Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Packrafting in Technicolor

Vibrant colors illuminate the East Fork Susitna River basin

The wide spectrum of light sent me into a visual overload. It seemed like my brain was confused at how to process the incredible array of wavelengths entering my eyes. My vision had previously adjusted to the washed out colors brought on by a rather cloudy and wet, monochromatic August. But as September and autumn rolled in, summer-like weather decided to throw one last performance with bright, warm sunshine lighting up a chromatic display of fall foliage.

We headed into the Alaska Range south of Fairbanks for our final packrafting trip of the season. My nephew and I had traversed the Clearwater Mountain area earlier in the summer, and I was excited to return and explore more of this countryside. I was intrigued by the easy access to the open tundra, shimmering alpine lakes, sweeping valleys, and dramatic views of glaciated peaks looming above the horizon. All of this is within easy reach of our limited Alaska road system.

We started our trek near the end of the Valdez Creek mine road, at which point a dendritic network of mining trails branch out into the surrounding mountains. These trails provide easy access to the high country. Our traverse led us up one of these paths for about 6 miles, at which point we veered off and paraded across the tundra for an additional 20 miles of cross country walking. Our destination was the East Fork Susitna River a few miles from its start at the terminus of the glacier with the same name. From there we floated 32 miles back to the Denali Highway bridge where we stashed bikes and running shoes for the 11 mile trip back up to the truck. The walking was superb with firm tundra, minimal bushwhacking, excellent alpine lake swimming, easy floating and portaging, plentiful wildlife viewing, along with classic Alaska scenery.

We had to cross Valdez Creek a handful of times as we worked our way up the drainage. A well established 4-wheeler trail provided easy access to the alpine and eliminated the need to fight our way through the chest high dwarf birch.

A classic example of solifluction lobes are draped along the hillside. These features resemble oozing tongues of molasses. They are created as the first meter or so of frozen soil, also known as the active layer, thaws during the summertime. Gravity takes its toll on this water saturated active layer of permafrost and it slowly slips downhill along the interface with the permanently frozen ground below.

Curious caribou are prevalent in this part of the Alaska Range.

The tundra grasses and sedges had transitioned into a soft yellow carpet with the onset of fall. In July my nephew and I had strolled down this valley through fields of wildflowers on our way to float Clearwater Creek. For this trip we just skimmed the upper edge of the drainage on our way to a rock strewn pass.

The vertical face of Mt Deborah towers over Ben and Heather.

The fall foliage reflects from one of the many unnamed alpine lakes.

Dea and Heather enjoy the unbelievably stellar walking across the firm tundra and brush free landscape.

Ben approaches yet another beautiful, crystal clear lake. We swam in nearly every pool of water we encountered along our route.

Our progress was slowed by the bountiful supply of plump blueberries which weighed down the bright red bushes.

A choir of cotton grass stands proudly along the edge of another nameless alpine lake.

Ben hesitantly walks through the bright red-leafed blueberry bushes as he makes the final descent to the East Fork Susitna River.

A carpet of tundra and game trails led us right down to our put-in on the silty waters of the East Fork Susitna River.

The East Fork Susitna River was mostly easy class I water, except for a 1.5 mile stretch of rapids just above the confluence with the main stem of the Sustina River. At the water levels we encountered, the rapids were generally class II, with a very short class III rocky drop which required some quick maneuvering.

Portaging around any portion of the rapids on the East Fork Susitna was easy due to a well worn game trail along the south bank of the river.

A portion of the 1.5 mile stretch of rapids on the East Fork Susitna River. A very short class III bouldery section is just up river from this point.

The glaciated peaks of the Alaska Range dominate the skyline above the main stem of the Susitna River. We dragged and powered our way through a few miles of very shallow, braided channels on the Susitna River. Otherwise, the entire traverse was an awesome way to close out the 2009 packrafting season.


Anonymous said...

Beautiful photos- the light and colors are exquisite.

Dr. Cookie said...

Ed, thanks so much for adding color to my windowless office on a gray solstice day! What a treat. -- Robin

Anonymous said...

incredible place! xxx

Lorena G. Sims said...

awesome..such a breathtaking pictures...

Dan said...

awesome trip! i'll have to add it to the "to do" list.

spruceboy said...

We did a version of this trip last weekend - it was fantastic! Thanks for trip idea!

By the way, last year one of the teams on the Wilderness Classic dumped on the rapids on the East fork of the Su, losing his raft, paddle, and a shoe: see here for more details .

Kellie said...

how many days did you end up taking?!?

Vicky said...

Great Blog! How long did this trip take?