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Roadside Family Rafting
Opportunities Abound in Alaska

by Jeff Varvil

Alaska’s roadside rivers offer the whole family a way of escaping into “Wilderness Alaska” on a small family budget. Most of these rivers are within a two-hour drive of Anchorage or Fairbanks. Alaskans are truly fortunate to have pristine flowing rivers in our backyard. Most require no special permit to run.

Fishing from a rented Alaska Raft and Kayak raft  ~ image (c) Alaska Raft and Kayak ~ used by permissionMany have large salmon runs and also have abundant populations of Grayling, Rainbow and Dolly Varden. A raft float trip still remains one of the most economical ways for a family to spend quality time together. By giving each member of the family a paddle you go from being a group of individuals to becoming a team. What is your time with your family worth?

Fishing from a raft. 
© Alaska Raft and Kayak. 
Used by permission.

The Price

Consider how much money you drop every time you bring the wife and kids to a movie and dinner. It’s a one hundred dollar bill every time for me, if I don’t eat! Raft and canoe rentals start at $60 per day and you can fill a huge raft and even take the in-law’s for as little as $90 per day. For instance, Alaska Raft And Kayak gives you a day on either side of your rental for travel. If you were to be on the river Saturday and Sunday, you could pick up the raft at no charge Friday night and bring it back Monday by noon and you would only be charged for 2 days. If you are splitting that with another couple, get the idea.

The Equipment


Like everything else around us rafting equipment technology has continued to improve with the times. There are basically two types of rafts on today’s market: Conventional rafts and Catarafts. Talk to the experts and see which one is right for you.

The Cats will row easier and give you more deck space but they wont carry the weight and run as shallow as the conventional raft. Everything is a trade off.

The conventional Standard floor rafts of yesterday have gone the way of the DODO. Although they still have their place in certain applications, they have been replaced with HI-tech self-bailing floors. This basically means there is an air chamber in the floor, which raises your floor upon inflation, into the surrounding raft tube. Then there are drain holes along the edge of the floor just big enough for rainwater and river water to escape. Thus you have a self-bailer!

A family rafting trip.  Photo © Alaska Raft
and Kayak.  Used by permission.

Rafting can be great family fun for fishing or just outdoor adventureThen there is the ever-popular Cataraft. This is probably what your buddy at work bought and has been bragging about for the last 6 months. A Cataraft is a catamaran style boat that has two tubes supported by a main frame. It is to the raft market, what the leatherman was to the early tools market. It comes with so many accessories it makes my checkbook shake just thinking about it. They come with motor mounts, cargo decks, anchor systems and extra passenger seats, just to name a few. The floors can be mesh or wood depending on your preference. The new rafts are made from either PVC(plastic) or Hypalon(rubber). The bottom line is the new rafts are all but bomb proof. You almost have to hit something man-made to damage them. A good raft rental package will include the following equipment.

  • All rafts should come as either a paddle raft with paddles or a rowing raft with frame and include an instruction manual or frame diagram for the rowing frame and some additional hardware such as u-bolts or pins.
  • It should have 3 oars and blades with oarlocks or rowing pins.
  • All tie down cam straps, inflation pump, repair kit with fresh glue, cargo nets & platforms and as many additional seats as you would like.
  • A rescue bag and a bowline bag are a must.
  • Life jackets for all aboard!
  • A cooler is sometimes substituted for a seat.

The Rivers

The rivers in Alaska are as diverse as the people you will find on them. Be assured there is a river that matches your expertise or lack there of. You can spend a day or a month so I’ll pick a couple of my favorite day trips that I have enjoyed with my family.

Eagle River

For the family float trip, Eagle River just North of Anchorage is hard to beat. Drive up Eagle River road about 12 miles following Eagle River upstream until you get to the visitor center. From there you can either portage about a mile or backtrack about 5 miles (recommended) and access the river from a parking and rest area. The river runs next to the road. The raft pull out is at Briggs Bridge and it is about a 7-mile float. The water here is all class 1 and runs silty under normal summer conditions. It is truly a beautiful trip and you can blow a whole roll of film in a hurry on the surrounding mountains. If you are an accomplished rafter you can continue through Briggs to the class 3-4 whitewater and take out at the Glenn highway.

Kenai River

Everyone knows where the Kenai River is. How many of you have rowed it? It is truly a gem among gems. Large gravel bars provide easy family crash landings. Let the kids through rocks into the water until there arm falls off. The Kenai offers some Whoopee water. Well, That’s what my kids call it. When they go through it they say, Whoopee! Start at the bridge at cooper landing if you want a little taste of white water, class 2-3 and float either to The Russian river ferry or continue the 2 hours down to Jims landing. The whole trip takes about 4-5 hours but I always make a full day out of it. Float right by all the combat fisherman and wave at your mother in law as you go find your own unoccupied gravel bar.

Little Willow

Get in your truck and drive towards Fairbanks and just North of Wasilla you will find a river that crosses under and occasionally over the highway, called the Little Willow. This Class 1 float takes about twelve hours. You will float in crystal clear water right into the gray water of the Big Susitna River. From there you will continue to float to the mouth of the Willow River at the Willow State Campground. You cant miss the pullout because there will be fisherman lined up as far as the eye can see. Simply have your freeloading neighbor that you brought along pull your raft up the slough to the raft pull out and your done. The nice thing about this trip is that you cover a lot of river and that is important during the salmon run to get your kids into the fish.

Remember rivers are dynamic and instances do occur, so always wear you PFD and require all persons in your raft to wear them as well. Help keep Alaska’s rivers clean by picking up your trash and covering your fire pits. Just think, for the price of a dinner, you and your family can enjoy Alaska as very few have seen it.....from the river.

Jeff Varvil has been an Alaskan fishing guide and rafter for many years and is currently the Manager for West Marine in Anchorage.

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