NOVA is Alaska’s oldest river rafting tour company under original ownership. Since 1975, we have accomplished many firsts in guided adventure travel in Alaska, including the first to offer commercial whitewater rafting on Alaska rivers and the first guided hikes on the Matanuska Glacier more than 25 years ago.
Our early wilderness trips included several first descents and trips through the newly formed National Parks and Refuges with organizations like National Geographic, Connaissance du la Mode and the National Audubon Society. Our expertise in this theater has grown over the years to include combination trips that offer mountain and glacier trips with river trips.
In 1972, NOVA’s founder Chuck Spaulding drove north to Alaska on the Alcan Highway. Originally from Massachusetts, he ventured west during the 1960s to California and eventually followed the compass north. Traveling through Canada from Washington state he embarked on a road trip of a lifetime with his best friend, Vickery. After reaching the border of eastern Alaska, he then drove down the Matanuska Valley’s Glenn Highway down to Anchorage. He was amazed at the local scenery, unaware this would eventually become his Alaskan home.
Arriving in the city of Anchorage he worked as a certified foreign-auto mechanic. Chuck chased thrills and experimented in many Alaskan activities and extreme sports. Meeting new friends here in the outdoor recreation community they found themselves exploring the untapped mecca of Alaska together. They found passion in a radical new extreme sport gaining a lot of local traction in Alaska, aerial hang-gliding. This dangerous new form of fixed wing aviation became very popular in the 1970’s and embodies this same sense of adventure as rafting remote rivers. While exploring their new Alaskan home they noticed the abundance of natural free-flowing water and roadside rivers within the state. Discovering that one of the best ways to experience the thrills and beauty of Alaska, was by raft. In time, this original group would go on to be the founders of NOVA River Runners Inc. Enticed by the thought of rafting on these pristine untouched waterways the group decided to purchase a small fleet of AVON spirit rafts. This british inflatable company was leading the way in technology and design for military use rafts and was really the only manufacturer available. These rafts were ‘bucket boats’ and not self-bailing crafts, where someone on board had an actual bucket in hand for bailing the on coming water of the rapids. Going out on weekends for friend trips the group started to get more interest in daily rafting tours on the Matanuska River just north in the rural Mat-Su Valley. They would drive out for every trip from the first check-in office located in the small town of Eagle River, just North of Anchorage. Eventually the group purchased a business license in 1975 and were officially in operation as NOVA River Runners of Alaska. The majority of the founding members of this initial group ultimately moved on to other ventures, dropping involvement in the company. Chuck stayed on board and continued to work as an automotive mechanic through the 1970’s with NOVA, his passion on the side. While Alaska continued growing in attraction and tourism so did business. He started experimenting with techniques and equipment designs before major manufacturing was available, not even realizing he was a cutting edge innovator for a new worldwide sport and preparing for an almost 50 year business venture.
In 1973, Chuck would meet his wife of 38 years, Malia and together they strived to live the Alaskan dream. First living in Anchorage, where they both worked local jobs in town. They eventually moved out to the rural area of Chickaloon, Alaska in the early 1980’s dedicating full time to the company. Here they purchased affordable property for the new business location and new family home. With his first attempt as a log cabin builder, he used spruce trees from the property for the logs of the construction. Chuck, Malia and newborn son Jack, all living in a 10 foot RV pull trailer awaiting the completion of their new home. Raising a family off the grid in the wilds of Alaska was Chuck and Malia’s homesteader dream. With a wood stove and generator as life-lines the cabin was an authentic Alaskan home. With the scandivaian scribe log cabin built and the family inside, NOVA just needed an office facility. They built more cabins and a roadside office in Chickaloon that would become the main NOVA headquarters for 35 years. Located in close proximity to the local run on the Matanuska and Chickaloon rivers that traveled parallel along the Glenn highway. NOVA eventually offered rafting tours on each section of the Matanuska river covering its entirety in length. Pioneering these local rivers was just the beginning for Chuck’s visionary reach and adventurous spirit. NOVA went on to have many accolades and first descent trips across south central Alaska. Including hosting the first Swift Water Rescue courses in the state and being one of the first to implement dry-suit technology as a safety standard on cold whitewater rivers. NOVA has offered many obscure river trips on lesser known sections with difficult access involving bush planes, helicopters and even horseback. The Chickaloon, Talkeetna, Copper, Kings, Matanuska and infamous Sixmile creek are all names affiliated with NOVA rafting. Being the first to run the class V whitewater of Sixmile commercially in the 1980’s is a well known NOVA accomplishment. Many have become daily classics in the local river community and are known throughout the whitewater world of North America. Chuck then went on to start climbing tours on the Matanuska Glacier upstream from Chickaloon, to broaden the company’s adventure offerings.
Chuck’s friends set-up their guiding businesses near Denali National Park but, Chuck was inspired by an out-of-the-way rural location in the serene Matanuska River Valley. Continuing to grow and expand, NOVA found itself with multiple operations on multiple rivers and even a glacier. NOVA River Runners Inc. had then evolved into NOVA Alaska Guides with a newer multi-sport approach. The Spaulding family became committed full time to the business year round. Their second son Travis was born in 1990 and the kids grew-up at NOVA. Both sons worked every facet of the company growing up and then became guides themselves at young ages. Jack the oldest, carried on having a career in the oil industry of the Arctic Circle and then down in the natural gas plains of Colorado, after graduating college. Eventually, Jack worked his way back to the rivers of Alaska to help the family business. Travis the youngest son has always been a passionate guide and avid outdoorsman. Determined after college, he continued to acquire business and river experience elsewhere within the industry. Travis spent years guiding in Arizona’s Grand Canyon on the world famous whitewater of the Colorado river. Travis was also a Bristol Bay commercial fishermen at sea when not guiding in the Grand Canyon. The Spaulding brothers have been around NOVA and the river their entire life and are ready for the next chapter. The last 40 years of NOVA has been defined as a true Alaskan family business. Chuck and Malia have officially retired, passing the company on to the next generation to lead into the future. Both Jack and Travis are proud to be born and raised local sons of Alaska and are dedicated to further the family dream for another 50 years.
An interview with Chuck Spaulding (2020)
Read the full interview & article on Chuck Spaulding on alaska.org.
Q: What do you do? What’s unique about what you’ve created? Q. What life experiences led you to where you are today?
Chuck: We run NOVA, an adventure guiding service offering whitewater rafting, river floats, and glacier tours.
I arrived in Alaska in 1972, before the pipeline era. I fell in love with the place immediately. Anchorage was so cool back then. I remember walking into a bar and ordering a beer. The guy next to me ordered a beer, pulled out a gun, slapped it on the bar, and slid it down to the bartender. I thought, “This is not Disneyland!”
My wife and I ended up living in the Matanuska River Valley between the Talkeetna and Chugach Mountains. It’s an extraordinarily beautiful place.
As it turned out, it is also home to a number of great whitewater runs, and I was lucky to participate in the early explorations.
I learned how viable river travel could be on many of these smaller and challenging rivers. The equipment and skills necessary to allow access to these rivers had only recently been developed.
We decided to start a family and focus full-time on getting NOVA to support us. We were still young, and we had a strong desire to experience homesteading similar to what we’d read and heard about.
I found affordable property in Chickaloon, where we operated a number of different trips. We built a log home and powered it with a generator for 15 years.
We raised two boys there and had the most wonderful experiences as a family in a little community, with spectacular beauty and a struggling business.
Q: What makes Alaska special for you?
Chuck: There’s a great sense of pride of place. You feel like you and Alaska can do things differently from elsewhere. The fact is, Alaska hasn’t been tarnished. There’s a sense that we can avoid mistakes made in other places.
Early on in Chickaloon, I saw a huge benefit in land planning. The unprecedented thing we did was to create a 5-acre minimum lot size for any future subdivisions in the community. It allowed a person to build their dream home – be it a tarpaper shack attached to a school bus or a pink Mediterranean – without offending their neighbors. It became a model for other small communities to start from.
Q: What are your favorite places and/or experiences in Alaska? What do you remember most about them? What have you learned from them?
Chuck: I really love my home area. I feel it rivals many worldly locations for its dramatic scenery. When our clients come up to even rendezvous, they are getting an eyeful of panorama. Then we take them on the whitewater or a glacier, and that’s a whole other level.
Not many people travel this route, which also makes it special. While tourism was exploding everywhere else, our little area stayed quite sleepy.
Along with rafting, I got the flying obsession in the late 70s, when I was introduced to hang gliding. In that era, we really lived through the dinosaur times in terms of equipment. It was virtually like bamboo poles. My friends and I who survived those early experiences ended up enjoying the more advanced equipment that was developed. It took the sport to colossal accomplishments in glider flight. In Alaska, it was especially rewarding.
As we got older, we eventually got into airplanes for our work and fun. Development was making it difficult to find a place to land the gliders. Big fields were disappearing. The gliders were heavier, too, and climbing with them was harder.
Flying also opens up a lot more backcountry options for adventure travel in Alaska.
Q: Tell us a favorite story from an Alaska trip.
Chuck: On one of my early guiding trips, I took a group on the Copper River from Chitna to Cordova. We camped at the confluence of the Copper and Tiekel Rivers. The group consisted of members of the local Audubon Society.
While cleaning up from dinner, I noticed several ladies decorating a small cake that had been stashed away undamaged.
I thought, “Well cool, someone’s having a birthday!”
It turned out to be a celebration for the Alaska Pipeline oil being turned on that day. Several of those ladies were wives to executives of the construction companies who built it.
Q: How does the Alaskan wilderness make you feel?
Chuck: There are many wilderness areas on earth. Alaska is unique in that the size of roadless areas is bigger than others. I feel a sense of true privacy and freedom when traveling these locations.
Q: What inspired you to go into the Alaska tourism industry? What feeling or memory or change would you like your visitors to leave with?
Chuck: Tourism in Alaska had always been very small until the cruise industry made big moves here in the 80s.
Getting rich wasn’t on my agenda, but I saw a long, rewarding future for myself – and the state – in adventure tourism. I understood the draw of our special wild locations and the colorful culture of the locals near them.
It grew relatively slowly compared to the industrial cruise and easy-destination affiliated locales.
Q: Alaska.org’s mission is to show visitors a more authentic Alaska experience. What are those qualities? How does it change an Alaska vacation?
Chuck: The more authentic experiences are not where the travel industry has pasteurized it. Travel the world, and you’ll find the same issue at any destination that has a cruise port of call. Places that aren’t particularly special end up being successful, because the industry creates the picture and sells it.
I believe this is ideal for a particular clientele that needs the easy experiences. It’s not ideal for the locals who call these places home.
There’s a great balancing act to successfully managing destinations and tourism with locals. Many famous destinations are now struggling with this issue.
Q: What are 3 words that sum up what Alaska means to you?
Chuck: Home. Sanctuary. Evolving.
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why Adventure with Nova?
With NOVA, you can expect to experience the Alaska you always imagined. Our trips focus on wilderness, scenic and cultural areas that are not impacted by industrial tourism. Our goal is to enrich your appreciation of Alaska’s wild and special places while experiencing the thrill of active outdoor activities.
Simply put, NOVA is Alaska’s oldest and most experienced river rafting outfitter. Our river guides have been successfully navigating Alaska’s most challenging whitewater since 1975. And our glacier guides have been guiding hike, trek and climbing trips on the magnificent Matanuska Glacier since 1990!
What sets us apart
Both NOVA River Guides and NOVA Glacier Guides have decades of experience, and it shows.
Safety is our number 1 priority. We provide the proper gear and train our guides accordingly.
Our trips focus on wilderness, scenic and cultural areas that are not impacted by industrial tourism.
We had a very pleasant and informative hike with Mattie and Carson on the Matanuska glacier. The glacier was awe-inspiring and made more interesting by the information provided by our Nova Guides. Taking a guided hike to the glacier is definitely the way to see it!
Gregory M. | Trip date: July 2020
We loved our 3-hour glacier hike with the amazing guide, Maddie. Maddie shared interesting facts about the glacier, taking us to different parts. The ice cave was definitely a surprise and highlight of our trip. Highly recommended when in Alaska!
Race | Trip date: July 2019
Best ever! Arnie and Maddie were beyond fantastic; experienced, knowledgeable, and fun. We hiked further into the glacier than expected and saw amazing views, while learning and laughing! Highly recommend!
Flynn T. | Trip date: September 2020
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Have guide experience and interested in Employment with NOVA?
Our team is always looking for additional talent in both guiding, administrative, and general operations. If you think you want to join the crew send us your resume along with a couple photos of yourself to the email address: firstname.lastname@example.org
- NOVA work season is the end of May through September.
- NOVA is a permitted outfitter under the National Forest Service.
- NOVA is an equal opportunity provider.