I’ve never been particularly interested in guiding. I have a lot of friends who used to guide, and they were all pretty eager to transition into more stable jobs as they aged (there are exceptions … Joe Stock is the most vocal about LOVING his job).
One of my favorite guiding stories is from Louis Sass. During the first dinner prep at the basecamp of Denali, a client told Louis that he couldn’t eat what was being prepared because he was on the Atkins diet. This basically sums up my expectation of what guiding is like.
So, it took some convincing when Amity and Jaysun reached out asking me to plan a remote packrafting trip. Amity and Jaysun came up to Alaska a few years ago for a packrafting course and I was very impressed with their ability to roll with the punches. Their trip coincided with heavy rain and high water, so we rapidly pivoted from Plan A to B to C searching for appropriate water to paddle. Their resilience and great attitudes were the deciding factors that convinced me to try a remote trip together. No Atkins diet surprises here.
I did a lot of homework to find appropriate destinations in different parts of the state so that we could make the final decision based on the weather. I also wanted something fun for me, and ideally new. But this is risky. My risk and wilderness medicine mentor Deb Ajango has written,
… it is unacceptable for an instructor, bored with the ‘easy and familiar’ routes, to take students or clients to a more challenging site simply for personal pleasure.”
-Deb Ajango, Lessons Learned II
But that’s what I did, and it bit us in the butt. It was a nibble, but it could have been a lot worse.
The problem is that I’m way more interested in instruction than traditional guiding. I wanted to go somewhere new so that we could discover it together. Looking across a valley seems like a wonderful way to share what that I’ve learned about traveling off-trail in an unfamiliar landscape. These ‘decision point’ conversations are a big part of what Sarah and I enjoy so much during our time outside.
Weather and logistics pointed us toward the Wrangells. Part of the adventure of visiting the Wrangells is driving the road to McCarthy. My history with this road goes back 25 years and includes multiple flat tires, a bent backing plate (parking brake), and a lost muffler. The road is in much better shape now, and yet …
Fifteen miles from McCarthy we got a flat. We pulled over in a pull-out that I fondly remember napping in at the end of the 2012 Wilderness Classic (we only needed to drive 15 miles but I was so exhausted that we pulled over to sleep after two—Josh Mumm was already asleep).
When we pulled over to install the spare tire, Amity commented that it was weird that the hissing sound was so loud on the opposite side of the car. Oh. Make that two flats, one fast, one slow. Our hope was to quickly replace the fast leak with the spare tire and race to McCarthy while the slow leak still held air.
Some years ago, John Sykes (no stranger to the McCarthy road—we finished our monster 370-mile Logan traverse there in 2014) gave me a tire-mount bike rack. The rack was bent from a fender bender and John had a new one from insurance. We unbent the original, kind of, and installed it on Sarah’s Jeep. Five years later … the mechanism to remove the rack was completely packed with dirt and rust. In addition, I had threaded a cable lock through the rim to lock our bikes, but the combination wheels had fused.
As the slow leak hissed like sand through an hourglass, we attempted progressively more desperate techniques to remove the rack, eventually bending it by brute force until it snapped. I was able to cut through the cable lock with a leatherman. Once we had the spare, the tire swap was NASCAR-fast. We continued driving and flagged down an RV with a compressor to top off the slow-leak tire.
We reached McCarhty too late for dinner or a shuttle to our cabin, so we walked four miles in the rain, arriving after midnight. Welcome to McCarthy and Luc’s first guided trip!
Up and Over
We slept in and then packed up for the classic “Up and Over” route to McCarthy Creek. Part of the allure of heading to the Wrangells was that we could paddle a steep low-volume creek and the big water Nizina in the same week. McCarthy Creek is an absolute gem of a day trip, and it didn’t disappoint: hiking with ridiculous scenery, watching an indifferent grizzly, and paddling some of the most continuous quality Class II/III water in Alaska.
Our plane to Skolai Pass had an empty seat so I invited my friend Casey up from Bellingham. Casey was a grad school buddy (with a scar to show for it), who then lived in Anchorage for a few years. Casey bought a whitewater kayak to impress a girl in grad school (it worked), and had some packraft experience in Alaska, but hadn’t paddled much in recent years. I hoped that McCarthy Creek would be a great re-introduction to whitewater. It was a little spicier than ideal, but Casey did great. The rapids were well within Amity and Jaysun’s comfort zones and they appreciated the quality of the run.
Due to a late start and giving the grizzly a wide birth, we didn’t get back to town until just a few minutes before nine, which is significant because that is when The Potato closes. But not if you have Monte with you! We scored a major pickup when Monte (from Kennicott Wilderness Guides) joined for the day. In addition to leading the lines down the river, Monte’s man-about-town status earned us an after-hours meal. Thank you Monte!
The Goat Trail
This report has me constantly referring to prior trips to the Wrangells. That’s because the mountains are amazing, truly unique amongst Alaska’s beautiful landscapes, with tall limestone cliffs, cool geology, and a lot of good alpine hiking. Well worth visiting and revisiting.
My first trip to the Goat Trail was an extended date in 2011 with Katie, a zoologist and surfer babe finishing up her time at the University of Hawaii. I had heard that the Goat Trail was a great hike and could be completed by packrafting to McCarthy. Sounds like a great date, right? I should have known, given the name, that the trail would be steep and uncomfortable in places. The exposure spooked us both, but due to my rock-climbing years, I had more trust in my feet and ability to catch a slip. Katie re-discovered that she is uncomfortable with heights. It was a huge relief to reach the valley floor, but then we were faced with the steep, boulder-choked, boiling glacial Chitistone River. The water made me nervous, but Katie didn’t even flinch. Her surfing experience prepared her to get thrown around by the water and expect that things eventually chill out, which they do. Pretty cool.
So, back I go. The flight was amazing and I loved seeing how excited everyone was about the landscape.
The forecast predicted a wet and cold day followed by improving weather, so we hiked to Chitistone Pass and set up camp with the expectation of hiding from the rain for a day. The forecast was correct and we left the pass two days later on a thin blanket of snow.
The Goat Trail was in excellent condition (I suspect that it is always better later in the season after it gets the most visitors … sections likely get washed out each spring) and we were treated with clearing skies.
There are two spooky sections on the trail. The first is the first climb out of the valley. The footing is actually great, but there is serious overhead hazard and intimidatingly loud boiling water below. This is a good section for helmets. The next sketchy section is the final traverse to reach the grassy slopes above Chitistone Falls. This section has a thin veneer of scree over loosely in-place rock bands. Not much you can do here except take it slow.
The new-to-me section of our route was a detour from the Goat Trail that stays in the alpine rather than dropping down to the Chitistone River. I had done the Chitistone option earlier this summer and was surprised by how slow the travel was along the river to Toby Creek where we started paddling (brushy banks and a fresh landslide—not to be confused with the old landslide—make the travel slow).
We stayed in the alpine (this area is described as ‘Wolverine,’ and there is a popular landing zone on the plateau above the Chitistone) and headed toward Doubtful Pass and Creek. We had been warned that the travel along Doubtful was bad, but I suspected it was not as bad as the new landslide along the Chitistone. I was wrong.
To be clear, the walking and scenery are mind-blowingly good until the descent into Doubtful. Limestone cliffs, waterfalls, and glaciers above, geodes below. Progress is slow while overturning rocks to look for crystals.
The first mile in Doubtful Creek is fine, though it involves walking on river rocks and through shallow creek crossings. Route-finding gets harder as lobes of rock glacier elbow in from the south (left) and you descend into the alder band. We pulled out of the drainage at the first waterfall. I think most visitors pull the plug earlier (due to higher water?). What follows is an uncomfortable walk over rock glaciers. The hiking is similar to moraine travel, but you can’t count on the rocks, even large ones, not to shift. We gingerly picked our way through the rocks, moving well under one mile per hour.
After a steep descent back to the creek, we raced daylight to finish the final miles to the lake. The challenges along this stretch are waist-deep river crossings and some bushwhacking. We used several of the strategies that I teach in swiftwater safety courses for the crossings.
I had anticipated eight hours of travel on our Doubtful day, but it ended up being fourteen. We all had to push harder than we wanted, and a few falls in the rocks were a scary reminder of how challenging it would be to recover if something more serious went wrong. We felt fortunate to escape with minor cuts, bruises, and only one sprained ankle (Amity’s), which we taped. Amity was able to grit her teeth through these last tough miles and we were all relieved to collapse on a soft dryas bench for the night (river right, about 1/4 mile from the lake).
In the morning we walked to the lake and marveled at the icebergs. We inflated our packrafts at the edge of the lake, grateful to be off of our legs for the day.
The Nizina starts with three miles of Class II/III water. No distinct rapids, but steep and continuous big water that can easily flip a raft (and has flipped many, including a fatality in 2018 [no PFD or dry suit]). Amity and Jaysun were at ease in the bigger water, but Casey was in his stretch zone … partly due to being in a borrowed boat with a slow leak (soft boats are less responsive), and partly from being out of boat control practice. Casey capsized halfway through this section and was surprised that his spray skirt didn’t automatically pop off. He didn’t end up separating from the boat until the suspenders ripped off of the skirt—the skirt stayed on the boat the whole time.
I caught an eddy to drop speed and then peeled out to be alongside Casey and offer help. He kept one hand on his boat and then grabbed the rope handle at the stern of my boat so that I could tow him to shore. I saw his paddle on the way and threw it to shore to recover later. This all worked quite well.
When Jaysun reached us at the shore he stepped out of his boat to convey to Casey with body language that we were in no rush … take your time, recover. Pro move.
The river gradient mellowed and we devised a temporary plug for Casey’s zipper leak using Aquaseal UV. The rest of the float was uneventful—gorgeous and not scary.
We spent the night near the end of the McCarthy May Creek Road. Casey hiked the road and ran the shuttle so that the rest of us could paddle the Nizina Canyon. The Canyon has a few fun Class III rapids (optional at low water levels) and a more scenic walk than the May Creek Road.
We found Casey, ate The Potato burritos that he had picked up, and started the drive home. We only got one flat tire during the exit, which felt like an improvement. Two lugnuts vibrated off a tire as well.
I’m still trying to figure out my lessons learned. I felt quite prepared to manage the things that went wrong during our trip (medical and swiftwater training, repair kit). And I loved going somewhere new, even though it turned out to be hard travel. But our Doubtful day felt right at the limit of the stretch zone and it sure could have been done better. Camping in the creek before the rock glacier (and knowing what to expect) would make the crux, while still physically difficult, at least safer and easier mentally. I felt obligated to push through the long day because we had already used our weather day and didn’t see any good camp options.
The other missing piece is how to weave more instruction into the day. This group already had a ton of experience, and maybe that’s why it felt like we didn’t dedicate much time to formal instruction. Or maybe the point is that it doesn’t need to be formal. Or maybe we would have sat and chatted more if the daily agenda involved fewer miles.
So … I’ve got a few things to sort out before taking on a similar guided/instructional trip. Alaska is going to throw curveballs, that’s just part of the game. But it is a game I love to play and share!