Gulkana River - Slow Drift to Adventure - Paddling Alaska's Wild & Scenic Gulkana

It's been one of those rare, hot, sunny days and the land seems to come alive with wildlife. This morning a moose and her two calves watched from shore as you paddled slowly past. During your lunch break, you saw a proud pair of trumpeter swans parade their seven cygnets across a quiet pond while six bald eagles soared overhead. And now the canoe bottom resonates with the soft"thump" of king salmon as they graze the boat in their tireless journey upstream to spawn. It sounds like just another day on the Gulkana.

The Gulkana system, designated as a wild and scenic in 1980, is one of a handful of Alaska rivers with easy road access at both the put-in and take-out points. Best of all, there are three different routes, the main stem, the middle fork and the west fork, which each offer a variety of whitewater challenges, varying degrees of solitude and generally outstanding fishing.

Gulkana River; Main Stem

The Main Stem of the Gulkana is one of the most popular multi-day whitewater trips in Alaska, and the reasons are obvious: aside from the easy access and great fishing, it has challenging rapids, clear and relatively warm water, and a wilderness setting. Consequently over 3,600 boaters travel this section every year -- mainly in June through August.

Summer visitors to the Gulkana can therefore expect to have company, particularly on the 8-mile stretch between Sourdough and the confluence of the West Fork, where high-powered jet boats have run of the river. Power boats aren't allowed above this confluence or below Paxson Lake before August 15 of each year, but an increasing number of commercial trips keep a steady flow of rafters drifting downstream, and numerous fishermen hike in at various access points.

The most popular trip on the main stem begins at Paxson Lake and ends at Sourdough Campground, at MP 147.5 on the Richardson Highway. Total distance is about 50 miles and typically involves a four-day float trip. The vehicle shuttle is 62 miles round trip, and access is at the Paxson Lake Campground (MP 175, Richardson Highway). The trip is Class II- water (II at high water), with a portage of Canyon Rapids -- Canyon Rapids are III+ if run instead of portaged.

Three miles of paddling down Paxson Lake brings you to the Gulkana River outlet. From the outlet to the junction with the Middle Fork is another three miles in which the Gulkana is a shallow, rocky stream with Class II rapids and a gradient of 38 feet per mile. At low water levels, lining occasionally may be required, and some whitewater experience is recommended for successfully navigating this section of the river.

At the confluence of the Middle Fork and the Main Fork, the river becomes slow and meandering. An old cabin with moss growing on the roof is passed on the left. There are occasional rocks and small waves encountered, but it is mostly slow Class I water until Canyon Rapids.

Yellow BLM signs mark the take-out for the Canyon Rapids portage at Mile 20. Stop to scout (or portage) at the well-marked trailhead on the left side of the river. The rapids are Class III+ and should be run by experienced whitewater boaters only. It is often helpful, and sometimes necessary, for experienced boaters to portage gear prior to running the rapids. For those who choose to walk, there is a good 1/4-mile trail and boardwalk which skirts the rapids. There are several nice camping areas at Canyon Rapids, and a one-mile hiking trail that leads to scenic Canyon Lake.

Huge boulders choke the river in Canyon Rapids, and it drops rapidly enough that the view downstream is not visible from the water. Depending on water levels, there can be relatively slow pools followed by abrupt drops, or powerful breaking waves. The last drop is usually the biggest, with a big reversal at some levels that can trap a raft.

Below Canyon Rapids there are 8 1/2 miles of Class II rapids which are generally shallow and rocky. Many canoes and rafts have been damaged in this section of the river, so keep your eyes on the water and your hands on the oars. After these rapids, there is a 17-mile stretch of Class I water to Sourdough. The West Fork comes in from the right at mile 39. A series of oxbow bends leads at river mile 47 to the takeout on the left at Sourdough Creek Campground.

Middle Fork

Those interested in a more isolated wilderness experience need look no further than the Gulkana's two major tributaries, the Middle Fork and the West Fork. The main access to the Middle Fork is from a boat launch located in Tangle River at Mile 22 on the Denali Highway. Travel south through the Tangle Lakes (three portages are necessary). A 1 1/4-mile portage from Upper Tangle Lakes brings you to Dickey Lake, the start of the Middle Fork. No trail markings exist but the portage is in low brush tundra.

Another access point is the Swede Lake Trail, Mile 16 on the Denali Highway. This route is only suitable for small ATVs due to the muddy conditions frequently encountered. The Swede Lake Trail brings you to the Middle Fork about eight miles downstream from Dickey Lake. As an alternative, you can charter a small fixed-wing float plane to Dickey Lake.

Dickey Lake's outlet is at the extreme southeast point of the lake. For the first three miles below the lake, the Middle Fork is very shallow and flows through riffles and rocks at a gradient of 30 feet per mile. But then the river abruptly plunges into a steep canyon and the gradient triples. Large boulders in the Class III and IV rapids make maneuvering difficult. Very careful lining or portaging is necessary. After the canyon, riffles and rocks are common for about six miles. The gradient drops to 25 feet per mile and finally to one foot per mile before joining the Main Fork.

Allow six to seven days for the entire trip (76 miles) from Tangle Lakes to Sourdough. If you fly in to Dickey Lake, subtract one or two days.

West Fork

A West Fork trip begins at Lake Louise and continues through Susitna Lake and the Tyone River. Next, a series of four portages require a total of five hours to complete to reach the south branch of the West Fork. The route then traverses lake-dotted country that is exceptional wildlife habitat. This is one of the most remote and least visited areas of the Gulkana watershed.

The south branch joins the north branch to form the West Fork. From this junction the river flows slowly for four miles. Then it enters a canyon where it speeds through riffles and around large boulders of up to four feet in diameter before quieting down to a series of riffles and slow runs until its junction with the Main Fork.

This is an extended wilderness trip with numerous portages. Allow 12 to 20 days to complete this 110-mile adventure. U.S. Geological Survey topographic maps and good map-reading skills are essential. Consult with the BLM in Glennallen if planning this trip.

Season and Climate

The river running season generally begins in early to mid-June depending on ice breakup and precipitation. Average annual precipitation in this area is 12 inches of rain and 44 inches of snow. July is commonly the wettest month. During the summer, temperatures range from 35 F to 70 F with occasional highs in the 80's. However, be prepared for cold, wet weather at any time. By late August, the shorter days and colder temperatures bring the river recreation season to an end.

Plants and Animals

The major vegetation type in the Gulkana River valley is spruce-hardwood forest. You will encounter white and black spruce, birch, aspen and poplar forests with an understory of willow, alder, rose, dwarf birch, cranberry, blueberry, labrador tea, dwarf dogwood, lichens and mosses.

Wildlife in this area is plentiful, and includes a large moose population, as well as other big game like grizzly bear, black bear, and caribou. Smaller mammals include wolves, martens, wolverines, lynx, beaver, coyote, foxes, otter, and muskrats. Birds in the area are numerous, and 59 species have been sighted. Especially common are bald eagles, kingfishers, ducks, various gulls, hawks, swallows and shorebirds.

The most commonly encountered problem on the river are the mosquitoes, which will attack without mercy unless deterred by industrial-strength doses of bug repellent.

Fish and Fishing

The Gulkana is one of the most popular and productive sport-fishing streams in Alaska. The lakes have good populations of lake trout, burbot and whitefish. Rivers and streams contain rainbow trout, arctic grayling, king salmon, red salmon, whitefish, long nose suckers, lamprey and steelhead. Those interested in fishing for king salmon should know that the fish first appear around June 5, with catchable numbers by June 10. The peak of the run is June 20 - July 4, and it's over by July 20. Fishing licenses can be purchased in Glennallen, Sourdough, Gakona, Paxson, Delta Junction and Tok.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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