Pack Rafting the Happy River, Alaska

Pack Rafting the Happy River, Alaska

Derek Tillotson
7 minute read

Happy River, Alaska

Never heard of it? Neither had we! Come to find out it's the perfect Alaska pack rafting adventure.

If a picture is worth 1,000 words, then this video is a whole novel. Want to see what 100 miles of backcountry Alaska looks like? Give it a watch! If you're looking for more details on the route itself, skip down to the bottom of the post. 

Here's how we ended up on the Happy River. About 6 months ago I was bouncing around online looking for a remote Alaskan river with good scenery and manageable water. Not too intense as this was our first multi-day pack raft trip, but not too placid either. The Happy River appeared to check all those boxes, aaaand it absolutely did!

3 people Pack rafting in Alaska

Pack Rafting

My cousins and I normally try to work in an adventure a year. Until now, we have always gone by horseback. We've done a week in Yellowstone and a few trips to the Wind Rivers in Wyoming. But the BEST way to move in the backcountry of Alaska is by river. 

As I mentioned, this was our first pack rafting adventure. For those unfamiliar with the sport, a pack raft is a lightweight inflatable raft that is designed to carry one person and their gear. It's light enough to be carried in a backpack and tough enough to handle rapids and a few bumps and rocks along the way.

I first learned about pack rafting while reading a book about Alaskan adventure athletes. To reach further into the wilderness and move more efficiently, athletes like Roman Dial started playing with the idea of floating across or down backcountry rivers. What started as repurposed pool floaties has evolved to really technical gear made by companies like Alpacka Rafts

It was fitting that our first pack raft trip should take place in the wilderness where the sport began. 

The Route

Starting from Puntilla Lake, we floated the Happy River and Skwentna River all the way to the town of Skwentna. Total float time for us was about two and a half days. We had great weather which motivated us to stay on the water and we put in two marathon days. This stretch would be much easier to float in 4 days especially if you start higher. Here's the full scoop. 

We would have liked to fly into Sheep Lake which is higher on the Happy River, but there is a lodge on Puntilla Lake which runs hunting cabins in the area. On the day we flew in, they had a client up at Sheep Lake which they didn't want to disturb. This wouldn't have stopped us, but the charter service we used (Regal Air) does a lot of business with this lodge so they refused to take us there at the lodge's request. Frustrating for us.

If you'd like to fly into Sheep Lake, we suggest you pick a different charter service and or make sure they are willing to take you all the way to Sheep Lake. To make this even easier, go before the sheep hunt in August when the lodge and all of their cabins are the busiest. All information we wished we had 😅 

We floated the river Aug 16-18. It had been a wet summer so the water was probably high for this time of year, but you could see that the river could probably flow twice what we floated in the Spring. Pack rafts were the way to go as navigating a raft through the rocks would have been pretty tedious.

The river never really lets up. You go from rapid section to section. The action was constant which is exactly what we were after. There were a few sections where salmon congregated and lots of bear sign. There were no major rapids or obstacles but it appeared that another group, probably on bigger rafts, had cut some sweepers out of the river ahead of us. 

Like I said the Happy checked the boxes for our remote Alaskan adventure. After about 1 full day of floating, we made it to the confluence with the Skwentna River. We had arranged for a wheeled plane to pick us up at the town (not really a town) of Skwentna so we had a long float from there. About 57 miles according to Alaska.org

The Skwentna is relaxed (unless you try to split the monoliths 😂). We were on the lookout for bears, saw one about 200 yards away and I’m sure we missed a bunch more who probably saw us! You don't have the best vantage-point from a pack raft. We had great weather so we put in long days and flew out about two days sooner than we expected. 

Bonus Adventure. Bike Packing!

My cousins were hoping to get another adventure out of this Alaska trip so when we returned to Anchorage the wheels were in motion. We found a Turo, set up camp off the side of the road near Turn Lake, and made our way to Cooper Landing for adventure number 2!

Mike at Bike Cooper Landing was super accommodating. They hooked us up with great bikes, a few gear bags, and gave us a shuttle to the trailhead. I’m not much of a biker, and Alaska in August gets a bit overgrown 😅 but we managed to get another 30 hours of Alaskan backcountry to ourselves on a 27-mile trail from Cooper Lake to the Russian River trailhead.

The GEAR!

In 5 days we logged more than 100 backcountry miles. Let’s talk about some of the gear we brought along!

🛶 We used Alpacka Pack Rafts that we rented from Backcountry Pack Rafts in Montana. We probably could have found gear in Alaska but we didn’t want to scramble when we got there. They shipped to our home in Utah and I was able to pre-pack my stuff to see how it all worked before getting on the water.

🎣 Not that we know what we’re doing, but Reyr Gear telescoping fly rods have become a favorite for our adventures. We saw a bunch of people at the airport with the long fly-rod tubes. Not an option for us on this float!

🔫 New for this trip, I bought a gun holster from Craft Holsters. I wanted a cross-draw holster as I also carry bear spray. You can’t really have both on your right hip. This holster was super comfortable and really well made. Each order is custom-made and the workmanship is perfect.

💧Grayl water filters have been our go-to for a while now. They are quick and incorporate the water bottle right into the filter. I initially planned to reduce weight by bringing a Nalgene and Steripen but when I put them on the scale... the Grayl weighed the same. It's more reliable, and purified water tastes better than UV-filtered water in my opinion. 

😴 Now the sleep!! I have NEVER slept so well camping. We traveled hard but slept even harder. If you're looking for a sleep solution for pack rafting, bike camping, backpacking, or backyard lounging... you're in the right place.

While camping along a river it becomes tricky to find ground that is flat and dry. Alaska makes it even harder as everywhere you want to camp has a bush growing out of it. The Haven Tent system eliminates a lot of those hurdles, you can hang over wet uneven ground and can even hang a bit higher to be above the ground-level vegetation.

If you decide to float the Happy River we'd love to hear about it, and if you take us along for the ride... well that's better for both of us! 😉

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