THE BEST TIME to head to the Talkeetna—and Alaska—is June, July, and August, when temperatures climb into the seventies and eighties, the salmon are ripping, and glacial runoff keeps the river surging with plenty of frigid water to paddle.
GETTING THERE: Fly into Anchorage (round-trips on Alaska Airlines start at $340 from Seattle or Los Angeles, or $830 from New York on Continental Airlines). Guides from Class V will pick you up in a van for the 75-mile drive north to Lake Kashwitna.From there it's a 45-minute floatplane trip to the put-in on Murder Lake (allegedly named by miners who found bones in the water), just above Prairie Creek. Eighty miles later you'll take out in the town of Talkeetna, a summertime hub for river enthusiasts and Mount McKinley–bound mountaineers. Class V will shuttle you back to Anchorage at trip's end or you can take the Alaskan Railroad from Talkeetna 120 miles north to Denali National Park (the Talkeetna-Denali-Anchorage fare is $170; 800-544-0552).
WHERE TO STAY: Talkeetna's Historic Fairview Inn (907-7332423), built in 1921, has six cozy rooms and a plank-floored bar surrounded by historic paraphernalia such as a photo of President Harding visiting the inn.
OUTFITTERS: Class V Whitewater (907-783-2004; www.alaskanrafting.com) guides summer rafting and kayaking adventures on the Talkeetna, plus customized trips on many of Alaska's other 3,000 rivers all summer long. Four-day Talkeetna trips, including meals and all transportation from Anchorage, go for $1,000 per person; add two extra days of bear watching for an additional $300. Other Talkeetna River rafting outfitters include Flagstaff, Arizona–based Northstar (800-258-8434; www.adventuretrip.com), which leads four-day trips for $1,150 per person, and NOVA (800-746-5753; www.novalaska), based in Chicakaloon, which charges $950 for three-day trips. —S.R.
WHEN WE REACH the Talkeetna late that first afternoon, the water is characteristically milky with glacial silt, and we stop and make camp on a spacious sandbar. We had put in at the head of Prairie Creek, rafted and portaged its entire eight-mile length, and now had 72 miles of river to tackle before taking out at the town of Talkeetna. But day two is devoted to fishing, not floating. Landing a 30-, 40-, or 45-pound salmon while standing on a riverbank is a particularly rowdy kind of angling. Moe (with a sweat-stained visor and a spinning rig) and Overcast (his fly rod in hand) duel to see who will be king of the kings—whoever catches the most wins—tirelessly fighting, losing, catching, and releasing long after the rest of the group stops. Most anglers are thrilled to catch one or two, but Moe is on fish 17 and the day is still bright under the ceaseless midnight sun when Overcast lands his 20th and calls it quits. "Victory is sweet," Overcast says as he pops open a beer the size of an oil can, "especially when it's over Moe."
We break camp the following morning and set off for the whitewater, seven miles downriver, wearing life vests, helmets, full wetsuits, and drytops as buffers against the 50-degree water. Overcast lectures us on how to stay alive should we come out of the raft. "Keep your feet downriver," he says. "And don't just float there waiting to be rescued. Swim like hell to save your own ass. Better yet, stay in the raft."
The Tal's 22 miles of Class IV and V whitewater—the longest run in Alaska—surges at an average of 15,000 to 20,000 cubic feet per second, comparable to Idaho's Snake, through the sharp granite walls of a deep gauntlet of a gorge. As we approach, the wide, steady river narrows and churns. The first few waves gape like Jaws and then break hard against a sheer rock face. "Forward!" hollers Overcast. The nose of the raft dives eight feet into the maw of a whitewater hole. The gorge walls heave close. "Right back!" commands Overcast. "Pull! Pull!" But the paddler next to me can't distinguish forward from back. "Back!" I scream. "Back!" The raft slams up against the canyon wall, standing nearly on end. We high-side, recover, dig our paddles into the water, jog right, swirl into a rapid called Toilet Bowl, miss the next canyon wall by inches, cut left, and slip through to the other side. The challenge now is the marathon of Sluice Box, a 14-mile nonstop stretch of waves and holes that slithers through the curvilinear canyon like a snake on crack. We shout and paddle as Moe, downriver, keeps a protective eye on us while he bobs and plays in the waves.
That night—the last one before we float back to civilization—a rustling comes through camp, followed by the stench of old fish. But no one shouts bear and the odor passes, and all that's left is the burbling of the river, the thrumming of raindrops on tent tarps, and the deep, deep sleep that only the wilds can bring. —SUSAN REIFER
PACK IT IN
11 items river guides don't supply that you literally can't live without
MOST TALKEETNA ADVENTURES are open to whitewater newbies, but in addition to cojones you'll need to bring the right undergarments for warmth and your own camping gear (see below). Class V will supply rafting-specific equipment, but not the equally essential rods and reels. For novice fishermen, a ten-weight, three-part Ugly Stick ($15–$90) and a heavyweight open casting reel off the rack at Wal-Mart will suffice; purists should pack a heavyweight rod like Sage's three-piece 1090-3 RPLXI ($560; 800-533-3004), a reel like the Orvis Battenkill Disc 10/11 ($135; 800-541-3541), and ten-weight line. —S.R.1. Marmot Alpinist Lightweight Jacket
($399; 707-544-4590)6. Northwest River Supplies 2mm Wetsocks
($20; 800-635-5202)2. Northwest River Supplies Neoprene Rapid Gloves
($19; 800-635-5202)7. Chaco Z/2 Sandals
($82; 970-527-4990)3. Cascade Designs Classic Series Standard Therm-a-Rest
($65; 800-531-9531)8. Mountain Hardwear 2nd Dimension Sleeping Bag
($175; 510-559-6700)4. Patagonia Expedition Weight Fleece Capilene Zip-T
($65; 800-638-6464)9. Marmot PreCip Pants
($69; 707-544-4590)5. Sawyer Controlled Release Deet Formula Insect Repellent
($6; 800-940-4464)10. EMS Bergelene Lightweight Long Underwear Bottoms
($25; 888-463-6367) 11. Marmot Bastille II Tent
Next PagePage: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7