Saturday, July 3, 2010

Kings Magic Mile: Learning to Walk

The Kings River “Magic Mile” is one of Alaska’s mythical whitewater runs. For about half a mile it drops at the rate of 400 feet per mile through a maze of granite boulders, tight constrictions, and tall ledges, a steep creek by any definition. The second half of the Magic Mile drops over 200 feet per mile with two gnarly drops. The Mile has been described as "a Little Su on steroids".

First run by Embick and crew in the mid-1980s at a level (175-200 cfs) shown in Tim Johnson’s Alaska Whitewater (page 120, “Pick your faith”), Embick’s descent was pretty far ahead of its time. Fed by glaciers, the Kings’ flow peaks when the snow melt overlaps with the glacier thaw in June. Recently Tim Johnson, Josh Smith and John Cox ran it at super high water. Last fall Brad M., JT, Tony Pirelli, Luc Mehl, Mark Outhout and I packrafted the so-called “Lower Kings” (including “Gotta Give ‘Er Gorge") at a level I wished we had this past week when Nate Shoutis, Thai Verzone, Paul Schauer and I hiked up to the East Fork of the Kings to packraft the Magic Mile.

Brad Meiklejohn has been pushing the Magic Mile for a while, so when Nate Shoutis was in town his suggestion of the Kings fit in with my envy of Brad in the Brooks Range running Alatna River tribs. So I contacted the usual suspects needed as back-up for the steep stuff -- Thai Verzone and Paul Schauer -- and off we drove in my son’s ’87 Four-Runner up the Permanente Road, parking where the ATV network spiders around mudholes and the two branches of the road split. This offers an ideal loop trip taking out at the “Gotta Give ‘Er” gorge.

We walked to the put-in in about two and a half hours, inflated and launched into water that certainly didn’t look as low as it seemed at the Glenn Hwy Bridge where no rocks projected in the channels.

“There’s water in the bushes.”

“Yea, and it sure seems pushy. I’ve never packrafted in water with this much flow,” said Paul, whose packrafting experiences so far have been low water runs of Montana, Bird, and Disappointment Creeks.

This was opaque, milky Kings River, and by the time we got to the first rapid, “Bubblegum”, at the top of the 400’/mile section, we all felt the push. The push to sneak, portage, and walk. Which we did for the next few hours in open woods and alders, rarely on boulders alongside as the water lapped at the alders and submerged the shoreline rocks’ moss and lichen.

“What do you think?”

“I want to run it, but the consequences look bad.”

"If you look good going down it, I'll go for it."

“I don’t mind a bruised ego over a bruised body.”

“My ego won’t be bruised. It’s cool just to be in here and see this.”

There were only little sections that looked runnable and they were stacked between sections that didn’t look swimmable.

“Let’s deflate and walk.”

Every now and then we’d hear big water and we’d poke our heads out of the brush to see what the river was doing.

“Wow. The flat water looks like Little Su. And the drops just look too big for us.”

We did a couple ferries between the big drops. We ferried and snuck between “Bubblegum” and “Pick Your Faith”, then again upstream of the bend leading into “Underground Railroad”. There were a couple other huge drops that have no names, too.

The walking was pretty good in open woods of mossy boulders or game trails, but it felt good to run the last bit below “Chunder” to the miles and miles of boogy water leading to the first, opening ledge drop of the lower Kings.

There was a log across the stream below the big tongue in a canyon that pours river left past a wide dry ledge, and plenty of juice in all the folding ledges below. We pulled out just upstream of the Gotta Give Er Gorge and walked the mile back to the truck from there.

The Kings has three sections: the super stout granite Mile, which is like a king Susitna; the middle miles of splashy Class II-III that would be every intermediate kayaker's dream roadside run, like a scenic Willow; and the final sharp schist canyons, like an easier version of Six Mile's third canyon. It's a classic run overall, worth all the hiking.

And it’d been a good day, if not a great one. A day to remind us that we can’t yet run everything in a packraft.

We’ll go back in September at 200 cfs when we can run the Magic Mile. But this June trip was a good scout.

After all, as everyone knows, you gotta walk before you can run, and that's especially true for packrafts on the Magic Mile.

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