Outdoors/Adventure

Can a novice packrafter take on the Ivishak River? Yes, but be prepared for exhaustion and challenges

We quizzed multiple sources, ranging from friends to professionals, about the Ivishak River in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Everyone sang the same tune: it’s a completely doable river for novices.

Rated as Class II, in river terms this meant the Ivishak would be more than just a float — there would be some maneuvering required, and some easy rapids. But everyone emphasized that this is a fine river for beginners.

I’m cavalier about a lot of outdoors things. But water freaks me out.

When people describe hairy situations they’ve been in on rivers or in water, I know I don’t ever want to be there.

A sufferfest while running, backpacking or biking? That’s just between me, my body, and maybe some uncomfortable conditions. I can work through that.

Getting pinned, flipped, wrapped, caught or any of the other words used to describe when a very powerful current of water is trying to get from point A to point B and I am in its way? No, thank you.

I decided I ought to learn how to packraft prior to our trip, a bachelorette party of backpacking and packrafting across the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Call me the queen of responsibility. It seemed the prudent thing to do.

Still, having only gone out on the water a couple of times prior to the big trip, my heart rate was up the morning we blew up our packrafts on the shores of the Ivishak. Was I excited or scared? A bit of both.

The night before, as we hiked toward our gear drop and camp for the evening, we crossed the river about a mile upstream from where we were putting in. The river valley was threaded with bright blue-green rivulets collectively forming the near headwaters of the Ivishak.

The water practically glowed, even as the lowering sun threw shadows across the valley.

Crossing wasn’t bad, but also wasn’t a cakewalk. The water was cold and powerful. Noted.

I was thinking about this power as I watched the blue-green current roll past our inflated boats lined up on the shore the morning we started rafting. The Ivishak was dazzling under a miraculously sunny and warm sky. It was the perfect day to get out on the river.

Still, I felt some anxiety. I told myself: you are competent. Remember what you know.

Breathe.

Cautiously, excitedly, we each performed the technical packraft maneuver called “skootching” to inch ourselves forward in our boats until the current caught us.

We formed a line down the river, the five of us in our brightly colored rafts filled with our belongings, surrounded by peak after skyscraping peak. There was no one other than bears, caribou and wolves for miles all around.

I remembered what I had learned: point the boat where I want to go. No, really: point the boat where I want to go.

I described this to a few people who scratched their heads, maybe because this is self-evident. But out on the water, I was constantly forecasting and adjusting my boat’s position based on what the river would do next. Part of the thrill and (literal) flow of packrafting is figuring out the exact moment to point my boat from going straight downriver toward a bank, to making a 90 degree turn to follow a river bend. Repeat, repeat.

Every single day I muttered thank yous to a friend who had taken the time to patiently and clearly teach me how to packraft prior to the trip. I knew how to dig in my paddle to go hard when needed. I knew how to read and give hand signals. I felt humbled by how much there was to know, but by and large I felt I had enough grounding to at least have confidence in what I did know. That was due to having an excellent teacher.

I was also incredibly grateful to the women on our trip who had packrafting and river experience and could help guide the way. We pulled out frequently in those first few days near the headwaters.

Someone even went over — her story to tell, not mine — but the safety precautions and communications we had in place worked. She swam to shore safely and everything was recovered, including (and this is a testament to her) the persistence to continue even after such a scary incident.

I had this notion that packrafting would be easy, like a float. I worried a little bit about long, languid days out on the river. Maybe I’d need more exercise — would I hike in the evenings?

Turns out, I had nothing to worry about. The simple act of paddling constantly all day made my arms and hands so fatigued that I dreamt about at night (it didn’t help that I could hear the river and my inflated sleeping pad resembled a raft).

But my happiest moments were those long hours nearly at eye-level with the river. After that first anxious day, I felt competent. I was able to focus on the glittering surface of the water, on the puzzle that was constantly watching the current and navigating myself within it.

I scanned the shores for wildlife and saw many bears that were actually root balls; I watched the sun and the clouds move across the mountains as they wove in and out of my view. I felt immersed in the place in a way that felt both complete and constantly in motion.

All in all, we paddled 90 miles from the Ivishak’s winding, whiplash headwaters — where the cords of water dig deep and run quickly — downstream to where it is fed by other streams and rivers and is more calm.

With the slowdown came the softening of the jagged mountain peaks as the landscape yawned into rolling hills and steep banks, and finally the coastal plain not far from the Arctic Ocean (and boy, you could feel those breezes).

It was moving, getting to see an entire landscape and waterway in this new way. Walking only gets me so far.

A beginner’s river? I don’t know about that. But I’m so glad I did it. I’d gladly go again.

Alli Harvey lives in Palmer and plays in Southcentral Alaska (and beyond).

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