Packrafting the Mendenhall River

I think I’ve found the partiest day trip: The Mendenhall River in Juneau, Alaska. It is an ideal combination of scenic flatwater paddling in view of majestic mountains, icebergs, and glaciers – with the adrenaline of hard-hitting Class III rapids downstream as the river makes its way to sea.

The lake and river are both in the Mendenhall Valley, which comprises of most of Juneau’s residents. By chance, I was able to catch a tourist shuttle from downtown to the park headquarters along the lake. A short walk from there brought me to the boat launch close to Nugget Falls, a big cascading waterfall that pours down the side of Thunder Mountain and onto the lake.

I blew up the raft, suited up, and paddled towards the waterfall, whose meltwater crashed and roared its way onto the lake’s surface. Up ahead, the blue ice of the Mendenhall Glacier rose above the horizon line, nestled between the hardened slopes of rock. Further above, higher, bigger mountains rose above the arm of the glacier. And somewhere above them, the open plain of the Juneau Icefield reached across for some 50 miles – one of many that exist throughout the Pacific Coastal Range, feeding rivers like the Mendenhall.

As I made my way north, the glacier slowly grew in size until it was a massive blue wall of three stories that spanned shore to shore for 2,000 feet. All was quiet, but my head was racing. This place was fucking awesome.

Should I get any closer? I debated it, but I didn’t know very much about this glacier, or how stable the ice was at the edge. Sooner or later a calving was going to happen. And I wouldn’t want to be close to a house-sized block of ice if it fell off. So I stayed far enough away that it would have been a huge wake at the very worst.

I turned south and spent an hour paddling to the other side past icebergs, all while a more distinguished vista of the glacier and mountains above it became apparent. Before I even realized it, I was getting pulled into the mouth of the river and the onset of some Class I-II rapids, which were fair warmup for the bigger ones downstream.

Earlier that weekend, the glacier had what is called a jökulhlaup – an Icelandic term that describes a sudden break in glacial meltwater from the snowfield higher up. The water then rushes into the glacier’s moulin and eventually reaches the river, causing the levels to spike. It was definitely a few feet above normal, and had already flooded some of the surrounding trails around the lake. This isn’t altogether bad in bigwater like the Mendenhall, which just escalate into fun rollercoaster rapids.

After a few small, riffly sections, I came around a left bend and approached Back Loop Bridge and the start of Pinball Rapid, the big Class III of the day. Other boaters told me there really isn’t any one line through it, and I could pretty much navigate on the spot. So that’s what I did, fighting to keep my boat straight through a barrage of breaking waves. I remember seeing a huge hole to my right as I passed under the bridge and worked my way towards a big wave train on river left. It had more than its share of laterals, one of which almost flipped me.

Further down, the rapids settled as I passed a few surf holes and river bends. The last big rapid pulled me into a wave train on the right. I had to fight to stay clear of the flooded trees along the bank, the only potential hazard I noticed on the run. At the time I didn’t notice, but in the footage I got smacked pretty good by a lateral wave about halfway through.

There’s no better place to truly feel alive than in the middle of wild, crashing water.

To Andrew WK, partying is living. While the term “party” can be used as a noun or verb, it more importantly describes a feeling of ultimate Zen or Being. To me, the middle of a wild river is where I’m feeling my partiest.

I made it through without capsizing, and floated along calm flatwater for a few miles past back yards before taking out at a city trail and walking to the road.

I would recommend the Mendenhall to anybody looking for a fun day trip in the water. If you don’t have your own boat, local outfitters rent kayaks along the lake and offer guided raft trips down the river all summer long. From experience, I would say that either way you do it is very party.

Part 2: An Alaskan Brewery Tour