The guidebook description of Nellie Juan River sticks with you.
The Nellie Juan is one of the most demanding and rewarding rivers in the world: a very challenging, multidimensional, experts-only run on a strikingly beautiful, absolutely pristine stream.
I’ve wanted to see the river since first reading about it, but besides three or four descents in the 1980s, there is effectively no information about the river. The river has been run since then, but only a handful of times, as far as I can tell. The Nellie Juan is guarded by Andrew Embick’s harrowing description, “Class V (suitable only for highly skilled kayakers endowed with a high degree of endurance and motivation).” Access involves flying to Nellie Juan Lake and then chartering a boat or airplane from King’s Bay in Prince William Sound. So, it is an expensive trip. But paddlers are more deterred by the endurance part than the cost.
Steep walls of alder and devil’s club guard the alpine zones of Prince William Sound. Add steep-walled canyons with Class V and VI rapids to the equation, and you get Embick’s assessment, “At high water levels… there is less and less whitewater between the extremes of easy and lethal.”
Our trip down the Nellie Juan was more of a planning accomplishment than anything else. We used all the tools in the box:
- Sentinel near-real-time imagery to determine when the lake thawed
- Strava heatmap to identify a trail that saved us a few miles of walking up the South Fork Snow River
- Gaia’s public routes for a snowmachine trail through a section of 500 ft/mile river gradient
- Google Earth
- ESRI Worldview
- Windy.com weather
Pat was able to fly the river with a pilot friend at the last minute, which felt a bit like cheating but turned out to be very helpful, of course.
Jeremy Wood, Pat Gault, and I headed toward Seward in early June. We carried six days of food, which weighs about the same as our packrafts and paddles (we were all in Alpacka’s whitewater Wolverine model). We wanted to make the trip late enough for the lake to have thawed, but early enough for the alder and devil’s club to not have leafed out, which makes for much more comfortable hiking and portaging. Based on satellite imagery, the lake still had ice on it nine days before our trip.
The hiking was excellent. Countless crossings of the shallow South Fork Snow River brought us up to a recently deglaciated pass and down to the lake. We paddled until 11 PM to set up camp on the far side of the lake.
In the morning, we anxiously geared up for a day of unknowns on the river. The first rapid was a Class IV drop where the river walls closed to 20-feet. The tongue looked great, but the rapid ended in a “frowning” hole, meaning that the backwash from the hole would kick you back into the hole, rather than out the edges. We concluded the rapid was pretty low consequence but didn’t want to start the day off with a swim, so we portaged the rapid.
One of the coolest parts of this trip was that I was never scared. We were deep in technical water, but totally on the same page about what to run and what to walk. Most of the canyon sections started with a hard Class V or VI rapid, making decisions easy.
We had two strategic options: portage the entire canyon sections (which averaged 0.5 miles) or portage the nasty entrance rapid, get back in the river and expect to portage whatever else we encountered in the canyons. Based on how hard the entrance rapids were, we chose to portage each canyon section. This decision was influenced by Embick’s description of “spectacular and lethal” rapids, as well as one rapid that “is scoutable but not portageable.” I forgot to mention that we are not Class V boaters. We are not. We portaged five of the seven canyon sections. The 4th and 5th canyons did not have entrance rapids, and we were able to boat and shore scout those sections.
We reached King’s Bay just before midnight, caught high tide, and paddled to camp on the grass at King River. The fog slowly swirled around us, a wonderfully surreal welcome to the ocean.
In the morning (barely, it took some convincing to get out of the tents), we packed up and began the return trip. Our route took us up a steep ramp to reach alpine terraces. The ramp involved grabbing handfuls of vegetation to pull ourselves between small cliffs. We paralleled a small tributary that we could see into, but the spray in the air made it clear that we were portaging another waterfall.
The alpine was as good as we could hope, with views of the glaciers pouring down from Sargent Ice Field, terraced lakes below us, and glimpses into the Nellie Juan River. We crossed a divide into the Snow River drainage after downclimbing recently deglaciated cliffs along the flanks of Wolverine Glacier and crossing the glacier. We spent the night at Upper Paradise Lake Cabin, a welcome retreat during the wind and rain we had raced to escape.
We expected the Snow River to serve as a sleepy exit to close our loop, but the river surprised us with fun rapids and beautiful scenery. It also surprised us with a portage that was known to be hard but turned out to be the slowest of all our portages (four hours?). We visited the river in a few locations to gape at the seemingly lethal waterfalls. Some professional kayakers have run this section, which seems pretty unbelievable to me.
Some friends in the kayak community have expressed concern about exposing the hidden gem of Nellie Juan. But it isn’t a hidden gem; it is in the guidebook as a world-class challenge. Embick’s description is spot-on. Even at low water, the river is Class V and suitable for highly skilled kayakers endowed with a high degree of endurance and motivation. Or, less skilled packrafters with endurance, motivation, and excellent risk assessment.
Thanks to Louis Sass and Shad O’Neel for information on the Wolverine Glacier and water levels, Jason Buttrick for the recon, Joe Yelverton for photos, and Andrew Embick for writing the guidebook.
All three boats are the Alpacka Raft Wolverine whitewater model.