The Top Alaskan Wilderness Sights Part 4
Weaving among the rugged mountains of the Alaska Range, the Nenana River outside Denali National Park is a mighty chute of water that runs through a wilderness paradise. Rain swells its banks. The summer sun melts glaciers, and the glacial silt turns the dark, green water a chocolate brown. Early in the season (May or early June) whitewater kayakers dodge icebergs the size of car hoods. As summer progresses, the water warms up to a balmy 45 degree F, and canoeists head for the river's gentler stretches. Hillside carpets of blue lupine eventually yield to the magenta-colored fireweed that provides a sharp contrast to the yellow-leaved birch trees of autumn. Moose munching onshore silently watch boats float by. On nearby slopes, grizzly bears might be gobbling down berries.
This is accessible wilderness, easy to get to and easy to enjoy. A string of river companies just outside the national park offers two-hour or longer raft rides down the Nenana. As one outfitter points out, you can choose mild or wild on this river. If you go for wild, be prepared to tear your eyes away from the scenery and grant full attention to the churning, angry waves at rapids like Terror Corner. Bracing into the waves, most boaters emerge upright as sputtering victors. But sometimes the river wins, and paddlers are dumped into the icy water, only to be tugged this way and that by the currents before finally, feebly, gratefully making their way to shore. Alaska rivers like the Nenana are intensely cold and powerful.
Many are in remote, roadless locations, and a number require paddlers to have whitewater experience or at least enlist the services of a professional guide. For these reasons, and especially if this is your first Alaska float trip, it's good to know in advance where you want to go and what kind of float you want to take. Do you crave a heart-thumping whitewater trip down Class IV rapids, or do you envision yourself paddling serenely through a cove occupied by curious sea otters? Consulting guidebooks covering the state's wildlands, parks, and waterways is a good way to begin your research. Contact the nearest Alaska Public Lands Information Office, which can provide valuable, up-to-date information on Alaska's rivers.
Even if you're an experienced whitewater aficionado, it's important never to paddle alone. Paddling clubs in Fairbanks and Anchorage will gladly connect you with local boaters who know a river and its moods at different levels. The paddling community in Alaska is small, particularly in the interior, so you'll likely get an invitation to join local paddlers as they head downstream. All you need to do is rent a kayak and arrange to join the group.
Like a carnival ride, wild water can be exhilarating, but some travelers may prefer to seek a more sedate or controlled water excursion. There are more miles of rivers than roads in Alaska, and many of them are calm ribbons offering relatively quiet journeys through the wilderness. A few, like the Chena River, even wind through urban Alaska; several local businesses rent canoes for this popular paddle through downtown Fairbanks.