Packrafting the Lakina Traverse: alpine scenery with a whitewater exit in Alaska's Wrangells.
Why do the Lakina Traverse?: The Lakina River is less of a destination river trip and more of a convenient exit point for packrafters as part of a stunning traverse in the southern Wrangells. While the river is an enjoyable float with some moderate whitewater, the real draw of this traverse is the alpine lakes, tundra hiking and glacial vistas along the way. This route offers a little bit of everything in a condensed length.
Overland Route: Done as either an east to west traverse or a counter clockwise loop, the segments from the Lakina to McCarthy and McCarthy to Kennicott are on gravel roads. For those doing the traverse, it is simple to hitch from the Lakina bridge to McCarthy (in the summer months) before catching a regular van shuttle service between McCarthy and Kennicott. For those interested in a fully human powered loop, a bike makes for an easy self-shuttle along the road, and hiking the five miles between McCarthy and Kennicott, while relatively uninteresting, is quite simple.
1.) McCarthy to Kennicott- If you insist on a human-powered loop, then hike the road to Kennicott. For most however, it is a $5 van shuttle from the end of the pedestrian bridge on the east bank of the Kennicott to the Kennicott mine site. The van runs every 30 minutes during the summer months and can also be summoned by calling the number posted on the bulletin adjacent to the bridge during the slower times.
2.) Crossing the Root and Kennicott Glaciers- After following the Root Glacier Trail from Kennicott past Jumbo Creek, descend the fork to your left to access the glacier. We aimed for the point splitting the two glaciers to guide us as we crossed the Root Glacier. Some parties then leave the glacier and use the "Lake Trail" below Donahue Peak. We found the travel on glacier and moraine to be straight forward enough that we decided to wrap around this point before venturing out on the Kennicott to find some bare ice. The bare ice travel is excellent and we took a strip of ice as far north as we needed before working our way west toward the Hidden Creek exit. Micro spikes might be a helpful tool, but we found the ice tacky enough that travel was easy in just out trail runners. (Satellite imagery could be helpful in identifying the best glacier travel).
3.) Hidden Creek Exit- The route off of the Kennicott Glacier into Hidden Lake Creek is blocked by ice fall and is complex, crevassed terrain. It is simpler to travel a mile up glacier to a spot where a rock slide breaks the moraine and provides an easy ascent to flat ground above the moraine where a user trail can be found. There is good camping with water behind the moraine. Following the trail back towards Hidden Lake Creek will take you over a rocky face through some exposed terrain before descending to valley level.
4.) Hidden Creek Valley to "Oz"- From Hidden Creek Valley the travel follows the drainage west before turning to the south and ascending the pass. In some places it is possible to walk at creek level but there are some spots where the creek cliffs out and you must traverse above these sections of canyon (we found the south side to be friendlier). After cresting the pass, descend into "Oz", a series of alpine bowls dotted with lakes all set to the backdrop of Castle Peak.
5.) Descending to the Lakina- The descent to the river is very steep and cliffed out in a number of spots. A user trail traversing west above a steep drainage can be found around 4,000 ft (see marker on included map). The descent is exposed and, while straightforward in dry conditions, can be less secure in snow (the conditions we had in September 2021).
Lakina River: As a glacial river, the Lakina will generally be running higher during the warm summer months and lower in the shoulder seasons. We found the first 6 miles to be barely boat-able during a cold stretch in September. From reports of this section at high flow, the first few miles can offer the best whitewater (III+) as the river passes through the old terminal moraine of the glacier. After this shorter steep section the river splits into many braided channels and mellows. Once the river bends east and consolidates into one channel, it offers enjoyable and continuous class II-III paddling suitable for intermediate packrafters or beginner packrafters with good guidance. The potential for wood is the primary hazard but all rapids are scout-able and portage-able at river level.