Upper Chitna River (Hubert’s Landing to Jake's Bar)

Dates: September 2 to 9, 2007
River: Upper Chitna River (first 52 miles from Hubert’s Landing to Jake’s Bar).
General river conditions: A cold, high volume river at low stage
White water rating: Class I and II (Fast and Cold: A Guide to Alaska Whitewater); Class II (The Alaska River Guide: Canoeing, Kayaking, and Rafting in the Last Frontier)
Boats used: Alpacka Llama pack rafts
Participants: Alan Peck and Troy Schmidtke
Our paddling experience level: Beginner to intermediate. Second time using packrafts, however experience with kayaks and canoes in Class I and II.

This is a great trip that combines hiking and pack rafting in remote backcountry. The desert like Chitna Valley is between the Wrangell Mountains to the north and the coastal St. Elias and Chugach Mountains to the south. Best hiking opportunities are near the headwaters. The glacial river levels are diurnal with peak flows during July to mid-August. Low flows are typical through early to mid June and again in September. Anabatic winds in the upper river valley are present in the afternoon, especially on warmer days. We observed an abundance of animal tracks including black and grizzly bears, wolves, bison and dall sheep.

Trip details:
We flew from McCarthy to Hubert’s Landing at the Chitna Glacier terminus. It is recommended to make a slight detour from a direct flight path and fly upriver beginning at the Jake’s Bar landing strip to Hubert’s Landing. This will provide familiarity with the pick up location as well as see the river conditions. Keep in mind that topographic maps representing river channels are not entirely accurate since the river is constantly shifting.

From Hubert’s Landing, there is excellent hiking along the north side of the Chitna Glacier. One route, either as a day hike or overnight, is to head east between the moraine and mountains to the Ram Glacier which joins the Chitna Glacier from the north (8 miles one way to the base of Ram Glacier). This can be followed by more strenuous hiking on the moraine heading north up the Ram Glacier or crossing the Chitna Glacier moraine to the south toward a lake at the base of a ridge dividing the Logan and Chitna Glaciers.

Another hike from Hubert’s Landing will allow for a steep accent to the tundra and mountain ridges with minimal bushwhacking. To access the animal trial on the east side of a small drainage, walk east on the gravel bar from Hubert’s Landing to the drainage at N61˚ 01.414; W141˚ 37.170. Climb for impressive views of the glaciers, mountains (including Mt. Logan) and Dall sheep.

The river exits the glacier terminus and flows on the north side of the 3 mile wide gravel bar for the first 5 miles where it is primarily a high gradient single channel with an estimated average surface velocity of 6 to7 mph. At low water, this section is fast flowing, with reaches of waves, holes, and exposed rocks. I would rate it as a class II+ at these low water levels.

(Note: At higher water this summer, two rafters in a Red Shank raft flipped approximately 4 to 5 miles downstream from Hubert’s and lost their raft and gear. They walked back to the landing strip where they caught a flight back to McCarthy when a plane landed to drop off a party.)

Given our lack of experience using pack rafts, we opted to avoid the first several miles of river rafting and hiked in the spruce forest along the north side of the gravel bar. We followed animal trails for the first 2.5 miles. The next 1.5 miles of forest hiking were through substantial deadfall resulting from windblown beetle killed spruce trees. Fifty to 150 ft cut banks separated the river from the forest.

We inflated the Alpacka rafts and began floating before the river migrates from the north side of the gravel bar toward the southwest. The river remains fast (without obstacles) and begins to braid during the next six miles downriver to Barnard Glacier (class I). Another scenic hike is to the Barnard Glacier. Easiest walking is along the east of the glacier. The bison herd, transplanted here early in the 1900s, had previously been this far upriver as indicated by the dried patties in the open flats east of the silty Short River.

The number of braided channels increases on the Chitna River downstream of the Barnard Glacier. These 35 miles of braided river is class I. There are a few hazards to watch for in this section. Cottonwood and spruce tree sweepers and strainers are present along the northern and southern edges of the gravel bar where the river is cutting into the forest. These obstacles begin to appear a few miles downstream of Gibraltar Hill along the north edge of the gravel bar and continue until the river narrows upstream of Jake’s Bar. The sweepers and strainers are more of an issue for full size rafts that often would be forced to remain in the main channel at low water. When necessary, the pack rafts can avoid these by diverting into the typically shallow side channels upstream or hiking around the obstacle with the Alpacka. Another hazard to watch for is in the vicinity of Bryson Bar where the main channel flows straight into a rock wall and then along the base to the north. There is a hole and tricky currents. We decided to avoid this by hiking half a mile to the south with the inflated rafts tied to our backpacks until we found another river channel.

Downstream of Ultima Thule Lodge and Bear Island, the river velocity slows to an estimated velocity of 4 to 5 mph and the channels meander more. We observed the bison herd on the flight in along the southern margins of the gravel bar, 5 to 7 miles downstream of Bear Island. The common 10 to 15 ft circles of disturbed vegetation and dirt are where they dig, roll, and bed down.

Two miles upstream of the confluence with the Tana River, the Chitna narrows again into a single channel, the velocities increase, and the banks rise. These last 4 miles to the Jake’s Bar take out contain some class II sections with exposed rocks and holes in the main flow. We paddled in the shallower and slower moving water along the south bank to the mouth of the Tana. The north bank of the Chitna is steep and approximately 100 ft high while all but a short ¼ mile section of the south bank is easily accessible. The Tana is another large, fast river that increases the amount of discharge to the Chitna by an estimated 40 %. There is a strong cross current at the confluence of the two rivers with one current pushing over the other. This is the most likely place to flip a pack raft downstream of the headwaters. We pulled out just upstream of the confluence, carried the rafts over to the Tana and crossed it separately. Just downstream of the confluence on the outside bend is Stenmark’s Folly rapid. For those wanting to avoid this fast, splashy ride, stay on the inside bend or hike up on the open bench along the south shore. There is a small slough along the north bank that begins downstream of the rapids. The Jake’s Bar landing strip and public use cabin are at the downstream end of the slough.

Enjoy!

Alan Peck
Eagle River, AK

More pictures from the trip.

And the last few pictures.
Alan

Beautiful country! Attached is a map for those unfamiliar with the area. Hubert’s Landing is clearly marked on the SE corner of the map; Jake’s Bar is at the trail terminus on the NW edge of the map.