There are a number of factors that contribute to the Nenana’s popularity. The obvious is its road accessibility and the variety of challenge its nine distinct sections offer to a broad spectrum of skill levels. It is also within easy reach for day trips from Fairbanks, and an easy weekend from Anchorage, with almost unlimited camping, parking, off-river outdoor interests, food vendors, and social boater company. Road access can be nice.
But it’s really the river that attracts the boaters, and here’s what it looks like.
The Nenana rises in the glacier-capped mountains of the Nenana Range, a spur of the Alaska Range between the West Fork (Susitna) Glacier and the Yanert Glacier. After making its way down the braids of the glacial moraine, it flows through a park-like green valley, eventually dropping below treeline and developing its first sweepers and cutbanks. It then follows the Denali Highway for about fifteen miles before cutting north through one of the prettiest sections of the river, between Reindeer Hills and Panorama Mountain. After emerging from this slot, it makes it’s first highway crossing and picks up the Jack River coming in from the South. For the next eighty four miles it shares a valley with the Parks Highway, but seldom is one aware of the highway while on the river.
As the Nenana leaves Panorama Mountain its previously gentle gradient starts to increase, gradually changing in the next seven miles from a strong flat stream into a whitewater delight. After its second highway crossing the action picks up even more, and with the Yanert’s slate-gray contribution coming in from the East, it reaches its true potential as a world-class playboat run. Holes and waves become bigger and more numerous, and the pace picks up to provide high-energy rock and rolling. Another bridge and the river and road, along with the Alaska Railroad bed, are squeezed tightly into a narrow canyon, with the river’s bed constricted by huge highway construction-generated boulders and natural slide debris. One more bridge, among the highest in Alaska, and you enter the lower canyon, the most difficult whitewater on the Nenana. Three and one half miles later, the river emerges to accept the waters of Healy Creek on its right and the floater is presented with a view of the least wilderness-like aspect of the entire watershed; the hundred-foot high stack and building of the Healy Coal Plant.
From the railroad crossing bridge at Healy the river mellows out to a classic Alaskan swift class II braided river, with log jams and cutbanks the only serious hazards. One more highway bridge is ducked 28 miles down from Healy at Rex Crossing, and then the river is free of civilized restraint, running its natural course for 25 more miles to its confluence with the Tanana River at Nenana. This lower section is both slower, and more difficult to find the right channel as it braids into numerous small streams, wandering back and forth across the valley. Don’t miss the takeout at Nenana, unless you want to float the 90 miles to Manley Hot Springs, the last road access until the end of the earth (or Prince Rupert, whichever comes first), as the Tanana flows into the Yukon, which runs unmolested by bridge or road to the Bering Sea
- Reindeer Hills
- Riley to Twin
- Healey to Rex
- Rex to Nenana