The Whale’s Tail

The “Whale’s Tail” is a unique mountain peninsula in Denali National Park. The Tail is bounded by massive glaciers in the Alaska Range. Can you see it?

Most people access the Whale’s Tail via floatplane to Backside Lake (but not Eric and Billy!), indicated by the red star in the image above. I’d been to Backside Lake once before (to paddle Coffee River) and knew that I wanted to go back—it is a stunning setting, one of the coolest in all of Alaska.

I believe floatplane access is through Rust’s Air. The packrafter’s exit involves paddling the Tokositna and Chulitna rivers down to Talkeetna, about 12 hours on the water. It was very cool for me to revisit this float … I had done it ten years ago when we biked/skied/and rafted a traverse of Mt. Denali. That trip really showed me what was possible by packing light and planning multi-sport adventures.

Sarah and I were very fortunate to join a Ranger Patrol as part of the Denali Rescue Volunteer program. We met rangers Galen Dossin in Talkeetna, waited for the clouds to lift, and then boarded a helicopter. A second ranger, Chrissie Oken, was already at the lake. Chrissie and Galen are friends of friends, part of the NOLS family, which is a really cool group of people. Sarah and I were nervous—this would be my first outing after breaking my foot at the start of the summer, and my inability to get outside resulted in Sarah getting outside less as well. But we couldn’t have hoped for a better group dynamic. It was really cool to be on the same page the entire trip.

NPS requires leather boots for helicopter travel, which resulted in a bit of a scramble because Sarah and I don’t use them. I found a pair of 3-pin telemark ski boots that I haven’t used in ten years, Sarah found a pair of her boots in our giveaway pile, and Galen wore cowboy boots! We left the boots with the helicopter because it was a one-way flight; we would finish the trip by paddling to Talkeetna.

Low clouds prevented us from accessing the ridge directly above Backside Lake. We opted to stay low while the travel was good (6 or 7 miles). Sarah climbed over a rocky ridge that was not on our direct path and then came back to pull us all on a detour. The detour featured an amazing steep stream that drains into a massive moulin in the Ruth Glacier. Super cool.

When the low travel started to look less convenient, we climbed to access the ridge. The ridge travel was excellent and had stunning views even with Denali and the other big peaks hidden by the clouds. With five healthy legs between the four of us, we swapped trekking poles for the hard parts.

I captured one of my favorite all-time photos as Sarah hiked the narrowest section of the Whale’s Tail, with the Ruth glacier and steep peaks in the background.

The ridge eventually got too rocky for us and we opted to drop down a steep slope to skip a quarter mile of rocky ridge. It might be possible to stay on the ridge, but we collectively decided to skip it all. Sidehilling was tough on my mending foot, so this was a pretty easy decision for me.

Back on the ridge, we approached the steep granitic Tokosha peaks. A perched lake and thinning clouds made for a wonderful camp, which was especially welcome because we suspected that the next day would be difficult.

From camp we discussed two options: descend Second Creek to the Tokositna River, an ‘established’ route but with thick brush, or gamble on an alpine route that would involve more elevation gain and sidehilling, but with less brush. We were ultimately drawn down Second Creek by the super cool granitic steps and water slides. But given the brush that we encountered, I’ll definitely try the alpine option next time.

I didn’t take any photos of the 1/4 mile-per-hour pace alder. It was pretty bad. The juicy blueberries and watermelon berries were very appreciated because we were out of water for about four hours. This was morale-breaking travel, and I was really impressed with Sarah and Galen’s willingness to pick a line through the brush. Chrissie tweaked her knee and maintained a positive attitude throughout. I was struck by Galen and Chrissie’s cool combination of grit and professionalism.

We walked down the creek as soon as it was walkable (not floatable due to deadfall), and stopped at the first decent gravel bar (barely large enough for the four of us) around 10 PM. It had taken about twelve hours to travel six miles. We boiled water for dinner while inflating our boats so that we could paddle to a better camp site.

In the morning we were treated by a hot sun, fast miles, and great views of the Alaska Range mountains. We arrived in Talkeetna around 6 pm.

Hydration station! But not for Chrissie.

The craziest part of the trip wasn’t even part of the trip. On the beach in Talkeetna we were chatting with a young family when a toddler (three-year-old?) slipped into the water and instantly started getting swept into the current, face down. It was clear that his mom had been alert to this possibility and she quickly waded in and scooped him out—much quicker than my own reaction, which was along of the lines of, “Why isn’t that kid rolling onto his back?” It was a really good lesson in terms of how quickly something can go wrong and how critical his mom’s awareness was. A common theme in The Packraft Handbook is “anticipate what can go wrong and train to respond correctly if/when it does.” Great job mom.

Huge thanks to Chrissie, Galen, and the volunteer program for giving us this awesome opportunity! I can’t wait to go back—and find a better exit!

1 Comment

  1. Beaut trip to the Whale’s tail. Must feel special to have it to yourself. That shot of Sarah and the Ruth Glacier is tops!

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