Trip Report: Source to Sea Rafting Expedition

Source to Sea Rafting Expedition

Photos and text by Wade Stokes – participant on August 2023 Source to Sea Trip

Flowers in the foreground, raft on the river and huge mountains behind it


Well, my son and I have completed our epic Great Alaskan Adventure of 2023, a three-week exploration of the USA’s largest state, and a two-week-plus guided float trip down the Nizina, Chitina, and Copper Rivers in Wrangell St. Elias National Park, almost 200 miles from the Source to the Sea.


This was two expeditions in one.  First, for the most part, we were floating in untouched wilderness (we might have been the only group to float all three rivers together this year).  We had almost a dozen grizzly encounters, and we saw a few black bears as well as countless bald eagles, seals, and salmon.  Second, the trip was also a hands-on dive into Alaska’s mining history.  The world’s largest copper mining operations early last century left its mark both in the ruins of the main mill and other buildings in Kennecott (operations ended in 1938), as well as in the remnants all along our route of the railroad built to carry the ore out to Prince William Sound and the sea – an incredible engineering feat for 1911.

A big shout out to St. Elias Alpine Guides – without their knowledgeable, fun guides and all their logistics behind the trip, we never could have had such an experience.

Highly recommended! Even my son approves!

Wade and Peter on the Root Glacier

My son and I on the Root Glacier in Kennecott. The ice fall far behind us is 7,000 feet high, the second largest in the world.


A Map of the Source to Sea route through Wrangell - St. Elias National Park

Here’s the route of our float trip. The “Source” was Nizina Lake below the Nizina Glacier. We floated south on the Nizina River, west on the Chitina River, and then south on the Copper River almost all the way out to Prince William Sound and “the Sea.”


Wade and Peter stand in front of a bush plane

Bush planes make up a lot of the travel in the region. Here in Gulkana, my son and I are about to fly to McCarthy near Kennecott.


Kennecott Mill Building and old town

Above McCarthy, the old Kennecott copper mill building rises 14 stories high up the hillside. Until it ceased operations in 1938, the mill served the richest copper mine in the world on the ridges above.


Mill Building in looks out over the Kennicott Glacier

The old mill building looks out over the Root Glacier. Over the years, the remelting of the glacier moraine has left gravel from the glacier’s moraine on top.


Peter naps on the white ice of the glacier

The day before we started our float trip, my son and I took a one-day ice climbing course on the Root Glacier from St. Elias Alpine Guides. Here, my son is snoozing before his climb on the slope behind him.


Four pictures of an ice climber being lowered into a moulin.

Here, my son in blue disappears down to the bottom of a moulin, a hole in the glacier formed by escaping water. Our guide Landon is using a top belay to keep him from falling into the abyss.


The view from the bottom of the moulin. Needless to say, my son climbed out a lot faster than me. To climb, you have crampons on your feet and two ice axes in your hands. You should climb mainly with your legs, but this old swimmer was using too much arms the whole way up. I think Landon, our guide here, is looking down to check if I am still alive.


Nizina Lake

The next day, from McCarthy a bush plane dropped our group for the rafting trip off by the Nizina Lake (foreground), fed by the Nizina Glacier in the background.


Wade swimming in Nizina Lake with icebergs in the background

As a practicing winter swimmer, I couldn’t resist hopping in to swim for a couple of minutes. With all the silt from the glacier, visibility was nil. Since it is all meltwater from the ice, you can imagine the temperature.


All geared up and ready to go. We had three rafts, three guides, and nine guests. All three rafts were set up with central double oars. One raft was a gear raft with one guide, and all of us were split up between the other two rafts.


Waterfall on Nizina River

On the Nizina River, there were a lot of waterfalls to explore.


Blue raft and green dome tent in front of a mountain

Most of the campsites were gravel bars along the river.


Dryas covers the ground

On the Nizina, a lot of gravel bars were filled with dryas (the white flowering plants) and fireweed (the purple flowers). Dryas usually comes in first, starts to establish topsoil and add nitrogen, and then allows other plants to gain a foothold.


A word on hygiene. These rivers are “pack out,” meaning all our waste had to be carried out. We used a mini toilet called a “groover,” which got reset after every five uses. The views made up for any “ick” factor. The nickname of “groover” comes from the original pack-out toilets – repurposed metal ammunition boxes that left twin grooves on your butt after each use.


Colorful tents set up along the river in white fog

A campsite near the Lower Canyon where the Nizina joins the Chitina.


Thick fog on the river

In the early stretch of the Chitina River, it often felt like we were on the set of “Vikings,” and a howling group of axe-wielding warriors was about to charge at us through the mist.


Stepping in mud in Xtratuf boots

Mud. Glacial silt makes so much mud. Back in Estonia, I am still cleaning silt out of everything. The brown XtraTuf neoprene boots are iconic in Alaska – everyone from commercial fishermen to hikers to even businessmen wear them to get through the wet seasons.


Wolf tracks on the sand

Wolf tracks on the Chitina. While we saw a lot of tracks, their owners proved elusive all trip.


A tent set up close to the water with mountains in the background

Camp on the Chitina. The guides kept track of water levels, and all the major flooding events that normally transpire had taken place this summer already. So, we felt safe being so close to the water. And, sleeping to the sound of a fast-moving river was so peaceful.


Kip, Ty, and the lead guide Tristan serving breakfast to the crowd. The food was so good all the way through – my cardiologist would clearly not have approved. Our guides’ knowledge and humor and energy were infectious – they kept us all engaged and motivated even in the cold and wet. Ty left after the first week, Tristan and Kip steered us for the full trip.


Group of people in camp chairs against a sunset

The best part of the trip: Our group of fellow travelers. Everyone had been on major Alaskan trips before, and their experiences and knowledge made for great conversations and easy traveling. One key benefit of river travel: You can carry luxuries. Folding camp chairs were a saving grace every evening, and the happy hour selection of Alaskan craft beers was even more inspiring.


Sunset on the water

The sunset closing the first half of the trip.


A business in Chitina

We resupplied in the tiny settlement (think a road crossing not a town) of Chitina, right where the Chitina river meets the Copper River. Some residents made their politics clear.


People fishing in Alaska

Our resupply point was at Mill Creek outside Chitina. The Copper River red salmon were running, and there were a lot of Alaskan residents catching their annual allotment while we were there.


Dipnet fishing in Alaska

The salmon run so fiercely here that fishermen use dipnets – you literally drop a big net in by shore and just scoop your salmon out. (Alaskan families get an allotment of 40 salmon each plus 10 salmon per person in the family.)


Rafts staged at the river with supplies on shore

Getting ready for resupply.


Group of guides moving gear between vans

Our craft beer supply needed to be replenished.


Dark canyon on the Copper River

The weather turned a bit darker and colder at the beginning of the second half.


A rainbow over a misty river

Rainbows teased us the whole second week.


People under a tent canopy on the river

The guides set up a tarp canopy to keep things dry.


Two people walking along the river

Gravel bars made the best places to stop for lunch.


Old bridge pilings stick up out of the water

These pilings are the remains of the foundation of the Copper River Railroad which followed our route all the way from Kennecott and McCarthy out to the sea. The railroad was completed around 1911 and was operational until 1938.


Grizzly bear tracks on the sand

Grizzly tracks on the beach. Their feet are HUGE.


Guides help client across a stream

The guides helped us across stream crossings on day hikes when needed. Most of us were wearing 15-inch high rubber boots – one misstep would have led to wet feet for days.


Sunset on the Copper River

Sunset on the Copper River.


Far away bear near camp

I only snagged one photo of a grizzly. That brown blob in the background in the bushes was a juvenile on his own (probably three years old), and he tracked the perimeter of our camp. It was conceivable that we were the first humans he had ever seen.


Head of a seal poking up out of the water

Seals were common on the Copper (the little blob in the upper part of the photo here is a seal’s head). They would swim upstream from Prince William Sound to feast on salmon. Unfortunately for them, orcas know this and wait outside the river delta for the plump seals to return.


Chilly Alaskan landscape

On the coldest and wettest day, there was not much difference between the river and the sky.


Tent set up on river shore with mountains behind

After three or so days of rain, we finally had a chance to let our tent dry out. At this point, probably everything I had was wet.


Wade and Peter in front of the Miles Glacier

After days of rain, we got our reward: a cloudless sky at Miles Lake, where the Miles Glacier is on one side of the river (shown here) and the Child Glacier is on the other.


Tent set up on sand in front of mountains

We camped on a gravel bar on Miles Lake. The landscape felt lunar – I have never seen such open sky.


Glacier on the Copper River

The scale was amazing. The Miles Glacier here is probably 2.5 miles away with a face 200 feet high – think a 20-story building.


Guide on a small iceberg

Kip riding an iceberg from Miles Glacier.


Three river guides relaxing on the bank with mountains behind them

Kip, Danny, and Tristan with the Child Glacier across Miles Lake behind them.


Night at camp




Guide at the oars with two clients in the front of boat with icebergs behind them

Kip steering us through the bergs on Miles Lake.


Rafts floating under the Million Dollar Bridge

An engineering marvel, the “Million Dollar Bridge” was completed in 1911 for the Copper River railroad leading up to Kennecott. The bridge had to contend with the advancing Child Glacier downstream (shown here), and all the icebergs coming off the Miles Glacier and floating downstream into the bridge.


view from below of the Million Dollar Bridge

The revetments you see in front of the bridge pilings are what protect the bridge from the icebergs coming off the Miles Glacier. To think these were engineered over 100 years ago is astounding – they had to invent new building techniques to erect this bridge.


people in rafts in front of the massive Childs Glacier

The Child Glacier has a face 100-feet high (think a 10-story building).


Peter trying to lasso an iceberg

My son decided one night to try to lasso an iceberg. Everyone thought he was mad to try, especially given the river’s speed at this campsite.


Peter holds an iceberg he caught out of the water

After an hour, we weren’t laughing….


Making margaritas with glacial ice

. …especially when the guides used the glacial ice to make margaritas on our last night.


Guide's tent near river's edge

While this might look like an ad for Cabela’s tents, with the Child Glacier in the background, the guides were less than pleased with its rain protection.


Guide Danny shows off the pick lists

Danny the guide showing the “pick lists” for our meals for the week. Danny joined us for the second half of the trip. To give you insight into the guiding community, at 28 years of age, Danny’s nickname at Elias Alpine Guides was “Granny Danny.” This was really funny given the percentage of real grandparents on the trip.


Two people sitting with their gear on the river's edge

Ron and Ed waiting for the last day’s paddling.


Seals far away in the water

Those small black dots are a dozen or so seals that we startled during their afternoon naps.


Clouds reflected on the river

The sun came out for the last day.


Flag Point take out

Our take-out point was probably ten or so miles from the sea. At that point, the river delta is 50 miles wide.


Wade says "peace out, Alaska"

Peace out. Until next time, Alaska.

Inspired by Wade’s tale? Check out our Source to Sea Expedition! Get in touch with any questions – we can’t wait to see you in the Wrangells this summer and are happy to help you get out here by answering any questions you have!

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