When Andy Embick wrote his famous guidebook “Fast and Cold,” he gave 5 stars to only 4 rivers in the entire state, and this was one of them. It’s also important to note this river was first floated only in the last 20 years. Another neat feature of the river is that part of it parallels the Iditarod Trail coming out of Rainy Pass, which interests many people.
The Happy River is a gem of an Alaska Range River. Located in a vast wilderness and draining the south slopes from Rainy Pass, and flowing into the much larger Skwentna River, it is a swift, rocky river of moderate to slightly above moderate difficulty. Kayakers find it an easy run, while it presents several challenges to rafting parties. In the upper valley the river is within a most gorgeous location with swift, continuous but small rapids, while the lower section is a twisting canyon that abruptly dumps you out onto the Skwentna River along where the Iditarod Sled Dog Trail is found. Views of the Alaska Range and the Kichatna Spires and Tordrillo Mountains are spectacular. The water is cold and splashy and Dry Suits are recommended. For the 34 miles of Happy River and 30 to 57 miles of Skwentna River allow 6 to 8 days. Twelve to fourteen foot rafts are used and paddling is preferred to rowing. Skilled paddlers often use inflatable kayaks as well. It is only accessible by flying in to the start.
From Anchorage you will need to go north to Willow or Talkeetna by traveling up the George Parks Highway. Each town has floatplanes to charter.
There are two starting points on the river. The upper put in is at Sheep Lake and is well above tree line where the river is crystal clear, very tight, yet low volume; more creek than river, and runs 34 miles to the Skwentna River. The lower put in is at Halfway Lake and has a bit more volume at this point and the run to the Swentna River is 27 miles of continuous rocky rapids of Class III to III+. A Cessna 206 or DeHaviland Beaver on floats is available from Susitna Air Service at Kashwitna Lake and likely from other Willow and Talkeetna based flight operators.
Another put in option is to fly into Puntilla Lake and coordinate with Rainy Pass Lodge to take you down to the river on horseback. It’s a full day of effort to pack and trudge your gear the 1-2 miles down a horse trail to the river, and a lot more work than just flying into Sheep Lake. I might just mention that it’s been done, is possible, but a lot of work. I guess it makes sense if you want to spend a couple days at a lodge before beginning your float trip.
Take out could be one of several options. Most groups will continue floating down the Skwentna River to where a floatplane can land on the river. The first opportunity comes 34 miles from the mouth of the Happy River and is below the mouth of the Talachulitna River. Or you could float an additional 20 miles to Skwentna Village where there are regular flights back to Anchorage, but, perhaps, not Willow or Talkeetna. The Skwentna is, also, a scenic float through some small canyons and among braids and multiple channels. Prearrange this with your flight operator.
Sheep Lake to Halfway Lake: 7 miles
From the lake it is a short portage of gear or lining of boats down Sheep Creek where most groups will spend a day. The long hike up towards the Kichatna Spires is well worth the effort. We need to mention that it’s probably 10-15 miles (look at a map) to get to the pass where you’d have a good view of the Kichatnas. It’s not a short day hike. Once on the river this section is clear and shallow with fairly continuous rapids formed by granite boulder piles that you have to snake and bounce through. Rafts are usually the 12-foot size and paddling is recommended. Puntilla Creek enters after a half mile and drains Puntilla Lake where there is a hunting lodge. Pass Creek enters from the left at a point about 4 miles along the way and 3 miles above the trail to Halfway Lake. Three mile Creek enters from the left at the point where Half Way Lake is close. This section is tight. We ran it in a 12-foot Puma raft, and still got hung up on rocks a lot. At times, we needed to bounce on the front or back of the boat to dislodge from rocks we were hung up on. I would characterize this put in as adding a full day to the trip vs Halfway Lake. But what’s nice about this section is that the river valley is not deep here. You can get off the boat in lots of places, climb up the grassy riverbanks in less than a minute, and get wide views of the river snaking through the valley. You can see the Iditarod tripods in the distance, so there’s much more of a feel of being on the Iditarod Trail in this section than further downriver, when it just becomes a deep river canyon.
Halfway Lake to Skwenta River: 27 miles
If you start here, a day to move gear to the river is needed as it is a half mile of tundra to where you can launch. The river starts becoming larger in volume, quickly as you descend with glacial tributaries rapidly entering. The rapids go for miles and only ease up a few times in the wooded zones. Moose Creek enters from the left 12 miles from Sheep Creek and 4 miles below the Halfway Lake start. From here the river continues with moderate rapids through a more wooded area. Three miles further, Indian Creek joins the Happy and after 2.5 more miles Squaw Creek and then Glacier Creek join the Happy. The river is turquoise green now and moving quickly from drop to drop with little recovery time, but no major obstacles. This is where the Happy enters the twisting canyon that runs all the way to the Skwentna.
The 5 miles before the confluence are the highlight of the entire trip. It’s a gorgeous, meandering section with high canyon walls. When you think of beautiful Alaska river canyons, this has that quintessential Alaskan beauty: high walls, rugged rocks, trees growing atop the cliffs, etc. Also the water is a blast down here. There are several sharp corners that produce Class III-IV rapids, one of which is a 270-degree horseshoe turn around a rock spine that you can climb up on and take pictures from. There are probably 3-4 really powerful sections. None lasts for more than a couple hundred yards, but they’re exciting, and you can also flip if you don’t handle your boat well.
There is a gravel bench camp area just at the canyon entrance and there are no campsites within the 15 miles of canyon. Very soon after entering the fast flowing canyon, the big brown Skwentna is reached and now the river is wide with expansive vistas in all directions.
Skwenta Confluence to Take Out: 34 or 57 miles
This section is a big braided river with two short canyon sections that have no whitewater, but a strong, fast current. At one point a tall monolith of rock parts the river in two. After 20 miles the braided Hayes River mouth is passed on river right. Looking up the Hayes, it tempts you to think of trying to hike up there. But don’t try; it’s extremely brushy. I spent a few hours and got only a quarter mile up. Another 10-mile stretch takes you to the mouth of the Talachulitna entering from the right. The second canyon begins here and two miles later there is a section of deep water where the floatplane can land to pick you up. Be sure and get the GPS coordinates from your pilot if there is any doubt about finding the right place. The river swings from southeasterly to northeasterly and after another 23 miles of floating, the town of Skwentna is found on the left side of the river. A flight from here can be arranged or a scheduled flight to Anchorage may be available. I believe one of the sights upriver from the take out is the old Skwentna cabin. It was half full of silt when I came through there ten years ago. May be gone by now, but it’s an historic cabin. Another thing to mention about this section is the river makes a 270-degree bend at one point around a wide sandy beach that is great for camping.
Dry suits must be worn on this river!
Talkeetna A-5, A-6
II, III, IV