by Hank Leukart
September 27, 2010
One step toward a dream
Packrafting the Sanctuary River in Denali National Park.
A packraft, a boat light enough to be carried in a backpack, sits on the edge of Sanctuary River in Denali National Park, Alaska. (view all Packrafting Denali, Alaska photos)
ENALI NATIONAL PARK AND PRESERVE, Alaska — I have a dream. Anyone who has been forced to sit through a dinner filled with me talking about my love for outdoor adventure knows my dream. I want to spend a week hiking deep into a wilderness, and then, like a magician with a rabbit in a hat, pull a boat out of my backpack and spend a week paddling on a river back to civilization. My brother, Brian, is most well-acquainted with this dream, because I bring it up every time we start planning a new adventure.
But, sadly, because Brian and I have kept tabs on the technological progress of inflatable kayaks for years, I know that my dream can never be a reality. Even today, the lightest inflatable kayaks weigh over 15 pounds, not including a paddle and dry suit. Considering that backpacking gear plus two weeks of food weighs well over 50 pounds and completely fills even the largest backpacks, a bulky inflatable 15-pound kayak is too bulky and heavy. I’ve considering trying to cache a pair of traditional kayaks somewhere in advance of a hike, but doing so would require hiking to a road-accessible place (not really wilderness). Further complicating things, any river we might paddle would have to flow directly into our car, since carrying the heavy kayaks over even a small distance would be impossible. I’ve also considering hiring a pilot to drop two kayaks by bush plane in the wilderness at a river’s edge, but this solution too would mean using the kayaks only once, not to mention the prohibitive cost and loss of self-sufficiency bragging rights.
But late one night in an Anchorage hotel — I often forget to go to bed in Alaska due to the near-constant sunlight — I’m reading Alaska adventure blogs, when I come across a discussion forum on a site called Packrafting.org, in which outdoor enthusiasts are gushing about an activity called “packrafting.” I’m embarrassed that I’ve never even heard of packrafts, but I quickly learn that they are small, five-pound inflatable rafts with four-piece, 36-ounce paddles. As I read more, I learn that Alaska is considered the birthplace of long-distance packrafting trips, which makes sense, considering the state’s vast expanses of roadless terrain and seemingly endless networks of crisscrossing rivers. Enthralled, I read tens of forum messages with tips and techniques, suggested gear, and most importantly, trip ideas and reports. I come across a trip suggestion from Roman Dial, considered the grandfather of the sport of packrafting. He describes a classic beginner’s packrafting trip, requiring a 20-mile hike north from Cantwell, Alaska into the Park’s daunting wilderness. The hike takes backpackers from Windy Creek to the headwaters of Denali’s Sanctuary River via Windy Pass, where they can then packraft to Denali’s Park road, catch a shuttle back to the Park’s entrance, and hitchhike the 30 miles back to Cantwell.
It’s a genuine adventure, and I decide that I can’t bear to leave Alaska without trying it. But, I have one problem: I can’t think of anyone in Alaska who would be willing to join me — someone willing to hike for two days through trail-less, grizzly bear-filled wilderness, across Denali’s famously dangerous glacial rivers. Nevertheless, I know that packrafting for the first time in Denali is not something I want to try alone.
The next day, I find myself trying to get my boss, Mitch, interested in the trip. He’s a television producer who has traveled all over the world for his job to places like Cambodia, Cairo, and the Gaza Strip, so I’m hopeful that he’ll be willing and able to do a hiking trip in Denali. I find an easier, alternate route to get to the Sanctuary River headwaters: Sable Pass to Calico Creek, which requires only 15 miles of hiking and no hitchhiking. I explain to Mitch that I know from my previous eight-day trip through the Park that its trail-less terrain across arctic taiga makes for some of the most difficult hiking in the world, but I tell him about the simpler route to the Sanctuary River and remind him that online trip reports I’ve read make the hike sound comparatively easy. He seems a bit reluctant, but soon, he’s signed up for the adventure: our last hurrah after finishing our work before leaving Alaska for the summer. On the Internet, I find a guy named John who rents packrafts for $40 per day, and after I pick them up from his house in Anchorage, we’re ready to go.
Forty-two hours before our Sunday night redeye flight back to Los Angeles, Mitch and I wake up on Saturday morning at 6 AM, shove the packrafts into our backpacks, and begin the five hour drive to Denali National Park. We’re delayed for awhile on the George Parks Highway due to roadwork — Alaska locals often complain that the state has only two seasons: winter and construction — but after a quick stop for gas in the tiny town of Trapper Creek about halfway to the Park, we arrive at the Backcountry Information Center near the Park’s entrance.
To my utter amazement, a Park Ranger named Mike Bardwell greets us and offers to help me and Mitch plan our trip.
“You probably don’t remember me, but you helped me and my brother, Brian, plan an eight-day trip across the McKinley River, into McGonagall Pass, and across Muldrow Glacier when I was here three years ago,” I tell Mike. I decide not to mention to him that when we almost died after falling into the McKinley River, Brian and I found ourselves cursing Mike, even as we feared we would never see him again. But, Brian and I escaped the McKinley and Denali alive, and our fears of never seeing him again turned out to be unfounded: here he was, encouraging me to return into Denali’s wilderness.
“That sounds like quite adventure,” Mike says, which sounds to me like the biggest understatement I’ve ever heard. Clearly, he doesn’t read my blog, I think. But, he’s right, it was a life-defining voyage, and I can’t fault him. He warned us of the dangers.
“It certainly was,” I say. “And I’m ready for another. My friend and I are interested in hiking from Sable Pass to packraft the Sanctuary River,” I explain. But Mike tells us that, due to Denali’s wilderness management system which limits the number of people in a given “unit” of the Park at any given time, he can’t issue a permit for us to overnight near the Sanctuary River headwaters. So, though I’m a little worried about the five additional hiking miles and the hitchhiking required, I suggest Roman Dial’s Cantwell to Windy Pass itinerary as an alternative. Mike tells us that overnight camping spots in Windy Pass are available and issues the backcountry permit to us.
“But the first four miles of the hike will be on an ATV trail across private land, outside the Park,” he tells us nervously. “Sometimes the land owner gives hikers trouble.” While I’m imagining an incensed Alaskan with a long beard and shotgun chasing us through the Alaska wilderness, another ranger, Eleanor, tells us that we shouldn’t worry. She says that she’s done the hike before, and we can expect mostly easy traveling except for one difficult section of bushwhacking along Windy Creek. Mitch looks at me nervously, clearly unexcited about the prospect of being chased by a man with a shotgun while bushwhacking through the Denali wilderness, but I assure him that I’ve read online about many other packrafters doing the trip without a problem.
But, before we can leave, Mike makes us watch Denali’s safety video. From my previous trip to Denali, I remembered the video being intimidating, but the Park’s newly expanded “director’s cut” is downright terrifying. It’s full of stern warnings and depictions of freezing glacial rivers, angry grizzly bears, charging moose, ruthless mountain lions, navigation nightmares, starvation scenarios, giardia illness, and deadly hypothermia. The video so convincingly warns prospective backpackers that they will have to play dead while being mauled by a grizzly bear during any trip into the backcountry that I’m surprised that anyone manages to summon the courage to enter Denali after leaving the Wilderness Access Center. When we’re finished watching, I look around the room at the other backpackers-to-be. All of them look like they’ve just been told the apocalypse will occur with the hour. Mitch looks at me like I’m a grizzly bear about to eat him for lunch.
“I need to… uh… call my mom,” he says, as though he knows that this will be his last chance to tell her he loves her before being gored by a moose’s antlers. But, to his credit, he doesn’t try to bail out of our trip, and soon, after parking our car at the Cantwell Lodge, we’re walking past a “DEAD END, PRIVATE” sign, across a private land easement, toward Denali’s intimidating wilderness.
Read the second part of this story about packrafting the Sanctuary River in Denali National Park, in which we encounter an impassable, 100-foot waterfall.
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.