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Outdoors/Adventure

From Alyeska to Twentymile to Turnagain Arm: Iconic Alaska packraft trip

  • Author: Craig Medred
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published September 9, 2014

TWENTYMILE RIVER -- A half-mile or so below where the disappearing Winner Creek Trail stumbles out of the brush to meet the upper reaches of this Chugach Mountain stream, the water disappears too.

The flow bends right into the woods, narrows and is gone. A large, wide, riverbed of dry gravel remains to the left. A portage of a quarter-mile leads to where a thin trickle of water reappears along the far bank.

Thus the uninitiated are introduced to the vagaries of backcountry travel along Alaska's meandering and wildly fluctuating mountain rivers, and the bad habit backcountry routes have of sort of fading away.

Once this was to have been a hiking trail from Girdwood over Winner Pass into the Twentymile Valley and then on to reconnect with the Seward Highway near the remains of the earthquake-abandoned community of Portage.

Left unfinished short of the river seven years ago, it has since become an iconic Alaska packraft trip: Easy enough for those of moderate skills; challenging enough and wild enough to provide a true Alaska wilderness experience.

The hike from the trail head at Alyeska Resort to the river put-in is nearly 10 miles. The float and paddle from there down the Twentymile to the Seward Highway bridge is another 12 or 13. Physically fit hikers with packraft paddling experience can easily do the trip in a day. Some take two days with an overnight at the pass, but then there is the burden of carrying camping gear.

The added weight and bulk of sleeping bag, tent and cook gear lashed to the front of a packraft can make the first few miles of the river less fun, given that a paddler is likely to be in and out of the boat more than once, and at least one, possibly two portages, will be necessary.

River hazards

Brushy banks push in tight along the upper river. There are plenty of sweepers and strainers to worry about. Some scouting is required in places to make sure narrowing channels don't go around bends smack into a willow patch or a pile of driftwood.

Some channels are tight. A companion on a recent trip had his hat stolen by a willow sneaking through a two-boat-wide hole between a sweeper and a brushy bank.

But this is what packrafting is about. The little boats -- 4 to 5 pounds in weight, 7 to 8 feet long -- were designed for getting into and out of tight wilderness streams. Packraft pioneer Roman Dial of Alaska Pacific University in Anchorage dubbed them "the poor's man SuperCub'' long ago and for a reason.

The $600-to-$1,000 craft ease access to places difficult or costly to reach. The Winner Creek trail from Girdwood to Portage would be awfully hard to do without them. Not impossible, but only in the sense that people who are determined enough have proven they can travel cross country anywhere in Alaska.

Unfinished trail

Seven years ago, Chugach National Forest began the upgrade of an old horse trail from near the Alyeska Resort tramway to the pass, and a well-worn grizzly bear trail from the pass down toward the river.

The trail was to have gone all the way to the highway. It never even made the river. Funding ran out just past where a fancy, steel bridge was flown in to span the gorge over a tributary creek.

Forest Service trail crews have since dropped a 2 1/2 foot thick evergreen across the trail in front of the bridge to signal the end of the trail. A animal-like trail just before the tree picks up an old "worker's trail,'' which is getting hard to follow but still makes its way for a quarter to a half-mile to the river where there was once a work camp and a helicopter landing zone that's now difficult to find.

This is the most challenging section of a trail that starts off more European than American in its worldly sophistication. Thanks largely to funding secured by the late Sen. Ted Stevens, the patron saint of recreational development in Alaska, a good part of the trail is boardwalk from the resort to a fork 3 miles out.

Stevens in his later years had a home in Girdwood. The first stretch of this Girdwood trail is designed to suit an elderly gentleman hoping to take a pleasant stroll.

Urban-style boardwalks pierce wetlands as the trail winds through towering Sitka spruce and hemlock trees. The sidewalk-wide boardwalk pushes back lush, green coastal rain forest. The wooden walkways narrow only slightly to path width as the forks are approached and the trail branches. A well-maintained trail turns north to a hand-powered tramway over Winner Creek gorge and a connection to the historic Iditarod Trail.

The less-maintained route goes southeast toward the pass. It is muddy in places now where water bars have broken down and creeks are running down the trail. Alders and grass are growing in to hide the path. Bear sign -- the bears having now adopted the trail as the easiest means of travel in this country -- appears regularly.

Nonetheless, the trail is an orders-of-magnitude improvement over the old days of alder bashing up the middle of the valley, climbing a wooded ridge on the north side along a hard-to-follow animal trail, sluicing down a grass chute through the alders to the creek again, wading the creek back to the south side, picking up parts of the old horse trail, alder bashing some more, and finally arriving at the foot of a very steep, very grassy avalanche chute at the head of the valley below the pass.

Grizzly country

Back in the day, climbing hundreds of feet up that avalanche chute and over the pass was the crux of the trip. Now, there is a switchback trail complete with wooden steps climbing through the woods above the south side of the creek and a tractor-cut, sidehill trail across the grassy avalanche chute climbing gently to the pass.

By some standards, this trail is almost too easy, though there is a foaming, mountain creek that must be waded at one point. That will challenge some. A quick, trailside chat with a group of tourist backpackers who were headed back to Alyeska after a night spent camped at the pass revealed they were concerned about the crossing.

It looks more dangerous than it was with the water running fast over a jumble of scree and tumbling hundreds of feet down broken rock to the valley below. Just find a flat place to cross, and you'll be fine. And if you look close, you'll find foot traffic has packed in the approach to one such flat place above the trail on the high side.

Once across the creek, the hiking to the pass is easy, and from the pass down you can often just follow the bear tracks. We did. One thing hasn't changed over the years. Grizzlies that inhabit Twentymile country still like this route.

Paw prints bigger than our size 10- to 12-trail-running shoes led most of the way down to the worker's trail, and where 2-by-12 planks on footings across wetlands were broken in the middle, we discussed whether that was due to heavy snowfall or bears.

Some of these grizzlies might get close to 1,000 pounds. That's 250-pounds per foot. We found it more likely a bear broke the planks than some overweight guy, given that the latter would have a devil of a time making the climb to the pass.

The downhill is, of course, much easier with the exception of that old workers' trail. It goes along the north bank of the bridged stream before dropping down on a huge, impossible-to-miss gravel bar.

Follow the gravel bar down to a stand of old, dead cottonwood trees now embedded in out-wash gravel, and start looking for an old four-wheeler trail on the left. The trail leads through the alders to the river, though the last several hundred yards are under calf-to-knee-deep water.

But you should have brought a lightweight drysuit or at least waist-high waders for the packraft that is to follow, because sitting in a wet boat is no fun. And somehow packrafts, even when covered with a spray skirt, always seem to take some splash.

Twentymile gets progressively slower

The first section is the fastest, trickiest and most-fun part of the trip down the Twentymile. The river widens about a mile and a half down from the put-in where it turns south and a large tributary enters from the northeast, but there is a strong and steady current for the next four miles.

Then the current slows, and the riverboat traffic picks up as the confluence with Glacier River approaches. Be alert for the boat traffic and head for the nearest bank when you hear it coming.

Below the confluence with the Glacier, the river widens and slows even more, though there remains a decent current for another two miles or so. Below that, you are at the mercy of wind and tide.

Pity the paddler who hits the last two miles with a high-tide rising and the wind blowing upriver. A big high tide will actually push the current upriver.

Paddling against the current into a headwind can prove more than a little challenging. So, unless you want a grueling adventure, it might be a good idea to check the tides before starting this trip.

Contact Craig Medred at craig@alaskadispatch.com

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