A group of four, including one whitewater novice, hiked into Dickey Lake on June 9th from Tangle Lakes. We camped on the north side of the lake, then blew up our boats in the morning and dragged our gear across the ice to a 20 foot lead on the south shore. (In our dry suits and PFDs of course!) We then floated to Sourdough Campground on the Richardson Highway in five days.
At the water level we encountered (high, but a bit less than flood stage), the upper Gulkana below Dickey Lake was mostly Class III. Quite pushy, but with no sweepers. (Next year might be different!) Not a lot of eddies, but just about all the rocks were covered. A very important exception was the upper canyon, which we portaged. At the relatively high flow we experienced, the upper canyon had some two-three foot drops, some non-trivial holes, an undercut river left at the canyon exit and a small possible keeper, also at the exit, river right. I say possible keeper because it was difficult to judge its size in the headwall. The canyon announces itself with a head wall river left. Good eddy on left about 75 yards before head wall. It’s the first bedrock the river hits below Dickey Lake. The portage is easy on either side of the river. We know because we hiked both sides. It is a very easy canyon to scout, unlike the rest of the upper section which requires walking on narrow trails through the densest young willow I have ever encountered. Not an alder hell, but a bit tough on bare hands and dry suits.
After the upper canyon, the river behaves as the guidebooks and BLM pamphlets describe. When we arrived at the more famous canyon about a day’s paddling below the inflow from Paxson Lake, we found it easily to be a Class IV. BLM has made this canyon very easy to scout from shore. Do not wait until the very last eddy before the canyon to exit the water. It is guarded by two dificult to see pourovers. At the water level encountered, there was a nearly river-wide ledge with some serious recirculation at the end of the canyon. We portaged. After the canyon, the river went from Class III through II to I over about 9 miles. There is an amazing number trees shattered by ice and debris lining the banks below the canyon. What the ice created during an obviously very violent breakup, the ice also pushed to the banks. Also, the few sweepers and strainers were fairly easy to avoid as the eddy hopping was quite easy for a moderately good boater. The novice did a great job on these rapids. Still, the unrelenting miles of churning waves make this run more than a Class II.