Finishing Happy on an Alaska Range pack raft route

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The Happy River is appropriately named. Bouncing and splashing, this clear little stream tumbles along between banks of bright green moss, never too threatening nor languid.

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We watched the Happy grow from a knee-deep creek to a small river. A few technical class III rapids near Pass Creek proved to be the hardest whitewater.

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Most of the time, the Happy danced swiftly from corner to corner, a continuous gentle roller coaster of class I and II water. Occasionally, king salmon could be spotted, red missiles holding still in eddies under the water.

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After many miles, beneath swooping eagles, past arching spruce, over splashy riffles, we chose an island camp, halfway down one of the Happy’s many gravel bar rapids.

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Via satellite phone, a pick-up was arranged near the Talachulitna River confluence, along the banks of our old friend, the Skwentna. We had camped along its turbid source waters a week earlier. Now we would rejoin the Skwentna where it is a big river, running into lush spruce valleys at the foot of the range.

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Miles came easily on the big Skwentna, still swift with the energy of melting glaciers behind it. We gazed at dense forests rolling past, and speculated how slow and difficult it might be if we were walking through this country. We were glad for our pack rafts, our good fortune in the Alaska Range, and one last evening in the glow of a setting midnight sun.

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Kuskokwim to Happy River—over Goodman Pass

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The spruce forest alongside Denny Creek was relatively open, soft and mossy too. Any stop in our movement, however, brought gathering clouds of mosquitoes. So, we kept moving.

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A vague route appeared that grew into a real game trail. Soon we were scurrying through an alder jungle with ease, courtesy of the local moose. Without that trail, progress would have been agonizingly slow. Yet we traveled steadily, hardly noticing the building rainfall.

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Camp was etched out of moss-covered rocks, in the rain, at 10 p.m. The bugs were horrible until the rain picked up enough to knock them out of the sky. At 5 a.m. Joel entered the tent where Govi and I slept, proclaiming, “let’s go hiking buys, I’m soaked.”

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Turns out, the bottle of Nikwax I applied in Anchorage wasn’t enough for an all-night rain. We talked Joel out of a 5 a.m. departure, and eked out a few hours more sleep, Joel partially draped in his soppy sleeping bag. Morning pack-up was cold, and we were all anxious to get moving. Govi spoke for the group, “Exercise is our salvation,” he said. Off we went.

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The rain let up. We climbed. We warmed.

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Goodman Pass was our gateway to the east side of the mountains, the windward side. There was more rain, then huge fresh piles of grizzly scat. We stayed high on the slopes, in the open.

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Ptarmagin Valley was a benchmark in our route. This was the birthplace of the Happy River, the waterway we would follow back to civilization. To the south, the valley lined up perfectly with the Styx, where we’d been just days earlier. The valley was vast and beautiful, but also boggy and difficult to cross. Fortunately the Happy wasn’t too far away. Arriving there, our countenance matched the stream’s title.

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Pack Rafting the Styx into the Kuskokwim, and into the interior

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The low clouds and light mist of Alaska returned. The small Styx River was lower than the previous evening, and milk green instead of grey. A golden eagle flapped across the valley. A herd of twenty caribou spooked into the bush. Two seagulls dive-bombed me repeatedly, no doubt fending off the invaders from their young.

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Spruce trees returned as we dropped below 2,500 feet. Canyon bluffs emerged, enclosing the river in a low canyon, sinking through the valley floor. Whitewater started.

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There was plenty of class III, and a couple standout rapids that were probably easy class IV.  These were the rapids the previous kayak descents had sought. Our pack rafts handled it all quite nicely.

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Sunshine returned. At a hard left turn, two small patches of sand beckoned, guarded by a tall cottonwood and a spruce tree. We pulled in, an early camp for once.

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Swift corners led to the confluence with the South Fork of the Kuskokwim. It ran a glacial brown, and more than doubled our flow. On a robust river now, we ran through Hellsgate, where the river cuts through the Teocalli Mountains. Class II water belied the ominous title, and soon we were on a fast smooth river running through the spruce covered Alaskan interior.

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An aluminum skiff sat on the shore, and a chainsaw whined in the distance. We pulled ashore and entered the woods, where we were greeted by a friendly young woman named Lexi. Her partner, Colter, showed up minutes later. During our 30-minute visit, both stood mostly bare amid the passing mosquitoes. True Alaskans.

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By evening, clouds were gathering once again. We’d have liked to have pitched the tents and relaxed, but the days were ticking away toward our pick-up date with a bush plane, and we had mountain ranges yet to cross. So, at 6 pm we found ourselves de-rigging our boats and re-rigging for hike mode. This was the confluence of Denny Creek, our key to Goodman Pass, and eventually, the Happy River. With rain spattering and skeeters buzzing and an unknown bushwack before us, our mood was determined, even stoic. We were stepping into the bush.

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Route-finding to Alaska’s River Styx

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Out of the canyon and onto open mountain slopes, sunshine and simple terrain buoyed us toward the River Styx.

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A herd of caribou shuffled past. Our route again fed into a canyon, this one made of golden granite and clear water similar to Arizona’s Salome Creek. Eventually, we climbed out, ambling across tundra laced with caribou trails.

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Weary with sore feet and cramping shoulders, we stumbled onto a cobble beach bordering the Styx, the jewel at the heart of our route, and the river valley that started it all. Again, we floated, joyously.

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Another 10 pm camp, satisfied by having reached our goal. We had crossed the River Styx!

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