We might call this loop trip gem “Pilgrim’s Progress.” It’s got a little bit of everything: glacier travel, mining history, front-row seats to one of the biggest icefalls in North America, great tundra walking, a glimpse of the Pilgrim homestead and 19 miles of fantastic non-stop whitewater. And the best part of the trip is that the take-out is a hundred yards from a bar. Packrafting doesn’t get much better than this.
There are several approaches to McCarthy Creek, one of which is described in Embick’s Fast and Cold. An alternate route proceeds up the Root Glacier approximately 8 miles beyond Kennicott before ascending to a 5300’ pass and dropping straight down to McCarthy Creek at 3300’, not far downstream from the snout of the McCarthy Creek Glacier. The creek starts out fast and steep for the first few miles before the valley broadens and the channel becomes braided until Lubbe Creek enters from the left. Downstream the action picks up again and becomes non-stop the rest of the way to McCarthy.
At 2400’ the river enters a very narrow canyon that necks down to less than 5’ in width at the entrance. Embick described this section as “unrunnable” but it is doable at low water. The entire canyon is approximately 150 yards long and can be scouted on river-left from a dramatic fin of rock that the river winds around. The first drop, the Squeeze Box (Class III+), is the narrowest section of the canyon and has an undercut ledge on river-right that would be dangerous at higher water. The second drop, Springboard (Class IV), is a 6’ slide into a large recovery pool. The final drop, Moose’s Tooth (Class IV+), is an ugly drop that can only be run on river-left, with the right side of the drop landing on jagged boulders. This canyon can be easily portaged by climbing up and over the base of the peninsula that the river winds around. The biggest hazard we encoutered on the trip was a large, irate bull moose standing in the middle of the river downstream of the Moose’s Tooth.
The river cuts through several more dramatic canyons as it drops steadily at 100’ per mile, and passes through one particularly-memorable boulder garden with house-sized rocks that would be treacherous at higher water. At the low water we experienced it was constant fun all the way to the take-out in downtown McCarthy. With the exception of the short and technical canyon, the remainder of the creek was Class III, but should be rated Class III+ because the action is continuous. You should at least be competent on short stretches of Class IV water before doing this trip.
There is no guage for McCarthy Creek, and when we ran it in mid-August the water was milky blue and running at an estimated 200 cfs. If you are thinking about doing this trip, check out the river in McCarthy beforehand. If the creek looks large, brown and bossy the canyon sections will be Class IV or harder. There is an old road that follows McCarthy Creek as far as Diamond Creek, so it is possible to hike up and run lower sections, or bail out and walk if the river is too hard to handle.