If you are looking for a river to canoe and kayak down, I do not recommend using Alaska Canoe and Campground in Soldatna. I went with two friends in mid-June 2006, and nearly everything they told us about the Swanson River was incorrect. As a result, we missed our pickup at the end of the river on Day 2.
When reserving the canoe and kayak, the husband of the team owning Alaska Canoe & Campground told me the Swanson River was an easy 1 or 2 day paddle. When I asked about fishing, he said it was fairly good. When I asked about current, he said there was a gentle current. When I asked if we would have time to fish if we only allowed 1.5 days and 1 night, he said "yes." We are all 3 strong young men accustomed to kayaking on intracoastal waterways and rivers.
The day we picked up the canoes, the husband was not present. The wife rented us the canoes, fishing equipment, and some other gear. We talked a lot about fishing along the 24 mile route, and asked her for landmarks along the river so we could pace ourselves. As she dropped us off at the Swanson River, she told us she had never been down the river and could not tell us much about landmarks. She did say that a couple of years earlier, someone had paddled down the river and spray-painted 1/4 way, 1/2 way, 3/4 way marks on some rocks, but she did not know if they were still visible. The only other landmark she told us about was one bridge which was "3 miles down the river." She said if we came to a 2nd bridge we had gone too far. She dropped us off at 4:00 PM, and was set to pick us up at 7:30 PM the next night -- 24 miles down the river.
The Swanson River is beatiful, but it is not a river that I could ever recommend for fishing or for a 1 day paddle. First, there was a current, but it was very slow. The river looked more like a lake most of the 1st 1/2 way down. In most of the first 1/2 of the river, the water is no more than 1 to 2 feet deep, and the fish are not much bigger than sardines. If you expect to find salmon or other eatable fish in this river in June, you will be sorely disappointed. We got stuck 30 or 40 times going down the river, and had to get out to portage for a few feet. There is a large oil field nearby, and for about 3 hours, all we could hear was the hum of the oil field machinery in the distance.
We passed the first bridge mentioned by the wife after 1 hour; based on that, we paced ourselves in fishing and paddling. We found the first suitable campsite around 8:30 PM, and set up camp for the night. Based on what we'd been told, we thought we were about 8 to 9 miles down the river, but we had not seen any mile markers on rocks.
The next morning, we paddled and fished occasionally. Then we came to another bridge. We knew this couldn't be the second bridge. Then we realized that we were probably much further from the pickup spot than we realized. We started paddling as hard as we could, and kept that up for the next 8 hours. After about an hour, we came to the first 1/4 way marker and realized we still had 18 miles to go.
We missed our pickup time by 45 minutes. The wife had told us when dropping us off that if we missed our pickup time, we would have to walk 4 miles to the closest telephone because there was no cell phone service along the entire trip. We'd been trying to call her every hour on the hour to try to delay the pickup time, but she was right, there was no service. When we got to the pickup spot, she'd left us a note saying, "why didn't you call?" and that she would be back to pick us up the next morning at 8:00 AM, if she heard from us. The extra pickup run would cost us an additional $155 for keeping the equipment another night, and the extra 90-mile RT pickup service.
Now, we would not have minded the extra night in the wilderness if (a) there had been some fish larger than minnows in the Swanson River; (b) Alaska Canoe and Campground had told us there was no current for the first 12 miles, and (c) that we'd paced ourselves for accurate landmarks, but we were ticked off at the notion of having to stay out there, hungry, because our outfitter had seemed to set us for failure. We didn't have time to enjoy the entire day and the beauty of the river because we'd been paddling so hard all day.
One of my friends started hitchhiking 4 miles to the nearest phone. A very nice woman in a very beat-up pickup truck ended up giving us and our gear a ride back to Soldatna at 9:00 PM.
The Swanson River is very beautiful. The first 12 miles is basically flat and winds through marsh land similar to what you'd see in coastal Florida or Georgia, only with the hum of oil fields nearby. We saw wild swans, moose, musk rats, and beavers along the way. The 2nd 12 miles starts to get a little deeper than 2 feet, and there are occasional rapids for excitement. This is the more beautiful part of the river, with many trees. There are only about 5 suitable campsites along the entire route of the river (all the other land is too marshy and wet), and the first one is only about 2 miles down the river.
I would not recommend allocating less than 3 full days/2 nights for this trip if you plan to fish for minnows, or to relax. Based on the inaccurate advice of Alaska Canoe & Campground, I would not rely on them as an outfitter, either.