I’ve always been a motorcycle guy. Dirt and street bikes provided plenty of excitement. On the other hand, my high school buddy Jeff Thimsen is a biking and boating connoisseur. At an early age he dreamed of a miniature jet boat, capable of weekend camping trips on remote Alaskan rivers. Little did he know the idea had been reality going back to 1969.
My good friend Doug Harvey purchased a small yellow and black jet boat a few years after moving to Alaska. He said it resembled a bumble bee. Doug and his brother, Frank, actually bought two of the machines in 1971. The vessels, made by Canadian snowmobile manufacturer Bombardier, were originally called “Sea-Doo – Aqua Scooters.” The term aqua scooter was used in their initial advertisement. Grossly underpowered, the tiny craft sported 24-horsepower engines good for a claimed 35 mph. Most owners said they were much slower. These early design scooters were basically created for lake riding, but Frank and Doug had other plans.
Frank and Doug used their Aqua Scooters for transportation. They traveled from Anchorage’s small boat harbor, scooting across Cook Inlet to the Little Susitna River. They’d venture to the Parks Highway Bridge then head back home, oftentimes with fish onboard. On a grander scale, the brave souls buzzed over to the Big Susitna River, slowly winding their way to a weekend cabin on Donkey Lake. The brothers were able to strap on needed supplies plus carry extra cans of gasoline. Doug said it was an arduous task having to pull the heavy units up shallow Donkey Creek. Records show Bombardier bailed out of the Aqua Scooter business when the machines began exploding. Combustible gas fumes that built up in a sealed hull sometimes ignited. Thankfully Doug and Frank never experienced such!
After hearing several of the Harveys’ water scooting adventures, I was eager to partake in the action. By that time the highly maneuverable craft were manufactured by five companies: Bombardier, Kawasaki, Polaris, Arctic Cat, and Honda. Bombardier resumed production after resolving their “kaboom” problem. The name Aqua Scooter went by the wayside with Sea-Doo becoming Bombardier’s simplistic namesake. Many people mistakenly call them wave runners. Waverunner is actually a registered Yamaha trademark. Personal watercraft is the generic identification for all brands. To avoid confusion I prefer the simpler name, water scooter. In essence that’s what they really are!
My first water scooter expedition began at Deshka River, eventually touching the waters of the Yentna and Big Susitna Rivers. Jeff Thimsen, Doug Harvey, Jonathan Harvey, and I navigated to Alexander Creek and stayed overnight at Gabbert’s Fish Camp. There were no problems other than Doug going aground on a sand bar, which at any speed can be very dangerous. He was fortunate to avoid serious injury. The four of us dislodged his machine in record time. Bigger jet boats sometimes remain stuck for days. While on Alexander Creek we made sure to idle in and idle out. Creating wakes in a “no wake zone” would’ve been totally irresponsible.
Every article of trash we created was placed in a bag and taken home. I discovered an empty beer can floating downstream tossed by some careless soul. It was promptly added to my trash bag. Our jet boating intentions were to be as environmentally responsible as possible. On the safety end of things we wore bright and colorful dry suits with matching flotation jackets. The clothing wasn’t for styling purposes as some people joked. It was highly visible, making us much easier to spot should someone be accidentally thrown into turbulent waters.
Motoring up the rain swollen Big Susitna to the heavily flooded Skwentna and Talachulitna Rivers made for my second and most challenging journey. Outdoor expert Bud Sonnetag led this expedition. Bud was extremely knowledgeable in river navigation, which was fortunate as we didn’t have GPS. Instead of a cushy fishing lodge, we camped along the river bank. On the second day my engine developed problems, so I rode double with Jeff the rest of the way. We eventually made it to an old lodge on the Talachulitna, which was our intended destination. A good portion of the historic log structure was buried in silt. It was hard to imagine people living there 100 years previous. An energy-packed meal of peanut butter and honey sandwiches was eagerly consumed before starting for home.
On the trip back Jeff’s boat sucked rocks into its jet impeller. The smooth running engine suddenly stopped. Within seconds our little vessel lodged against a huge log jam. We jumped off the machine onto fallen trees just before it went under. Miraculously, after disappearing from sight, the scooter quickly resurfaced. Lucky for me and Jeff, Doug saw what happened. He safely hauled us to shore where we managed to recapture our machine and repair it. Any other boat would’ve sunk on the spot. Our scooter proved to be extremely buoyant in critical situations, as the manufacturer claimed it would.
There were several trips I didn’t make. The guys conquered rapids on Beluga River where Jeff was bucked off and swept under a deadly “sweeper.” He popped up a few yards downstream unhurt. Jeff, his son Kile, and Doug encountered 10 foot swells riding in the Gulf of Alaska. One expedition I wanted to join but didn’t was up the Yukon River, when Doug and Jeff successfully drove their jet powered scooters to Dawson City.
I was able to regroup with them on a short jaunt to Fire Island. Placing both feet on the mysterious clump of land was something I’d desired since moving to Anchorage. Our mission that day was to travel on to Kenai. Ultra-strong winds and unpredictable currents made that plan far too dangerous. We made numerous three-day expeditions to various lakes throughout the state for camping purposes. Doug and Jeff were successful in using their machines for halibut fishing and hunting. One journey we talked about but never accomplished was going from Whittier to Hawkins Island, and then on to Cordova. Our goal was to eventually end up in Seward. As far as I’m concerned that adventure is still on the “to do” list.
My most memorable trip was loading the machines on an Alaska Railroad flatcar and transporting them to Whittier. We departed the protected waters of Whittier’s small boat harbor one foggy morning with Eshamy Bay as our initial stop. Each of us carried 25 extra gallons of fuel on this run. Our plastic gasoline cans featured modified quick disconnect lines for on-the-go fueling. Jeff spent hours creating this ingenious modification. It saved us valuable time not having to stop. Also, refueling scooters in rough seas without the devices would’ve been impossible. Jeff also engineered a quick-fitting aluminum plate to block the jet pump intake grates. Using it was the best means to tow a non-running machine.
Pitching tents on a tiny island in Eshamy Bay made for a grand time. The weather was perfect with absolutely no rain. Temperatures hit 85 degrees. Silver salmon anxious to spawn were dancing and jumping like children. Doug took time to reel one in for dinner. When we woke the next morning our scooters were high and dry on a clump of boulders. There was no way to physically remove them, and it was only a couple of hours before the water level rose anyway. Other than a few scratches to the bottom of the fiberglass hulls, no damage was discovered. Once again the little scooters proved to be resilient and tough.
Heading for Montague Island, we were on a deserted beach in short order. With perfectly calm seas our speed was 45 knots the whole way. There wasn’t a vessel in Prince William Sound that could catch us. Jeff and Doug spent limited time exploring while I quickly snapped photos. Our next destination was LaTouche Island several miles away. Almost to LaTouche we discovered our faster than normal cruising speeds consumed most of the gas. We’d grossly miscalculated fuel consumption! Finding no available gasoline at nearby Chenega, we were fortunate to come across a giant fishing tender. The MV “Siberian Sea” had an extra 55 gallon drum of petrol on board. Thankfully the captain agreed to sell it. If not, we would have needed to fly in additional fuel, delaying our progress. The ship’s crew graciously gave us a tour from bow to stern and invited us to dine with them. It was an experience I’ll never forget. Years later I discovered the captain of the “Siberian Sea,” Derrick Ray, is now at the helm of the MV “Cornelia Marie” on The Deadliest Catch reality show.
After four years of scooting around Alaskan waters, I gave up my H2O adventures. Jeff sold his craft, opting for a bigger boat with all the bells and whistles. Doug rode his scooter a few more years before diverting to running marathons and road biking. Searching for something to fill the void, I resumed motorcycling and mountain biking. Just recently I purchased a new water scooter in Arizona. As a tribute to Doug’s 1971 Aqua Scooter, I christened the vessel “Scoot.” Should I ever get a call from Doug and Jeff saying they’re ready to resume things, me and ole’ Scoot will be heading north faster than you can say Hawkins Island!
Michael and his wife Joleen can be found in Lake Havasu City, Arizona when not traveling in their RV. Michael does freelance writing when not exploring the desert. Alaska will always be their true home!
Last Frontier Magazine has been publishing Alaskan stories and photos that celebrate its land and people since 2013. We are locally owned and operated, and have made it our mission to showcase The Life & Beauty of Alaska, our home. Thank you for your support.