Upper Gilahena + Lower Kuskalana, Wrangells

The Gilahena on the north side and the Klu on the south side of the Chitina are two of the few clearwater creeks in the Chitina Valley that have been run in packrafts. For years I’ve looked at the lower Gilahena downstream of the Trestle on the drive in and thought, nah, looks too woody and shallow. But that changed when Monte of Kennicott Guides sent me an email last winter saying he’d hiked up and looked at the 1.5 mile canyon above the trestle on the way to McCarthy – Class III said his email, at least the bit he’d run. He also said the lower stretch down to the Chitina had lots of full width logs.

So on May 24, Toby Schwoerer and I decided to hike up and look at it on our way to run the lower Kuskalana.

We walked up on the bluffs river right so we could look in. The Gilahena upstream of its small west trib is set down in a deep canyon of sharp, hard green rock. It drops 300 feet in its one mile length. The north side is open bluffs capped with white spruce and aspen. The southern rim is black spruce and alder.

In the woods along the lower creek we saw lots of down wood, windthrow from last Fall and some we could see stretched over the creek. There was a bit of ice too, but no visible bridges (unlike McCarthy Creek two days before when we hiked 10 miles up for a two mile run). And there was pretty much continuous whitewater. After about an hour and a half of walking through open aspen woods leading to mossy spruce we heard pounding and crept up to the edge. Below us we saw a 15-20 footer, Gilahena Falls. Downstream of the Falls was a double ledge drop, both in the 3 and 4 foot range – and below that a very steep long sievy corner. Then a left turn with a log 6 inches above water line above another piece of gnar with a cave at its top.

We scrambled down and put in below the water fall after scouting the double drop which went very Ship-Bird-Montana ploppy-boof like. We had no thigh straps and were running the Jackson Backband that Luc used in Mexico and a nice semi-circle of foam in the bow to push against. We are both Yak-sized but liked the Llama with carabinered-backrest and foam foot pad.

The 20 footer has a vertical log stuffed down its drop. The double drop “To-by or not To-by” was IV- . Shortly below is the sievy “Gutter Crawl”, a IV and manky, then a 150 yards below is the IV+ or higher but the log kept us from trying it. Below this obvious “boat eater” is about 3/4 mile of pretty much continuous splashy filler, never harder than class III, but requiring the ability to catch wee eddies and scout ahead, then signaling to a partner to come by and catch the next eddy, swinging boat-scout leads down the creek as there is wood and potential for landslides and lots of blind corners.

The final narrow gorge taking a hard right then left is especially blind, and I believe what Monte ran last year (III). We scouted it from high cliffs on river right and spotted a log at the downstream end so we opted to portage that last gorge.

All in all it was a real creeking adventure, perhaps one of the few to be had on clear water along the road to McCarthy. Car to car it was 5 hours. Afterwords we paddled the lower 8 miles of the Kuskalana in two hours, hiked up from the Chitina Bar, walking the ice on Van and Silver Lakes back to the road in 2.5 hours, and then Toby, stud that he is, ran 10k back to the truck. Then we drove back to Anchorage under a rising, then setting full moon.

It was a good day

I did the lower several years ago and it does have alot of wood. It has an interesting looking canyon, class II-III after the Choksona joins(I think thats the river) and is alittle better than the first couple of miles. The Chitna ride back is long and slow though. Nah, there’s much better closer to home.