Rafting Past Denali

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After all the adventures we’d already encountered –hiking at Peter’s Creek, the transportation museum, the Iditarod Museum and a ride behind sled dogs, a flight around Denali with a glacier landing, and chilling in the cool town of Talkeetna, it’s hard to believe that we’d only spent one full day in Alaska. I’m not joking when I say that it was the longest day of our lives.

After waking earlier than desired on day 2, we took in the lay of the land and became acquainted with Otto Lake. We made a mid morning drive out to Healy to eat at Rose’s Cafe. The locals insisted that this place was fabulous, and recommended that we absolutely had to go. I’m pretty sure my entire family will agree that this was our worst food stop of the entire trip, and it inspired us to do some grocery shopping that afternoon and cook for the rest of our stay in Healy.

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After our slow, expensive, and overdone breakfast, we returned to our cabin at Otto Lake to begin prepping for our whitewater expedition. While Denali Outdoor Center provided drysuits, booties, PFDs, and helmets, we figured that the 35 degree water probably called for a bit more warmth than blue jeans and tee shirts afforded, so dug through our bags and pulled out our beloved hydroskins. I grabbed some gloves, our cameras, and we were off to catch our bus headed to the satellite outpost.

Our driver delivered us to McKinley Park, the hustling section of Healy with restaurants,

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lodges, souvenir shops, and outfitters. At this outpost, our guides suited us up in Kokatat suits (it was a bit weird with no double tunnel), and we waited for the rest of the customers on our trip to arrive, so Ian and I were able to lay down on benches and catch a quick nap. Once the remaining trip members arrived, we all clambered onto a new bus and headed upstream to jump on the Nenana River. Because of Ian’s age, our options were limited to “the Scenic Wilderness” run. According to Denali Outdoor Center‘s website:

Scenic Wilderness

A 2 Hour (11 mile) Alaska raft adventure for all. This Nenana rafting adventure features mild whitewater with class II and one easy class III rapid (minimum age 5 years old). Float the boundary of Denali National Park in search of wildlife with breathtaking views of The Alaska Range.

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Our guide, Kaitlin, explained to us early in the trip that everything about the Nenana resulted from glacier movement. The path of a moving glacier carved out the river bed and the giant rocks and boulders which formed rapids were left behind from melting glaciers as they flowed down the mountain. Other rocks fell into the water from cliffs due to glacier movement. The water we were rafting through came from glacier melt. Glaciers, glaciers, glaciers. It was all about the glaciers. Because of the glaciers, the water was very different from what we’re used to in the southeast. The closest way I can relate it is to brown water after a hard rain, but even that’s not completely accurate. Brown water is a solid color that prevents you from looking for green water to see good deep lines, similar to the grey glacier melt that also prevents you from seeing green water. That’s where the similarity ends.

Glacier melt was the color of soupy concrete. It was also absolutely frigid. The water

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averaged 33-36 degrees, so hypothermia was a very real danger despite the July heat wave Healy was experiencing. Because of this very real concern, the guides had a very different set of priorities than we do on the southeast rivers. On the Ocoee, guides try to prevent their customers from swimming in areas with undercuts or foot entrapment hazards. Alaskan guides had to avoid all the fun holes and surfs that Ocoee guides would have thrown themselves into for body surfing or back stacked a boat to take advantage of some fluffy carnage.

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The Nenana borders Denali for about 40 miles, so a good portion of our rafting trip took us right alongside the edge of the park. At this point we had driven past the mountain, flown right up to it, and now we were floating past it. We pretty much covered all modes of transportation available to us, at this point. The flight was the most spectacular mode, but the float was equally as impressive, just in a different way. Apples and oranges. While rafting, we were able to see a mama moose come down to the water with her two babies. On top of the mountain, up on the glaciers, there is no wildlife to see. We were also able to see more of the flora of the area. Kaitlin explained to us that there are two types of trees in the area: the white spruce and the black spruce. The white spruces have an attractive, even growth from top to bottom. They’re the most northern growing tree on our continent, and grow incredibly fast. I fell in love with these trees and wish I had a grove of them in my backyard. The other type of spruce, the black spruce, grew a little funkier. Kaitlin showed us that we could recognize them by their “Dr. Seuss” appearance. These spruces grow more slowly, and more predominate than their white cousin. You could see them really well from the air, and their less uniform growth pattern could be seen very clearly from the river. They added some flavor to the landscape, but my eye definitely preferred the white spruce.

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Another neat feature that Kaitlin pointed out were the bright orange sections of cliffs. The bright colors were not actually there as homage to Vol visitors, but actually showed evidence of eagle nests. A certain type of lichen grows on the cliffs along the Nenana, and when it comes in contact with eagle feces, it turns orange. Eagles do not allow waste to build in their nests, as it would attract predators to their eaglets, so they remove all wastes and deposit it over bodies of water. We thought it was a neat indicator of eagle habitation.

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We were restricted to an oar frame boat because of Ian’s age, so we had the unusual experience of doing nothing on a rafting trip. Brinn struggled a bit with sitting still. Who would have guessed? But he took advantage of the opportunity to ride the bull for the first time in 20ish years, and Kaitlin also gave him a turn at the oars. I don’t know that Brinn is ready to give up his guide stick anytime soon, but he had no complaints about the way the boat handled with oars, except maybe the lack of impulsion. If we were trying to hit the bigger holes, that could have posed an issue, but alas, we skirted anything that looked fun. I enjoyed this rare option to simply look around me and spectate during our 11 mile float, as did my dad. Ian, however, couldn’t stand to remain on a thwart while his dad did cool stuff, so Kaitlin gave him a turn at the oars as well. It’s pretty safe to say that Ian became completely enamored of Ms. Kaitlin and looked for every opportunity to go say hi to her around the outpost for the duration of our stay.

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The Nenana was a very different experience than what we’re used to on the Obed or Ocoee, but provided views unlike any we’ve ever had the opportunity to see before. Hopefully when we return to Alaska, we’ll be able to take our own raft and spend a bit more time exploring more sections of this river.

About ashleekiser

“For in Calormen, story-telling (whether the stories are true or made up) is a thing you're taught, just as English boys and girls are taught essay-writing. The difference is that people want to hear the stories, whereas I never heard of anyone who wanted to read the essays.” ― C.S. Lewis, The Horse and His Boy Join us on our family adventures as I try to tell our stories rather than bore you with more online essays.
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