Sheep Creek in the Talkeetna Mountains is a buttboating classic, with 20 miles of bluegreen Class III boogie water. Access usually involves a short flight to Crossover Lake (approx. $75/person with Alaska Bush Flying Service of Talkeetna) or a multi-day approach from Hatcher Pass (e.g. Roman’s Independent Sheep route). But this superb river can be done on the cheap in a day, ableit a very long day.
“Cheap Sheep” is a route with great symmetry, starting and ending at the same point and featuring approximately 20 miles of hiking and 20 miles of boating. The route takes advantage of an ATV trail that starts at the end of the complex maze of roads in the Caswell Lakes area.
To get to the ATV trail turn east off the Parks Highway at Milepost 88.1 just before Sheep Creek Lodge at a sign indicating Gigglewood Resort. In about half a mile turn left onto Caswell Lakes Road, which becomes dirt and eventually becomes Amundsen Drive. Follow these roads for approximately 5 miles to the end of the line, watching for a small dirt road branching to the right roughly 100 yards before the end of Amundsen. This small dirt road can be driven by a high-clearance 4WD truck, but the puddles are up to 3’ deep and 50 yards long. Follow this dirt road north for about 2 miles until it ends at Sheep Creek. If you’ve driven this far, park and start walking up the ATV trail that heads directly and steeply uphill.
This ATV trail will proceed steadily uphill, and at about the 2000’ level begin to swing to the south. Shortly after passing a small pond on your right, the trail will fork, with the main trail continuing southeast towards the North Fork of the Kashwitna and a smaller fork going uphill through boggy grasses and brush. Take the left fork to its end and then beat some brush in the direction of open tundra, aiming for the benchmarked feature shown on USGS quads as “Montana,” elevation 3757’. Follow this spectacular tundra ridge east, eventually dropping down just north of Crosswind Lake (unmarked lake at elev. 2757’ in a saddle between N. Fk Kashwitna and Sheep Creek). With luck find a descent route down to Sheep Creek through meadows, devil’s club, and alders.
The creek starts off with about 3 miles of splashy Class II water before slowing down for the Doldrums, a 4-mile stretch of lightly-braided Class I with occasional sweepers to watch out for. The banks are heavily trampled by bears fishing for kings and packrafters. Eventually the creek will pull itself together into a single channel and start picking up speed, dropping through two right-to-left turns with rock walls on river right. Shortly after, watch for a sequence of boulder drops, including one Class III+ unavoidable hole, immediately followed by a riverwide cottonwood strainer. THIS IS A DANGEROUS SPOT. A swim here could be very serious, as the water is moving fast and the tree is hard to see and very hard to avoid. During our run there was enough water to get over the log, but we had very high water (bankful and estimated at 800 cfs). Lower water could make this spot worse. The location is approximately 1 mile below the end of the Doldrums and occurs in a steep straightaway. PADDLERS BEWARE!
From here on you will enjoy 12 miles of continuous Class III action, with a few drops that approach Class IV at high water. Your forearms will be pumped by the time you reach the takeout, which comes up quickly about a mile downstream of a short canyon section. Watch for an ATV trail river left as you round a right-to-left bend. This is your take out. If you have driven the dirt road, cold beers are less than 100 yards away; if not you’ve got to wait a bit longer for your reward.
Luc Mehl made a nice video of our day, to be found at YouTube here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SvJDWAT6qX0
At about 1:30 mins of the video you can see us scooting over the strainer discussed above; look for the green foliage sticking out of the water on river left. The video also does a nice job of capturing the amazing hiking and endless boogie boating, and it has a better map than mine with GPS coordinates at the very end of the video.