Cheap Sheep

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:
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.

Looked fun, I think that strainercould be new, I just boated it in June and did not see it .I think maybe our route was different, I did go left this time at the first real island after the whitewater starts. Was it on the right channel of the island? It would be about a mile after you see the first rock bluffs on the right. Anyway last year we encountered a strainer on a blind turn, then a straight away. This may be the spot.
I have ran Sheep three times and always have fun. There is a trail from crossover, too bad you did not find it, very nice. The creek is really fun when the water is murky and moving fast at the bridge. Not super accurate, but look for Willow to be running around a thousand and the waves are nuts on Sheep.

Patrick and I did the “not so cheap” version of this trip on Saturday. The flight with Alaska Bush Float Plane Service to Crossover Lake was $260. We left a truck where Brad mentions off of Amundsen. The hike down to the river was not bad at all, we chose the far right tundra spur that leads into the alders. Great water, great day, and no bears.

This is an absolute must for beginner/intermediate packrafters!

We had a great time. Timed the weather and water level perfectly. The $$$ was well worth it. Getting down to the river was cake. Never felt overwhelmed by the rapids which is good because Sheep is out there and an accident would be bad news. Thanks John for the vid. Looking forward to getting out more!

We ran this July 16th and it was hella fun. We flew outta Talkeetna for $275 (700 lb of people + gear maximum). It was quite the effort hiking to the creek though. We bushed wacked through thick alders and devils club for about an hour… advice on which route other folks took would be helpful. Looks like we should’ve kept to the ridge on the left?? Not sure. I’d say pay more attention on the fly-in than us.

At the put-in the water was fun (2+) with rock dodging. And then it died down to some pretty boring flat water for a couple of hours. Just when our hopes died, the water picked up to constant class III with a lot of rock dodging. This lasted to the take-out (approx 3 hours). The take-out is on river left with a bunch of orange ribbons marking the ATV trail… can’t miss it. The total run lasted 7 hours. We parked a truck at the take-out… if you don’t have a truck, i’d suggest just hiking out the 2 mile mud trail, which would blow.

Overall the trip was totally worth it. If I do it again though, I’d shoot for higher water.

p.s. there were only two sweepers that stretched across the entire creek. They were both at slow water and easy to climb around.

Here is a video Ryan Roberts put together of our trip refrenced in Libdawg’s beta above. The video even has a beer bootie in it, wow!

Pete, Greg, and I did “Short Cheap Sheep” on Saturday. We would have liked to do the entire Cheap Sheep, but we got a late start and we figured the low creek flow would have turned a long day into a really long day. We followed Brad’s instructions and hiked in about 6 miles (maybe 4 past the take-out) on the ATV trail. We bushwhacked down to the creek where the trail starts to diverge from the creek and head upslope. The bushwhack took about 10-15 minutes, was all downhill, and not too terrible. The floating was pretty mellow, but fun, sunny, and no bears. This would be a really great trip at a higher flowrate (probably pretty exciting now with all the rain we have been getting). Ran into Mark and his family at the takeout. They were going to float out to the road with their fishing poles.

Couple things to note on getting to the start of the hike. We got confused on Amundsen Drive and spent about half an hour driving around trying to find the ATV trail. Naively, we believed the “Keep Out” and “No Trespassing” signs that we encountered on Amundsen, thinking it was the end of the road and was private. After tiring of the Caswell road network and finishing all our donuts, we drove past the signs and found the ATV trail. One last thing to add – after the signs, you will hit a tee – take a left here and the ATV will be just a bit farther on the right.

Hey Paul nice to see another boater way out there. The lower part is horrible, wood, wood, every corner for the first several miles, wood.
For something of like;(good parts of Sheep) try upper upper Willow above 1200cfs or so, we got it today just shy of 2000cfs and it was very much like Sheep at higher water. Put in as far up hatchers as you can and float to the bridge that you cross going up. The run is class II-III for the most part, but there are a couple of sections that are class III+ for short stretches, at the higher level anyway. Even higher water may flush some of the holes out, a few were decent size and will trip a person up if your not on it.

Has anyone run Sheep Creek yet this year? I am planning to do Roman Dial’s “Independent Sheep” route in a few weeks and was wondering what news folks might have on wood in Sheep Creek from the put in near Crossover Lake to the takeout. thanks.

We did the cheap sheep option in mid May this year (2016). The drive down Amundsen is now blocked by a very friendly gate construction with many nice hand painted signs. We were unable to gain access to the four wheel drive road directly. We did find a bypass, you can head up to Bendapole, then follow this road until it becomes Shaman. This road ends in an ATV road, which we decided was probably not doable in a stock large pickup. This ATV road will intersect the aforementioned four wheel drive road. The drawback is you have to hike a bit further.

I just wrapped up a Cheap Sheep loop as a casual two day trip (6/22 - 6/23/19) instead of a one day smash and grab like Brad and Luc. Doing Sheep Creek as an overnight was very pleasant and highly recommended. We parked at the end of Shaman Drive and not knowing what the 4-wheel drive section of the road was like, we biked to where the 4-wheel road/trail met the river. After biking that section of road/trail I would probably take my stock Tacoma to the creek. We were able to follow the ATV trail 95% of the way above tree/brush line and camped along the ridge. There was still enough snow for water, but in another few weeks water could be scarce along the ridge. I’d rate the bushwhack down to the creek as class 3 bushwhacking. We were unlucky enough to find a portion of the slope with well vegetated boulders with 3 foot deep leg traps. Next time I’d venture further east of the ridge Brad and Luc descended to the creek. If Mark Oathout knows of a trail more info would be really nice.

The provisional daily average flow for Willow Creek on 6/23/19 is 999 cfs ( At that level, I’d estimate that Sheep Creek is about 10% of the flow at the USGS Willow Creek Gage. There was a lot of evidence of recent flooding (most likely as recent as the 2018 early August peak). Having not run the creek prior to August 2018 I’m guessing some things may have changed since the last post in 2016. At the level we ran Sheep Creek, none of the features were blown out and there were always good eddies to catch for boat scouting. When we ran sheep creek I’d rate the rapids near the put in as solid class 3 and the main section of whitewater as continuous class 3 with intermittent sections of class 2 bogie water with three class 3+ larger rapids (I wouldn’t say those rapids are continuous or pushy enough to warrant a class -4 rating but they are close). I’d highly recommend Sheep Creek at high water to anyone who can comfortably run Willow Creek Guardrail section at 800 cfs and has proficient boat scouting skills. I’d agree with Mark that Sheep Creek is similar to upper upper willow at very high water, but that Sheep Creek has more structure (ie cleaner eddies and more well defined, less chaotic, features). Another way I would describe Sheep Creek would be if the Willow sections of Red Gate and Guardrail had a baby.

We only had three wood portages in the doldrum section (although this could be different depending on the channels you decide to take). The only evidence of the wood that Brad originally described was a twig fluttering along river right (there may still be wood here at lower water). The rest of the rapids were clear of wood in the channel until you reached the class 2 bogie to the takeout where there was one river wide sweeper approximately 3 miles upstream of the take out.

The 2 day Cheap Sheep is an awesome overnight trip for intermediate packrafters!