Sunday, July 19, 2009

Three Happy Days for $300

Gordy Vernon, Thai Verzone, Brad Meiklejohn and I stood on the scale at Willow Air. It read 810, ten pounds too many. Brad wore his “Sheri Dry Suit” (a much-coveted Alpacka prototype) and held his wooden Sawyer paddle (28 oz). I wore blue Crocs Jazz gave me for Fathers’ Day. Tossing aside Thai’s PFD and helmet, our throw bag, and half my food we got to 700 pounds of people and a 100 pound pile of gear.

Thai convinced the pilot to let him include his PFD and helmet, two safety items that Gordy left behind. Gordy also left all clothes but the single layer of Expedition Weight Capilene on his skin, one extra shirt and what no-longer passes as a “dry-suit”. But Gordy's a four-time Wilderness Classic winner and has no insecurities to pack.

Our plan was to fly-in and fly-out to run the entirety of the Happy River in three days for $300 each. The Happy (Class III+) is one of four rivers in Fast and Cold that Embick gave a rating of 5 stars. It’s 32 miles from its birth as a crystal stream to its gray wedding to the milk-chocolate Skwentna. There’re alpine, granite boulder gardens, forested floating, and canyon paddling. The river’s never hard, always moving, always happy.

It’s the best intermediate-level packrafting river I have yet encountered.

Three of us had history with the Happy, of sorts. Thai had bruised a boat and a relationship during an epic run of Honolulu Creek, a consolation trip when his plans for the Happy fell through in 2006. Brad has longed for the Happy for years, going so far as to once offer a fly-in subsidy. My own experience with the Happy extended back to 1989. Mark Stoppel and I walked to Puntilla Lake from Healy as “Noodle Eaters en route to Lake Clark”. With our boots worn out from 3 weeks and nearly 300 miles of wild willows and rocks, we thought maybe we could float out the Happy in our open Sherpa Packrafts, but instead struggled through game-free brush to the Skwentna, intimidated by the sound of whitewater deep in canyon.

On this trip we found the granite boulders’ drops and tongues and the schist canyons’ waves and corners exhilarating and fun, while the water in between with its big boulders for play and practice were instructive for boosting skills and confidence. On the way down to our pick-up at Finger Lake the four of us got our ya-yas out on a side trip that included steep creekin’ down Glacier Creek canyon (2 miles, 225 feet/mile, PR 5+) and a nostalgic-in-style, braided bar run of Old Man Creek (1.5 miles, 100 ft/mile, PR 2), first descents both.

We’d all be more than happy to pay $300 again for what’s an ideal use of a packraft: a lightweight trip down remote rivers that offer fun side trips as walk-up and creek-down runs. So jacked up on the trip were we afterwards that Thai and I did an 11 PM run of Ship’s lower canyon on our way back to Anchorage. Yee Ha!

I’ll be posting video on YouTube …...

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