River of Quiet Renown

Roads are few in Alaska’s remote Copper Basin, but the Gulkana River makes passage as simple – and wonderfully adventurous – as stepping into a raft or canoe. 

By Ken Marsh

We’d rafted downriver from Paxson Lake a bend, maybe two, our five-day float trip barely begun, when the splashes of feeding grayling drove us in for a hasty landing. Five men and a boy piled out of our two-boat flotilla and briefly, as we rummaged for fishing gear among dry bags and waterproof totes, the world sang only to the tune of the river. 

I had my rod together in minutes, fitted it with light reel, line, and a dry fly the size and color of the mosquitoes buzzing around my face. Then, framed by spruce forests and rolling hills, the river sliding black and smooth out front, I began a series of false casts, my focus narrowing into what the late author Norman Maclean famously described as “a four-count rhythm and the hope that a fish would rise.”  

My fly dropped onto an eddy and I watched it spin idly atop a tiny whirlpool before vanishing in a splash. I yanked my rod back, felt the line tighten. And just that quickly my connection to the river was complete. 

That recent float was my latest in a lifetime of treks on Alaska’s Gulkana River. A National Wild and Scenic River, the Gulkana is quietly renown for its accessibility and wildness. Connected to the world by the state’s road system, the river is easily reached from several points even as its remote wanderings keep it starkly detached from the 21st Century.  

From its sources in the Alaska Range halfway between Denali Park and the Yukon border, the Gulkana’s main stem flows south, entering and exiting 10-mile-long Paxson Lake. From there it continues on, joining with its West Fork and the West Fork’s South Branch to alternately meander and dash through more than 180 miles of perfect wilderness. En route to its terminus at the Copper River – a broad, brown, glacial giant – the Gulkana drains a primal basin larger than the state of Delaware. 

Anglers are lured by grayling that swarm like sail-finned piranhas, and by salmon – Chinook and sockeye – and rainbow trout. Indeed, plentiful grayling and trout to 8 pounds were behind my recent early-August main-stem float. But fishing is only one reason to board a raft, kayak, or canoe and float the Gulkana.

I’ve floated the river’s main stem, forks, and branches many times over the years simply to camp and explore the far-out, lonesome Copper Basin country through which it runs. Thirty years ago, my first time on the Gulkana, I accompanied a Bureau of Land Management survey team on a 10-day canoe trek down the South Branch of the West Fork. The crew was to assess the South Branch’s potential for preservation under National Wild and Scenic status by paddling 150 miles downriver from a headwaters lake to the Gulkana’s main stem. 

Interestingly, that starting-point lake was uncharted; it didn’t appear on maps of the time, an omission that underscored the depth of wilderness we would traverse. During our days on the river we surveyed bird species and nesting sites; floral variety and distribution; recorded the presence of fish and wildlife; and logged evidence of historical use by the region’s first people, the Ahtna Athabascans. In the sandbars we found the signatures of wild creatures – mink, moose, otter, grizzly. And once, rounding a bend, we encountered a lone gray wolf.  

That first journey was an expedition of the Lewis-and-Clark kind, a once-in-a-lifetime voyage of exploration and discovery that set the tone for every float since. Of course, discovery is a relative term. And in Alaska where roads are few and “remote” takes on distinctive meaning, it’s heartening to know that your next grand adventure can begin by simply choosing a river and boarding a raft, kayak, or canoe. 

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Getting Your Feet Wet

The Gulkana is but one of 12,000 Alaska rivers, most of them navigable for experienced rafters, canoeists, and kayakers. Backcountry camping skills, research into whitewater potential, and planning are critical for do-it-yourselfers preparing to float any Alaska river. For first-timers, hiring a river guide is the safest bet.

From the 1,980-mile-long Yukon River – Alaska’s own Mississippi – to streams with abbreviated runs like Kodiak Island’s 24-mile-long Karluk River, there’s an Alaska float trip perfect for you. Here are a few ideas:

Maclaren River

For simple, scenic daylong or overnight canoe or kayak floats, the Maclaren River Lodge offers numerous options at affordable prices. 

An easy day’s drive north of Anchorage at Mile 42 Denali Highway, the lodge rents canoes and will transport your party and canoe upriver via jet boat into the heart of the Maclaren Valley. Day-trip drop-offs start at $50 per person; spend the day canoeing downriver to the lodge. Grayling fishing is excellent, the country open with stunning mountain views and opportunities to see wildlife including caribou, moose, and bear. 

Overnight canoe drop-offs at remote campsites near Maclaren Glacier are also available. For more information, visit http://www.maclarenlodge.com/index.html  

Chulitna River

Few better ways exist to see Denali State Park than from a raft on the Chulitna River. Located off the Parks Highway roughly halfway between Anchorage and Fairbanks, the Chulitna is a glacial river. On clear days, enjoy truly breathtaking views of 20, 310-foot Denali and its rugged Alaska Range peers. Several Talkeetna-based river outfitters offer half-day, full-day, and multi-day trips. Go with a guide or consider a DIY option with raft rental and drop-off provided. For more information, check out:

Upper Kenai River

Famous for its distinctive emerald-green waters, superb fishing, wildlife, and mountain scenery, the Upper Kenai River (pronounced “Keen-eye”) out of Cooper Landing is a popular float destination. Located about a 90-minute drive south of Anchorage via the Seward Highway (an official National Scenic Byway and All-American Road) and Sterling Highway, the 12-mile-long stretch of river flows through the quiet community of Cooper Landing and into the wild Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.

Numerous river guides offering raft or drift boat floats ranging from two hours to all day. These trips are worth doing for the mountain views, but anglers will want to look into outfitters offering fishing options. For a listing of local rafting businesses, visit http://www.alaska.org/destination/cooper-landing/rafting-tours

Gulkana River

Learn more about this featured river at https://www.blm.gov/sites/blm.gov/files/documents/files/PublicRoom_Alaska_Gulkana-River-Brochure.pdf

For more Alaska river floating ideas, see more information on dozens of possibilities at http://www.alaska.org/float-trips

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Published by kenwildcountry

Writer, photographer, and editor specializing in Alaska's outdoors.

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