Happy River The Hard Way; Lake Chakachamna To Skwentna, AK

Lake Chakachamna to Skwentna, Alaska
170 miles, 10.5 days of travel
Skwentna River Class IV
Happy River Class III
Styx River Class II

I flew into Lake Chakachamna on the evening of August 24, 2014 with low lying clouds. I was dropped off right at the delta of the Nagishlamina River and spent the night there soaking in the vistas of hanging glaciers and lush coastal forest.

Lake Chakachamna to the Skwentna Headwaters
Andrew Embick was pretty much right in his assessment of walking to the headwaters of the Skwentna River. It was rather unpleasant, but without a boat to drag I made it in 2.5 days. It was demoralizing crawling and climbing through the alders with a 60lb pack. In hindsight I could have made better time with a few more hours spent hiking per day. The worst was the overgrown glacial moraine of the Pothole Glacier… thankfully that was also the turning point. Travel became easier with long sections of moraine (I even went up onto the rock covered Harpoon Glacier toe for easier travel), shorter stretches of alders, and even the long valley wide wetlands between Harpoon and South Twin Glacier. On day 3 I reached the Skwentna River at roughly 3:00.

Upper Skwentna
Now it had been raining a lot recently, and on and off since I arrived so I was fairly concerned. Things started smoothly and then every river bend became fairly exciting… with the difficulty increasing as I approached Crystal Creek. I ran every rapid in the most survival oriented fashion possible… very sneaky, with easy scouting. I certainly agree with Embick’s class IV rating in the last 4 miles before Crystal Creek. I took out and camped at Crystal Creek, knowing the most challenging part of the journey was over!

Crystal Creek to the Styx River
The day started with pouring rain, terrible brush, and very few functional game paths… moose trails are not great. Travel eased as elevation was gained and most of the distance was covered in short order once I escaped the nastiness below. I camped a half mile above the Styx River.

Styx River
This was one section that really scared me in the planning stage… I had no beta at all. It could be dry and really shallow (late season for a small glacial river) or really nasty when it constricts. It turned out to be amazing, mostly. A perfect sunny day; I floated and relaxed my sore body. I stopped and camped at a constriction/canyon like area before Timber Creek where I would have to climb up onto small cliffs to scout. I never ran anything above a class II, it likely got pretty spicy after I took out based on the elevation loss and canyon.

Getting Happy with a Beating
I woke up and just decided to start hiking rather than try to float a bit more. That was probably a mistake. I spent 1.5 days beating my way through nasty woody vegetation and side hilling above the increasingly large valley heading into Hell’s Gate on the where the Styx joins the South Fork of the Kuskokwim and punches through the Alaskan Range. Then I continued up Ptarmigan Valley to find the Happy River. Once again, the motivation to bushwhack, or lack there of was the true culprit of slow travel.

Happy Times
On day 7 I crossed a stream seeking better brush to crash through and did a double take… It was flowing out of a beaver pond and flowing north; it was one of the numerous little flows forming the Happy River’s headwaters. It was late afternoon, and I inflated my boat and put in. I floated, dragged, and thrashed through alders with my pack raft to make good progress through often comically small flows… It was better than walking! I camped on a tiny gravel bar. The next two days I covered ground like a man fearing hunger. There is plenty of info out there on the Happy River; it is amazing! It was a blur for me, I ran everything but one rapid blind knowing it topped out at class III and confident I could handle any surprises. As I said earlier it had been raining a lot lately and the Happy River was a bit spicier than I expected. I scouted the one time because of a roar of a certain quality… It was a large standing wave nearly river which I portaged (I think I was just scared). I cannot recommend this river enough for pack rafters!

Lower Skwentna
On the Afternoon of day 9 I reached the Skwentna again. It turned into quite the storm shortly afterwards and I paddled for several hours into the wind and rain. I scored a cup of hot coffee from some bear hunters along the way and continued onto another gravel bar to camp right after dark. I floated another day down the Skwentna after a late start drying everything out in the sun. It was fairly uneventful and I reached the airstrip of Skwentna at 10 am on day 11. At which I was generously received by Cindy Herman and Paul Torkelson and treated very kindly till my coworker’s Cessna arrived a few days later. Now they did put me to work after the first day…

This was a trip of a lifetime, 11 days in the wilderness solo. This is only the beginning… Come June I’m going for a 290 mile trip in 14 days; connecting the Birch River to the Charley and Yukon. I am looking for partners this time…

Thank you SO much for your support and generosity!
Conor Mcmanamin - My flight in
Mike and Valerie Spotto - My flight out
Cindy Herman and Paul Torkelson - Amazing food and better company!
And my friends and family who followed me

-Kyle Thompson