Trip Report, Newhalen River, AK
Hey guys - I am an expat Aussie living in Alaska. I first moved to the U.S. in 2000 and in 2004 found this forum really helpful while I was looking to try WW kayaking in Colorado. (I needed something to substitute for the Australian surf in the summer months) I ended up moving to Alaska that summer and have enjoyed some amazing raft trips since then. I have been back trolling the forums for rafting gear research and thought some of you may be interested in hearing about a trip we did last summer?
Below is a copy of an email I sent to family and friends back in Australia about our run down the Newhalen River. It's not a technical account of the river, but more about my personal experience of the whole trip. I have attached a few photos at the bottom and some video of our run down the gorge. If any of you are interested in planning a trip to Newhalen, then let me know if you need any help with the logistics.
This weekend saw the completion of my most exciting Alaskan adventure yet. The trip was put together by a mate from Anchorage (TJ) after he read on a whitewater discussion board about a guy (Jim) from the lower-48 who was expressing interest in running the Newhalen River. Jim had spent a lot of his vacation time in Alaska running different rivers and had always heard stories about the Newhalen River, but could never find anyone that has run, or is willing to run the river with him. There is very little published about this remote river located 225 miles south-west of Anchorage as it appears that only a relatively small number of people have ever run it. TJ had met someone who had run the river before and knew it was a trip worth exploring.
The river runs from Lake Clark and ends in the Yupik village of Newhalen located on the north shore Lake Iliamna, which is one of the largest lakes in North America. The first documented run of the river was in kayaks in the late 70’s during a period of lower water. The river was next run by two kayakers (including Andrew Embick who wrote the definitive guide to Alaskan whitewater, “Fast & Cold”) in 1988 during the higher water levels that come with the August rains. Only a handful of people appear to have run it since, with most completing the run in whitewater kayaks rather than rafts, or in periods of lower water.
Embick rates the river as a Class V in his book due to the first major rapid known locally as “The Gorge” or Petroff Falls. I became a little concerned as I started to tell locals of our plans to run the river and watched their reactions to the news that our planned route included the gorge. I was informed on numerous occasions that people had died in “that gorge”.
Our group included TJ and his fiancée Audrey, Jim, and Alex who is another friend of TJ’s from Anchorage. The trip involved flying an hour or so into Iliamna which neighbors Newhalen on the north shore of Lake Iliamna. TJ freighted out a 14ft self bailing raft, with a stern mounted oar frame system and 4 paddles earlier in the week. Alex also had some work out in Iliamna and had arranged to privately rent a dual-cab Toyota pick-up. (There are no rental car companies in the two villages of Newhalen and Iliamna which have a combined population of around 260 people)
We arrived in town on Saturday night and set up camp on a ridge at the edge of the last rapid. We were camping in prime country for coastal brown bears with bear trails leading all around camp and signs of scat right in the middle of our camping area. Thankfully the main sockeye run had just finished and it appeared that very well fed bears had headed further up into he hills to feast on the ripening blueberries. But we still kept a fully loaded handgun and a second clip with us most of the time.
The following morning we decided to scout the gorge and tipped a couple of guides from the Rainbow King Lodge in Iliamna as they have exclusive access rights to the “road” that leads to the banks of the gorge. After a few miles of mud bashing in the old-school Chevy Suburban monster truck we arrived at the gorge which is an intimidating section of whitewater. The large wide open river suddenly turns a sharp corner and is then channeled into two narrow gorges separated by a large island of rock. Not only does the river channel into a narrow section of steep rock walls, but it also drops in gradient suddenly which results in a series of very turbulent rapids. The right side (river right) of the river includes the falls and was the route that Embick took in his kayak in 1988. We decided on the left side which is a narrow gorge comprised of a series of waves up to 6ft in height, a massive rock pillar in the middle of the channel, and a big rock wall at the end on river left that has pinned kayaks and rafts in the past.
The scouting trip had everyone pretty nervous as the water was big and powerful and running substantially higher due to the past week of consistent rain. The river normally flows between 10,000cfs and 30,000cfs with a recorded maximum of 36,600 (as at 1988 I don’t know of any gauges that provide current flow levels, but I suspect that we ran the river in the region of 20,00cfs(?). By the time we reached the put-in Jim had decided to pull the pin and was going to try and hook up with the Rainbow King Lodge fishing guides who were coming back to film our run at the gorge. (Their boss actually instructed them to go back with a video camera as the lodge has never got footage of anyone running the gorge despite the fact that they have fished for years at the bottom of the gorge almost every day from early June to late September)
The remaining four of us pushed off into a very flat, open, slow moving section of river, which combined with driving winds and rain resulted in some pretty slow rowing/paddling. The river wound on for another 10 miles before it started to narrow and increase in gradient. The first major feature came in the form of two massive ledge drops just before the tightening of the river in the approach to the gorge. We now felt very small in this very large and powerful body of water.
Suddenly we found ourselves at the entrance to the gorge which now looked massive from down on river level. With TJ rowing and the rest of us paddling like crazy we managed to pull into an eddy just before the entrance and decided to scout the gorge from the top of the cliffs over the upper section. At this point Audrey and Alex decided to portage the gorge and leave TJ and I to run it alone.
TJ and I pushed off, with TJ on the oars and me down low and up front to try and distribute the weight evenly. As we hit the big wall of water at the entrance to the canyon I heard TJ yell “I’ve lost the oar”, but I couldn’t turn around as we were now heading toward river left which was not part of our planned route. We then got spat back into the main channel and started hitting six foot waves that were swamping the boat and throwing us sideways. During this TJ lost control of the other oar when the power of the waves forced the oar frame to slip and move. (TJ actually ran the entire gorge with one oar out of the oar lock and only being supported by the 3mm shock-cord used as a safety tether) We managed to stay in the main channel and TJ quickly got back enough control of the oars to pull us away from the rock wall at the end of the gorge. It took us 18 seconds to run the gorge which now seems like a blur of adrenalin and water.
We regrouped after the gorge but lost contact with Jim as he missed meeting up with the river guides that came down to film our run. We then continued through another relatively flat section of water before dropping into a sequence of rapid after rapid, over a short number of miles. The river actually drops 22ft per mile over a 5 mile period which is a substantial gradient drop for a big river. This section was just an incredible experience as TJ’s oarsman skills put us in the perfect spot every time. The water was big and powerful and the scenery was simply stunning despite the horrendous weather. (I can’t imagine how beautiful the color of this water would be under a blue sky day.)
We then hit the flat-water run-out to the village of Newhalen and I gave TJ a break from the rowing and battled the massive head winds on the last few miles into “town”. The run took us around 5 hours in the end due to the strong winds on the flat water sections. We then headed back to the Rainbow King Lodge to watch and pick up a copy of the footage that the guides took of our run. We were then exposed to some real Alaskan hospitality as the staff at the lodge opened up their buffet dinner to congratulate us on our run of the gorge. (They all thought we were nuts).
We flew out the next day back to Anchorage feeling pretty drained from the whole trip. This was definitely a real highlight of the three years that we have been in Alaska. I feel lucky to be part of a trip that wasn’t with an outfitter and yet allowed me to raft such a beautiful and unique river in such a remote area of the world. I would love to go back and combine another raft trip with the main sockeye run and spend some time staying at the Rainbow King lodge, as these guys have access to the best sport fishing in Alaska (if not the world) that includes 42” Rainbow Trout! But for now I can kick back and relax in the knowledge that combining this trip after catching 19 sockeye salmon with Kristi on the Kenai River, it’s been a damn good summer no matter happens from here.