I and several others recently packrafted this remote Alaska Range river as part of this year’s AlaskaCross, June 13-15.
Most of us put in at Forotten Creek (3100’) which at the low water we encountered provided just enough volume in the clear-running stream to make for an overall swift descent. Butt-boating was the only serious concern on the upper section, along with some minor braiding in a couple spots. From roughly Slate Creek’s confluence (2900’) to Portage Creek (2150’) the West Fork provides a bumpy series of near-continuous rock gardens. At the experienced water level, this section averages Class II+ (PR 3) with few sweepers to contend with. At normal flows, given the swift current and rock gardens without let-up, this section would average Class III despite the likelihood of a cleaner run. Less butt-scraping, but also less room for error, with the consequences of a swim being higher. A few drops along this section might warrant scouting, but at low water they are easily managed by intermediate boaters, and again might run more cleanly at normal flows.
The lower section of the West Fork, between Portage Creek and the confluence with the East Fork, provides a rather miserable experience at low water. At this point the river braids out heavily, so with the dissipated volume and increased amount of stream-wide sweepers and logjams, portaging and/or lining becomes both necessary and more frequent as you approach the mouth. Normal flows might alleviate lining to some extent as channel selection will boost your room for error, but sweepers will remain a consistent obstacle.
Once you enter the East Fork (1800’), a heavy-sediment load from this glacial river ruins your otherwise clear water (at low levels) but boosts your average current speed to over 10 mph in the main channels. Braids continue despite the increased volume, and are more difficult to read with the silty water. At about 5 miles from the mouth, sweepers and logjams provide a consistent and considerably dangerous obstacle, especially in a brief section 2 miles from the mouth where the river narrows within a forested area and is lined with logjams on all sides. There is at least one mandatory portage here that forces you to take out on a logjam. Failing to do so will result in a swim, as the current is too strong and the sweeper too low to avoid. Luckily this channel is low volume, so a quick recovery can be accomplished. After the intense wood section, the current tapers off as you approach and enter the Tanana.
Our take-out location was about a mile down on river right, where a trail exists leading to the Lost Lake scout camp, near Birch Lake on the Richardson Hwy.