Tuesday, July 12, 2011

East Fork of Iron Creek: 24 Hours to Talkeetna

The bike buzz didn't last as long as I'd hoped.

The siren call of whitewater quickly washed away the rubber residue and almost immediately after getting home, I was paddling that Super Scout (a 2011 Alpacka Scout w/six extra inches and a super cool, center opening, spectra-reinforced mylar spray deck) places it wasn't designed to go.

Doom wanted whitewater after the Magical Mystery Tour and our local goodness delivered. Then Ganey came to town and had to hit the highlights including a near 10 foot gage run on Six Mile's lower two canyons with Timmy J, Luc Mehl, Todd Tumalo.

Wow! What a wild ride Six Mile at 1400 cfs in a packraft is. But the 2011 Llama is almost like cheating. The stern is like a spring that propels you out of holes and the bow punches waves. The bottom is a new and lighter fabric so I have beefed it up with more fabric, especially in the foot and seat areas.

The deck on mine was a special order with a heavier fabric and a very short center opening and mondo velcro. It's not for everyone, and requires a bit of worming to get into and out of on shore/in eddies. When flipped and under water I sometimes use the rip cord to get out, since I am fairly securely installed in that boat.

But the new design, which took the best of the proto-type Wichcraft and incorporated those features (pointy bow, long stern) into the basic line-up, feels almost like cheating. Good bye to the "bandersnatch", hello to catching eddies easily and ferrying fast. Good bye to most side to side bow sway. Hello to straighter, cleaner lines. And boofing is a blast!

Because I am a Yak-sized guy paddling a Llama with seat forward, lots of air behind me, thigh straps, and a super deck, my boat stays dry and buoyant in bigger and squirrelier water. It's not a beginner's boat, especially with a load inside.

But when Joe McLaughlin called about the East Fork of Iron Creek in the Talkeetnas I jumped at the chance, especially with the all-star team of Joe, Thai Verzone, and Tim Johnson.

For video reasons I wanted Tim and Thai in packrafts, but Timmy came equipped with his hardshell, ostensibly fot the flat water paddle out the Talkeetna. Joe's a hardsheller, and so is Thai, but Thai and I have been making annual stabs at establishing the boundaries of packrafting since 2008 when we did Bird, then 2009 when we did Montana and the Happy with side trips.

Thai and I would find that the East Fork of Iron would again raise the bar.

As for mixing hardshells and packrafts I have followed Tim in his hardshell down New Zealand's Upper Hokitika and Six Mile when it's an iced-up, gnarly little creek. I'd welcome his skills, strength, safety, and good sense if he came along in nothing more than a dry suit and kick board.

Joe, too, is a solid boater, who took me down Six Mile many years ago in a mixed group of kayaks, both hardshell and inflatable, as well as canoes paddled by experts who could roll them, and me in my old red Yak.

Eyeing my long, svelte 2011 Llama, he said, "It looks like packrafts have evolved to the point where they don't need to be dumped every ten minutes and can run side by side with kayaks."

The steep Blueberry Canyon on Iron Creek's East Fork would prove that statement true.

Many apologies for the apparent narcissism of the video below. Because we boat scouted nearly everything and were racing darkness, there was no opportunity to use the "big camera". Moreover, the ole' dental cam was missing its face mask extension and I had to go with a bow mount for the Go-Pro. The bow mount doesn't work so well filming forward, but does work well facing back....hence the video.

Timmy J, Thai and I drove up to Talkeetna after feasting on Peggy's moose and razor clam tacos with another stop in Wasilla at Sr. Taco: the idea was to feast, fly, and paddle till midnight.

The flight in from Talkeetna to the miner's airstrip took 25 minutes and $600 for the four of us in Talkeetna Air Taxi's Beaver with two hardshells shoved in the tail.

At first the stream was so scrapy and braided I wondered whether there'd be enough water to cover the rocks we'd seen from the air in the crux Blueberry Canyon. When the creek entered a mini-canyon but felt pretty much just like the South Fork of Eagle River, I wondered why I had shelled out $150 for a fly-in version of Hiland valley.

Then, an hour and a half after putting in, the canyon deepened, the creek steepened and the wild ride began.

I'd been expecting a bedrock canyon, like Bird or lower Ship, but instead got an hour and 15 minutes of twisty turny boulder drops -- not smooth and rounded like Little Su or Magic Mile, but sharp-edged and sievy like the last three drops on Honolulu or Montana below the Big Sky drop.

Almost immediately into the main event of the run, Thai was wondering about the "spray deck leaking" on the stubby Llama I had loaned him.

In classic Thai style he was paddling this modern Alaskan steep creek in a dry suit loaned to him from someone in Gustavus (when he and Gordy had headed back over the Fairweather Range to Yakutat after walking and packrafting the beach to Gustavus), with a paddle loaned him by Tim, and in a loaner Llama of mine.

He had only had time to outfit the unfamiliar boat at the miners' airstrip using the camping gear he'd brought. We'd forgot to bring a backrest for a boat with the seat moved forward.

So when the water got stiff and steep and he found himself swamped, the creeking was not exactly enjoyable for him.

None of us could afford to tip over in the shallow, maybe 175 cfs flow.

I was glad for elbow pads, face mask, and a stable boat. And for Timmy's boat scouting skills. Several times he'd eddy hop right to the edge of a blind drop while we clung to the canyon walls waiting. He'd crane his neck, then pivot and drop in, with one hand over his head signaling us to follow.

At one point in the crux rapid slalom, among giant boulders that strain water and wood out of the flow, Joe got hung up in a corner.

Thai came by him from behind, saw the predicament then screamed and hooted like a banshee.

Downstream there was no mistaking that wild alarm sound as an exhilarating hoot and Tim was paddling hard upstream into an eddy with his spray deck pealed back, exiting the kayak in one smooth motion to pull Joe and his boat to better waters.

Another sieve drop from hell where a landslide filled the creek had one thin line that Joe made smooth and sweet to redeem himself but the rest of us walked.

Besides that and a log below the canyon and a couple fresh wood falls on the Main Fork of Iron Creek we ran everything.

Pulling into our confluence camp at midnight, we were giddy and glad, even after discovering that it wasn't the spray deck on Thai's boat that leaked, but rather a six-inch butt split. In fact whatever cut the boat had also sliced his dry bag inside the boat, too!

Despite the damage and the scare, the East Fork had delivered with a tight, technical, twisty-turny and very steep canyon that kept me right on the edge of my abilities, but never freaked me out, never had me feeling out of control.

"A little more water, like maybe another hundred cfs, would actually make it easier. Pad everything out and make the lines cleaner," Timmy said.

"Yea, I'd love to come back and run this again with more water," responded Joe.

As for me, the low water was perfect for a packraft. And I'd like to get back to Disappointment and drop a few ledges that we portaged last year, before I return to Iron Creek.

The two Talkeetna tribs are certainly related, like big brother and little sister.

Neither is granite: both are sharp. Neither is easy: both are modern, fly-in, AK creeking.

E Fork Iron is like a sassy, slappy little sister to Disappointment as big, brooding brother, mellow in the boogey water but bossy in the drops.

Disappointment is very committing, set deep in a steep-walled, alder-encrusted canyon. E Fork Iron is a shallow canyon with tundra and people at a cabin and airstrip above. Portaging and retreat seem an option.

Disappointment has a handfull of Class IV/IV+ punctuating hours of boogy water; E Fork Iron has an hour and a quarter of non-stop III+/IV/IV+ and a V- slalom sieve. The filler is almost all III+ in Blueberry Canyon.

The confluence camp is nice and the 14 mile 2.5 hour paddle to the Talkeetna's tan waters down the milky blue Iron Creek is quick, fun and smooth. Great wave trains in fast flow make for cushy paddling.

In Timmy J's guidebook he quotes those from the first descent as calling the run "an absolute classic".

If Embick had run it and put it in his book, Fast and Cold, he'd have to give it five stars.

E Fork/Iron/Takeetna has the wilderness qualities of the Happy and scenery as good as the Charley, with craggy granite upstream and forested valleys down.

Awesome whitewater.

And certainly at least three type of river in contrasting segments: the clear water unique steepness of E Fork; the milky blue wave trains of Iron Creek; and the tan big water of the Talkeetna.

Hopefully this video can tell some of our story.


  1. I like that camera view for the hard water sections. Now you just need a second camera for your helmet!

    Water levels are rising, planning some Little-Su flipping tomorrow. Let me know if you're interested.

  2. Did your mylar skirt come from Alpacka, or a custom job. I am a regular class V kayaker looking to get into packrafting, looking at the 2011 Llama so I can adjust my center, but there stock skirt looks very leaky and flimsy. I can`t see how zippers and that much velcro keep any water out. I`m willing to make my own skirt if need be... just looking for subjection

  3. @ Kirk -- Mylar deck is on the little Scout. Not sure what Alpacka calls the deck on the Llama. Both were custom jobs. You'll need to talk with them.


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