Packrafting the "Extra-Happy": Adding the Styx and Kuskowim Rivers to a classic Alaskan trip.
Why do the "Extra-Happy"?: While the name might not stick, it seems appropriate given how this route made us feel. Alaska's Happy river is a worthy destination in and of itself but given it is a fly-in and out adventure, we wanted to get some extra value for the cost. By adding the Styx and Kuskowim Rivers, you get some excellent bonus whitewater while seeing more of the Alaska Range and adding some hiking to the trip to make it a week-long expedition.
River Difficulty: Timing a trip when the Happy and Styx are similar in difficulty seems challenging given the differences in origin. The Happy is primarily snow melt and rain influenced while the Styx is glacier fed. Based on our experience, a mid-summer trip would likely mean higher water on the Styx while medium-low water on the Happy. That not necessarily a problem, but it is then worth using the difficulty of the Styx to calibrate the whitewater skill required for the trip rather than the Happy. For parties hoping to run the Styx, class IV skill or intermediate paddlers with expert guidance and comfort eddy hoping and portaging would be prudent (everything is portage-able at or near river level). The remainder of the route is appropriate for class III paddlers.
"Bad Bear Creek": A unnamed drainage 1.5 miles south of Jimmy Lake turned out to be a pleasant surprise and saved us 3 miles of walking. Slow motion, low volume class III in a neat low walled canyon. Certainly "butt-boating" and perhaps not paddle-able late season or in cool conditions. If it looks floatable give it a go!
The Styx: miles of excellent and continuous class III-IV boating with limited eddies and a pushy character with diurnal flows. At low flow however it would be primarily class III with more eddies and recovery time between rapids. Given the steeper gradient and potential for longer swims the Styx is appropriate for advanced
South Fork Kuskokwim: After looking at a map one might gather the the section of the Kuskokwim labeled "Hellsgate" might contain some demanding whitewater... Instead it seems representative of the geologic character of the canyon as is cuts through the Teocalli Mountains. Largely class II+, even at high flows, the Kuskokwim has some fun waves and really big features that are also easy to avoid. Beyond the confluence with the Hartman, the paddling is swift and braided without whitewater.
The Happy: The Happy has two geologically distinct sections of paddling. The section above Indian Creek is comprised of boulder garden style rapids that reach class III+ in difficulty. The lower section, while consistent, is less technical and mostly a beautiful winding paddle through a scenic canyon that was largely III- in character at medium-low flows. The Happy is appropriate for intermediate packrafters.
The Skwentna: A large, fast and silty river, the Skwentna travels through a few short canyons sections but is primarily open and braided in character. There is a lot of wood scattered along the gravel bars, and while this section lacks whitewater, it still requires quick maneuvering and channel finding skills due to the wood hazard.
Hiking: Travel between the two paddling segments of this route is accomplished via Goodman Pass connecting the South Fork of the Kuskowim with Ptarmigan Valley and the headwaters of the Happy River. The 10 mile hike was quite straightforward by Alaska standards thanks to good game trails and gravel bar travel west of the pass and a maintain horse trail descending east of the pass. We were unaware of the horse-trail's existence and it was a welcome find that efficiently lead us down to our put-in where it crosses the small Sheep Creek.
Flying in: We flew in to Jimmy Lake, 4 miles west of the Styx River. If Jimmy lake was a reliable float landing destination, it is likely that this route would get more attention. Sometimes you just get lucky, and for the five of us, conditions lined up perfectly to land on Jimmy Lake in a DeHavilland Beaver in July 2021. The lake has recently become a less optimal landing zone after a beaver dam at the outflowing creek broke which dropped the lake level by a few feet. Given the lake is situated in a narrow bowl at altitude there are a number of factors that will likely make pilots unwilling to land here in anything other than ideal weather conditions. Check the included map for alternative fly-in options. It is also possible that a wheel-strip exists in the area near the put-in as well.
Flying Out: We flew from the Skwentna Airport to Anchorage packed to the gills in a Cesna 206. There are many Anchorage providers who charter to Skwentna as well as a twice weekly mail route that offers a cheaper but less flexible option.
Length: We flew in the evening to Jimmy lake before taking two full days to paddle the Styx and Kuskowim, a day to hike over Goodman Pass, and three and a half days to paddle the Happy and Skwentna.