Alaska, where countless rivers and creeks drain massive wilderness, is the birthplace of modern packrafting. Highly resourceful, Alaska adventurers were some of the first to utilize lightweight portable watercraft to explore and travel across vast roadless and often trailless expanses.
Forrest McCarthy and Brad Meiklejohn
One of those modern explorers is Brad Meiklejohn. The Alaska representative for The Conservation Fund and president of the American Packrafting Association, Brad is a longtime wilderness advocate. Over the last several decades, without the aid of bush planes, snowmobiles or All Terrain Vehicles (ATVs), Brad has traveled thousands of miles across Alaska’s wilderness. Packrafts, skis, and his own two feet are his preferred means of transport.
Inside 40-pound packs we have packrafts, camping equipment, and a week's worth of supplies—everything needed to traverse 100-miles across the Talkeetna Mountains.
Kings River Valley
Starting near the small town of Chickaloon we follow an old mining road up the Kings River through a thick forest of spruce, birch and cottonwood. The old mining road, followed by an ATV trail, eventually peters out. To minimize bashing through the brush we follow the rocky riverbed and the trails of moose, caribou and bear.
Fording the Kings River
Lands within the Talkeetna Range are primarily owned by the State of Alaska. While lacking any formal protection, the Talkeetna Mountains are as wild as any designated Wilderness. However, threats including a proposed dam on the Susitna River, endanger their primordial and untrammeled character.
Brad Meiklejohn, Talkeetna Mountains
The Talkeetna Mountains, one of thirty-nine mountain ranges that define the Alaskan landscape, encompass over 10,246 square miles. The mountains contain glaciated summits over 8,000-feet in height, abundant wildlife, and numerous wild and free flowing rivers.
Geologically, Alaska was not originally part of the North American Plate. Instead, Alaska formed 125 million years ago during the Cretaceous Period when a series of smaller plates or blocks collided in a colossal tectonic eddy between the larger Pacific Oceanic and North American plates. The result of their collision is a highly mountainous, and complex arctic landscape and one of the most tectonically active regions in the world.
The following morning we ascend into the alpine zone where squishy alpine tundra provides a relatively pleasant walking surface. To reach the glacier that defines the Kings/Sheep River Divide we posthole through lingering patches of central Alaska’s infamous unconsolidated continental snowpack.
Kings/Sheep River Divide
Several miles of glacier travel is required to access the icy headwaters of the Sheep River. While the glacier is flat and therefore unlikely to contain crevasses, it remains covered in seasonal snow and we cautiously posthole our way across. At an elevation of 5,000 feet the weather is cloudy and poor visibility adds to the tension. Navigating by the GPS on my iPhone we head north to the far side and the safety of a lateral glacial moraine.
Sheep River Glacier
As we drop into the Sheep River Valley, snow gives way to dry glacier ice and easy travel.
Exiting the Sheep River Glacier
We reach the end of the glacier two miles before its 1965 terminus, as displayed on our USGS Topographic Map. In addition to the dramatic retreat of the glacier’s snout, raw slopes on both sides of the glacier indicate several hundred feet of glacial thinning.
More recently, a lake at the foot of the glacier drained in an event known as a Jökulhlaup. Flat and sandy, the former lake bed provides a wonderful campsite.
The following morning we follow the gray and silty water as it rushes over jumbles of sharp rocks to a narrow gorge. While much of this 5-mile section appears navigable, we choose to continue on foot.
In Fast & Cold, A Guide To Alaska Whitewater, the author and first descentist, Andrew Embick, describes the Sheep River as a Class IV run with a mandatory portage around a Class VI gorge a few miles below the glacier. While we did not run it, the said gorge appears more Class IV in character. Similarly, the rest of the Sheep River contains only a few Class III rapids.
Scouting the Upper Gorge
The gorge is located at timberline (2,800ft) and on the downriver side we inflate our packrafts and transition from hiking to paddling.
With an Eskimo-style spray deck and a long tapered hull, the modern Alpacka Raft is more akin to a kayak than a small raft. On loan from Roman Dial, the boat is also equipped with thigh straps and a backrest. A large waterproof zipper in the stern allows the storage of gear inside the main floatation tube.
At twelve-pounds the “packyak” is twice as heavy as my regular boat. The six extra pounds, however, grant a much dryer, stable, and enjoyable ride.
Sheep River Valley
After several miles of splashy Class 2/3, the rivers gradient eases as we paddle through a high alpine valley surrounded by jagged peaks still covered in snow.
At the confluence with the South Fork of the Sheep River we stop for our third night and camp on a broad gravel/sand bar.
Grizzly Bear (Ursus arctos horribilis) Track
In the morning, within a short distance of our camp, are fresh grizzly bear (Ursus arctos horribilis) tracks.
Lower Sheep River
Below the South Fork numerous clear tributaries dilute the silty glacier water and the river’s color transitions from gray to turquoise.
Sheep River Canyon
At an elevation of 900 feet, near a low pass that leads to Rainbow Lake and Iron Creek, the braided river consolidates into a single channel. Before spilling out into the Susitna Valley, the river twists through a short canyon that contains wave trains and sharp turns around rocky escarpments. Class 3 in character, the whitewater is enjoyable and we wish for more.
Paddling into the Susitna Valley
Below, the current remains swift as the Sheep River meanders by giant cottonwood trees and beaver dams.
We wake lazily on our fifth day and continue for eight miles to the Talkeena River. In Athabaskan, Talkeetna means the river of plenty, and the watercourses strong current propels us efficiently. In several hours we cover the remaining 15 miles to the village of Talkeetna.
Located at the end of a 14-mile spur of the George Parks Highway, Talkeetna is home to 900 year-round residents and remains an important transportation hub that hosts a busy airport, railroad depot, and an eclectic collection of shops, restaurants, and hotels that includes one of Alaska’s last remaining roadhouses.
King Sheep Route
Starting near the small town of Chickaloon on the Matanuska River, Brad Meiklejohn and I spent five days traveling 31 miles by foot and 62 miles by packraft across the Talkeetna Mountains to the village of Talkeetna, Alaska. Having hiked up the Kings River and traveled the entire length of the Sheep River we call the route “The Kings Sheep.”
Brad Meiklejohn, Sheep River Glacier
“Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed; if we permit the last virgin forests to be turned into comic books and plastic cigarette cases; If we drive the few remaining members of the wild species into zoos or to extinction; if we pollute the last clear air and dirty the last clean streams and push our paved roads through the last of the silence, so that never again will Americans be free in their own country from the noise, the exhausts, the stinks of human and automotive waste. And so that never again can we have the chance to see ourselves single, separate, vertical and individual in the world, part of the environment of trees and rocks and soil, brother to the other animals, part of the natural world and competent to belong in it……We need wilderness preserved--as much of it as is still left, and as many kinds--because it was the challenge against which our character as a people was formed.” -- Wallace Stegner