By Jon Fowlkes
Having run most of the creeks in the immediate vicinity of Anchorage, we were looking for trouble. Little did we know that you don't have to go far with a creekboat in the wilds of Alaska to find more trouble than you can handle..
After much discussion of flows and rivers, we decided to venture towards Valdez, a quaint little coastal town due west of Anchorage. Following a scenic drive up the Matnuska valley, dodging a little road construction, and ogling the delightful green Alaskan meadows, we arrived at the Tsaina river a few hours later.
The Tsaina was swollen and brown from the glacial runoff, and it looked fairly big. Our guidebook told us that flows from 500-1500 cfs were good class IV-V, 1500-2000 cfs was pretty solid class five and over 2500 became a non-stop barrage of big holes and exploding waves. Of course, the guidebook was old, so this was "Alaska class five". What did those Nambi-Pambis from the eighties know about class five anyway?
Heck, we had creekboats and cajones, not Dancers..
Feeling confident, we scouted a drop under a highway bridge. From a hundred feet up, the river looked big and pushy but do-able. There was a big hole upstream to skirt on the right, then it looked a little swirly under the bridge where the river constricted down to ten feet wide and there was a bit of an undercut on the left, but it looked just fine. "Well, it looks good." someone said. Everyone else agreed. "Let's do it."
Jon Fowlkes, James Bagley Jr, and Mike Long, Scouting from the highway bridge..
photo by Jim Pytel
I ran shuttle and since we had only one rig, I had to hitch back upstream, sweating in the Alaskan sun. It took awhile because drivers were ( understandably ) a little reluctant to pick up a crazed-looking guy with a bolt of colorful nylon tied around his waist. Finally a kind mother/daughter combination picked me up and hauled me the last couple of miles up the road.
We quickly dressed to escape the heat and the mosquitoes and slid into the river with comments like: "My.. it's awfully brown.." and: "Gosh.. there's a lot of water in here.."
Of course, much like the hungry wolf in the classic children's tale, what the river heard was: "My, what brown fur you have.." and: "Gosh, what big teeth you have.."
The first bend revealed a big roller-coaster ride with a few curlers and some stout seams to negotiate, then it was lots of read-and-run big water class III-IV, with a couple scouts on the bigger drops. No problem, fun stuff.
Jon Fowlkes runs a narrow, swirly drop..
photo by Jim Pytel
Downstream I came around a corner heading for a small river left eddy when I saw the bridge, which meant the drop we had scouted from the road was coming up. I remembered that there was a big ledge-hole that needed to be run right, so I decided to skip the eddy.
I dug in for a hard ferry, dropped over the ledge and carved into the last eddy above the bridge and the narrow constriction we had seen during our scout. Mike quickly followed and we watched James and Jim blow by, paddles flying.. We later found out they didn't even see Mike and I. I tried to hop out for a scout, but options were pretty limited. Mike decided to go for it and I soon followed.
The next twenty seconds are what can only be described as feeling like a mouse in a toilet bowl getting the royal flush treatment. The river funneled down into the pinch with a deafening roar and I was suuuucked through, huge, violent boils coming at me from every side with no real direction or predictability - I just keep paddling downstream and kept telling myself "Don't flip-don't flip-don't flip..."
We all eddied out just below and looked at each other, breathing hard and wide-eyed with excitement. "That was BIG." seemed to be the consensus. Mike noted that the foot gauge read somewhere around 9.5 feet.
Jon Fowlkes and James Bagley Jr. take a breather near the beginning of the run.
photo by Jim Pytel
Heading on downriver, it became clear the canyon was getting steeper and eddies more scarce. Soon we arrived at a blind drop and Jim was off on a scout. We had decided to only have the probe scout and then give verbal instructions to the rest of us, but after fifteen minutes he hadn't come back, so I decided to join him. I figured if he needed to look at it that long, I wanted a peek too!
Hiking downstream revealed big, tough move after big move with ever-increasing consequences. Jim finally reappeared and read the verdict: "This one consists of twenty-five distinct class V-V+ big water moves. I can see making the first twenty-two moves, but number twenty-three looks hard and number twenty-four is a totally uniform, river-wide hole with curlers feeding into it from both sides." He had this determined look, kind of a 'game-on' look. "Oh, then there's some more stuff below that.."
We had a quick pow-wow and decided to cut our losses and hike out. When I got back to my boat, my paddle was gone. I looked around and realized it must have somehow slid into the river "@$!!@#$%!!!". I couldn't believe it!! That was the second paddle I'd lost that week!
Frustrated and suddenly a little poorer, I grabbed my boat and started dragging it through the willows, working my way up the bank. Soon I stopped to take a break, and I propped my Gus in some willows and tried to get comfortable. While I was casting around for a place to sit, I bumped my boat and watched in slow motion as it slipped off my precarious perch, plunging right back down into the middle of the river!!
"%#$@!!!#$%@ !!!" I yelled, but I was drowned out by the rivers roar. In seconds it was out of sight, swallowed by the huge brown snake below us. Frustrated and dehydrated, I scrambled up out of the canyon to get the shuttle rig while the others hauled their boats out. After the others joined me at the top of the canyon we loaded up and headed downstream with the vague hope of finding my boat, though we all knew I would probably never see it again.
Jim and James paddled the braided out class two section below the canyon while Mike and I waited. After what seemed like forever but was actually less than an hour, Jim and James rounded the corner, my big blue gus back on the truck with only a little wrinkle in her bow and a bent grab-bar!
Feeling lucky, we headed off to find a camping spot, make some supper and try out our luck on Jim's slack line..
When we got back to Valdez, we found out the locals never run the river over 4 - 4.5 feet on the gauge under the bridge. We had about double that, an estimated fifteen to twenty thousand cfs, which is about ten times the class five flow in the guidebook..