|NPS Photo by Josh Spice|
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Alaska has over 100 rivers to choose from depending on your time and resources. They offer exciting opportunities for boaters of all skill levels, from flat water to white water and from road accessible day trips to bush plane adventures. The following tips will help you plan a float trip that suits your tastes and abilities.
Brochures or descriptive materials on Alaska’s rivers are limited, so be prepared to do some homework (some references are listed at the end of this handout). Purchase and carry U.S. Geological Survey maps (1” = 1 mile) of the area you plan to visit. If you contact an agency for further information, specify the area or rivers that interest you, type of boat being used, type of access (road or air), amount of time available, and your skill level. Consult our Alaska Backcountry Adventure Planning Guide for assistance in overall planning of your trip into the Alaska backcountry.
There are relatively few rivers with road access at more than one point. Get a basic road map of Alaska and study it carefully. Because of the great distances involved, shuttles can be difficult to work out. If you’re looking for road accessible rivers, see a list farther down on this page and plan on driving your own vehicle. Many car rental companies will not permit their vehicles on gravel highways and rental cars don’t have boat racks! There is no public bus transportation on Alaska’s highways. You can use a bicycle as a shuttle if you’re in good shape and the distance is manageable. You may have to fly to or from the river of your choice--or both. An inflatable raft or collapsible boat such as a Klepper or Ally Pack canoe can be carried as baggage. Most bush planes must carry hard-shelled canoes separately from passengers, requiring multiple trips and an aircraft licensed to take both passengers and canoes. These charters can cost upwards of $500 per hour.
For more information, see our handout Chartering Aircraft in Interior Alaska.
Plan on bringing everything you need with you. There are a few businesses that rent outdoor equipment, but on a long trip, returning it to the proper place can be a logistical nightmare.
Alaska is Wild
Boating experience in other states may not prepare you for Alaska. The weather is extremely cold and hypothermia is a very real danger even after a brief submersion. This is especially true in wet weather, which is common. Some rivers have high volume flow and you may find yourself in very wild and remote country where help can be hours or days away.
For these reasons, rivers in Alaska should be treated as they were one class higher on the International Scale of River Difficulty (see below) than they would be elsewhere. You must be responsible for your own safety and be completely self-sufficient.
The Water is Cold!
Clear rivers are usually in the low 40’s (°F). For comparison, a heated swimming pool is usually 80-85°F. Glacial rivers are near freezing, and if you fall in, the cold will immobilize you in just a few minutes unless you are wearing a full wetsuit or drysuit.
|Photo by Josh Spice|
Watch for Sweepers, Strainers, and Log Jams
Sweepers are trees that bend low over the water or have fallen completely across. Many rivers meander through forested valleys and sweepers are common along the cut banks. Strainers are trees that have fallen into the water and their branches act as a strainer for the water flowing through them. It is nearly impossible to free yourself from a strainer, with the strong current holding you into it. Branches act as hooks and catch clothing, which leads to drowning. Sweepers and strainers are common on Class I rivers and can take a relaxed boater by surprise. Avoid sweepers and strainers at all costs. Log jams pile up on corners, deposited by spring floods and high water. The current tends to pull toward the bank and right into log jams. Stay alert!
Know how to Read the Water
Understanding river currents and hydraulics can save you from disaster. Stay clear of recirculating holes and never get broadside to a rock, sweeper, or log jam. The current can tip your boat, possibly pinning you underneath and damaging your craft. If you lose your boat or wrap it around a rock, you may face a tough hike through remote, trail-less wilderness to reach help. If you come across a difficult stretch and have any doubts, STOP, scout ahead, and carry your boat from the bank or portage around.
See our River Crossing in the Backcountry page to learn more about safety in and around Alaskan rivers.
Watch Water Levels
Pay attention to the weather: long, dry spells may mean shallow water, while conversely, heavy or prolonged rains can rapidly bring rivers to flood stage. This may take an hour or days, depending on how far downstream you are, so camp above the high water mark. Glacial rivers change with some predictability: warm weather increases glacial melt. These rivers rise throughout the day and drop again at night. Heavy rain can contribute to glacial melt enough to cause local flooding. As days grow cooler in autumn, glacial rivers gradually drop in level and clear up.
Special consideration must be taken during periods of high water. High water increases erosion along cut banks and adds debris to the stream. Sweepers, strainers, floating logs, stumps, and man-made objects that were on land are especially hazardous during high water. Stream current is faster & stronger and normal riffles may become Class III rapids with large standing waves. You can generally upgrade a river by at least one class during high water. Be prepared to change your plans!
Bring Detailed Maps
Most public information brochures do not have enough detail to provide an accurate picture of your route. You may need U.S. Geological Survey topographic maps (250k or 63k scale) and a compass. Many Alaska rivers loop back on themselves, making navigation very disorienting.
Where to Camp?
Except during high water, gravel bars are easy to find and make good campsites - good visibility allows bears to see and avoid you! Open areas like gravel bars tend to be breezier and provide relief from biting insects. Make sure to camp above the high water mark and tie up your boat. Practice minimum-impact camping techniques. Make sure your fire is out and erase all signs of your presence before you leave. Pack out all garbage, don’t bury it. Buried garbage will be dug up by wildlife.
|Photo by Josh Spice|
Wear a Life Jacket at All Times
Don’t take chances even on a day trip in hot weather: the water is extremely cold and if you take a spill, you may be disabled or unable to reach the shore or boat quickly. Often times, the cold water causes the gasp reflex and if your mouth is underwater, you'll inhale water into your lungs! Learn more about cold safety.
If you’re planning a whitewater trip, wear a helmet and full wetsuit or drysuit with plenty of warm clothing underneath in addition to a life jacket. Alaska law states that there must be a USCG-approved life jacket present for every person on board. Persons under 13 must be wearing a life jacket at all times. Learn more about boating safety.
Know Your Paddling Skills
Don’t expect to learn as you go. You can get into big trouble even on Class I rivers, where you may have to do some quick maneuvering to avoid sweepers, rocks, or log jams. Minimum skills should include eddy turns, bracing, ferrying, sweep and draw strokes, and backpaddling. Take classes in canoeing or go with experienced friends.
Keep Essentials in a Waterproof Bag
Take at least one change of clothes and waterproof matches in a waterproof bag. Wool, fleece and polypro clothing provide good protection, as they dry quickly and provide warmth when wet. Be prepared for cold, wet weather - take good rain gear and warm clothes. Take a throw-rope for rescues, extra paddles, first-aid kit, emergency flares, and boat repair materials. Also, don’t forget insect repellent, sunscreen, and sunglasses.
Tie Your Gear Down Securely
Even if you flip your canoe, you won’t lose your gear to the river if it’s tied in securely - but don’t overload your boat. Take extra flotation bags if you plan on whitewater touring.
Practice Bear Safety
Read all bear safety information provided. Keep a clean campsite, store your food away from your tent and avoid camping on game trails. Make noise when in densely forested areas, brush, or near running water. Learn more about bear safety.
Treat all Drinking Water
Giardia, a microorganism that causes intestinal distress, is widespread in Alaska waters. Cryptosporidium is also a common culprit, so boil, treat, or filter all drinking water. Learn more about safe drinking water.
File a Float Plan
Inform a friend or the government agency managing the area of your trip plan and route, so they can initiate a search if you are overdue. When you get back, be sure to let them know so they don't send a search party! Allow extra time for bad weather and take extra food in case you are delayed.
Download a free backcountry trip plan.
|NPS Photo by Josh Spice|
International Scale of River Difficulty
CLASS I: Moving Water with a few riffles and small waves. Few or no obstructions.
CLASS II: Easy rapids with waves up to three feet high; clear channels are obvious without scouting. Some maneuvering is required.
CLASS III: Rapids with high, irregular waves often capable of swamping an open canoe. Narrow passages may require complex maneuvering and scouting from shore.
CLASS IV: Long, difficult rapids with constricted passages that often require precise maneuvering in very turbulent waters. Scouting from shore is often necessary and conditions make rescue difficult. Generally not possible for open canoes. Boaters in covered canoes and kayaks should be able to Eskimo roll before attempting passage.
CLASS V: Extremely difficult, long and very violent rapids with high, congested routes which nearly always must be scouted from shore. Rescue conditions are difficult and there is significant hazard to life in the event of a mishap. Ability to Eskimo roll is essential for kayakers.
CLASS VI: Difficulties of Class V carried to the extreme. Nearly impossible and very dangerous. For teams of experts only after close study and taking all precautions.
Kenai - Sterling Highway
Nenana & Chulitna - Parks Highway
Delta-Clearwater & Tanana - Richardson Highway
Delta & Gulkana - Denali & Richardson Highways
Copper - Richardson Highway & Tok Cutoff
Fortymile - Taylor Highway
Beaver Creek, Birch Creek, & Chatanika - Steese Highway
Jim - Dalton Highway
Chena - Fairbanks & Chena Hot Springs Road
Yukon - Whitehorse, Dawson City, Eagle, Circle, Dalton Hwy
The Center also has a collection of trip reports filed by the Bureau of Outdoor Recreation, National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, and other agencies on rivers surveyed for inclusion in the National Wild and Scenic Rivers system.
Alaska Paddling Guide. 1992. Jack Mosby & David Dapkus, J & R Enterprises, Anchorage, AK.
The Alaska River Guide. 1998. Karen Jettmar. Alaska Northwest Books, Seattle, WA.
Fast and Cold: A Guide to Alaska Whitewater. 1994. Andrew Embick. Valdez Alpine Books/Falcon Press Publishing Co. Inc. Helena, MT.
The Yukon River Guide: A Journey Through Time From Dawson City to Circle. 1998. Gerri Dick & Dean Littlepage. Alaska Natural History Association, Anchorage, AK.
Did You Know?
Boreal felt lichen (Erioderma pedicellatum), the most endangered lichen in the world, was discovered in Denali National Park in 2007. Currently only existing in Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, and Alaska, it grows on balsam fir on moist slopes with moss and is highly sensitive to atmospheric pollution.