Kayaking Alaska’s Newly Discovered River Canyon

Imagine being dropped off by a tiny bush plane into a remote wilderness, knowing you are about to brave the biggest challenge you have ever faced. Todd Wells did just that when he led an exploratory kayaking expedition into the heart of the Wrangell Mountains in Alaska. He and his team members were only able to get to their destination at the headwaters of the Chitina River by being dropped off one at a time, with their kayaks strapped to the bottom of the plane. “I had paddled Class V with each of these paddlers before, but this … was probably the biggest challenge that any of us had ever faced,” Wells says. “Our goal [was] just to make it down safely in one piece.”

The Chitina River in the Wrangell–St. Elias National Park in Alaska originates right beneath the Logan Glacier. “Just a decade or two ago, the Logan Glacier used to cover this canyon,” Wells says. “Because of climate change and because of the recession of all these glaciers in Alaska, the Logan Glacier has retreated farther up into the mountains and opened up an entrance to the canyon that we’ve now been able to access.” Now there is a new, raging Class V+ gorge, which was previously concealed beneath the ice.

Wells put together a team of paddlers and friends he trusts who have each spent at least 10 years paddling Class V rivers: Ben Mar, photographer Eric Parker, Wells’s brother Brendan, photographer Chris Korbulic, and Matt Peters.

The headwaters canyon is about 12 miles (19 kilometers) long, and the team’s goal was to paddle as much of the canyon as they could. “We knew that there were probably a couple portages that we would have to make, but as long as we were able to paddle the majority of the river and not have to portage the whole canyon, I was going to be satisfied,” Wells explains. They ended up only having to portage twice for about 500 yards (457 meters), which meant they faced a lot of white water.

“Sometimes when we’re in a safer environment, we really push it hard and we try to run every single rapid and really, really push it. But out here on the Chitina, our goal [was] just to make it down safely in one piece and that’s what we were able to do,” Wells says. “There are a couple rapids we portaged that potentially we could go back and try to run sometime, but they were really pretty scary and if we were to make a mistake on either one of those rapids, it could have been fatal.”

The team had to prepare carefully for other demanding conditions as well, such as camping in the cold and packing all of their equipment inside the back of their kayaks. “None of us have ever done anything quite like this,” Wells said. “It was a learning process figuring out where to set up camp where we [were] protected from the wind, how to portage and scout rapids safely. It was a difficult challenge for us all.”

The retreat of the Logan Glacier opened up the landscape relatively recently so there are dramatic rugged rocks and not a lot of vegetation. “Just being in the heart of the Wrangell–St. Elias National Park was a really, really amazing experience. I’d never been anywhere that felt nearly as remote as the headwaters canyon and the Chitina River. We were seeing wildlife throughout the trip. There were bears and moose and just no human influence at all. It was a really special spot to be.”

This kind of remote exploration is what drives Wells as a kayaker. Doing a first descent down the Chitina canyon was a thrill. “I really feel that Alaska is the last frontier for a lot of explorations, a lot of kayaking expeditions. It’s really unique to be able to be up there and explore these places that no one has ever been before.”

Todd Wells is a grantee of Nat Geo’s Expeditions Council. Learn more about the science and exploration supported by the nonprofit National Geographic Society at natgeo.org/grants.

And be sure to check out more of the Best Job Ever digital series.

PRODUCER/EDITOR: Carolyn Barnwell
VIDEO: Todd Wells, Brendan Wells, and Matt Peters
SERIES PRODUCER: Chris Mattle
GRAPHICS: Chris Mattle