The Nabesna River is a glacially fed Class I and II river that flows north out of the heart of the Wrangell-St Elias Mountains and cuts through a shallow canyon between the Mentasta Mountains and the Nutzotin Mountains of south central Alaska. It joins the Chisana River and, together, they form the mighty Tanana River, which flows through interior Alaska to its confluence with the Yukon. The river has 80 miles to float through, in an area that is, at first, a canyon in a broad valley and then through an area of deep glacial outwash gravels. Steep and swift in its upper reaches, with a continuing swift current as it enters the middle stretch it eventually slows, as it meanders into the Tetlin National Wildlife Refuge. It is a good choice for a 3 to 4 day trip with no major obstacles, other than swift, busy current that keeps you maneuvering back and forth as you choose channels to float.
Even though there is a 4-wheel drive road off the Nabesna Road that takes you to the river, it fords several streams and is often impassable. A better choice is to fly in to a strip known as the Orange Hill Airstrip where you can spend a day or two hiking up into the big glacier country at the terminus of the Nabesna Glacier before starting down river in a raft or kayak. From Northway you can charter a wheel plane to take you the short flight to the Orange Hill Airstrip.
To attempt the drive to the upper river take the Glenn Highway from Anchorage, north to Slana and take the Nabesna Road, a rough unmaintained road, for 41 miles. This is an interesting drive up the Copper River to Sportsman Paradise where the low pass over to the Nabesna, and thus the Tanana, is found at Jack Lake. For centuries this land was beneath the ancient, glacial Lake Ahtna that formed by the huge ice sheets of the last ice age blocking the Matanuska to the west and the Copper River to the south. At mile 41 of the Nabesna Road take a rough road to the left, down Jack Creek, fording it several times, 5 miles to Cabin Creek and line your boats down this creek to the river at a point about 16 miles below Orange Hill.
Take out is usually from the road into Northway, even though you could continue another 6 to 8 miles to the Alcan Highway at the confluence with the Chisana River where it officially becomes the Tanana River. Then you have to drive to Tok, then south to Anchorage, 5 to 7 hours or 6 hours north to Fairbanks.
Orange Hill Strip to Cabin Creek: 20 miles
The flight in to Orange Hill is only 40 minutes and you land near the terminus of the Nabesna Glacier within the Wrangell-St Elias National Preserve and not far outside the Wilderness boundary. This would be a good spot to hang out a day or two to explore this rough country. There is an old mining road leading up valley a ways. To the south is the huge Nabesna Glacier flowing off the flanks off 16,390 foot Mt Blackburn of the Wrangell Mountains. The upper 20 miles of river are swift and Class II, running in a steep canyon with fast, choppy water and numerous gravel bars to maneuver past. Cabin Creek joins the river on the left side and is the alternate put in for those who choose to 4-wheel drive in and line boats down the creek to the river confluence.
Cabin Creek to Northway: 55 miles
Below Cabin Creek, the river continues in a swift fashion with quick channel choosing scenarios to keep you engaged. The gradient along here is 12 feet a mile but the current is still fast and strong and picking the main channel is the main chore. Whenever the river is up against the shore, you might take advantage of any easy stops, to hike or to gather firewood for later. The last 40 miles of river is much slower with hardly a 4 mile an hour current to take you into the fantastic Tetlin Wildlife Refuge, home to thousands of nesting swans and geese. This is good moose country as well. By floating an extra 5 miles past Northway you can join the Chisana River and float a half mile on the Tanana River to where the Alaskan Highway can be accessed from river right. Stay way right to do this.
- This is prime grizzly bear habitat, so take all necessary precautions to avoid an encounter.
- There can be strong winds in this glacier country and tents should be well staked and items never left lying around or loose on the rafts.
Nabesna B-4, C-3, C-4, D-2, D-3