Crossing the Kotsina River was to be the crux of our weeklong trek across Alaska’s Wrangell Mountains – at least that’s what everyone told us – from a friend that guides in these mountains, to random man on the street in Chitina, to our pilot who delicately assessed our wilderness cred before leaving us on the Wrangell Plateau.
Record high temps had these glacier-fed rivers flooding their banks all summer and at least one party went for a long, dangerous swim trying to cross the mighty Kotsina. This tale had been eating at us for three days as we made our way down off the plateau, across the Long Glacier, over a high pass, and across the icy waist-deep Kluvesna River. And after all of that, the “hard part’” still lie ahead.
By the end of our fourth day, we negotiated the steep, narrow canyon of Surprise Creek and bushwhacked out to the banks of the Kotsina. It was then we were able to view our challenge in person. The wade would be cold, swift and deep, but could be completed safely. Our crew of four let out a collective sigh of relief knowing we wouldn’t have to backtrack over 30 miles of arduous terrain for a pickup at the plateau. Fogged by relief, we took a wrong turn up the valley, adding a few more miles to an already long day making everyone completely knackered.
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Our choice of footwear was SCARPA’s latest line of backpacking boots. We had some concerns as we had no chance for a test run or break-in period with the boots. But in the end this wasn’t an issue; everyone’s boots fit well and performed well the entire week. Blisters and chafing were minimal to nonexistent. It’s hard to emphasize how important “feet” are on a big, remote trek. If you can’t walk, then you’re not going anywhere. I have to admit; prior to this trek we were partial to trail running shoes and turned our noses up at beefy hiking boots. After our first day of kicking up 3,000-feet of scree and slopping through icy mud on a lateral moraine, our attitudes changed – sometimes “beefy” is the right tool for the job.
Back in the river valley, with the Kotsina flowing at a fraction of what we were expecting, we still thought it prudent to seek out the best possible crossing. This led us down river to a vast braided section where the river’s power was diluted over several channels. Our crossing of the Kluvesna two days earlier proved much more severe with silt laden water just minutes off the glacier and depth that could have easily washed us away. But traveling across the unknown is a funny thing and neither of these crossings would prove to be the crux of our trek. That honor was given to a two-mile stretch of pure hell that slapped us in the face when we turned south up Rock Creek. What looked like a good idea on the map translated to a steep-walled canyon/valley covered top to bottom in impenetrable brush. Welcome to the land of 100-foot contour intervals.
After spending the entire day making miniscule progress we reached open tundra, vibrant with fall colors. We arrived at our final camp near dark, feeling totally wrecked. Saya and Brad managed to get a small fire going in the streambed to push back the scold while we gathered for dinner. We reflected on the horrors of the day while watching a small herd of Dall sheep graze across the valley. As difficult as the trek was, we knew tomorrow we’d be back in civilization and missing this place.
Based in Anchorage, Alaska, Matt and Agnes Hage take pride in producing authentic photography for outdoor brands around the world. Check out their work at hagephoto.com.