Monday, September 27, 2010
In the 1980s when I was a climber I hung around Andrew Embick's house in Valdez where hard men told stories about the first descents and epic kayak runs of the day: Canyon Creek, Kings Magic Mile, and Caribou Creek's Falls, among others.
Then, I was a wilderness racer and mountain traveler whose biggest whitewater experiences were limited to the likes of Class II and III on the Chitistone, Nenana, and John Rivers in an open Sherpa Raft. I never thought that I'd have the skills to paddle a kayak, much less a packraft, down the test-pieces of that golden-age era.
My, have the times changed.
This weekend several groups ran Six Mile's three canyons, Echo Bend, and Canyon Creek in packrafts -- albeit at low water -- and had a good time on those classics.
Canyon Creek is the surprise for me. When Six Mile is below 400 cfs on the USGS gauge Canyon Creek is like the new Ship Creek: lots of improbable drops (dozens), lots of fun. There is a waterfall portage, a waterfall that Embick wrote as three-tiered and "80 feet". But don't look for an 80 foot falls to portage - - it's more like 30 feet in three drops. Best to go down Canyon with someone who knows the drops and the portage as Canyon Creek is a bit more serious -- especially with its sharp rocks and mining debris -- than Six Mile. And at higher water -- when Six Mile is over 9 feet, Canyon gets back to its gnarly 1980s reputation for we butt-boaters.
Here's Timmy J running the Third and Fourth "Box Cars", a train of a half-dozen closely spaced ledge drop-rapids below Canyon Creek's only published rapid name, "Saddle Slide" ......
But the really big news is Kings Magic Mile.
Maybe it's another Embick exaggeration -- he called it 400 feet/mile -- but no matter. It is DARN STEEP and sustained! Imagine all the steepest drops in Little Su stacked back to back with Little Su's filler cut out. That's still not as steep as Magic Mile. Or maybe think of a microcosmic version of the West Coast New Zealand runs like Arahura and Hokitika. It's a steep boulder run and -- while no place for novices -- there are likely a dozen people in Anchorage with the skills to run it in packrafts at the 150-200 cfs we ran it yesterday. Make no mistake: it's the most serious, most demanding and difficult creek that we have packrafted in Alaska.
Thankfully we had Tim Johnson along to advise us with his experience and calm, reassuring, safety-minded nature.
Last year Brad Meiklejohn, Luc Mehl, I and others ran lower Kings and talked about the Mile. This past June a crack-team tried it at high water -- no, we looked at it -- at high water with Paul Schauer, Thai Verzone, and Nathan Shoutis.
But this Fall, Thai was gone, Paul was busy and Nathan, well, not sure where that nomad is currently wandering, so Luc and I convinced Tim and Brad that it was time. That the endless Indian Summer was as good a time as any to hit Magic Mile at low water. Except the Indian Summer ended this weekend and we hit the Mile in snow.
Surpassing New Zealand's West Coast, Disappointment Creek, and Maryland's Upper Yough, this was the highlight of my packrafting experiences so far, as it is a legendary run in Alaska. I missed a brace in the last rapid and got chundered, but everything else was a most satisfying challenge that I will be buzzed about all week, maybe all winter.
Luc even pulled off a combat roll in the upper third and re-ran the "Underground Railroad" in the lower third, yielding a run of every rapid. Of course, as you'll see in the video Timmy J is a master of water strokes, no matter the craft, and ran the Mile with a load in his boat and a long paddle duct taped together. And in flip-flops (I jokes about that).
We drove into the first mud-hole, started hiking at 10 AM, reached the put-in three hours later and were on the water by 1:30. It took until after 4 PM to pass the mile. We met Jule Harle at her warming fire below the Mile and she climbed into a loaner Llama (!) to run Lower Kings with us to below "Gotta Giver 'Er". We were out by 6 PM and back to the truck by 7 PM.
The sun finally came out and hundreds of Sandhill Cranes filled the autumn sky above the Matanuska. It had been a wonderful day.
And the version on Vimeo if YouTube has no music: