Put-in: Scheduled flight from Anchorage to Bethel or Dillingham; chartered floatplane from Bethel or Dillingham to Kisaralik Lake.
Take out: Arrange motorboat pick-up on the lower Kisaralik or the Kasigluk River.
Recommended outfitters: Bethel-based Papa Bear Adventures for floatplane put-in. Kuskokwim River Adventures for rental equipment and pick-up.
Required skill level: Excellent backcountry outdoor skills; advanced beginner to intermediate boating skills. Expert boating skills are required to run the second drip at Upper Falls, which is a solid Class IV. Most rate this rapid a V, due to its remoteness and the difficulty of rescue.
The Kisaralik River flows about 130 miles from Kisaralik Lake, elevation 1500+ feet, in the Kuskokwim Mountains to the Kuskokwim River, elevation 250 feet, about 30 miles upstream from Bethel. For the first 45 miles, the Kis drops at an average rate of 20-30 feet per mile. Most of this section is Class I-II, with three short sections of Class III-IV rapids: Upper Falls, the S-Turn (Lower Falls) and Golden Gate. There is an extremely short Class II-III rapid about four miles downstream of Gold Creek. You'll know you are getting close when car-sized boulders start to appear. This rapid is your first taste of the whitewater to come.
This river has it all: beautiful scenery; fast, clear water; abundant wildlife; excellent fishing; and great camping on numerous gravel bars and islands. Access is good by Alaskan standards for fly-in river trips, but the river is far from over crowded, thanks to careful scheduling by local outfitters. Our group saw no one else for 10 days, but you probably can expect to see local Native Alaskan fishers and hunters in the lower 40 miles of the river, especially during hunting and berrypicking season..
Our group of three, in one IK and one 12-foot raft, launched on July 30, 2003 and spent 10 days paddling to confluence of the Kasigluk River and the Kuskokwim. The trip can be done is six days, but you would be too rushed to do much fishing and hiking. Do yourself a favor and arrange your pick-up near where the Kisaralik joins the Kasigluk, about mile 90. Starting two years ago, the Kis cut a new channel into the Kasigluk and most of the flow now goes this direction. Below this spot, the river slows down quickly and there are few good campsites. At high water, expect no campsites at all below here. At normal flows, you'll have to camp in mud or mosquito-infested brush. In 2003, Kuskokwim River Adventures moved its camp from the Kisaralik to about mile 90 on the Kasigluk, and this is where most pick-ups will be arranged in the future.
IKs or small rafts up to 16-feet are recommended. Self-bailers are nice but not essential. I used a Sevylor River 2X with great results. My companions rented a 12-foot self-bailer with oar frame from Kuskokwim River Adventures, which also worked well a gear hauler. Maneuvering around the numerous sweepers in miles 60-90 gave the rafters a workout. Current runs at 5-9 mph from the lake to about mile 90, then slow dramatically, dropping off to less than one mph below mile 100.
River Character: The Kisaralik has three main sections.
Section One: The first 15 miles flow through a broad, U-shaped valley. The flow increases steadily as side-streams enter the main river every few miles. Views of the Kuskokwim Mountains are spectacular. Vegetation is dry, alpine tundra, giving way to moist tundra and willows. The river is clear and increasingly takes on a blue-green color. Fishing is mediocre with a few Arctic char and grayling. Back at the lake, lake trout can be taken on artificial bait in 20-40 feet of water. The crystal-clear water in the lake allows you to follow the action from strike to net. Camping is excellent on numerous gravel bars. Hiking is excellent at the lake.
Section Two: At about mile 15, the river starts cutting through Kilbuck Mountains, forming a deepening canyon. Class II riffles start showing up regularly, but are easily avoided or sought out, if you want to get wet. All the major rapids are in the next 30 miles. Alder, birch and spruce begin appearing as you descend. By Upper Falls, this mixed forest is luxurious by Alaskan standards. In June and July, wildflower displays are spectacular. Fishing is good for char and grayling. Rainbow trout appear. Wildlife-viewing opportunities abound: Look for bald and golden eagles, moose, caribou, wolverine and wolves. Black and grizzly bears are more numerous on the lower river, but are seen occasionally. Camping continues to be excellent on the many gravel bars. Hiking is also excellent.
Section Three: After Golden Gate, the gradient eases to 5-10 feet per mile and the river braids out into numerous channels. Avoiding the numerous strainers give rafters a good workout. Salmon fishing is excellent in season: June-July for sockeye, kings and chum; August and September for Coho. Fishing for native rainbow trout is excellent as the water clears following breakup. Grayling and char can be caught on almost every cast. Bear and wolf footprints abound on gravel bars and islands. A grizzly sighting is almost guaranteed. Practice good bear-country camping habits to minimize the chance of a close encounter. Wolves and black bear are numerous, but as they are warier, sightings are infrequent. Our group saw two grizzlies, two wolves and a wolverine.
Upper Falls, at about mile 20, is the first rapid. Dropping a total of about 20 feet in two sections, the first section is a solid Class III, with a good line mid-river dropping about four to five feet into a pool with a strong clockwise eddy to river right. It's a downstream U-shaped ledge drop with medium aeration below. The hole does not look especially sticky, though it appears to kick to center.
About 50 yards downstream on extreme river left is a Class IV waterfall drop of about 15 feet. At normal to medium flows, 80 percent of the river goes over the falls. The plume is folded as part of the current slams into the left cliff wall and splashes back over the center/right portion of the flow. It appears paddlers would flush out of the hole below fairly easily. The best place to pull out is on the far right, where a couple of rocky beaches create good place to re-pack and re-group after a portage or run.
Our group with one 12-foot raft and an IK portaged both drops, so the above description comes from scouting from the cliff on river left. The best and easiest portage in on the right side, although at high water, the portage is over the hill on the left. The portage trail is also access to the best scouting location from the prominent cliff. Many groups run the first drop. Most groups portage the second section, although it is run by raft once or twice a year, according to local outfitters. Keep in mind the remoteness and difficulty of rescue.
At low to medium flows, the S-Turn can cause problems because you are in it before you know it. A broken ledge of rock extends from the left bank, three-quarters of the way across the river. The chute at the far right is easy and straightforward with nothing more serious than standing waves of three to five feet. River center to river right offers the safest line, although at high water, with enough water to flow over the ledge, several other lines are possible.
Golden Gate is a straightforward Class III, although the single chute is sort of narrow, about 15 feet. Stay in the middle and you should encounter no problems other than standing waves of up to six feet. Reactions waves off both walls cause confusion, but they end up slapping you from side to side and ultimately canceling each other out. Our group ran both the S-Turn and Golden Gate after a cursory scouting.