Backside Lake to Coffee River

Coffee River is a Denali Park Ranger pet-project… a rowdy 20 miles of whitewater they fly over on the way to and from each Denali patrol. The first descent was by rangers (Tucker Chenoweth, Mik Shain, and Jeff Pflueger) at high water. Details are vague, but it sounded terrifying. Chris Erickson (another Ranger) has been waiting for low water conditions, noticed them on his last patrol, and pulled Brad Meiklejohn and myself in for a last-minute hike and float during his 3-day vacation. The weather and water level were perfect! Chris said he didn’t allow himself to check weather leading up to the trip because he was too nervous that things might not come together.

As far as I know, the best way to get to Backside Lake is a floatplane from Talkeetna. I think the plane is generally a beaver, 4-passenger, costing ~ $250/person.

Our route from Backside Lake was 10 miles: an easy crossing of the Ruth Glacier (nice sticky ice, no real cracks to avoid unless you head too far north), a scramble up large boulders to the pass south of Mount Lee, and then progressively brushier descent to Coffee River. 8 of the 10 miles were excellent travel. The last two were pretty bad… thick alders, boulders, and some bonus devil’s club.

We opted for a direct route north of a large landslide, which eliminated a mile of bushwhacking, but then ended up portaging nearly all of the river as it tore through the landslide, dropping 150 ft in a mile. The portages were quite challenging. Hiking the brush to below the landslide might be easier, it is hard to say. If I were to do it again, I’d still head north of the slide, but I’d keep packs on to portage the landslide.

Below the landslide was a mix of Class II – V rapids. The highlights were a 1-mile section of sustained Class III water (upper “canyon”), and then two miles of boulder-choked class III/IV water (lower “canyon”). We scouted a lot of the lower canyon, but were able to run every rapid. The gradient is 100 ft/mile in the lower canyon.

River miles, low water, 400 – 500 cfs, September, 2018
-4: Glacer terminus
0: Start of landslide, we portaged nearly everything
1: End of landslide
1 – 1.75: Class II
1.75 – 2.5: mix of Class II, III, and portages
4: Class III upper “canyon”
6: Class II
13: Picking up, last good beach camp is at 13.25, which is the start of the lower canyon
13 – 15: Class III/IV “canyon”, a lot of scouting, but ran everything
15: Class II
16: Confluence with Chulitna River, 11 miles to Chulitna Bridge, +20 to Talkeenta

Thanks to Chris for the homework and invite!