During the summer of 2019, our forestry work regularly brought us over the vast mountain ranges of Wrangell-Saint Elias National Park. Based in Glenallen, we regularly worked field plots north of the mountains near the border. This brought about long helicopter rides, flying over volcanic mountains, across large drainages and past dozens and dozens of sheep littered across the ridges within the park. It was on these flights that my friend Cade and I hatched the plan to return to the area to look for sheep. Come August of that year we did just that. My car’s engine had burned up the week before, so with a new rental and the enlistment of Cade’s friend Isiah to help us shuttle, we set off south to the Nabesna Road and the start of our trip.
After dropping Cade’s car off near Northway, we made our way across the Tok Cutoff and down the Nabesna Road late into the evening. In the dark, we soon found ourselves blocked by a creek running across the road. We had run the risk taking the rental car this far (they are prohibited on the Nabesna Road). Not wishing to tempt fate further and incur a large fine from the company, we elected to stop and camp about 12 miles short of Devil’s Mountain Lodge. The next morning, Cade and I bid Isiah farewell, tromping six miles or so down the road until we found a spot to blow up our rafts and put in on Jack River. The creek was a welcome respite from the road marching and although there were plenty of bends, we made good time. There were some riffles and splashy water that brought us to attention just before we reached the confluence with the Nabesna. Shortly thereafter, we emerged out of the willows and rested on a large gravel bar on the edge of this glacial river. We bundled up against the wind and glassed the surrounding mountains for sheep with our spotting scope.
Our intended destination was a creek further downriver, so we continued on in the swollen, braided Nabesna River. The silty water crackled against our boats, giving the illusion and fear inducing thought of a leak in our boats’ tubing. The high flow allowed us to make quick time and soon enough we were stashing our boats among an island of willows near the river and walking up a creek to get a better vantage point of the mountains beyond. Sheep were plentiful on the mountainsides, dozens of ewes and lambs scattered throughout. However, no sight of rams. We elected to head up the valley further and climb to a spot where we would have a wide view for glassing come morning.
The following day brought clear skies and grand views, allowing us the opportunity to scan mountains near in far in search of sheep. We climbed a nearby ridge, glassing into the bowl beyond and the mountains in the distance. More ewes littered the mountains nearby, but still no rams to be found. Glassing further, we eventually spotted 2 lone sheep where the drainage forked later on. All signs pointed to them being rams. Were they legal and thus full curl? That remained to be seen. In order to get a better look, we decided to head down and make our way further up the drainage.
Hours later, we found ourselves camped near the top of the mountain we had glassed at from afar. Thick brush had slowed our travel and we found ourselves in a new position not having gained any new knowledge. No sheep were in sight, except some much further up valley. Unsure what to do, we schemed in the tent. Our primary limitation was time, only able to give 5 days to the trip due to work constraints. We determined this was best used as a scouting trip and decided to head back to the river the next day.
As we floated further, we watched as snow, rain and clouds enveloped the mountains we had just been in the day prior. The river moved quickly and with a purpose, heading in a nearly straight course towards the Tanana. We kept our eyes open for anything else moving in the area. Moose season was open and we scanned the banks and maps looking for any high vantage point from which we could glass. We left our boats occasionally, checking out tracks and spots above the river. But the same limitations faced us as before, a lack of time.
We camped another night, before paddling through the last remaining section of stagnant water near Northway. As we paddled, we watched Trumpeter Swans and various ducks fly out from the flats and over the river, enjoying the last days of the season. The river had moved much faster than we expected and we had floated over 55 miles in less than 8 hours. Soon enough we found ourselves on the Tanana River and an hour later we were at Cade’s car. A whirlwind adventure through big country. Not successful but it had provided plenty of lessons, many of which we hope to use on a similar trip sometime in the years to come.