Talkeetna River

The Talkeetna Canyon is a renowned whitewater run, fourteen miles of nearly continuous whitewater through a remote gorge in the Talkeetna Mountains. Andrew Embick, a pioneering kayaker who explored dozens of Alaska rivers, called the Talkeetna the best whitewater trip in the state. At summer flows, the Talkeetna is a big, imposing river, with flows of 10,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) or more--the domain of skilled rafters and hard shell kayakers. However, once temperatures drop below freezing at night in the mountains, the Talkeetna Glacier releases far less water, and river levels drop significantly. Once water levels are closer to 5,000 cfs or below, it’s a great time for advanced packrafters (Class IV skills and higher) to descend the Talkeetna.
 Water levels aren’t the only thing that are different about the Talkeetna in the fall. Trees and tundra around the river look nearly molten, with intense yellow and red autumn foliage. The river itself is a piercing turquoise, in contrast to its silty gray hue in summer. It is a privilege to descend the Talkeetna under any conditions, but never more colorful than in the fall. The water’s azure clarity isn’t just attractive--it makes navigating the rapids far easier, compared to more opaque flows during periods of high glacial runoff.
 At summer flows, the Talkeetna is a relentless and powerful Class IV run. Countless holes are big enough to flip rafts, or absolutely annihilate the rare packrafter with audacity to run such big water. At half the volume (I ran the Talkeetna in mid-September 2018 at 4,000-4,250 cfs), the Talkeetna still has big, long, complex rapids, but there are generally flatter water sections between them, and it is possible for skilled packrafters to dodge the big holes and pour overs.

The canyon starts with Entrance Exam, a river-wide ledge with a narrow box canyon below it. At summer flows, the standard line is to punch the powerful river-wide hole center left, which can be tough to execute even in a raft. At low autumn flows, either center left or center right can be an option, but definitely get out above the rapid and scout, since it changes dramatically with water level. You’ll also want to scout the next, harder rapid downstream, which is called Toilet Bowl. It is a larger boulder garden with a massive boulder in the middle. At higher flows, this boulder creates a horrifying pour over behind it, hence the name “Toilet Bowl.” At lower flows, the water surges up on the boulder with huge lateral waves, and a stout pour-over just to the left, but doesn’t go over the rock. Guard holes just upstream of Toilet Bowl on right and left mean paddlers have to start in the middle of the river, then cut sharply left or right to avoid the rock in the middle. In my limited experience at around 4,250 and 10,000 cfs, moving from center to river left was easier than trying to avoid the very stickly, potentially recirculating river-right pour-over just above Toilet Bowl. Fortunately, there’s a period of flatter water downstream to recover boats, paddles, and people who have problems in the rapid. It would also be possible, though a bit inconvenient, to portage on the right. There are outstanding campsites right above and below Toilet Bowl at low water, but they are not there at higher flows.

Below Toilet Bowl, a couple miles of nearly flat water may lull you into a false sense of security until the rapids return. There are at least three large ledges and mini-canyons that are Class IV or perhaps IV- in character even at lower fall flows. Good water-reading skills are essential to avoid huge holes and sticky pour-overs.

At the end of the Talkeetna Canyon, two immense rock walls close in on the canyon like giant doors, though the river flows gently between them. Downstream, the river is placid and braided, meandering through a broad valley. Already, it can be hard to remember how narrow, constricted, and turbulent the Talkeetna was just a few miles upstream.

There are great campsites throughout the 35 or so miles that separate the end of the canyon from the town of Talkeetna. Count on about 6 hours of paddling time, and camp near clear water streams if you want to maximize odds of good fishing.

To paddle the Talkeetna in fall, fly in with the outstanding pilot Paul Roderick of Talkeetna Air Taxi. He’ll drop you off somewhere along the Talkeetna River between 10 and 20 miles upstream of the canyon. Alternatively, you can fly in with floats to Murder Lake and descend Prairie Creek to the Talkeetna, but Prairie is quite shallow by the end of summer, and also can have a lot of bears in it when the salmon are thick. Three days is a relaxing pace to paddle the canyon and fish a few clearwater creeks along the way, or two days would be sufficient for people who love being in their drysuits for eight hours at a stretch.

The Talkeetna River certainly has some of the best sustained whitewater I’ve paddled in Alaska, and it is a cheap and easy fly-in trip to explore one of Alaska’s great mountain ranges. If you’re a Class IV paddler, it should definitely be on your list for a long weekend in the fall.


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