Paddling Outings with Bicycle Shuttles
These notes on paddling trips that can be made with bicycle shuttles are offered as a way for groups to paddle together while still honoring the mandate against people from different households sharing vehicles during the shuttle back to the put-in. Besides, combining paddlesports with bicycling doubles the pleasure of being out in our sunny interior summers. Practice safe cycling, wear a helmet, obey traffic laws, and wear bright clothing. Combining biking and boating means you need to think about safety for two pleasurable activities.
Paddling in moving water is an inherently dangerous activity. Don’t paddle beyond your ability. Always wear a life jacket. Always stay alert and look ahead for hazards that you may be approaching. Don’t drink and paddle. Remember that the water is cold, especially early in the season. Remember that our Alaskan weather can change quickly and take plenty of warm clothes in a dry bag, as well as extra clothes in case you or someone in your party takes an unexpected swim. Sweepers are the most common danger on our interior rivers. Give them as much room as you can. Sometimes it may be necessary to land on the opposite shore and walk your boat around the end of the sweeper. Sometimes a tree or even multiple logs may block the entire channel and you will have to portage or drag your boat around or over them. If you can’t tell from the river whether it is possible to get around a particular tree or not, it never hurts to pull over, get out of your boat, and walk over to where you can see clearly what the situation is before committing yourself to it.
Remember to bring food and water, rain gear, mosquito repellent, sun block, an extra paddle, bear spray when out of town, and appropriate footwear for walking in the water. Always be prepared for a trip to take longer than expected.
If you do find yourself unexpectedly in the water, don’t panic. Try to hang onto your paddle especially, and your boat too, if possible. Don’t try to stand up in water deeper than knee deep. Beware of foot entrapment (getting your feet jammed between rocks on the river bottom) which kills several people annually nationwide. Float on your back, feet downstream. Keep away from sweepers and cutbanks. Swim toward the nearest safe landing, but keep in mind that you are being carried downstream as you assess what landing spot you may be able to get to. Other members of your party may be able to take charge of your boat and paddle, or may even be able to tow you to shallow water. Don’t try to climb into anyone else’s boat, as that always ends badly. In the event that a collision with a sweeper appears inevitable, flip over onto your stomach and swim aggressively toward it. As you hit it try to launch yourself up and over it, so that at least your upper body is above water and on top of the sweeper. The last thing you want to happen is to get swept under the sweeper where you might get tangled up in underwater branches. Never underestimate the force of even a slow current.
For more information on paddling safety, and paddling in general, see the American Canoe Association website at https://www.americancanoe.org/, particularly the Resources link under the Education tab.
Chatanika River, Whitefish Campground/Olnes Pond Campground.
Two mile bike or hike shuttle
Six mile float
Put in below Elliott Highway bridge, on gravel bar. Access from gravel bar, small road just before bridge.
Take out on Vault Creek under pipeline access road bridge. Carry boats up steep bank to road.
This is a gentle float, with the usual sweepers and cut banks. Don’t miss the short paddle up Vault Creek. It’s a good idea to walk to the mouth of Vault Creek and put up flagging tape to mark your turn up the creek.
This winds through the Whitefish Campground for the first portion of the river trip. Paddling in Olnes Pond is another option as is camping in either park.
Lower Piledriver Slough
Two and a half mile bike shuttle
Three mile float
Put in at parking area by the bridge on Eielson Farm Road, ¼ mile off the Richardson Highway, past Bathing Beauty Pond
Take out at Horvath Pond or for a slightly longer trip continue to the boat launch just before the confluence with the Tanana River.
This is a popular and gentle float.
The shuttle is easy, mostly on paved roads or good gravel roads. The road to Horvath Pond and the boat launch is not named (maybe Diversion Dike Road?) but easy to find. After leaving the put in on Eielson Farm Road go left onto the Richardson Highway (generally in a NW direction) one mile to the first intersection and go left again (in a southerly direction) this is the road to Horvath Pond and the boat launch.
Upper Piledriver Slough
Six mile bike shuttle
Eight mile float
There are two starting points (put ins) for this trip: 1) The road to the put in is off the south side of the Richardson Highway just opposite the air control tower at Eielson AFB. It is a gravel road on the right if you are driving from Fairbanks or North Pole that leads back to Piledriver Slough. At the end is a trail (drivable in dry conditions) down to the river. This trip is a bit longer than starting at the following put in.
Put in 2): Coming from Fairbanks this is the first gravel road to the right after the divided highway ends that is marked with a yellow diamond-shaped highway sign indicating an intersection. There is also a blue sign there crediting someone with taking care of road cleanup. All previous roads going right have no sign. Once on this gravel road proceed ¼ mile to the first intersection. Turn left and go past a small parking area with some playground equipment by a pond. Then curve 90 degrees to the right to a huge parking area. In mid-summer this area may be full of RV’s. Continue past the parking area ¼ mile to the river. There isn’t much room to park there, so take your vehicles back to the parking area after unloading.
The take out is at Eielson Farm Road (the put in for the Lower Piledriver Slough float).
The bike ride is along the Richardson Highway where people drive too fast, but the shoulders are wide.
This is a lovely clear water float; there are a few riffles to negotiate. Quiet and peaceful unless the jets are flying, then not so much. A real gem of a float. You’ll almost certainly see waterfowl and shore birds, and seeing a moose or two isn’t unusual. The float trip and the bike shuttle are both longer than the Lower Piledriver float, but well worth the extra effort.
Chena River, Upper
There are many possibilities here. Access points include (from downstream to upstream):
Mile 31.4 Access
Second Bridge (best access is on the gravel bar upstream from the bridge; the turnoff to it is ¼ mile beyond the bridge)
Angel Rocks trailhead at 49 mile CHSR
West Fork Bridge
The river upstream from the third bridge isn’t paddled much. There are some rocks in the river, but no real rapids. However, the river is narrow and the turns are tight. There is a very real possibility of downed trees and log jams across the whole river. Keep alert!
The river downstream from the third bridge also demands attention as sweepers are a constant hazard and logs across the whole river are a possibility.
The Chena River Float Guide (published by the Alaska Department of Natural Resources) gives detailed information about access points to the Chena River and estimated paddling times between them. It is available at the Alaska Public Lands Information Center in the Morris Thompson Building (when it opens), or can be viewed and downloaded at http://dnr.alaska.gov/parks/boating/pdf/chenabrochure2014.pdf
Chena River in Town
The Chena River in town is also eminently suited to paddling with a bicycle shuttle, with several possible put-ins and take-outs (from upstream to downstream):
- Graehl Landing (Wendell Street bridge)
- Pioneer Park Landing (Peger Road)
- Chena River Wayside (at the University Avenue bridge, but road access to the wayside is via Geraghty Avenue)
- Chena Small Tracts Road (Chena Kiwanis Park)
- Pike’s Landing (off Airport Way)
- The Pump House Restaurant (Chena Pump Road)Or go on out to the Tanana River and take out at the Tanana Wayside on Chena Pump Road
One can be fairly creative at finding bicycle routes between these points. A valuable resource is the “Bikeways” map of Fairbanks and North Pole, published by the Fairbanks Metropolitan Area Transportation System and available online at http://www.fnsb.us/cp/Documents/bikeways.pdf. In the past, and possibly still, this map has been available at local bike shops.
Noyes Slough can be an enjoyable float at Chena River water levels above 4 feet (6 feet might be better) at the Chena River at Fairbanks National Weather Service gauge (https://water.weather.gov/ahps2/hydrograph.php?wfo=pafg&gage=chfa2). At lower levels there are many beaver dams and other obstructions that can be difficult to get over. Parts of this waterway are kind of trashy, and vegetation seems to encroach more from the sides every year, but it provides an interesting alternative view of Fairbanks neighborhood’s backyards. There are several places to get in and out of the slough. Lions Park off Danby Street is perhaps the best and easiest of them. To do the whole slough put in at Graehl Landing and watch for the entrance to the slough on river right a short distance downstream from the Wendell Street bridge. In recent years there has been a log blocking the entrance, but at high enough water levels it is possible to go over or around it. The slough comes back out to the river just above the University Avenue bridge. Allow several hours to do the whole slough.
Chena River, Nordale Road to Graehl Landing
There is a large parking lot and a landing at the Nordale Road bridge. If you need to leave stuff unattended, the area around the bridge over the Little Chena River ½ mile farther north offers more privacy, but less convenient launching. There is a small parking area a bit north of the bridge. The two rivers join less than a mile downstream from both bridges.
The river is pretty wide on this stretch so sweepers aren’t too much of a problem. It is still necessary to keep away from the cutbanks as some of them have dense brush hanging over the water. This is a nice float. You are rarely out of sight of houses until you get to Fort Wainwright. At the entrance to Fort Wainwright there are many intimidating signs, but the gist of them are that it’s OK to paddle through as long as you stay in your boat and stay in the river. You aren’t supposed to get out on shore anywhere on Fort Wainwright. Big Brother is watching you! Remarkably the first half of the Fort Wainwright part is the most remote part of the trip, with no houses and few signs of civilization visible from the river. The Army has built several nesting platforms (for Ospreys?) on tall poles near the river.
The bike ride is about 16 miles long and includes a long grade on the Steese Highway and three big hills on Chena Hot Springs Road. Allow 6-8 hours for the float–more if you don’t paddle.
Chena Slough (aka Badger Slough)
There are a number of access points to Chena Slough. Uppermost that I know about is just east of the intersection of Benjamin Franklin Court and Mistletoe Drive, east of Dawson Road just off the Richardson Highway east of North Pole. You have to drag your craft a couple hundred feet down the slough to get to actual water. This trip provides a different view of North Pole and Badger Road neighborhoods. You will paddle through some culverts. There are one or two places where so much vegetation has encroached into the slough that you may have to drag a few feet from one channel to another if the one that you’re in runs out of water. There is a possibility of having to wait a while for moose to get out of the way. Other access points include Nordale Road, Peede Road, and Persinger Drive. It takes a fairly full day to go from the Franklin Court access to Nordale Road. Chena Slough joins the Chena River a mile or two upriver from Fort Wainwright. From the confluence it is probably easiest to keep on going to a take-out at Graehl Landing. Allow 2-3 hours to go from Nordale Road to Persinger Drive, and another 3-4 hours to go from Persinger Drive to Graehl Landing. There is a very nice paved bike trail along Badger Road, but once you are off that you are sharing roads with cars. I don’t know if bicyclists lacking military ID cards are allowed to go through Fort Wainwright. I suspect that we would have to take the Richardson Highway around the base. This is unfortunate, but the shoulders are broad.
- The Steese Highway bridge at 39 mile,
- Long Creek at about 44 or 45 mile. Conditions here change yearly. You might be able to leave a bicycle (and later a canoe) at the little store here, though they appreciate being paid for the service. However, in recent years the people there aren’t set up for that and would prefer not to be disturbed. It seems best to hide your bike down in the woods below the road and before the bridge. Make sure you memorize what this spot looks like so you can recognize it as you come down in your boat. There is kind of a muddy trail of 100 feet or so to the river.
- Maybe Creek (uncertain name) at around 55 mile Steese Highway. A gravel road goes down to this large flat area with a few ponds that often have RV’s parked nearby. There are several places to get to the river. You’ll have to explore.
- The BLM Cripple Creek Campground at 60 mile Steese Highway.
- Gravel pit a bit beyond the Faith Creek bridge at about mile 70 (don’t park at Faith Creek–that’s apparently private land).
It’s a full day and a bit of a workout, but a nice trip is to leave your bicycles at Long Creek and put in at the 60-mile campground. The bicycle part is hilly, but only about 15 miles long. Traffic is normally light (but they do drive fast). The river is similar to the Chena, but narrower and with tighter corners. In contrast to the Chena there are some short Class II rapids here and there in the river above Long Creek. There are also sweepers and the possibility of log jams. It is quite possible that there will be a tree or two across the whole river that you’ll need to drag around. Keep alert. See as far ahead as possible, and if in doubt, scout! A very nice river with lots of opportunities to practise eddy turns.
It is recommended to have a water level of 8.7 or above at the gauge at the Steese Highway bridge for the river above Long Creek. The river can be run at levels below this, but it takes forever and is a lot less fun (the rocks for practising eddy turns are mostly all high and dry out of the water). A level of 8.2 seems to be adequate for the river below Long Creek (thanks to Dave Payer for water level info). As Dave says, “More water is better, until it’s too much!” It would be best to think very carefully before entering the river at a stage above 10 feet. For water level data see:
This is a beautiful trip and about the clearest water that you’ll find anywhere in Alaska. The Delta-Clearwater is spring-fed and the water level doesn’t vary a whole lot. For the most part it has mossy forested banks. It is an excellent place to see waterfowl early in the spring. It opens up (as far as the Clearwater Lake take-out) early in the spring, usually by mid-April and certainly by the end of April.
The put-in is at Clearwater Campground. Turn east off the Richardson Highway onto Jack Warren Road a couple of miles north of the town of Delta Junction. After a few miles follow the curve of the main road 90 degrees to the south onto Souhrada Road. After one mile turn left 90 degrees onto Remington Road and follow it to the State Parks Campground at the end.
There are two possible take-outs. Most commonly, people follow the Delta-Clearwater River to its confluence with a slough of the Tanana River. This river is marked with mileposts. The 8-mile mark is just around a bend or two from the put-in. The confluence with the Tanana slough is at the 1-mile mark and you arrive at a larger slough of the Tanana where the 0-mile mark would be if there were one. You will be in this slough for a couple of miles. After passing a couple of small islands (you can go left or right of them, but the main channel is on the right), move toward the left (south) bank and watch for a green sign that says “Clearwater Lake” with an arrow pointing left. The sign marks the mouth of the outlet stream from Clearwater Lake. The sign is there now (2020) but you can’t always count on the sign being there from one year to the next. At any rate you need to paddle up the first stream on the left that you come to. This stream is at least half a mile below the islands mentioned earlier, but start watching for it as soon as you pass the islands.
If the Tanana River is low and the outlet stream is high, it may be a lot of work to paddle upstream around the first corner, and you may have to get out and drag your boats up the river or even through the woods for a little ways. If the Tanana River is high and the outlet stream is low this corner is much easier to negotiate. Once above the first corner the current is manageable. It is about a mile up this stream to Clearwater Lake. When you hit the lake, paddle toward a greenish house with a steep roof (maybe an A-frame). When you get close, the landing is a few hundred feet to the right (west) of this house.
To drive to this take-out, turn left off of Jack Warren Road onto Triple-H Road (about 4 miles from the Richardson Highway). Where the main traffic on Triple-H Road turns right, continue straight ahead for another mile. At that point continue to follow the road as it turns 90 degrees to the right and after a bumpy quarter-mile or so watch for a sign indicating a road going left to the landing. This road may be impassable early in the season, but is only about ¼ mile long. The distance from the Clearwater Lake landing to the put-in is approximately 8 miles of nearly level road. The paddling trip from Clearwater Campground to Clearwater Lake can be done in a little over 4 hours if you paddle consistently, but it is better to allow 6 hours. Also see the 2019 Fairbanks Paddlers trip description at https://www.fairbankspaddlers.org/news/delta-clearwater-trip-april-20-21-2019/.
Alternatively, one can take out at the Richardson Highway bridge across the Tanana River at Big Delta. If you are doing this early in the season (before May 1) make sure that the river is open downstream from the Clearwater Lake outlet before attempting it. The Tanana River in this stretch rolls right along, but has no particular hazards. As always, stay away from cut banks, but the river is quite wide so this is easy to do. There are a number of islands (and channels) en route, but the river comes back together into a single channel upstream from the bridge. This option adds a couple of hours to the paddling trip (6 to 8, or even 9, hours from Clearwater Campground to the Richardson Highway bridge). The bicycling distance from the bridge to the put-in is 17.5 miles of mostly level pavement. For more information on both variants of the trip see the Delta Clearwater River Float Guide from State Parks at http://dnr.alaska.gov/parks/aspunits/northern/pdfs/clearwaterfloatguide.pdf.