stream that is still challenging but less powerful. Water levels between 8.5 and 9.3 feet are perfect for paddlers looking to step up to the next canyon. The 2nd Canyon at 9 feet, for example, is no harder than the 1st Canyon at 10 feet, but the lines are very similar. Low water levels allow you to get in and explore new rapids with at more forgiving levels. Even at low water, the 3rd Canyon remains challenging, with much more risk than the first two.
Caribou Creek, which flows south out of the Talkeetna Mountains near Lion’s Head, is a great fall day trip. After a five mile or so hike in on an ATV trail, there are approximately eight miles of Class II and III rapids, with a mandatory portage around a massive waterfall. Park at the Glenn Highway bridge over Caribou (same place as the standard put-in for Lion’s Head), and look for the ATV trail that heads steeply uphill from the parking lot. Follow the trail generally northeast as it climbs from forest onto a tundra bench high above the river. Before long, the trail (mostly) terminates at the river, where you can scramble down steep bluffs to start your trip. The waterfall comes after a couple of tighter slot rapids, and is next to a prominent rock tower. Take out before a hundred yard long Class III+ rapid that leads into the waterfall, portaging on river right. Below the waterfall, the rapids diminish in intensity, but the canyon scenery continues to be outstanding all the way to the takeout.
What paddlers call “Lion’s Head” is actually one fork of the Matanuska River as it flows past the Mat Glacier’s terminal moraine. The easiest put in is on Caribou Creek at the Glenn Highway bridge, about a half mile upstream of the creek’s confluence with the Matanuska’s south fork. At lower fall levels, the creek will be slow and shallow: If the water is fast and high, be prepared for a very exciting ride through the rapids. They begin where the glacier’s moraine squeezes the river against the Lion’s Head rock formation, and continue for another couple of miles down toward the Glacier Park bridge. Lion’s Head has primarily boulder garden type rapids with a couple ledgier drops, and is challenging in the summer primarily because the opaque, silty water is hard to read. Fortunately, low flows improve water clarity and allow paddlers to enjoy a river that becomes creeky as it drops in volume. September is an ideal time to paddle Lion’s Head, since the aspens are in full color on the mountain sides above the river. Lion’s Head and Caribou Creek make a great combination of back to back daytrips in a weekend of car camping out around Matanuska Glacier.
The Kings River has a lovely set of double canyons and Class III+ rapids that most paddlers in Anchorage have never visited. This hike-in-hike-out day trip is perfect for shorter fall days, with a little over an hour hike in and a forty-five minute hike out. Park alongside the Permanente Road, a glorified ATV trail that is driveable by high clearance 4WD vehicles for about four to five miles north off the Glenn Highway. The Kings is intense with higher summer flows, but manageable at low fall water levels. Be prepared to get out and scout the constricted drops in the lower canyon, which can be portaged fairly easily on river right. Shortly after the rapids end, take out on river left and muddle your way back on ATV trails that return to the Permanente Road where you parked your car.