If you are looking for trip that combines bear watching with packrafting, check into American Creek in Katmai National Park. American Creek flows 40 miles between Hammersly Lake and Coville Lake, dropping from alpine terrain through 2 canyons to birch and cottonwood forests.
Three of us recently boated American Creek, bringing along one packraft and a Aire Puma. If I were to do it again I would only bring packrafts. We accessed Hammersly Lake with Branch River Air out of King Salmon. The drop off and pickup cost $1560 for a single load in a Beaver. You could make the trip longer on the front end by flying into Murray Lake and boating a short creek that connects Murray to Hammersly Lake. Since the prevailing winds on Hammersly are from the east, you could probably sail down the 10-mile long lake in a few hours.
The hiking in the alpine terrain around Hammersly Lake and along the first ten miles of the float is fabulous. Take your time here because the hiking becomes limited thereafter.
American Creek is extremely shallow where it leaves Hammersly Lake, on average about 1’ deep with numerous granite boulders. A packraft can maneuver through the rocks without much challenge, but you have to walk and line any bigger boats for much of the first 4 miles.
As the river drops into the first canyon the current picks and the river channel becomes better defined. Approximately a mile into the first canyon a Class III rapid is encountered that includes a single 4’ foot drop. The rocks on river left are quite sharp, so we opted to line the Puma, but the packraft had no trouble making the necessary moves.
Below the first canyon the river widens again and more shallow boulder-dodging is encountered for the next 5 miles. Getting any boat other than a packraft through this section is tedious hard work. Eventually the river comes together and begins moving more swiftly past cottonwood forest. Be warned that there is one particulary ugly section here where the river has forged a new channel, dropping left into the woods while the old channel with very little water continues to the right. DO NOT GO LEFT! This new channel is choked with log jams. We made the wrong turn and spent several hours lining back up out of the mess.
For the next 8 miles the river moves swiftly through continuous Class II riffles before entering the spectacular lower canyon. Dramatic cliffs line both sides of the river as you drop through 4 miles of continous Class III boulder bars and holes. This is the best boating of the trip.
Below the lower canyon the river continues swiftly for another 5 miles before starting to slow down and braid out. The next 4 miles is choked with sweepers and logjams, but previous boaters have cut enough trees to make this section go quickly without major hassles. A new high water event could change this section dramatically, so be on guard.
A major tributary entering from the west signals the end of the worst of the sweepers and the start of the heavily-fished lower river. Area lodges fly clients in for the day to sample the outstanding rainbow trout fishing. A few more hours of floating bring you to a hill on river left approximately 2 miles above Lake Coville where your pick-up will take place. This hill makes an outstanding camp site with excellent views of the surrounding area.
You could link this trip up with the Savanoski Loop by paddling down Lakes Coville and Grosvernor and ending at Brooks Camp or even continuing on down Naknek Lake and Naknek River to King Salmon.
If you go in early August you will find a river plugged with nearly a million red salmon and plenty of brown bears. We counted over 130 bears on a five day trip. An electric bear fence is highly recommended, as we had bears wandering through our camp constantly. None of the bears gave us any trouble, but the electric fence made is easier to get sleep. All food should be in bear barrels, and you should take all the usual other bear precautions.