Embick notes that one might call this run the "best all-around whitewater river in Alaska". It's a multiday trip but the logistics are relatively easy and it's a great wilderness experience. The best whitewater is a relatively short percentage of the total run, but it's a great overall river trip with opportunities for hiking, fishing, and wildlife viewing.
There are two basic options for starting this trip. You can either fly on floats up to Murder Lake (the small lake just downstream of Stephan Lake) and paddle down Prairie Creek or land a wheel plane on one of the backcountry airstrips upstream of the Prairie Creek confluence along the Talkeetna. There is no fixed-wing access to the river downstream of the Prairie Creek confluence. For hard shell kayakers you will most likely fly in on floats as most pilots are reluctant to secure boats to the outside of their aircraft (although it has been done). You can get a couple of kayaks in a Cessna 206. Those with inflatables often charter a Cessna 185 to one of the gravel strips along the Talkeetna. Big rafts can be a pain on Prairie Creek especially if flows are low later in the summer.
If starting out at Yellowjacket Creek Airstrip it's a 22 mile run down to the Prairie Creek confluence. The low gradient means you won't find much in the way of whitewater but it's a scenic float and there are hiking opportunities for those who want to explore the area. If you start out on Prairie Creek, it's an 8 mile float down to the Talkeetna confluence. The creek has a consistent gradient but no rapids exceed class II. Wood can be a hazard so use caution as you approach blind corners and bear encounters when the salmon are running are common.
From the confluence with Prairie Creek the river starts to become a bit more constrained and the current picks up. You will pass a couple of islands and there are a few good camping sites in this section of about 7 miles in length that proceeds the start of the significant whitewater. There will be a couple easy rapids including a class III before you approach the Toilet Bowl. The Toilet Bowl is easy to recognize by the distinct horizon line and a bend in the river to the right where the river cuts between high bedrock walls that rise up on either side. This first horizon line is Entrance Exam. For those who want to spend some time scouting more extensively, there are well-worn trails that follow the ridge on river right and give you a good look at the rapid. Comfortable class IV paddler can get a good look at the crux move from the left side which involves skirting the main hole in the center. After passing through the entrance and a chute between the bedrock walls the river opens up into the Toilet Bowl and the tricky second half of the rapid. The best line depends on levels so stop and take a peak before committing.
After the Toilet Bowl the river tapers off fairly quickly and those expecting more great whitewater may be initially disappointed. After a couple miles however the action begins to pick up in the section known as the Sluice Box and the fun begins. You can boat scout most of the rapids in this section which lasts about 14 miles as measured from the start of the Toilet Bowl. Although none of the rapids are individually that difficult, the rapids are fairly continuous class III with short sections of class IV. A couple longer and more continuous sections come near the end of the Sluice Box. Those with playboats will find several fun features. Solid class IV skills are recommended to negotiate this section safely.
The Sluice Box ends as the river emerges from between two dramatic bedrock walls that rise up on both sides of the river and the gradient tapers off. You will soon pass Iron Creek which is the first significant tributary that comes in on the left and for the next 9 miles the river meanders back and forth across the floodplain. As you pass Disappointment Creek which comes in from the right things begin to pick up again. You will likely find a fun surfing wave at the confluence with Disappointment Creek and the playboaters in the group will be happy to make this a stop.
After you pass Disappointment Creek the river enters another section of constrained bedrock although the rapids are less challenging than those encountered upstream. Once this section ends however the whitewater is over and once the Sheep River comes in from the left, you'll be treated to a mellow float down a floodplain river. Don't let your guard down however as jet boat encounters are a regular occurrence and there can be some significant wood hazards as the channel splits apart around islands that provide a constant supply of large wood. You will also start to see cabins. As you pass under powerlines you're getting closer to the end although you will have a couple hours to go. The next major landmark is Clear Creek which comes in on the right. If the salmon are running you will likely see dozens of fishermen who have come up on charter jet boats to fish the mouth. From this point it's just 7 miles to town. Take out either upstream or downstream of the railroad bridge.
The great thing about this trip is you can run it without a shuttle. Head about two hours north from Anchorage on the George Parks Highway (Hwy. 3). At mile 98.7 turn right onto Talkeetna Road. If you're flying in on floats to Murder Lake (a small lake just downstream of Stephan Lake) and planning to paddle down Prairie Creek you can charter with Alaska Bush Floatplane out of Fish Lake which is at Talkeetna Road mile 9.1.
If you're flying in on wheels and plan to utilize one of the gravel strips along the Talkeetna River which include Buck's Airstrip or Yellowjacket Airstrip, continue on towards town and at mile 14.1 turn right on Second Street, crossing the railroad tracks, and the Talkeetna Airfield is on your right. Talkeetna is a neat little town and is the hub for bush planes in central Alaska: including Denali flightseeing as well as dropoffs for sportsmen and of course river runners (charter services are provided by Talkeetna Air Taxi, Alaska Air Tours, Sheldon Air Service, K2 Aviation). The good news for paddlers is this means lots of different planes and you can surely find a configuration that fits your needs. You can also find a whole range of lodging and dining options in town including those that cater to the budget traveler.
If you're the type who searches out epic adventures, another option described by Embick is to put-in on the Susitna at Susitna Lodge off the Denali Highway, run the Susitna to a point 3 miles downstream of Fog Creek and upstream of Devil's Canyon, and then portage and paddle your way across Moose Lake, Stephan Lake, and Murder Lake.
For the main boat ramp serving as a takeout, head 0.1 mile on Second Street past the airfield, turn left on F Street, and after 0.2 miles turn left into the campground and boat ramp (fee for use). This access is easy to recognize from the river as it's on river left just upstream of the railroad bridge. For kayaks (i.e. those who don't need the ramp) you can continue past the turn for Second Street and just follow Talkeetna Road as it turns left and becomes Main Street, which ends at the river. From the river, take out on the downstream river left side of the railroad bridge and walk about 100 yards across the gravel bar to the end of Main Street.
Mileage summary (from Embick):
Yellowjacket Creek to Prairie Creek (put-in option 1): 22 miles
Murder Lake to Prairie Creek Confluence (put-in option 2): 8 miles
Prairie Creek to Iron Creek (The Canyon): 21 miles
Iron Creek to Disappointment Creek: 9 miles
Disappointment Creek to Sheep River: 9 miles
Sheep River to Clear Creek (aka Chunilna River): 8 miles
Clear Creek to Village of Talkeetna: 7 miles
The Sluice Box begins below Toilet Bowl and some refer to it as Alaska's longest rapid as the river surges through fun class IV for 15 miles down to Iron Creek.
Disappointment Creek marks the end of the whitewater. This is a good river camp (and includes a fun surf spot and good fishing) but other options can be found downstream if this one is taken.
Kayakers can fly in on floats to Murder Lake as one access for the Talkeetna River.
A friend and I paddled from Murder Lake down in early August 2018. Prairie Creek had some wood hazards but did not require portaging. The Talkeetna flow was dropping from a major spike due to heavy rainfall and was 13-14,000 by the time we entered the canyon. Scouting Toilet Bowl is advisable at that flow, but everything else was read-and-run big water class III-IV.
We were unable to fit our two creekboats (a large Dagger Mamba and a Waka Tuna) into a Cessna 206 with Alaska Bush Float Plane, and the pilots were rather reluctant to try in fear of damaging their planes. The width seemed to be more of an issue than the length. Smaller creekboats might work better, but don't count on it, despite what the float plane company might tell you over the phone. As of August 2018, K2 Aviation has a DHC-2 Beaver on floats with an Alaska door that can easily fit two creekboats. They are also based at Fish Lake and can fly you to Murder Lake. Talkeetna Air and Taxi has a wheeled Beaver that can fly into the Yellowjacket Airstrip for a similar price. The Beaver is more expensive than the 206 since it's a larger plane. Most pilots won't strap kayaks to floats and also take passengers due to FAA regulations.
Comments and Motion to Intervene of American Whitewater on the preliminary permit for the Talkeetna River Dam Hydroelectric Project.
The management plan provides management intent for six rivers including the Little Susitna River, Deshka River, Talkeetna River, Lake Creek, Talachulitna River, Alexander Creek.
Map of the proposed hydropower project on the Talkeetna River.
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plowing through the canyon
Toilet Bowl from Above
Surfing at Disappointment Creek
Canyon Walls towards the end of the whitewater
Rapid in the Sluice Box
Talkeetna upstream of Prairie Creek
Aerial view of Prairie Creek
Aerial view of Toilet Bowl
Aerial view of lower Talkeetna
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This week the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission cancelled the preliminary permit for the Talkeetna River Dam Hydroelectric Project effectively putting an end to any immediate plans to build a 370 foot high dam on the Talkeetna River in the middle of the classic overnight whitewater run.
Northwest Power Services recently filed a preliminary permit application to construct a hydropower project on the Talkeetna River. The Talkeetna is known to many as Alaska's best backcountry whitewater trip. The developer proposes to construct a 2300 feet long and 370 feet high dam located in a scenic canyon just downstream of the confluence of Disappointment Creek. A public comment period is now open for this project.
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