2020 Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic

Talkeetna Mountains: Cantwell to Sheep Mountain Lodge (Ahtna land)

Photos by Luc Mehl, Lee Helzer, and Alan Rogers

In 2001 I was a graduate student in the UC Santa Barbara Geology Department. I spent three summers collecting rocks as part of a research project to determine how continents grow. We focussed on the Talkeetna Arc, a sliver of ocean islands that were accreted to the continent (Alaska) and are now exposed in the Chugach and Talkeetna mountains.

The relationship between the Talkeetna and Chugach mountains was not well understood, so Matt Rioux, my officemate and great friend, was tasked with dating rocks from the Talkeetna Mountains.

Matt proposed that we fly into the Terrace Lakes in the Talkeetna Mountains, collect samples and then hike to Black Lake for a return flight. I thought he was crazy. I had done “a lot of” hiking in Alaska, but it had all been on trails. I didn’t think people could just go backpacking off-trail. Matt was persistent.

We took two days to connect the lakes, traveling through amazing scenery, and I distinctly remember thinking, “Man, this is special. We are way out here. Too bad there isn’t any way to access this without a floatplane.”

My understanding of what is possible in wilderness travel has changed a lot over the past twenty years. I finally made it back to Terrace Lakes, this time on foot as part of the Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic.

My previous Summer Classic was the 2016 Brooks Range course. Due to ailing joints, I’ve hesitated to participate since then. But I really wanted to revisit Terrace Lakes and the Talkeetna Mountains. I knew I needed sleep to let my body heal during the night. I had never carried a sleeping bag in a Summer Classic but wanted a bag, pad, and shelter this time. Funny that I’m willing to carry more weight now that I’m not as strong.

I checked in with my previous Classic partners Matt Kupilik, Brian, and John Pekar. Matt said they were planning to sleep six hours. Sweet! I was hoping for at least four hours a night, and six sounded even better. No, Matt explained, six hours total, over four or five days, without sleeping bags or shelter. Ugh. I’d need different partners.

I texted Lee Helzer. Lee and Alan Rogers have been teaming up for the Classics for five years, always as a duo. Lee said they were planning on at least six hours of sleep and that I was welcome to join. We discussed gear and route, and it felt like we were very much on the same page. Hooray!

Lee and Alan had completed the Talkeetna course last year and planned to repeat the same route, fine-tuning a few sections. Lee explained that he planned the route by drawing a straight line from start to finish, then tweaking the line as little as possible to accommodate the landscape. I mentioned my strong desire to revisit the Terrace Lakes and Lee was happy to accommodate.

We had a wonderful dynamic. The pace was a good fit, and we averaged 7 hours of sleep. Alan ran the stove each night and had a knack for not returning group gear whenever it reached his hands. Lee kept us on the efficient route he had thoroughly planned. I contributed by picking good lines through the rapids and piecing together caribou trails.

The Cantwell to Sheep Mountain route is excellent (credit to John Pekar for proposing it). The first 20 miles are on ATV trails that fade into caribou trails. Then the Tsusena River is clean and clear, Class II/III rapids, with easy portage options. The Tsusena ramps up to a ~100-foot waterfall within a few miles of the Susitna River, so everyone hops out and portages the last few miles of swamp to reach the Susitna. The Susitna crossing is within a few miles of the proposed Susitna Dam, as evidenced by faint seismic lines cut in the early 1980s.

Up to this point, everyone traveled the same route. At the Susitna, some groups veered west into the Talkeetna River drainage or east for a longer route but more ATV trails. We kept to Lee’s straight shot.

After easy travel (46 miles in ~14 hours), it felt fair to be confronted with 5 miles of punishing marsh and swamp. This was ‘earbud’ terrain, meaning, I wish I’d had music and headphones to help zone out. Alan and Lee described it as the crux of the route. Fortunately, sinking into the swamp (mostly Alan) was fairly amusing, and the weather was good. We cleared the worst of the swamps just as a major thunderstorm rolled in, and we were grateful to have the dry mid to crawl under. It was amazing how quickly we warmed under the shelter.

Our third day was spent hiking terraced benches with good tundra travel. We crossed through Terrace Lakes and worked our way toward the Kosina River. The Kosina corridor was riddled with caribou trails, excellent travel. This is the same route Matt and I had taken 20 years ago, but nothing was familiar.

Day four was the scenic highlight of the trip. We hiked two passes, from the Kosina to the Black and then Oshetna valleys. The headwaters of the Black River were stunning. Lee has this section marked as ‘Awesome Valley’ on his GPS. We continued following well-developed caribou trails.

Day five started with a series of canyon under-estimations in the headwaters of the Oshetna River. Each drainage surprised us with steep walls without easy sneaks, a stark contrast to the flat green terraces leading up to the canyon edges. But we still made good time, found petrified wood and a herd of ~400 caribou, and continued to Mazuma Creek for the start of the ATV trail system that would bring us to Sheep Mountain. We hiked until Caribou Creek looked boatable, then floated until midnight to set up camp at Squaw Creek. Alan built a fire and we took time to appreciate our last evening in the woods.

At Squaw Creek participants had to choose between a morale-destroying 16-mile muddy ATV trail, a 7-mile, 4000-foot climb up and over Sheep Mountain, or an 8-mile Class III/IV technical paddle through Caribou Creek Canyon, followed by six miles on the highway. I was most interested in limiting the miles on my tender feet, and Lee and Alan were game to try the canyon, though it would be at the limit of their comfort level. We wouldn’t have considered paddling the canyon if the water was higher or if I wasn’t already familiar with the rapids and mandatory portage around a 20-foot waterfall. Eight miles, big smiles, and no swims later, we packed our boats for the highway walk to Sheep Mountain Lodge. The highway was mentally numbing, but two hours later we reached the lodge and bags of Heather Helzer’s chocolate chip cookies.

I’m really grateful to have been able to complete another Classic and learning that it can be done without damage to my body. We averaged 30 miles a day (5 days, 5 hours to cover 160 miles). The scenery exceeded my expectations and there are several sections I’d like to revisit, especially if I can get Matt Rioux back up here! I also feel very fortunate to have had such a good dynamic with Lee and Alan; it was a good reminder of how much partnerships contribute to my outdoor experience, leaving as much or more of an impression as the landscape.

I didn’t do a good job of meeting the other participants, but they included (in order of finish): {Sam Hooper}, {Matt Kupilik, Brian Pekar, John Pekar}, {Jay Cable, Tom Moran}, {Abe Meyerhofer, Noah Ripley, Matt Lutz}, {Tyndall Ellis, Ben Olwell, Adrian Barniak}, {Curtis Henry & Jacob Buller}, {Gabe? and ?}.


Quick and dirty gear list

  • Hyperlite Mountain Gear 4-person mid
  • Hyperlite Mountain Gear 4400 packs
  • Trekking poles
  • Alpacka packrafts (Classic and Expedition with whitewater decks)
  • 4-piece paddle
  • PFD
  • Drysuits or bibs and rain jacket
  • MSR WindBurner stove system
  • 4 oz canister fuel per person
  • 2 – 2.5 lbs food /person /day, including a Mountain House dinner /day
  • Sleeping pad, closed-cell foam or NeoAir
  • +40 sleeping bag
  • Inline water filter and liquid iodine for water treatment
  • inReach satellite messenger /person
  • Phone with Gaia GPS /person
  • Battery pack for USB charge
  • Leukotape for blisters
  • Synthetic insulated jacket with hood
  • Fast-drying pants
  • Mosquito head net

10 Comments

  1. Great video, beautiful trip! Out of curiousity why is that waterfall on caribou creek a mandatory portage? Looks like it might have a hellacious room of doom behind it but also like you might be able to get a good boof off of it to clear the recirc. Bad landing?

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    1. To clarify, it is a mandatory portage for me. Some kayakers have run it, nobody in a packraft, yet. The landing is shallow- the boils kick up rocks, and there is an undercut behind. Too bad, because otherwise, it would be a wonderful 20-footer!

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      1. Awesome. Did you feel fully recovered with the sleep? Do you think you could’ve done slightly less? I wonder what the sweet spot is and if naps with a long sleep would work as an alternative. I hope to experiment with it next year.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I could have gotten by with a little less sleep, but the extra time in the bag was probably good for my body. My energy felt great all day. But I was tired when I got home and spent two days with my legs elevated. That was it, on day three I started biking again and was back to normal activity by the end of the week. That has never been the case for me.

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          1. It helped that it was an easy course.

            On summer trips it feels like we are trying to move 8 hours a day, and on this Classic we were moving 16. Those are pretty good guidelines for me.

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