Monday, October 17, 2011

The whole Crescent Creek ordeal

"Marvin Gardens" (PR 3+/4-) on Crescent Creek, Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve.
It's easy to forget sometimes that Alaska is rather large.  Due to this stark fact, there are many wrinkles, creases and folds in the bailiwick that have yet to be fully explored. You can chalk that up to one of two reasons: the stark boredom of the place at hand, or just getting overlooked among other adventurous pursuits in the same area. Crescent Creek represented the latter.

As one of the Charley River's major tributaries, Crescent Creek lies in the southwest corner of the preserve, with its headwaters converging from the east and southeast to flow north and eventually back east to empty into the Charley.  Such a route lends easy naming to this drainage, especially when looking at the map (1:63,360 USGS, Eagle D-6).

While the Crescent valley sees fairly consistent hunting activity in the fall, there hadn't been any reported float trips over the years, likely indicating the creek had never been floated before, much less packrafted.  As rafters on the Charley pass by Crescent's mouth and look a few hundred yards upstream, it certainly appears to be a worthwhile float if you could access it.  Roman knew this, and informed me of the first descent possibility back in April. With a week off at the end of July, I decided to go for it.

Gear selection was pretty minimal, and all-told my pack weight was in the 40-50 lb range, including all the rafting gear, as well as an unnecessary bear barrel, on account of the odor-proof sacks out there these days.  I shelled out for the Epic pack from ULA, specifically for it's light weight and its integral packrafting features.    Having fussed with the trash compactor bags on a light day trip earlier in the summer, and being thoroughly unimpressed, I opted for the security and durability of a dry bag.  This being my first trip with it, I was interested to see how it (and I) would fare.

Those who adhere a bit less to the 'fair means' strategy than others can access Crescent Creek via a Super Cub landing on the bush strip at Moraine Creek, about a mile from the ideal put-in location.  Otherwise, enjoy the 17-mile hike over a pass west of  Gelvin's air strip, 75 miles up the Charley, where slightly larger airplanes (i.e. Cessna 170) can land.  If the water levels aren't too low, A great addition to this route would be to fly in to Three Fingers and float the uppermost stretches of the Charley before taking out at Gelvin's.

The area around Gelvin's is probably one of the more foot-traveled areas in the preserve, being a near perfect spot to hunt caribou, and the site of a B-24 crash in December 1943 that resulted in one of the better Alaska survival stories I've yet heard. Army Air Corps Lt. Leon Crane spent 86 days along the Charley River in the dead of winter, eventually making his way to the mouth and getting help from local resident Al Ames. Accounting for backtracking, Crane trudged about 120 miles without snowshoes, and broke through the river ice and soaked himself in sub-zero temperatures not once, but twice. If it weren't for a stocked cabin near Hosford Creek, or a few others along the Charley at that time, Crane likely wouldn't have made it out alive.

The trek from Gelvin's was pretty straight forward: head up the valley due west of the cabin to the pass over to Crescent's headwaters.  However, my initial intent was to first ascend the nearest ridge to see the remains of the B-24 crash, then head gradually down the ridge and up valley. A combination of bad weather and the fact that the crash site was just out of the way nixed that plan, so I stuck along the edge of the unnamed creek that drains Cirque Lakes about 1,000 feet above to the south. At times, this creek looked just gnarly enough to packraft without having to worry about the floor getting worn off, but precise maneuvering would've been key. Narrow and fun, but not my objective.

The pass (far right behind tent) is what I would traverse over to the next day. Hard to 
pass up such a great camping spot.
About 8 miles up this valley is an inordinately superb bench where camping is ideal; a stream fresh out of the ground, prime Dall sheep habitat, and vistas of some the highest peaks Yukon-Charley has to offer at over 6,000 feet.  This is where the most technical section of the trek begins, as ascending the 5,000 ft. pass requires navigating through about a mile of continuous talus at a fairly steep angle.
From the pass, looking east towards the Charley River...
...and west towards Crescent Creek.
Any solo jaunt through the mountains certainly has its benefits.  Those who've done it before know what I'm talking about. Those who haven't tend to look at you a bit quizzically, wondering if something's wrong with you (family included). Conceptually, it's no different than any other challenge within nature. There's just added complexities, which is what I find so intriguing. You rely wholly on your physical capabilities, skills, knowledge, and supplies on your back.  In order to do it successfully, in my mind, you have to mitigate all unnecessary risks while still accepting the possibility you might not make it back alive. Suicidal? Far from it. I feel safer alone out in the woods miles from anyone than I do crossing the intersection of Northern Lights Blvd. and Boniface Pkwy. in Anchorage, and statistically I probably am.

The sole remaining piece of aufeis on Crescent Creek.
Having done a few solo trips over the years of varying complexity, this one definitely moves ahead by increasing the remoteness, and implementing the packrafting...on a creek nobody had any knowledge of in terms of features, hazards, and conditions at various flow rates or water levels. In short, I had no room for screw-ups. The quick descent along the infancy of Crescent Creek, moving along by way of some fantastic caribou trails, brought me to what I thought was the ideal spot to inflate the raft. That's when things got a bit too fun in a real hurry. 

You might notice in the picture on the left that there's a pair of hiking boots tied to my pack.  Lacking adequate light weight shoes that drain well, I opted for the next best thing, and wore Chacos with neoprene socks while packrafting, which also contributed to my heavy "ultralight" pack.  Since the boots wouldn't fit in the dry bag, my only choice was to tie them on in such a way that gravity would be the main way of keeping them in place.  In essence, I tied the laces of one boot around the pack's hip belt, and hung it on the far side, eliminating any dangling long as the load remained secure.  

Less than 10 minutes into the float, where the creek was about 25 feet wide and quite boulder-laden, I found out the hard way that my load wasn't quite secure enough.

The cam strap was wrapped well, but I didn't think to wrap it through the attachment points on the dry bag itself, which would have properly secured the bag and removed the possibility of it shifting from one side of the bow to the other.  I made the fix after going over a 18-inch drop, witnessing the 30+ pound dry bag list to the right side, which I was leaning on after going over the drop, promptly flipping the raft and me (sans dry suit) into the (n)ice cold water.  Not quite the zenith of embarrassment, but it was a good ways up the curve.  So I went with the flow for a bit until I found an eddy, got to the creek edge (mostly willow with very little working room), and re-strapped the load.  The water was only about waist deep at this point.

Not long after I got back in the boat and made it through the narrow boulder garden, things got flat and then the creek disappeared, with a slight roar in the distance.  Getting out to scout, I encountered the first and only dramatic drop (about 8 ft. over a 50 ft. stretch I'd guess) along Crescent, but it was complicated with a diagonal sweeper fallen from the right side.  This drop immediately funneled into a 3-4 ft. wave train as another feeder stream entered Crescent from the south.  I pinpointed the experience of successfully maneuvering around the sweeper and positioning myself to where I shot right down the last of the drop and seamlessly into the wave train as representing my first "hit" of steep creek boating.  All previous floats were mellow in comparison, but that drop converted me into a real packrafter, if I wasn't one already.  Objectively, it wasn't that demanding.  I'd rate it PR 3+, maybe 4- at higher water...but it was enough to get me hooked.

The next 10 miles offered more of what I'd been used to in previous floats, with a larger volume.  The going was fairly swift, with just a couple sweepers to contend with, until the creek braided once again for a 3-mile stretch.  Choosing the right route through here can be fairly tricky, but the current is slow enough to where getting on the tubes is a manageable proposition.  After the braids reconvene, the main current stays at a class I+/II- clip for a few more miles, passing through the tundra-taiga transition zone, and offering good views of the nearby hills...and the upcoming canyon.

I camped on a gravel bar a couple miles after the braids, drying out and warming up with a fire to end the day after moving consistently for 13 hours.  At times it can be hard to stop.  Reveling in the long days of late July, I didn't even pack a headlamp for this trip...but I reckon back to the required aptitude of a solo adventurer, which indicates the need to stop, refuel, and rest, especially after getting wet.  

As I paddled onward, Crescent began to swell, and with that came larger boulders, larger wave trains, and generally more fun....that's until a small rip ended it quickly.  No, not the raft tube; that would've been amusing.  Instead what happened was, after weaving my way through "Marvin Gardens", a complex rock garden sustained for about 200 yards (pictured above), the raft swamped without a whole lot of water crashing over the deck and seeping in.  I eddied out to dump, and discovered what has to be one of the most common damages on Alpacka rafts: a hole worn through the floor right at the point of the seat's air valve.  Even worse, the bashing this spot took also weakened the seal on the valve itself, causing a leak in the seat.  After 10 minutes of sitting on it, the air would be totally gone.  I tolerated this for as long as I could, and Jerry rigged the floor with a piece of duct tape to keep the water out.  With no seat and worthless duct tape, I finally pulled out of the water, got out the patch-n-go kit, repaired the hole, and took the back rest off to sit on, replacing the butt seat.  Luckily the patch held up, and surprisingly, sitting on the back rest is not as uncomfortable as I thought.  It offers more leg room, but is prone to shifting as you adjust yourself inside the raft.

The tail end of "C.C. Rider" (PR 4).  The real fun stuff is behind the bush (right).
It was wise to have made these fixes when I did, as the last 5 miles of Crescent Creek offer features very similar to the Charley River.  The creek widens to virtually the same width, while maintaining class II-III whitewater with small rock gardens thrown in here and there, all at the bottom of a high canyon.  Perhaps the best run of rapids on all of the 26 boated miles of Crescent Creek is the final stretch just before its confluence with the Charley.

A series of large boulders which occupy a 100-200 yard stretch create what I've dubbed "C.C. Rider," a garden that generates more deceptive rollers and the resulting holes than any previous section of the creek, especially on the left side.

Don't get caught with your pants down with the confluence in sight, as there are a few places one can get "bander-snatched" pretty fast.  If any section of Crescent gets a rating of PR 4, it is certainly this one.

After "C.C. Rider" Crescent dissipates to riffles as it meets the darker waters of the Charley River, where on river left precisely at the confluence there is a wonderful camp site in the trees just off the beach, complete with a well-built fire ring.  Needless to say, I took advantage of it, even though it was only 4:30pm when I wrapped up what apparently is the first decent of Crescent Creek, at least in a packraft.

Overall, the whitewater rating averages a modest class II, however with packrafting considerations in mind Crescent Creek averages PR 3, which means its a lot of fun and can be enjoyed by any confident paddler.  

Fortunately for me, the adventure was not over, as I still had 63 miles to float down the Charley, and another 10 down the fat, flat, and silty Yukon to Slaven's Roadhouse, where I worked a good chunk this summer as an interpretive ranger for Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve.  It's nice when you can arrange your scheduled days off so that you have what ends up being a real vacation.  Not quite as nice when the vacation is also the commute back to work.  Luckily I finished early (five days instead of the planned seven) so I had time to relax.  To one degree or another, it rained every day of the trip, and just as I paddled off the Charley on to the Yukon, I was greeted with a whitewall hailstorm heading upriver, lightning and everything.  I could literally hear the hail racing towards me, which is the only time when my helmet actually came into needed use as I hunkered down in the willows while the storm raged.  No photos from that experience, on account of being to busy hoping to not get killed the last way I thought possible on this adventure.  Falling, drowning, hypothermia, and bears would've been the likely culprits, among others...but struck by August.  That certainly would've been the zenith of embarrassment.


  1. " Not quite the zenith of embarrassment, but it was a good ways up the curve. " Great line for a great story on a great trip. Congratulations!

  2. Nice write-up, Steve. Exactly the trip I looked at many times in my couple years at YUCH. Way to go on the first PR descent. Excellent job bringing the story to the rest of the world... and thanks!
    Keep it up.

  3. Thanks Josh. As I spend this winter skiing, ice climbing and "working on my thesis" I will be searching out other wilderness PR routes. Though not a first descent, the Tinayguk from the Haul Road is on my radar for next summer if things work out.

  4. Ooh, I've heard the Tinayguk is NASTY.

  5. McMillan has done it. He just mentioned an ice sheet covering the beginning stretch of the river even in July. I hear it's the best whitewater in the Brooks.

  6. Ha! AND he dropped Bill Edwards in to do it and, I was not there so don't know the real story, either Seth forgot to tell Bill about putting in after the aufeis or somehow the communication didn't happen or was confusing, but Bill put in and flipped on a sweeper very quickly, got pinned in the packraft upside down, almost drowned, and then managed to swim and retrieve the raft. Honest near death experience for Bill, who's a pretty good whitewater paddler from Anchorage. Super tight bends and littered with sweepers and strainers above the ice.
    Supposedly, from him, the rest of the river is awesome... AFTER THE ICE.

  7. Luckily I've gotten a good read on what the "McMillan Rating Scale" entails, which is that it's always exponentially harder than he says it is...because we both know Seth is an animal. Some examples:

    "Ahh that's good country in there" = You're gonna stumblef*ck your way through impenetrable alders for miles, and you'll be lucky if you find a bear trail.

    "That was brutal" = You probably shouldn't go that route, because you might sink hip-deep between tussocks, break your leg and die out there.

  8. LOL. Oh boy, I love a good, hearty, out-loud laugh at seven in the morning. That's hilarious, and so true, Steve. I learned the same thing in Yukon-Charley with him. Thank you for sharing that! :)