SCARPA athlete, Kellie Okonek, discovered her calling in life when she moved to Alaska and began exploring the mountains there. She has since climbed and skied in remote places all over the world. She recently took advantage of the last moments of warm weather up north to backpack and raft in Alaska’s Talkeetna Mountains.
When I started looking closer at the maps and seeing the big storms in the weather forecast for Southcentral Alaska, the doubts over our trip started creeping in. Sherrie and I planned to hike from the Eureka Roadhouse on the Glenn Highway, 60 miles overland to the headwaters of the Talkeetna River. From the small roadside town, we’d take 2.5 days to hike 60 miles mostly off-trail, over two passes (4800′ and 6000’), then raft 40 miles of the Talkeetna River. At the confluence with Prairie Creek, we would meet friends who planned to fly in with a cataraft and run the famous class IV Talkeetna River canyon (“the longest stretch of continuous whitewater in Alaska” and one of the state’s most classic river trips) to the town of Talkeenta.
I really started thinking about the logistics and thoughts of all that could go wrong rushed in with a vengeance. I haven’t been nervous for a trip in a while; I have to admit in many ways it felt good to try something I wasn’t sure I could do. We made contingency bailout plans for the inability to cross high passes due to weather, packed a little extra food in case we had to hike out without the cataraft to travel the high-volume canyon, and left a good communication plan in case we didn’t make it out.
Fortunately, our first full day of hiking up Caribou Creek was graced with sunshine. Given the multiple thigh-deep river crossings of this glacial stream, and blessed with peak fall colors, the bright skies made our day super enjoyable as we covered ground.
Our goal was to camp at a lake just below the final climb to our first big pass, and we did, arriving at camp in a mix of rain and snow. The next morning, we awoke to a white world, but thankfully, the cold weather made for great travel conditions for the morning; the frozen ground created a nice walking surface, cushioned with a covering of snow. We were greeted by caribou, calm skies, beautiful lakes and changing scenery.
At the back of my mind, however, I wondered what we’d find as we approached the pass – the mountains around us were pretty snow-covered, so thoughts of avalanches started creeping into my mind. As a skier, I know better than to get caught in a windslab, and we had approximately zero appropriate tools (i.e. shovel) to respond if we did. One thing was readily apparent: we were definitely going to be pushing the limits of tennis shoes!
Sherrie characterized our friendship as “old love” as we plunge-stepped in irritated silence down the glacial moraine on the backside of the pass in thigh-deep snow, mentally preparing ourselves to be in snow for the duration of our overland travel. The Talkeetna side of the mountains is the wet side, but this was more snow than we’d really expected and our spirits plummeted.
Although we awoke to more snow, we only had 11 miles remaining until the packraft portion of our journey, so off we went. The river walk transitioned to a game trail as we headed away from the creek and onto a gently sloping flank immersed in peak fall colors. The tundra reds burst into the gray landscape and as we descended, the sun came out and graced us with warmth and views of the Talkeetna Glacier and big mountains surrounding us.
At the river, bare feet on the sand and moments of sunshine helped rejuvenate us for the next section of the adventure. We had 40 river miles to cover, with beta that it started class III and then mellowed out. Lured by the sunshine, we did not put on nearly enough layers and spent most of the day super cold until we finally gave in to putting puffy coats on under our drysuits! It’s been awhile since I’ve been this persistently cold, and I started to accept that winter is definitely on its way.
By some combination of good fortune and perseverance, Sherrie and I made it 40 miles downriver and met our friends. They had flown in that morning as planned, rafted Prairie Creek, and setup a luxurious camp. With a dutch oven, coolers, big raft and cotton clothes our lifestyle changed dramatically!
At the 8,000 cfs level we had, the Talkeetna was considered “low,” but the toilet bowl entry rapid and the 14 mile long “sluice box” were exciting all the same, and still much bigger water than I’d want with a packraft!
Overall, the trip was awesome. At no point “in the bag,” the adventure continued with every step and wave along our journey. It was definitely an experience that re-energized me for big Alaskan traverses and throwing it to the wind every now and again.
A few more photos from the trip…