Packraft trip

Paul Wilcox, Alex Gould and Spencer Gould stand next to the plane that dropped them at the start of their float trip. 

Outdoor editor’s note: Trip Report is an ongoing series about trail conditions around Interior Alaska.

Paul Wilcox wrote this trip report about a fly-in packraft trip in the Eastern Alaska Range.

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Party: Paul Wilcox, Alex Gould, Spencer Gould

Trip Location: Eastern Alaska Range-West Fork of Roberston River/no name creek/Elting Creek/Johnson River

Access: Trip started at headwaters of West Fork of Robertson River with a flight out with Tok Air Service. Packrafted and trekked to the Johnson River bridge. The trip involved about  20 miles trekking and about 25 miles of packrafting.

Trip date: Aug. 12-15

Trail or route conditions, wildlife sightings and any highlights from the trip: Zack Knaebel of Tok Air Service flew us to the headwaters of the West Fork of Robertson River with breezy, rainy conditions. A debris-covered glacier extending down from Mount Kimball could be seen in the distance. Even with the clouds and rain, a few craggy peaks popped out every now and then.

We prepared our packrafts for a pretty short, roughly 6 mile float down the West Fork of the Robertson to a prominent drainage with no name on the map. The river was running fast, but it was a non-technical, class II float. It took around 45 minutes to do the float.

We set up camp on a wide-open delta exiting out of the no name drainage. The water was non-glacial, which made for good drinking and cooking water. The clouds eventually cleared later in the evening and blue sky started to appear.

Day 2: The next morning, we packed up our gear and headed up an unnamed creek. Once we entered the confines of the canyon, we noticed the canyon getting noticeably tighter and trickier to navigate without stream crossings. To avoid this, we climbed up a scree slope to a bench above the canyon. After this, there was some side-hilling across some fairly brushy terrain before we dropped back down into the creek for non-brushy walking.

The walking up the creek was bouldery but with a gentle grade. The canyon eventually gave way to a wide tundra landscape with big craggy peaks all around. The creek braided at a few places here and required some stream crossing, but it was fairly shallow, about ankle deep.

We eventually came across a nice game trail on the right side of the valley that we walked until reaching a rocky moraine. We traveled along the right side of the moraine field until reaching a flat sandy creek that was just on the outside of the moraine field in a large basin. About half a mile later there was a prominent game trail that veered left into the moraine field. This path led directly to a pristine, turquoise colored alpine lake. A prominent mountain with hanging glaciers behind it and clean water from the lake made for a good camp spot. Dall sheep were seen wandering about the basin.

There was lots of interesting geology along this route, such as garnet schist. The different-colored rocks also made for an enjoyable sunset when the sun hit certain portions of the mountains.

It took roughly seven hours to hike the 7 miles to the alpine lake from the West Fork of the Robertson River. It would be difficult to go much faster due to the rough terrain and heavy packs with packraft gear.

Day 3: The following day there was a steep and rocky ascent up and over the pass with the final pitch being a scree scramble. The views at the top offered a look down the Elting Creek drainage and the route we would take. There was a nice green plateau on the right side of the valley that we aimed for. It was a quick, fairly easy descent down from the pass to the plateau. A lot of Dall sheep were seen on the surrounding slopes.

The plateau made for very enjoyable walking with great views of hanging glaciers and craggy peaks. It eventually took us to our first glimpse of the Johnson River quite a ways in the distance. The plateau we were walking above Elting Creek was soon cut by a large side-canyon. Because of this, we dropped into Elting Creek via a grassy slope, aiming for where the clear Elting Creek intersected the silty creek coming from the side-canyon.

Walking remained nice along Elting Creek, with clear streams entering the now silty Elting where we could fill up on water. We stayed on the right side of the creek, which seemed good.

Closer to the Johnson, the Elting soon entered a little canyon. There were a few times we had to walk in the creek and hold on to some alders to get around certain canyon sections, but it was fairly safe.

After the canyon, the Elting braids out before entering the Johnson River. There was a maze of stream crossings to avoid alder thickets and reach the Johnson River.

We set up camp on the banks of the Johnson River. The river was flowing fast and was very intimidating. There was a stream near camp that was murky but OK for drinking and cooking.

It took nine hours to hike the roughly 11 miles to the Johnson River from the alpine lake. Overall, the terrain was easier and the route-finding less difficult than hiking up the unnamed creek, but it was still slow-going due to difficulty of terrain.

Day 4: The following morning we noticed the water level in the Johnson had dropped since the previous night and looked much less intimidating. The murky stream near camp was also noticeably clearer. We inflated our packrafts and headed out.

The upper reach of the Johnson River was a single channel with fast water with large wave trains. The float was non-technical, but due to the speed and volume of the glacial water, if flipped, you would be swimming awhile. There were also a couple of scary big holes behind large boulders that would easily flip a cataraft. But they were easily avoidable.

After an hour (about 10 miles later) the river enters a wide canyon where the river braids and water slows down. We had to exit our packrafts a few times for downed trees and shallow sections. There were some impressive canyons looking toward the Macomb Plateau.

The river then takes a prominent right turn and the floating is laid-back for the remainder of the trip.

It took 3.5 hours to float the 20 miles of the Johnson River to the bridge on the Alaska Highway.