by Hank Leukart
October 20, 2010
My never-have-run-out-of-gas record still stands, technically
An Alaskan packrafting trip leads to a driving adventure.
Clouds gather over Denali’s Sanctuary River during a packrafting trip.
This is the last essay in a series about packrafting Denali's Sanctuary River. Start with the first essay for the whole story.D
ENALI NATIONAL PARK AND PRESERVE, Alaska — “Do you want me to try inflating your raft?” I ask my boss Mitch, knowing that if I fail, he’ll probably throw me into the Sanctuary River just to enjoy the sight of me drowning.
“Yes!” he says, annoyed.
To minimize weight, packrafts do not have electric inflators but instead must be inflated using a thin, nylon bag which connects to the raft’s air intake valve. I grab Mitch’s inflator bag, fill it with air, and collapse it against my legs. Little air seems to flow into Mitch’s raft, which makes me nervous. When I take a look at Mitch’s raft’s air intake valve, I see that his nylon bag’s connector is not correctly threaded into the raft’s valve, so I reattach the bag. This time, when I collapse the inflator bag, air flows into the raft. I’m relieved as the raft inflates, both because I know we won’t have to hike for two more days and also because Mitch won’t try to drown me in the River (probably).
After lashing our backpacks onto the front of our packrafts, I’m giddy with excitement. After all, we’ve hiked twenty miles across Alaskan tundra for this moment! I eagerly slide my raft into the Sanctuary and awkwardly nestle into the craft. Immediately, I’m struck by how thin the bottom of the raft is — I can feel cold water and rocks rushing under me. I’m also surprised by how much my backpack, strapped to the front of my raft, obstructs my view. I realize that we’re going to be rafting for 16 miles through Denali, mostly blind.
We begin paddling down the Sanctuary, and within minutes, I manage to maroon myself on a hard-to-see gravel bar in the middle of the River. I can’t free the raft from the rocks with my paddle, so I’m forced to jump out and walk in the cold water to dislodge the craft. I look downriver and see Mitch trying to free himself from a similar predicament. As soon as I jump back into my raft, the current whisks me speedily down the river, but Mitch is nowhere to be seen; he has paddled far ahead.
As I float downstream, a rock under the water unexpectedly bashes into my tailbone. Who just punched me in the butt?! I wonder. Then, it happens again and then again. Every time another rock hits me, I expect it to tear through the bottom of my raft, but it doesn’t. It just hurts — a lot.
After a few miles of repeatedly becoming ensnared on rock bars, my tailbone aches and the reality of our situation becomes clear: on this day, the Sanctuary River’s water level is too low for rafting. The water levels of Denali rivers are notoriously unpredictable, which is why even the Park Rangers didn’t warn us. Nevertheless, long stretches of the River are easily navigable, and I discover that by leaning far back on the packraft — a normally ill-advised behavior due to the risk of flipping the raft backwards — I can lift my tailbone from the bottom of the boat, making shallow rocks less likely to ram into me. I imagine that I must look ridiculous, lying halfway back on my packraft, but, soon, I realize that I’m having a lot of fun.
About a third of the way downriver on the way to the Park road, I catch up with Mitch, who’s waiting to ask me how many more paddling miles remain.
“We’re about a third of the way to the road,” I tell him. “How’s it going?”
“Ridiculous! This trip is utterly absurd!” he snaps at me and then continues paddling down the river. In his defense, I imagine that his tailbone feels exactly like mine: like someone has been beating it with a baseball bat for two hours. It’s easy to imagine how Mitch might not be having the time of his life, trying to paddle, cold and wet, down a barely navigable shallow river filled with jagged rocks. After he fires me and burns down my apartment after this trip, I think, he’s never going to talk to me again.
But after about four hours of paddling, Mitch and I catch a glimpse of the Park road, lift our rafts out of the water, and carry them to the asphalt. Exhausted, we board the night’s last Park shuttle. To my surprise, Mitch returns almost immediately to good spirits — we’re in a warm, dry place and we’ve finally made it out of the wild. Almost.
By the time we arrive at the Wilderness Access Center at the Park’s entrance, it’s 11 PM and pitch black outside. In an hour, our flight back to Los Angeles will leave without us. Our plan — to take a Denali shuttle to the Park’s entrance and then hitchhike the 30 miles south back to our car in Cantwell — seems impossible now, because we’re sure no one will pick up two hitchhikers on the side of a highway at night. We sheepishly ask our shuttle driver if there’s any chance he’ll take us, but he refuses.
From my previous Denali trip, I remember Panorama Pizza Pub, a bar about 15 miles north of Cantwell with a shuttle service offering to take thirsty hikers to the bar. I dial Panorama Pizza on my cell phone.
“I just dragged my boss 35 miles across Denali wilderness, and now we can’t get to our car in Cantwell,” I explain to the bartender who answers the phone. “He’s going to fire me and then burn down my apartment.”
“Wait, what?” the bartender asks.
“I had a dream,” I begin again. I’m about halfway through telling him our long packrafting story when he stops me, bewildered. “Look, just wait there and I’ll send the shuttle to get you. I can’t leave the bar, but when you get here, ask for Dan. I’ll let you borrow my car so you guys can pick up yours. Hopefully you’ll be able to keep your job.”
I thank him profusely, and soon enough, Mitch and I are standing in Panorama Pizza. Dan, the bartender — still mostly a stranger — hands me the keys to his 1971 powder blue GMC Vandura cargo van.
“If you go over 55 miles per hour, it will start shaking,” Dan tells me.
“So I shouldn’t go over 55?” I ask.
“It’s up to you,” he says.
The van shudders violently as Mitch and I drive toward Cantwell, but we succeed in retrieving our car and returning to Panorama Pizza to return the van. We give Dan an obscenely large tip and promise him that we’ll buy him dinner when he next visits Los Angeles.
Finally, when Mitch and I begin driving toward Anchorage, I feel an enormous sense of relief as I see Cantwell’s Killer Smoke BBQ and Tesoro gas station in my rear view mirror fade into tiny specks. Mitch falls asleep in the passenger’s seat. We’ve finally made it out of the wild. Almost.
After about 30 minutes of driving, I look down at the car’s gas gauge and notice that it has an eighth-tank of gas left. I realize that I’ve driven only about halfway through the desolate, 96-mile stretch of wilderness without phone service or gas stations between Cantwell and the tiny town of Trapper Creek, and there’s no way we’re going to make it to the next gas station. I’m embarrassed and devastated: I’ve always had a misplaced sense of pride about having never run out of gas while driving a car, and I’ve always dismissed have-run-out-of-gassers as irresponsible and foolish. But now, in horror, I realize that I’m about to join their ranks.
I look over at Mitch, sleeping in the passenger’s seat. When I tell him this, my life is over, I think. He’s not going to fire me — he’s just going to murder me. This trip is officially a disaster.
Like a sixteen year old driving student who hasn’t learned how the brake works, I keep driving down the deserted highway, because I don’t know what else to do. I see the orange gas gauge light illuminate, seemingly taunting me with the inevitable destruction of my spotless have-never-run-out-of-gas record. I’m desperate to protect my record and avoid being murdered by Mitch when, suddenly, I spot a gravel driveway leading to a small building with a sign reading, “Byers Creek Lodge.” I turn down the driveway, park in front of the Lodge, and turn off the car with less than a gallon of gas remaining. I’m hoping that the owner will have some gas or at least a telephone.
But it’s 2 AM when I knock on the front door of the Lodge, and no one answers.
“Hello?! We need help!” I yell into the darkness. I try to open the door, but it’s locked. I start wandering around the lodge, yelling “Hello?!” but still, no one responds. I yell again at the Lodge’s backdoor, but the Lodge is deserted. Mitch and I are trapped — we’re on the side of an Alaskan highway, forty miles from civilization, with no gas or phone service. Frantic, I take a look under the back door’s doormat, where, to my surprise, I discover a key. I feel like an actor in a bad thriller movie. As I hesitantly open the Lodge door with the key, I imagine flash-forward montage sequences in my bad thriller movie, in which I’m sentenced to 30 years in a Supermax prison for breaking and entering. (In the movie, I call it “B&E” to establish my street cred.)
“Anyone there?! I just want to use your phone! I’m sorry I’m breaking and entering! I’m not a robber!” I feel like an idiot for apologizing to no one — and using the archaic-sounding word “robber” — in the middle of the Alaskan wilderness. Luckily, I find a telephone and make a call to a friendly AAA operator, who, despite our confusing and suspicious conversation, promises to send someone with a gas can to find us within an hour. (“No, I really have no idea where I am or where this Lodge is located or what the phone number is here because no one is working here. How did I get in? Uh, it’s complicated.”) Relieved, I return to the car.
“Where are we?” Mitch asks, bewildered after waking from his nap.
“Byers Creek Lodge,” I offer as a non-explanation. “AAA is on their way with a gas can.”
Then, something amazing happens. Mitch doesn’t murder me.
He starts laughing. I start laughing too. We can’t stop.
Four hours later, at 6 AM — five hours after our flight leaves for Los Angeles without us — an AAA tow truck, carrying a can of gas, finally finds us.
The following week, Mitch and I walk into our office in Los Angeles and attempt to sit. We simultaneously yelp in pain, due to our bruised tailbones. We laugh. I show Mitch an enticing blog post detailing the thrill of the 52-mile Denali hiking trip to Chris McCandless’s real “Magic Bus.”
“Let’s do it,” he says.
I look at him skeptically, but I realize that he’s serious. He’s a pretty good sport. WB
How to Packraft Denali’s Sanctuary River
- OVERVIEW: The headwaters of the Sanctuary River are located in Denali National Park and Preserve, about 16 miles south of mile 22.5 of Denali’s Park Road. Rafting the Sanctuary River is a good packrafting trip for beginning packrafters, but hiking across the trail-less, rugged terrain of Denali National Park is difficult and daunting. Only backpackers experienced with trail-less navigation, bushwhacking, and hiking in grizzly bear, moose, and mountain lion country should attempt this trip.
- LOGISTICS: The entrance to Denali National Park and Preserve can be reached by driving five hours north from Anchorage by following the AK-1 (New Seward Highway) to Wasilla and then continuing north on AK-3 (George Parks Highway) to the Park entrance. Anyone camping overnight in Denali is required to stop at the Park’s Wilderness Access Center, located just inside the Park entrance, to create a trip plan, watch the Denali wildlife and river safety video, and get a Backcountry Permit. Denali’s quota system allows only a limited number of backpackers to camp in a given unit (area of the park) on a given night.
- CANTWELL TO SANCTUARY HEADWATERS ROUTE: To reach the Sanctuary headwaters, drive 30 miles south from the Denali Park entrance to Cantwell, Alaska, turn right on AK-8 (Denali Highway), and after about 1.7 miles, turn right into the Cantwell Lodge parking lot. (You may want to make sure that the Lodge manager is aware of your car in his parking lot, and leave a note on your car’s dashboard with emergency contact information and the date of your expected return.) Begin hiking north across the nearby railroad tracks toward the power lines, up the road (yes, the one with the “Blue Home B&B” and “DEAD END, PRIVATE” signs). Upon reaching the end of the road, if you hike directly east along the power lines, you will be able to visit the prop bus used as a stand-in for Chris McCandless’s “Magic Bus” in the movie Into the Wild. After visiting the bus and returning to the road, continue walking north, on a muddy ATV trail leading into Denali National Park, on an easement leading through private property. The National Park has clearly marked the easement with bright orange, tall easement markers. On our hike, we met the private property owner, who was cordial and helpfully directed us in the right direction. The ATV trail allows for very easy hiking into the park for about four miles until reaching Windy Creek. Bushwhack for about three miles west along Windy Creek (this can be challenging, and you may want to walk in the Creek if it’s warm enough) and then continue following the Creek northwest up and over Windy Pass. If you plan on spending the night, keep in mind that there are many beautiful and flat places to camp high in the Pass, so hold out until you find a great spot. As you descend into Refuge Valley from Windy Pass, stay alert for an impassable waterfall about halfway down the Pass. Do not attempt to walk over this cliff — it is nearly 100 feet high. Instead, walk up the hill north of the cliff, then walk west and follow the Creek from the cliffs above. After you’ve passed the waterfall, there are many outcrops low enough to allow you to return to Windy Creek. You can then follow the Creek to the headwaters of the Sanctuary.
- SABLE PASS TO SANCTUARY HEADWATERS ROUTE: To reach the Sanctuary headwaters, board the Denali Park Shuttle at the Wilderness Access Center and tell the driver you want to disembark at Sable Pass. Then, hike down the Teklanika River, up the Calico Creek drainage, over the pass, and then down into Refuge Valley where the Sanctuary River headwaters are located. The pass is very steep and may require you to crawl for a short distance. Take extra care when climbing down across loose scree.
- PACKRAFTING TO THE PARK ROAD: The rafting distance from the Sanctuary headwaters to the Park road is 16.4 miles. Keep watch for the road after you have rafted about 16 miles (which will take between three and four hours). Once at the road, Park shuttles will pass approximately every half hour until 10 PM, depending on time of day and time of year. (Confirm the current schedule before you leave.) After the shuttle returns you to the Park entrance, you can walk to your car or hitchhike back to Cantwell if you started there.
- PACKRAFTING TIPS: Packrafts tend to be stable, forgiving crafts that flow over waves easily and are resilient when bouncing off sharp rocks. Packrafts are most likely to tip backwards, so make sure to learn forward in rough water. Hypothermia is a risk; it’s easy to get very cold while rafting in Alaska because glacier water is near freezing, you expend less energy than you do while hiking, and the boats have flimsy spray skirts. Packrafts position you almost directly on the water’s surface, so you will get wet. Wear warm, synthetic clothing, and put on more layers than you would for hiking. Be sure to bring a patch kit (duct tape, Aquaseal) in case a valve leaks or you manage to punch a hole in the raft — otherwise, you could end up with an unexpected, long hike home.
- ROUTE: View our route and download the Without Baggage Packrafting Sanctuary River GPS track in GPX or KML format.