Over 4th of July weekend four of us did this traverse. We started out at noon on saturday (7/3) and finished at 11 p.m. on monday evening (7/5): two and a half days in total. The Chitna pass/upper Boulder creek area was one of the most beautiful mountain-scapes I have seen in Alaska. We were all very impressed. Very colorful - a more diverse pallete of colors than the standard purple/blue and white of our beloved Chugach Range. As Meiklejohn wrote, it is “the poor man’s Brooks range.”
We started off at the Pinochle creek trailhead. The ATV trail is pretty muddy in sections for approximately the first three miles. It then climbs a thousand or so feet to the plateau separating Pinochle creek from Hicks creek and it then becomes a horrendous mud bog (at least with the wet weather we had). The route is very braided and rutted with myriad ATV trails - about a good mile of it almost looks like it was bombed. It remains really sloppy and rutted past Hicks lake, but improves somewhat towards Caribou creek.
Along Caribou creek to the crossing at Chitna creek the ATV trail parallels the river and remains somewhat rutted and definitely flooded in sections. There was a lot of walking around the side of the trail from Pinochle trailhead all the way to Chitna Creek. A few miles up Caribou creek from where Divide creek enters, the ATV trail splits in two. One route continues up Caribou creek and the other takes a sharp left up the hill. You want to take that left. It climbs up on a low bench and then parallels Caribou creek above all the way to Chitna creek. It eventually ends above that Chitna/Caribou confluence in the incongrous sight of a bulldozer and a backhoe parked on a hill. We did not take the upper bench route however and stayed on the river route as shown on the old USGS Quad.
Eventually, the ATV trail disappeared right at the moment it seemed that we had reached the confluence of Caribou and Chitna creeks. We were wrong though. It was the confluence of Billy and Caribou creeks instead. We crossed Caribou, thinking it was Chitna and climbed up a really solid game trail to the ridge. From the ridge the trail petered out and we could see another confluence just upstream, along with the upper bench trail leading to it (ending at the parked dozer and backhoe). We then figured out that confluence must be the Chitna/Caribou confluence. We then had to bushwack over from Billy for a mile or so and then cross the Caribou again when it met the Chitna.
We climbed the ridge above the Chitna/Caribou confluence. FYI: there is a private cabin on the Caribou just upstream from the confluence- the Aubert Cabin - and just below the top of the ridge. There is a solid ATV trail at the top of the ridge that continues on up the Caribou valley. The trail to Chitna pass is a small footpath that comes in quickly off the left hand side as you are walking up valley on the ATV trail. It would be very easy to miss, but there is a small cairn next to it. The trail remains a footpath all the way to Boulder Creek. Yay!
Chitna Pass is gorgeous and so is all of upper Boulder Creek. I can’t recommend it highly enough. We saw a moose on the climb up and about fifteen dall sheep and ten caribou in the pass.
We didn’t find boatable water until we reached the confluence of the small feeder stream of Boulder creek and Boulder creek proper (at the base of the pass as Meiklejohn wrote). I would guess it was about four miles from the top of the pass to the confluence. We found Boulder creek to be quite shallow and braided until the East fork of Boulder creek came in (which we didn’t even see because it was so braided at that point). In my opinion, the rafting wasn’t much fun until we reached the East fork confluence - that would be about half of the total packrafting length. After that it was pure fun class II boulder dodging with us more easily being able to choose the right line to avoid grounding out. There were also some woody tight spots. A good snicker/snack learning environment as Roman Dial might put it. We didn’t have to do a lot of portaging prior to the East fork, but there was a lot of butt dragging and backbending. And this was after days of heavy rain. There were maybe four strainers on the whole length we floated which went all the way across the boatable water and that we had to portage.
I hear that the Talkeetnas didn’t get much snow this year, so maybe that was part of the problem. But I wouldn’t do this as a packrafting trip after a long hot period in a poor snow year like this last one. However, it would be great as a backpacking trip anytime.
We also made another mistake when we got out at Anthracite Ridge. We walked back along the Chickaloon ATV trail to the Purintan trailhead. That was ten miles of walking. Ugh. We should have done what Meiklejohn suggested and taken the trail in the opposite direction to Bonnie Lake and then bushwack a bit. That would have been half as long with maybe a mile of that being bushwacking - but we had forgotten what he wrote.
Also, the cabin on river left that you can see from Boulder creek is not the Simpson cabin. The Simpson cabin is closer to Anthracite Ridge and close to where the Chickaloon ATV trail hits the river. At least that is what the occupants of that cabin told us - that they were the Simpson cabin. You cannot see their cabin from the river. Not that it matters, when you see the cabin on the hill, get out (if you haven’t already). Unless of course you want to paddle some Stupid F’ing Death Rapids below (in the words of Jason Whitman). Have fun!