Guide to the Gulkana River
July 01, 2003 at 8:07 AM
Guide to the Gulkana River
For those of you who may someday get a chance to visit Alaska and want to make a memorable float trip, the Gulkana River may be a good river of choice. Parts of the Gulkana River are classified as one of the country's "Wild and Scenic Rivers", and it is accessible by Alaska's limited road system. As you might expect, it is a beautiful river with great fishing and abundant wildlife. It is located roughly half way between Anchorage and Fairbanks along the Richardson highway and is approximately seven hours driving time from Anchorage.
The classification of the river varies from Class I through Class IV/V, depending on the exact location and water flow conditions. Most of it is normally classified Class II, although there are fairly long segments classified as Class III/IV. One short segment runs through a canyon that is sometimes classified as Class V. This part of the river, however, can be portaged over a good trail maintained by the US Forest Service or you can line your raft around the rapids.
Paxson Lake is the headwaters of the Gulkana River. The river flows out of the south end of the lake, but flows initially southwest taking a route away from the Richardson highway, then slowly bends and flows south east coming back to the highway at the community of Sourdough. From there the river flows south until it crosses the highway near the community of Gulkana and then empties into the Copper River. Coming out of Paxson Lake the river initially is very shallow with just enough water to allow rafts and canoes to pick their way through a rocky and winding course. Along the way, two streams join the Gulkana, each significantly increasing the amount of water in the river. Unfortunately no one measures the flow rate anywhere along the river. The best information can be obtained by calling the Sourdough Lodge and asking how high the river is. The information given to you, however, will be in general terms: "the river is high, or its low, or it’s extremely low." Typically the only time the river gets extremely low is in late Summer/early Fall, and this only occurs every few years.
Most rafters float the segment of the river from Paxson Lake to the community of Sourdough. This is the northern segment which is longer, classified as wild and scenic and more challenging to the rafter. It is also where you normally see the most wild game and where the fishing is typically best. The length of this segment is forty-five river miles with a seven mile lake to cross. Most people take three days to float this stretch, although it can be made in two days if it’s early summer (when you have very long days), you are in a hurry and are not going to stop occasionally to fish. If possible, you should take three days to have a leisurely trip and enjoy the scenery.
To reach the Gulkana from Anchorage, you will need to drive north up the Glen Highway to Glen Allen where this highway meets the Richardson Highway. Turn left at the junction and proceed north on the Richardson. Approximately forty miles past Glen Allen you will come to the small community of Sourdough at Mile Post 147. This is the normal take-out point for rafters floating the northern segment of the river. Unless your group has two cars, you will probably want to stop at the lodge there and make arrangements to have your vehicle picked up at Paxson Lake and shuttled back to Sourdough. The last time I did this in 2003, the price had just gone from $35 to $40 for the shuttle. It is best to call ahead to the lodge and make sure that someone will be there when you arrive or make arrangements to leave the payment and keys somewhere in the area. Paxson Lake is approximately another fifty miles further north. The lake is marked by a Bureau of Land Management sign indicating a left hand turn off the highway to the lake. The boat ramp is almost a mile from the highway. There is also a BLM camp ground which you may want to use, as it is normally best to start your float trip in the morning.
Paxson Lake is nine miles long and perhaps three-quarters of a mile wide. It runs almost exactly north and south. The boat launch unfortunately is close to the northern end while the river outlet is approximately seven miles south at the opposite end of the lake. So, unless you have a small outboard motor, you have a lot of rowing to do. Often this area has late afternoon thunder showers in the summer. Also the winds frequently come up in the afternoon with the prevailing winds often counter to the direction you will be rowing. Personally, I always took a three horse power motor that I used, so I have never rowed down the lake. With the motor, it takes one to two hours to get from the boat launch to river. The difference between one and two hours is the wind and whether I was towing another raft. If you get caught in an afternoon thunder shower you need to get off the lake and wait for the storm to pass. Lightening loves oars (especially aluminum ones) and people.
Once across the lake, stop and take the motor off if you used one. You definitely do not want a motor mounted on the back of your raft for the first leg of the trip down the river. There is an old burnt out cabin at the river outlet, and this is a good place to stop and reconfigure your raft if you need to. Typically you will need to wear a head net here as the bugs are in great quantities. The first four or so miles below the lake is fast, rocky, and often shallow. Generally it is classified as Class III water. If it weren't so shallow it would not be difficult, but often you cannot dig your oars deep enough into the water to turn the raft before running up on rocks just beneath the surface. Unless you are lightly loaded, you are going to get hung up on a few rocks in this stretch. Forty minutes to an hour after leaving the lake you will come to the confluence of the Middle Fork. This stream will come in from your right side and will double the amount of water in the river.
The confluence of the Gulkana and the Middle Fork is a beautiful area and deserves some attention, especially if you are a "fisher-person". Because of the good fishing, this is a popular area to camp. There is an established BLM camp ground (with an outhouse) on the far side of the confluence, but you have to be careful or you will be swept by it before you realize that you are there. Just before arriving at the confluence there are several small islands that you have to pick your way around. All of a sudden you hit the extra current from the Middle Fork, and you are moving fairly rapidly away. There is a BLM sign on the bank, and you can see where people have chiseled away a landing area right in front of the camp ground. The camping area is large enough for three or four groups to camp. If you are on the river any time close to July 4th there will be people camping at the camp ground, as well as out on the small rocky islands in front of you. At times, the fishing in this area borders on being fantastic. The fish are rainbows and grayling. If you walk upstream on the Middle Fork about 3/4 mile you will come to several deep holes where some really large grayling (16" to 18") hang out. For rainbows, it is best to cross back over to the islands in front of the camp ground and fish the areas just above them. The rainbows are not huge, but fairly numerous. In June and early July, there will be a few red salmon (Sockeye) in this area too, but typically they are pretty spent by the time they get this far up river. Check the regulations before keeping any fish. In 2003, you were still permitted to keep a few trout and grayling in this area, but that may have changed.
Proceeding further down river from the confluence of the Middle Fork, you will come to an old trappers cabin approximately a mile or two down on the left hand side. This cabin was built sometime around 1899 - 1902 by fur trapper(s) and is in surprisingly good condition for its age and lack of care. For the next four miles or so the river runs mainly Class I with short stretches of Class II as the river twist and turns. Then you start getting into long stretches of Class I where the water is very deep and there is barely any current at all. From this area to the canyon decent camping spots are almost devoid. Do not be tempted to re-install your outboard and motor through this area, as gas powered engines are prohibited. From the Middle Fork to the canyon will take you five to six hours of rowing. You will probably see lots of beavers in this area, as well as an occasional river otter, moose and caribou. The animal you see the most, however, are bald eagles…..as many as fifty to seventy in a day. If you are very quite with your oars, you can often float right under them. Be aware that there are grizzly bears all along the river, but they typically do not bother people. Still, you need to store your food away from the immediate camping area (and not left in the rafts either).
As you approach the canyon you will hear a growing roar. Approximately a quarter of a mile above the take-out point, there will be a sign on the left hand side announcing the upcoming portage. You need to start maneuvering toward the left bank, so that you can land at the second sign where the portage begins. Even if you don't portage the canyon, it is a good idea to stop here and at least scout the river. The water here moves at a fast pace and there are many large boulders to dodge. Most rafters run the canyon, while most canoeist portage it. In my many trips there, I have never seen a kayak on the river, but I am sure that some have done it. Some rafters lighten their load by portaging their heavier items around the canyon. Until eight or nine years ago there was a small falls of seven or eight feet at the south end of the canyon; however, the BLM saw fit to dynamite it and now it is just a large chute . Several publications classify the canyon as Class IV, although I have also seen it classified as Class V.
Like the confluence where the Gulkana and Middle Fork meet, the canyon is a good place to stop and spend some time. First of all, there are four or five good camping spots right off the portage trail. There is also a BLM provided outhouse at the lower end of the trail. But, best of all the fishing is great. Here the rainbows and steelhead are good size. Seven to eight pounders are not uncommon with a ten to twelve pound fish taken occasionally. The problem here is getting a fly deep enough to reach the fish in this fast flowing water. As much as fly fishermen hate to do it, you almost have to add sinkers above your flies. Sinking fly lines just don't sink fast enough. Again, check the fishing regulations for this area, but I am fairly certain you are not permitted to keep any steelhead or rainbows.
The next seven or so miles below the canyon will be fast and often shallow, as the river often splits into channels and then splits again before coming back together. Then in some places the river spreads out, but still flows very rapidly. Most publications classify this stretch as Class III/IV. Keeping your raft from being driven up on rocks just beneath the surface becomes a challenge. Be careful about stepping out of your raft to get yourself off a rock. In one step the water depth can go from four inches to over your head. Keep your PFD on and don't let your raft get away from you. One good thing about this stretch of river is the numerous places to camp and fish. There are many sandbars and rocky beaches where you can put up tents.
After the next seven or eight miles below the canyon, the river gradually slows down to become mainly Class II waters. If you are making your trip in late June or early July, you will start seeing King (Chinook) salmon in this area. There is a marker on the left hand side of the river that announces permission to use bait which is forbidden from Paxson Lake down to this point. Although this marker pertains to all kinds of bait, most local fishermen will use cured salmon eggs to enhance the probability of hooking into a King. If you do fish for the salmon, stop at the bends where the river slows down and forms deep holes. You may also catch a few rainbows and dolly-varden mixed in with the salmon. Because these kings have traveled 300 or so miles from salt water they will not be real bright and fresh, but they still have a lot of fight left in them and most will be eatable. Once again check the applicable regulations if you are going to fish. One thing you need to be aware of is that you come to the end of the wild and scenic portion of the river in this area, and once again motors are permissible. The river is still too fast and shallow for you to use a small outboard on a raft, but not too shallow for air boats. During salmon season, quite a few air boats operate on this section of the river. When you hear one coming, it is best to give up the main channel of the river and move over into the shallows until it goes by.
A few miles past the aforementioned bait sign, you will come to the confluence with the West Fork. Just before this junction you again pick your way through a few channels that flow around small islands. The West Fork will come in from the right side and again there is an established camp ground on the far side of the river with an outhouse. Whereas the water from Paxson Lake to this point has been clear, it now mixes with the tea colored water of the West Fork and becomes somewhat turbid. Typically, this is the place that I re-install my small outboard engine, although I do not start using it for another mile or two.
From the confluence of the West Fork to the take out at Sourdough, the water is generally deep and slow moving, but occasionally there are short, rapid stretches especially as the river sweeps around the bends. So, if a motor is used in this area you need to keep a close eye immediately in front of you for large rocks and for the shallows. It also helps to have someone ready to man the oars when the motor is pulled up. The distance from the confluence to Sourdough is approximately six miles. You know that you are almost there when you round a bend and see the Alaska Pipe Line crossing over the river. Passing under the pipeline you have less than a mile to the take-out. Start looking over to the left side and you will see the Sourdough boat launch. It is about a quarter mile walk from the boat launch to the Sourdough Lodge to pick up your vehicle if you made arrangements to have it shuttled. You will drive back to the boat launch to load your raft.
When is the best time to go? For sure do it sometime between early June to early September. The King salmon fishing is normally best between late June and early July. This is also when the river will be most crowded with other rafters. The week before July 4th and the week after are the most crowded times on the river. Over the 4th of July, it is often hard to find unoccupied camp sites, especially at the BLM camp grounds and down in the area where the King Salmon fishing is best. This period is also the height of the insect infestation. In some years the bugs are so thick that you are miserable without a head net and gloves. After the middle of July the number of people using the river drops off and the bugs slowly die down to a tolerable level. My favorite time to raft the river is the last two weeks in August and the first couple of weeks in September. Actually the second week of September is probably best, but since this is high country you run a slight risk of an early freeze up. September is fall in this area with the leaves turning bright yellow making it absolutely beautiful. It is also moose hunting season.
There are several places in Anchorage that rent rafts and trailers. The one that I am most familiar with is Alaska Raft and Kayak at 401 West Tudor Road. Call Jeff Varvil, the owner, at 1-800-606-5950 or better yet, go to his web site atwww.alaskaraftandkayak.com. The web site has a listing of rental prices, plus a dozen or so informative and amusing stories about rafting in Alaska. If the Gulkana sounds too tame for you, Jeff will surely be able to suggest other rivers.