Outdoors & Recreation

Forgetting Disneyland

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Photo by Brandon Peterson, Chugach Outdoor Center

“There are at least twelve things that can go horribly wrong in this section. I don’t have time to describe them now so just listen to me closely: lean in, stroke hard, and don’t stop until I tell you to! If we hit the left cliff face sideways, we’re going to flip the raft!” These were the words our river guide, Archie Prentice, barked out as we approached Jaws, the last major set of Class V rapids in the third canyon of Sixmile Creek.

Remember the thrill you may have experienced as a youngster on the Log Ride at Disneyland or the Log Jammer at Six Flags? Why any adrenaline seeking Alaska outdoorsman would leave this state during the summer to visit some commercial, canned amusement park is a mystery to me. Three minute roller coaster rides pale in comparison to hours of white water rafting on the incredibly gorgeous creeks and rivers of Alaska.

With over 12,000 rivers, creeks, and streams, the rafting and kayaking options in Alaska are virtually limitless. From slow-moving wilderness floats down rivers such as the mighty Yukon, to out-of-category whitewater runs down rivers draining from the state’s six major mountain ranges (and 39 smaller ones), you’re sure to find something that matches your skill level and interests.

If you’re new to rafting, it’s highly recommended that you begin by booking a trip with a professional guiding outfit. Although I have a few years of rafting and kayaking experience, I am much more comfortable traveling with an experienced guide … especially when bringing inexperienced friends and family members along.

Class V water is for experts only.
Make a mistake on one of these and
it could easily cost you your life.

In late July of this year, I booked a trip down Sixmile Creek on the Kenai Peninsula with Chugach Outdoor Center. Jay Doyle, the owner of the outfit, is an old friend with 34 years of experience on Sixmile. Jay was one of the first people to ever successfully run the creek. His guides, or “river cowboys,” are extremely professional and personable. He hires no guide with less than five years of Class V experience. For those who might not know, navigable rapids are categorized by difficulty using a I-V ranking system. Class V water is for experts only. Make a mistake on one of these and it could easily cost you your life.

Located some 70 miles south of Anchorage at Milepost 7.5 on the west side of the Hope Highway, Chugach Outdoor Center lies in the middle of Sunrise, a one-time bustling gold mining community. With a population of just 18 today, it’s hard to imagine that this tiny settlement was home to thousands of gold seekers over a hundred years ago. Over 133,000 ounces of gold were taken from the creeks and mountains in this area, and prospectors continue to mine the area today.

Just across the highway and down the hill lies Sixmile Creek. Considered a whitewater paradise, Sixmile drops 50 feet per mile as it flows out of the Chugach Mountains and into Turnagain Arm. The creek flows through three major canyons on its way to the ocean … each canyon is progressively more turbulent than the first. Rafters who sign on can choose to ride out one, two, or all three canyons. If you’re physically fit and like a real adrenaline rush, I recommend doing all three. If you lose your nerve early in the trip, let your guide know and he will arrange to have you picked up by a follow van.

Accompanying me on this trip was my wife, Abby. Brand new to Alaska rafting, Abby was extremely nervous about our upcoming adventure. Unfortunately, she had talked to a friend of hers who had taken this same trip years before. Her friend told her it was the most terrifying thing she had ever done! Her friend was thrown from the raft twice, although in both instances, she was pulled back into the boat within seconds.

The day before our float, we drove from Anchorage to the tiny community of Hope (pop. 200), just seven miles down the highway from Sunrise. Established in 1896 as a mining camp to support gold seekers on nearby Resurrection Creek, Hope is a pretty little town with a great mining museum, friendly locals, and good fishing literally fifty yards from the local bar.

We stopped in at the Seaview Cafe for delicious cheeseburgers on the deck. With beautiful mountains to our left and the ocean on our right, the scenery is hard to beat. After dinner, we walked over to the creek and watched a line of fly fishermen pull in one pink salmon after another. It seemed to me that the biggest challenge the fishermen had was getting their line across the water without hooking into something!

We got back into our van and drove a few miles to our camping spot on the banks of Resurrection Creek. I split some birch while Abby got a nice fire going. Sitting beside the campfire without another soul in sight, we watched as countless salmon used their last reserves of life to fight the current and return to their spawning grounds. Again, it was hard to imagine how over a hundred years ago thousands of gold miners crowded this very spot.

After a couple hours of restless sleep … (Abby’s mind was full of visions of being swept away by the creek or being sucked into a bottomless whirlpool), we awoke, packed up, and headed up the road to the Chugach Outdoor Center.

Even though the suit keeps you dry,
the glacier-fed creek is frigid year round.

On arrival, we were met at the desk by Lorna, a friendly take-charge woman who has a way of making everyone feel instantly at ease.

We signed a waiver, left our valuables with Lorna, and walked out to the deck to be fitted with drysuits. These are not neoprene suits; they’re bag suits that allow the user to wear normal clothing underneath. Dress warm! Even though the suit keeps you dry, the glacier-fed creek is frigid year round. Long underwear, fleece pants, jacket, and wool socks worked great for us.

Our guide, Archie, helped Abby and I get dressed and gave us a rundown on what to expect. While he spoke, Mudflap, another guide and a personal friend of mine, came out and greeted us. Mudflap, so-named for his amazing mullet, has guided me on trips down three major Alaska rivers. If you want to be entertained by something other than the rapids when you book a trip with this outfit, ask for Mudflap. He’ll have you screaming, “I love my life!” by the time you’re through.

Typically, six to seven people will ride in each raft. We were introduced to our boat mates, Brian and Bob from Sacramento, and Reagan from West Virginia. Our river guide, Archie, was from Atlanta. Being the only Alaskans on board, I told my wife that we had better represent the state well.

We left the Chugach Outdoor Center and traveled by van ten miles upstream to our put-in spot. Tommy, our driver, would be waiting at the base of each of the wildest sections of the creek with safety ropes to retrieve anyone dumped from their raft. If someone suddenly panicked and didn’t want to continue (which occasionally happens) Tommy would pick them up.

Arriving at the put-in, we got some last minute safety advice from Archie, and he introduced us to Mike, another guide, who would be traveling in an oar-frame boat in front of us as a safety measure.

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Photo by Brandon Peterson, Chugach Outdoor Center

After our safety meeting, we faced our first challenge: dive in the water and try to swim across the creek. It’s virtually impossible to make it across through the current, so after struggling for twenty seconds or so, Archie yelled at us to stop swimming and roll over on our backs. We were instructed to float one hundred yards down stream and make our way to an eddy where Mike would be waiting. The purpose of this swim test is to familiarize each rafter with the water temperature and current, and to see if anyone panics. Better to find out now than in one of the gnarly canyons that lay ahead.

As your stomach rises to your throat,
there’s a strange combination of fear and elation.

We all passed our swim test and it was time to have fun! After a leisurely ten minute float where we practiced our paddling techniques and learned how to keep the raft from flipping, we approached the upper canyon. The upper and middle canyons are rated at Class III-IV.

Adrenaline began to build as the walls of the canyon narrowed and Archie yelled at us to stroke hard three times. At the end of the third stroke, the bottom fell out from beneath us. As your stomach rises to your throat, there’s a strange combination of fear and elation. You’re scared, but you can’t wait for more! What you immediately notice after you realize that everyone has survived a set of rapids are the huge smiles on each person’s face.

As you progress down the creek, tributaries add to its volume and the rapids increase in size and intensity. By the time we hit the lower canyon, we were really rocking. Each of the last six major rapids has a name… Predator, Staircase, Suckhole, Merry-Go-Round, Waterfall, and the notorious, Jaws. It’s in these rapids that most riders are thrown out. No need to panic, though. If you are tossed out, don’t try to fight the current. Go with the flow … if you aren’t immediately dragged back into the boat, ride it out. You’ll end up in an eddy downstream and someone will be waiting to pick you up.

After shooting through the last set of rapids, guttural screams and high-fives were exchanged. We were all ready to do it again.

Whitewater rafting in Alaska is not only beautiful and exciting, but fulfilling too. There’s a sense of accomplishment in knowing that you’ve experienced something that very few people on this planet will ever have the chance to do. If you live in this state, what are you waiting for? It’s right in your backyard. If you’re visiting, book a trip. Bob and Brian, the two men from California who rode along with us, said that it was by far the highlight of their two week Alaska trip.

Disneyland just won’t be the same for them after this.

 

Chugach Outdoor Center offers leisurely floats through Turnagain Pass as well as whitewater trips down the Sixmile. Recommended for anyone in good physical shape from ages 10-70+.

They can be reached at 1-866-277-RAFT or www.chugachoutdoorcenter.com

If you’re traveling north, check out Nenana Raft Adventures at Denali Park in the heart of the Alaska Range. Beautiful scenery with whitewater for all ability levels. Owner Jon White and his stable of professional guides ensure that each rafter has a terrific experience.

Call 1-800-789-RAFT or see them on the web at www.raftdenali.com

 

Story By Chuck Heath, Jr. 

Categories: Outdoors & Recreation

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