July 13, 2021
Alaska is a vast and wild place. It's known as the last frontier, and to me, it's my home. I grew up in Alaska, but with it being such a boundless state, you can grow up here, spend years of your life, and still not experience the full state. I have a few adventures to check off in the place I grew up and an epic raft trip through the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park was one of them.
This trip started off as a lot of Alaskan trips do - with bags packed, loading up into a float plane. Alaska is incredibly inaccessible - it only has a handful of main highways and even those are limited with just small two-lane highways. Most of the state is accessible only by boat or plane. Although the place I was going was accessible by vehicle, I was going by plane nonetheless. We took off and started the long haul over the Alaskan wilderness, passed over bogs, black space forests, the widespread moose, and even a family of black bears. At 67 mph, we were hardly traveling faster than a car, but our route was scenic, elevated, and direct. It was much preferred to the Richardson highway that heads south to our destination.
We arrived in Long Lake, which lies 12 miles outside McCarthy, by 2pm and chatted up some locals that owned the dock we pulled into. The sun was high in the sky and it was hot — maybe 80°. We went for a swim in the cool, bright blue water. We were still a bit from our destination and the only way to town was to walk or hitch a ride. We packed our bags and headed up to the road, but after just 15 minutes of walking we got a ride in the back of a local's truck. 20 minutes of howling wind and sunshine and we were in downtown McCarthy which consists of a hotel and a bar — both old times and small.
The group convened later that night at about 11pm — 3 rafts, 13 people, and a few hundred pounds of gear. We prepared what we could for a quick takeoff the next morning under the midnight sun. An early morning start would be necessary for the time we needed to make on the river.
Breakfast eaten, rafts packed, we set off at about noon. A few of us were in packrafts (personal compact rafts that make you really feel the rapids). As a group, we set out and dropped into the first section of whitewater. It was a quick bumpy ride, but everyone made it through easily. We continued on towards a full day of challenges on the river. The paramount section being a canyon that pushed the water through hard and fast, with massive hydraulics and a big whirlpool right at the end. We stopped for the night just after that.
Camp was bliss on the sandbar. We pulled in at about 9pm. A handful of us made a massive pasta dinner while others started a bonfire. We ate and made s'mores as the fire smoldered and faded. At 12am, with plenty of light still in the sky, we went to bed.
We awoke late the next morning and took our time making coffee, eating breakfast, and packing our bags. We didn't leave camp until around noon. It was our slow day. We only needed to make it a mere 40 miles, and with the river moving at the speed it was, it took us just a few hours to reach our next camp. With our rafts tied together and a few beers lighter, we pulled up to camp at a beautiful junction and repeated our previous night's routine - huge bonfire, dinner, card games, s'mores, and bed.
The next morning we woke with a goal in mind. We wanted to make it back to McCarthy for the famed July 4th celebrations. We left at 8am and paddled hard the rest of the trip to the takeout, only about 3 hours. We took out the boats, packed everything up, and set off on the long bumpy road back into town.
We made it in time for the July 4th Parade and celebrated Independence Day with the locals. Finishing the trip like that made the whole experience even better. Our days of paddling through the remote alaskan wilderness came to an end in a beautiful place, surrounded by one heck of a party. This is a trip, and a group, I'll absolutely try to bring back together again for next year.
Mason Strehl is an avid outdoor adventurer and photographer based in Washington state. When he's not handling media here at Zenbivy, you can find him hiking in the backcountry, climbing peaks, or surfing. He has logged over 800 nights in a Zenbivy in almost every condition imaginable.