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Alaska waterways

Gulkana River

[Webmaster note: the document we worked from had a number of problems.  Where words were not clear, we have replaced one or more words with "xxx".

September 8, 1975

From: Pat Pourchot

Subject: Trip report -Middle Fork of the Gulkana - July 21-25, 1975

During the week of July 21, 1975, myself and three others made an un-official canoe trip from the Denali Highway through the upper Tangle Lakes, down the Middle Fork of the Gulkana, then down the Gulkana Sourdough on the Richardson Highway. The Gulkana River and its principal tributaries, the West Fork and the Middle Fork, are currently under study for potential inclusion in the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System.

July 21

NOTE: These reports may not contain important information about: 1) safety, 2) land management and ownership, 3) fishing and other regulations and 4) possible errors > READ MORE

We left Anchorage at approximately 5:00 AM and arrived at the Lakes campground on the south side of at noon. The Denali Highway intersects the 7 or 8 interconnected Tangle Lakes approximately in the middle. A campground with a boat ramp is located on either side of the highway -the south one provides access to the Upper Tangle Lakes, while the one on the north provides access to the lower Tangle Lakes and to the Delta River.

From the campground we paddled south up the Tangle Lake system. At the south end of the first two-mile long lake we fished and explored the mouth of the Tangle River which drains one of the Upper Tangle Lakes (elevation 2865) Grayling fishing was good, %any ducks seen and several muskrats. The Tangle River was too shallow right above the mouth to line the canoes up two miles to Lake 2865 without great difficulty.

We then paddled a short distance to the low divide separating the first lake from Upper Tangle Lake (incorrectly shown on the map as connected by a short stream). There was a good trail between the lakes about 300 yards long and we two-tripped a portage in 15-20 minutes.

The entire day was sunny and warm with some scattered high clouds, a suggestion of what was to follow.

June 21

Dick Tindall and Darryl Fish arrived about.8:30 a.m., with two men from Darryl's staff. After transferring gear from the vehicles to the rafts, Darryl's two staff men took both vehicles back to Glennallen. They later took them to our takeout point at the bridge near the town of Gulkana.

Darryl had put BLM's motor on the raft he shared with Dick, and begun to tow Chuck and I in the second raft down Paxton Lake about 10:30 a.m. We reached the outlet about 1 p.m. It is-approximately seven miles from the wayside to the outlet and the start of the boatable reaches of the river. (The Gulkana headwaters are about five miles to the north of Paxton Lake in Isabel1 Pass. This upper reach is too shallow to float a boat.) While crossing the lake, five powerboats and two fishermen's camps on the west shore were passed. One immature bald eagle was spotted also on the west shore. Darryl left the motor near the outlet to be picked up by his staff on a later day. We talked with three fishermen at the outlet, grayling fishing was good but no salmon were up to the lake yet. (There are good king and red runs in the Gulkana) A man and woman were just breaking camp at the outlet and preparing, to float the river (passed us later that day).

The current was about 4 mph starting about one-quarter mile from the outlet and continued for the three miles to the confluence with the Middle Fork (Gulkana). Class I1 rapids starting at the same place also continued to the confluence. Saw five more fishermen before the confluence, all catching some grayling. Arrived at Middle Fork about 3 p.m.

At the confluence of the Gulkana and Middle Fork, we saw eight people in two groups camped. One group had caught about 15 grayling, but still no salmon. The king run had started two days before in the lower Gulkana. Two riverboats and one raft were being used to float the river. They had broken the shaft on one outboard motor (riverboat) in coming down the three miles from Paxton Lake. An easily seen trackster/snow-mobile trail crosses the Gulkana at the confluence with the Middle Fork. The trail starts at Meirs Lake road near a gravel pit and runs northwest to the Gulkana and then up the south side of the Middle Fork to Dickey Lake.

Floated on about 3/4 mile to an old log cabin located on the east bank and made camp. The river's current remained at 4 mph but without rapids from the Middle Fork to camp. Water depth varied for 1" to 5' and due to spring runoff not being completely over, was tea colored on the four miles floated. Saw some signs of moose and bear along the riverbanks. Caught a few grayling after trying several lures and flies. The day was warm and sunny with some high scattered clouds.

June 22

The next approximately 12 miles to canyon rapids (sign on left river bank and in BLM's Alaska Canoe Trails brochure marks the canyon rapids) are gentle and slower Class I. Exception is the 200 yards prior to canyon rapids which is rocky and faster, 4-5 mph, but still Class I. The water remained tea-colored. The canyon rapids are Class IV water, not floatable by open canoes, possibly okay for experienced rafters, and a challenging experience for kayakers. It is a short (less than 1/2 miles) narrow and rocky canyon with heavy water. We portaged around on a decent, but steep and muddy 1/4 mile long trail.

Saw one beaver, one bank beaver lodge, two bald eagles, dozen different ducks, Arctic terns, and caught eight grayling. The day had been gray, ending in rain at our camp in a pure stand of Black Spruce.

June 23

Day started cloudy, stayed that way with some sprinkles of rain. The next eight miles below the canyon rapids were fast (4-5 mph), with large boulders in the channel, good Class I1 whitewater. The river stayed tea colored and varied in depth from 1' to 4'. The West Fork was very muddy, greatly coloring the main stream. From nine miles beyond the canyon rapids to camp one mile past the West Fork the river slowed to about 3 mph, with no rapids and occasional rocks. This section is Class I.

There were two or three separate fishing camps in the two miles above the West Fork, counted 10 tents and several riverboats (motors). All had come up the river from Sourdough.

Saw two eagle nests and eight eagles, and a tern nest with chick and unhatched egg on a gravel bar. Red salmon had reached the West Fork but not in any numbers. River is lined with good stands of white and black spruce and some mix with cottonwood and -quaking aspen along entire river (Paxton Lake to Gulkana bridge).

June 24

Floated about 16 miles this day, camping about 10 miles below Sourdough. There is a BLM campground and gravel boat ramp at Sourdough presently receiving heavy use particularly during the salmon runs. The river flows through a tight meandering pattern from the West Fork to the Gulkana Bridge. It is about 30 yards wide, varies from 1-6' deep, flows 2-3 mph, no rapids, many erratics, light brown in color, good Class I water. Day started cloudy, followed with rain sprinkles, then hard rain and wind from noon on, very cold!

Saw five eagles, including one nesting pair with nest, and one immature. Also saw dozens of Arctic terns and about two dozen ducks.

The oil pipeline crosses the river on a bend about one mile above Sourdough. It is only visible for about 300 yards along the river. River travelers should only see it for a few minutes while passing. However, at present during construction one can see much equipment traveling along the route that creates loud objectionable noises. The Richardson Highway parallels the river from Sourdough to the Gulkana Bridge, but could see it only at Sourdough and two other spots. Can hear some road traffic most of the way but not very offensive.

June 25

Partly overcast day without rain. Floated the remaining miles to the bridge in about five hours. About nine miles above the bridge is a fifty yard long set of Class I1 rapids, but no other rapids along this stretch of river. It is Class I water with scattered rocks, 3/4 mile, and varies 1-6 in depth. Saw one fairly new bent up canoe on rock xxx, the Class II section.

Saw three bald eagles, terns, dozen ducks, one cow moose and calf. A family in a 19 square stern canoe with a sever hp motor xxx McKenzie lift passed us; met them later at the bridge and found xxx they put in at Sourdough and had no trouble navigating the river. xx view from the lower river of the Wrangell Mts. Is very good, xxx a finishing touch to the float. Close-up view from the river is of xxx leveled cliffs, and a mixture of heavy white spruce and willows.


We covered the approximate 70 mile long river in five average length days. The first three miles were Class II at 4 mph and some xxx. The next 13 miles to canyon rapids were Class I, easy slow moving river. The canyon rapids are very fast (5 mph), boulder filled, Class IV water, about 1/2 mile long. The eight miles following were fairly rocky, Class II water. The remaining length is Class I and rocky all the last 35 miles, except for a fifty yard-long set of Class II rapids xxx miles upstream of the bridge. It is a pleasant river for the experienced canoeists and for rafting by those with some experience. The canyon xxx should be portaged. Riverboats (motor) presently run the section between a point a few miles above the West Fork down to Sourdough.

Views from the river are of rolling timbered hills and rock cliffs, pleasant but not outstanding. The exception is along the last 15 miles where one has broad views of the Wrangell Mts. Red and king salmon and eagles are the outstanding fish and wildlife values of the river. The river offers exceptional recreation opportunity in that it is road accessible (Richardson Highway) at either end and at its midway point-Sourdough and it is varied with lake, fast rapids, and meandering quiet reaches. Its accessibility makes float trips of different lengths and times possible. A three day week-end allows enough time to float from Paxton Lake to Sourdough.

David Dapkus

Alaska Area Office
Bureau of Outdoor Recreation
August 16, 1977

River: Gulkana

Recommendation: Recommend the Gulkana River be designated as wild. Recommend management by the Bureau of Land Management.

Length: The main Gulkana River from Paxton Lake to Sourdough - 42 miles, the entire West Fork - 60 miles, and the entire Middle Fork 25 miles, for a total distance of 127 river miles.

Land Status: The entire West and Middle Fork's and the main Gulkana from Paxton Lake to two miles beyond the West Fork lie within Sec. 17(d) (1) of ANCSA lands (approximately 88%). The remaining portion (12%) of the main Gulkana lies within lands classified under Sec. 17(c) of ANCSA as a utility and transportation corridor (oil pipeline).

Study Status: The Wild and Scenic River Analysis and draft EIS are in final preparation.

General: The main Gulkana River begins in Summit Lake in the Alaska Range, then flows south 10 miles before emptying into Paxton Lake. From there it continues to flow south for 70 miles to its confluence with the Copper River. The West Fork begins with two 20 mile long major forks and flows southeast for a total distance of 60 miles (including the two forks) to the Gulkana. The Middle Fork begins in Dickey Lake just five miles from Tangle Lakes (Delta River) and flows southeast 25 miles to its confluence with the main Gulkana. The northern half of the Gulkana and all of the West and Middle Forks traverse the broad rolling valleys and low ridges of the Gulkana uplands, while the southern half cuts a narrow bluff lined valley as it traverses the Copper River lowlands. The study segment includes al1 the river except for the lower 30 miles of the main Gulkana.

Attributes: The river is closely flanked by low rolling hills, almost vertical bluffs in some stretches, and in the background by the Wrangell Mountains which give the river a distinct scenic beauty. It also transects several major
vegetative ecosystems which create a changing landscape adding to the scenic value.

The river provides habitat for both resident and anadromous fish species including Arctic grayling, rainbow trout, and steelhead. It is the leading king and red salmon spawning stream in the Copper River system. A variety of wildlife inhabit the area including bear, moose, waterfowl, and bald eagles. Numerous bald eagles nest along the riverbanks.

Recreation values are high in the river area. The main Gulkana is accessible by the Richardson Highway at Paxton Lake, Sourdough, and six miles above-the rivers mouth. The headwaters of the West and Middle Fork's must be hiked into for several miles from gravel roads. The river offers excellent recreational float boating and powerboating opportunities. The river offers s a variety of whitewater from Class I to Class IV on the International Whitewater Scale. Hiking, sportfishing, sport hunting, nature study, and nature photography add to the recreational opportunities.

Special Considerations: The Delta River flowing north from headwaters within five miles of Dickey Lake (Middle Fork of the Gulkana) is also being recommended as an addition to the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System.

Complete river log

PDF icon Gulkana River [712 kb]

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