Trekking in Wrangell–St. Elias National Park and Preserve

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Crossing the Kotsina River was going to be the crux of our week-long trek across Alaska's Wrangell Mountains.

At least that's what everyone had told us, from a friend in McCarthy who guides these mountains, to a random “man on the street” in Chitina, to our pilot who delicately assessed our wilderness cred before leaving us on the Wrangell Plateau.

Record high temps had these glacier-fed rivers flooding their banks all summer, and at least one party went for a long, dangerous swim trying to cross the mighty Kotsina. This tale had been eating at us for three days as we made our way down off the plateau, across the Long Glacier, over a high pass with a foot of early season snow and across the icy waist-deep Kluvesna River. And after all of that, the “hard part” still lay ahead.

By the end of our fourth day, we had negotiated the steep, narrow canyon of Surprise Creek and bushwhacked out to the banks of the Kotsina. It was then that we got to look our challenge square in the face. The wade would be cold, swift and deep, but could be done safely. Our crew of four let out a collective sigh of relief that we wouldn't need to backtrack over 30 miles of seriously arduous terrain for a pickup back at the plateau. We were so filled with relief that we took a wrong turn up the valley, adding a few more miles to an already very long day just to make sure everyone was completely knackered. Oops.

Big tracks of wilderness, such as this mega-parcel in the heart of Alaska's Wrangell–St. Elias National Park and Preserve, are our workshops -- outdoor companies rely on us to get their gear out (way out) into the world's wild places and produce photography that inspires others to do the same. Over the last five years, we've logged a couple thousand miles on foot in the Himalaya, Andes, Sierra Nevada, Cascades, Rockies, New Zealand, Patagonia and Alaska. This particular trek was put together to showcase a new line of backpacking gear and clothing for a brand that we work for. Brad was recruited from our pool of “friends always up for an adventure,” and our friend Saya flew in from Japan, loaded with gear from the client. In classic Japanese fashion, she also had several gifts for each of us along with backpacking meals popular in her homeland. Our week in the mountains was a culinary adventure as well.

Back in the river valley, with the Kotsina flowing at a fraction of what we were expecting, we still thought it prudent to seek out the best possible crossing. This led us downriver to a vast braided section where the river's power was diluted over several channels. Our crossing of the Kluvesna two days earlier proved much more severe, with silt-laden water just minutes off the glacier and depth that ruined any chance of Brad ever starting a family. But traveling across the unknown is a funny thing and neither of these crossings would prove to be the crux of our trek. That honor was given to a two-mile stretch of pure hell that slapped us in the face when we turned south up Rock Creek. What looked like a good idea on the map translated into a steep-walled canyon/valley covered top to bottom in impenetrable brush. Welcome to the land of 100-foot contour intervals.

After spending the entire day making miniscule progress, plus negotiating a couple random gorges just for fun, we broke out into open tundra vibrant in fall colors. We arrived at our final camp near dark and totally wrecked. Saya and Brad managed to get a small fire going in the streambed to push back the cold while we gathered for dinner.

We recounted the horrors of the day while watching a small herd of Dall sheep graze across the valley. Tomorrow we'd be back to civilization and missing this place. And a week after that planning our return (OK, maybe two weeks).

Wild in the Wrangells

Backpackers unload their packs from a de Havilland Beaver aircraft after a flight onto the Wrangell Plateau in Wrangell–St. Elias National Park & Preserve, Alaska.

Wild in the Wrangells

Hiking along the Wrangell Plateau above Long Glacier in late August.

Wild in the Wrangells

Dinnertime at camp on the Wrangell Plateau above Long Glacier.

Wild in the Wrangells 

Hiking along the Wrangell Plateau above Long Glacier in late August.

Wild in the Wrangells

Navigating the rock and ice of the Long Glacier moraine August 2013.

Wild in the Wrangells

Picking wild blueberries in the Fall Creek valley near the Kluvesna River.

Wild in the Wrangells

Rain showers create an evening rainbow as backpackers camp under an ultralight tarp along the Kluvesna River.

Wild in the Wrangells

Fording the frigid glacial waters of the Kluvesna River.

Wild in the Wrangells

Fording the frigid glacial waters of the Kluvesna River.

Wild in the Wrangells

Hiking past the remains of a Dall sheep on the tundra above the Kluvesna Glacier on the way to Surprise Creek Pass.

Wild in the Wrangells

After a long, cold day navigating the wilds of Alaska backcountry, backpackers dry out around a fire at camp on the Kotsina River.

Wild in the Wrangells

Writing in a journal by headlamp near the fire at camp in the Rock Creek drainage near Dixie Pass.

Wild in the Wrangells

In Chitina, backpackers celebrate a successful return to civilization after a week-long trek in Wrangell–St. Elias National Park..

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