One-Man Towns, Eight Paved Highways, 129 Million Acres of Forest. Alaska? Naturally.

Rafting in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park

May 21, 2001
Outside Magazine

The volcanic mountains of southeastern Alaska's Wrangell-St. Elias National Park seem all but designed to cater to the whims of adrenaline junkies in inflatable craft. A 13-million-acre landscape of broken ice and jagged rock threaded with a cold-blooded vasculature of waterways, Wrangell-St. Elias clearly offers the best concentration of rafting opportunities in the state, with the hallowed Kennicott River draining into such other notable flows as the Nizina, Chitina, and Copper. For sheer whitewater bliss, however, none of these can rival a lesser-known sibling called the Tana, which boasts craggier scenery and beastlier water, a frothing, canyon-trapped run officially rated Class IV+, emphasis on the "plus."
The best put-in on the Tana is just below the Tana Glacier's slow spill, about a half-mile from the only airstrip. The river here is massive and frigid—about 35 degrees even at the height of summer—and its waters are chalky with chewed-up rock. From the put-in, the upper Tana braids through a plain of gravel bars three miles across. Broad vistas mount to skyscraper peaks, their summits ripening each evening from blue-white to apricot and peach. Brown bears ruminatively wander the shoreline, especially at dusk.

Where Granite Creek bisects the Tana at mile 21, a washboard of 500-foot-tall sand dunes drifts up along the shoreline, creating a fine, protected spot to camp. Eat well, break out a bottle of Alaska Frontier Ale, and pay no attention to that angry murmur in the background. You'll have plenty of time to contemplate the Tana Canyon rapids tomorrow.
In fact, you'll have no choice. The river is about to enter a narrow, 15-mile-long channel with hundred-foot cliffs looming on either side. Before starting, get out and scout from shore; when the water is high, the approach to Tana Canyon becomes a series of harrowing, 20-foot whitewater stair-steps. In the canyon itself, the water is thrillingly relentless, the spray slapping against the high walls, the sounds of human voices disappearing beneath the river's roar. If you're lucky, the waters will part at some point around an oasislike sandbar, well stocked with driftwood and perfect for a revivifying wienie roast. Then it's back into the fray.
Six hours or so later, the ride abruptly ends. The canyon suddenly widens, the waters flatten, and you're at the junction with the Chitina—a fast-flowing but much less technically demanding river, its blessedly flat shoreline covered with poplar, spruce, aspen, and alder. Choose a rest stop along the western bank and Mount Wrangell will serenely rise above the trees behind you.
From here, your take-out spot is still two days away. Enjoy them; this is the most leisurely part of the journey. From the Chitina, you meet the Nizina, a river especially beloved of bruins in July, when it teems with their favorite finger food, king salmon. Allow them dibs; in fact, stay well upriver if they're present. But once they've waddled off, pull out your pole (assuming you bought a $30 nonresident license in Anchorage) and reel in dinner. It'll be more satisfying than freeze-dried stroganoff and will fortify you admirably for the last 77-mile stretch to the pull-out at O'Brien Creek.
To arrange a guided raft trip down the Tana, call River Wrangellers in nearby Gakona (888-822-3967) or Nova Adventures in Chikaloon (800-746-5753). Prices range from about $1,350 to $1,575, depending on trip length. For the most up-to-the-minute information about river conditions, check in at the Copper Oar (907-554-4453) in McCarthy, the closest town to Wrangell. An outfitter-cum-community center, the Copper Oar is also where, at any given time, most of McCarthy's entire population of 25 can be found.