Saturday, October 25, 2008

Nizina/Chinta Rivers, Alaska

Along with my affection for hardshell kayaking, I've always loved extended trips via raft or inflatable kayak. For this particular trip my dad and I took our two AIRE inflatable kayaks and four dry bags through a series of planes, fairies and shuttles to McCarthy, AK. In McCarthy, a town of 42 people, we spent a few days organizing our food and gear and exploring the Kennicott copper mines. After some organization we loaded our gear into a Cessna 185 for a 30 min. trip to the Nizina River headwaters. Unloading our gear during a heavy downpour of Alaska rain, we decided to pack our essential gear a mile from the airport to a cabin until there was a break in the rain. From the previous days of rain, the trail to the cabin had been turned into muddy creek, so packing our 50+ lb. drybags wasn't easy. After chopping wood, starting a fire, and drying out all our wet gear we were able to relax inside our 14X14ft. gravel floor cabin.
The next morning we awoke to the sound of bears against our cabin door. When my dad got up to look through a crack in the door he could see the eyes of a 250lb. bear staring him down; we were glad to have a heavy duty lock on the door. Minutes later we heard the cries of cubs, and when we looked out the window we saw three young cubs roaming around right outside our cabin. After we decided the bears were far enough away, we walked out to the Nizina Lake for an afternoon paddle. Nizina Lake lies between the monstrous Nizina Glacier, and the start of the Nizina River. Paddling around the lake below icebergs towering hundreds of feet over my head was an unforgettable experience, and we came back with some beautiful pictures. Leaving the inflatable kayaks by the lake we hiked back to the cabin, only to find the three cubs from earlier in the day sitting on top of our precious drybags. Knowing that our entire trip relied on those drybags we started shouting to scare the bears away, and after enough noise the bears ran off into the woods.
After our last night in the cabin, we finally put in on the river. At the beginning of the whitewater the biggest challenge wasn't dodging rocks and holes, but avoiding the icebergs that would randomly surface around our boats. After we pulled out to our first campsite, a beautiful gravel bar under the Mile High Cliffs, at about 9:00 P.M. we set up our tent and cooked up some dinner. As I fell asleep I was thinking of how different that day of paddling was from a day of paddling at home. I went from paddling a light 8' pyranha H:3 to an 11' inflatable kayak loaded with 100lbs. of gear, from paddling in a 500 cfs creek to a 50,000 cfs mile wide river, and from being a few miles from civilization and a hospital to 30 miles from any civilization and hundreds of miles from any hospital.
The next morning we woke up to classic foggy overcast Alaskan weather, but after a quick breakfast we were back on the water. Halfway through this day's paddle we stopped at a small creek and hiked up to a luscious grass area directly under a 300+ waterfall. Feeling the mist blow all around me under such a massive waterfall was one of the most memorable moments during this trip. The same night we camped on a gravel bar below a washed out steel bridge, and watched full sized logs drift pass us with the rising water. (Later we learned that the bridge had once spanned the entire width of the river and that it was taken out in the 1964 Alaskan earthquake).
The next day we paddled through more of the Nizina River's classic winding braids until we reached the Kennicott River confluence. With a few buddies in the air (commercially flying small bush planes) and a hand held radio we asked why the Kennicott River seemed so high. After Bill McKinney, a commercial pilot friend of ours, told us that a glacial dam had broken and released tons of water into the Kennicott and that all the raft companies had canceled their trips on the Kennicott, we had to do some serious decision making as to whether or not no run the upcoming canyon. Because of the sharp s-turns and steep canyon walls, the Kennicott Canyon which starts right after the Kennicott Confluence, hosts the most dangerous whitewater of the whole run. Despite the raging flows from the Kennicott that could potentially make the rapids twice as powerful, we decided to run the canyon.
As the canyon walls started to loom over us and as the turns got sharper and sharper, I knew there was no turning back now. The rapids started out as large whirlpools and unreadable funny water, but grew to massive holes surrounded by strong eddies. We successfully punched through more and more of these holes until we met the last rapid of the canyon, a large class IV+ hole that spanned the whole width of the canyon. I barely managed to punch through this hole along the left edge, but as my dad came into the hole with less speed I didn't know if he was going to make it. Without enough momentum to climb over the pile my dad was pulled backward into the hole, but with power and finesse was able to stay upright and ride the wave to the middle of the river where he finally was forced out.
After this rapid was the abrupt end of the Kennicott Canyon, and with the end of the canyon was the Nizina's entrance to the Chitna River. On river right at the confluence was a small grass runway where we decided to spend the night. Our pilot friend, Bill McKinney, flew in to join us for dinner, so we sat down and watched the sun set behind the mountainous horizon.
The next day we enjoyed the faster waters of the Chitna, and more beautiful scenery. That night we camped on a sandy beach right across from a creek known for its numerous grizzly bears; unfortunately we didn't see any.
For the last day on the river we woke up earlier than usual, so that we could make it to the take out at reasonable hour. This section of the river seemed to get bigger and bigger the closer we got to the take out. Once we got to the Chitna/Copper River Confluence, we could see as easy take out about a quarter mile up the Copper. So with plenty of daylight life, we pulled our fully loaded kayaks up to the take out. At the take out my dad rolled up our boats, and packed up our other gear while I hitched into town, to find someone who'd bring our boats up to the Hotel Chitna. After shuttling our gear back to town in a local's truck we each took a well deserved shower and caught some shut eye.
From the bears around our cabin to the high water and breathtaking campsites throughout the trip, this was an amazing trip through some of the most pristine wilderness in Alaska.