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.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Genesis of the Tour

For the record the Magical Mystery Tour began with an email and a link to Mike Curiak's blog back on May Day.

From: Mike Curiak
Subject: Psssst, hey buddy...
Date: May 1, 2011 12:27:09 PM AKDT
To: Roman Dial, Eric Parsons, Steve Fassbinder, Dylan Kentch

Apologies for the verbosity, but there is a point to it all:


See ya 'round. Hopefully real soon!

This looked like an opening to spring what I knew we'd all want to do, so I hit "reply all" almost instantly:

From: Roman Dial
Subject: Re: Psssst, hey buddy...
Date: May 1, 2011 1:00:38 PM AKDT
To: Mike Curiak , Roman Dial
Cc: Eric Parsons , Steve Fassbinder, Dylan Kentch

Mike et al.

This is timely indeed.

I finally bought a fat bike thanks to Mike's advice and Eric's inspirations. It's meant for a couple more rides before I can't do this stuff anymore.

While we did call it hellbiking (i.e. wilderness bike & boat mostly off-trail) and many derided us at the time as "hike-a-bikers" (back then it was hard to ride and shoot photos at the same time -- plus that wasn't as photogenic as crossing rivers and thrashing through bushes), there were good reasons we did hellbike trips year after year for a decade: 1988 (Wrangells), 89 (Eastern AK Range), 90 (Brooks Range), 91 (Canyonlands), 93 (Into the Wild Bus w/Krakauer), 94 (Western AK Range), 95 (Kenai Peninsula), 96 (NG trip), 97 (Talkeetna Mtns), and 05 (Talkeetna Mtns).

I am looking for the right (experienced but patient and w/a sense of humor) partners to help an old man (me) get from Yakutat to Glacier Bay on fat bikes (or other) and this is the key group, I believe. I think it's a ten day trip and we need packrafts and some, umm, balls, I guess, for dealing with glaciers, bears, and bays. Two weeks from where you live and back most likely.

This is the stretch of Lost Coast that would make a good video using a SLR HD camera and Go Pro as a sub-five minute submission to Banff Mtn Film Festival, for example.

A group of three is ideal for sharing gear, and maybe five is better than four, but four would work, too. Even two, but images and stories come more easily when more than two.

Any of you with the means ($ to get to Yakutat and out of Glacier Bay), time (June), and interest?

You all have what it takes otherwise: skill, boat, and imagination.


The responses trickled in, beginning with Doom, whom I knew only from the Blogosphere:

From: Steve Fassbinder
Subject: Re: Psssst, hey buddy...
Date: May 1, 2011 4:46:38 PM AKDT
To: Roman Dial

Is this really a trip I could possibly say no to? hmmmm
There is also the reality of taking another extended trip this summer( cost, time off work, ect).
I'm going to head into the garage and replace that 4 year old chain on my pugs and think about it.
Let's just say I'm very interested, but perhaps august would work better for me?
Damn....sounds amazing....

A day later Dylan's response arrived with the enthusiasm of youth:

From: Dylan Kentch
Subject: Re: Psssst, hey buddy...
Date: May 2, 2011 12:31:36 AM AKDT
To: Roman Dial


Game on. Any time after the first weekend in June should be good for
me. Let me talk to the bosses by the end of the week and get back to
you then. Flying into Yakutat is cheap, it's getting home from
Glacier Bay that should be more expensive (I think).


And then Mike was responding, somewhat lukewarmly for tossing out the ball in the first place it seemed to me:

From: Mike Curiak
Subject: RE: Psssst, hey buddy...
Date: May 2, 2011 9:41:40 AM AKDT
To: Roman Dial
Cc: Eric Parsons , Steve Fassbinder, Dylan Kentch


To say that I’m interested is a level of understatement that I’m ill equipped to explain. God yes I wanna.

I love that Roman has started this out by attempting to sandbag us. Old? It’s all relative. What was that quote by Dick Griffith about old age and treachery?!!!?

Roman, with your experience us ‘young’ns’ will still be struggling to keep up. As long as you, too, are bringing a sense of humor and some patience, we’ll probably do fine.

I’m pretty well set with gear (as far as I know) and certainly set with cameras. I’ve got two HD SLR’s (one zoom, one ultra wide) and I’ve already been scheming how to sew a dry bag to my spraydeck to keep them protected but easy access.

I’ve also got a HD camcorder that I’ll gladly loan to whomever else goes, and wants to be responsible for it.

Is June really the best time for this one? I ask because it’s a really, really hard time for me to get away. Not impossible though. I’m still reeling a bit from the financial wreckage of my Feb AK trip, and a bit more time to recover wouldn’t hurt. Early July?


It was looking like time to snag Eric, who has a dog, a woman, a baby, and a business. He seemed the hardest, but most important, to catch, as he is the coastal bike-rafting explorer. I tried to set the hook with logistics talk:

From: Roman Dial
Subject: Re: RE: Psssst, hey buddy...
Date: May 2, 2011 4:29:18 PM AKDT
To: Mike Curiak, Roman Dial
Cc: Eric Parsons, Steve Fassbinder, Dylan Kentch


Dylan says yes, game on. Mike says, yes

August I'm in Tibet and Mid July I have a week-long short job. Need to see my wife somewhere in there.

The last week June/First week of July window is doable for me with some play on either side of that. Maybe a hair bit rainier/stormier than June (http://www.wrcc.dri.edu/cgi-bin/cliMAIN.pl?akyaku), but early July still has long days, maybe fewer bugs, better fed bears.

This is a route I have not yet done, so yes, may be sandbagging y'all but should be interesting. I can get beta, if we want it (Giffith, Hig, Skurka and Dylan's good boss, Dirk know the coast).

Lituya Bay and La Perouse Gl seem like notable obstacles.

We can get out of Gustavus to Juneau on the twice weekly (M & W) ferry (http://gustavus.com/gethere/index.html#ferry and http://www.gustavusak.com/).

One thing you should know, in full disclosure, is that I had ankle surgery ("arthroscopic debridement of an impingement") about three weeks ago. Doesn't hurt any more than before the surgery and feels best when I am in a boat or on a bike.


Maybe it was my admission of weakness with recent ankle surgery, but eight minutes later came the Captain's commitment:

From: Eric Parsons
Subject: Re: Psssst, hey buddy...
Date: May 2, 2011 4:37:07 PM AKDT
To: Roman Dial, Mike Curiak
Cc: Steve Fassbinder, Dylan Kentch

"circular inspiration" is a good thing but I don't know Roman. Sounds scary, lots of bears, calving tidewater glaciers (I'm still traumatized mind you..) and big balls. shit. what did Skurka say? "engaging?" :)

screw that man, I'm going to stick to feeding Finn pureed sweet potatoes.

kidding of course, would be sweet to have done the whole coast and is a route I've pondered about a lot. Getting the time will be the hard part, that will take some work on my part.

But now that Eric was in, it pulled the rest of the crew more firmly into commitment. One hour later:

From: Steve Fassbinder
Subject: Re: Psssst, hey buddy...
Date: May 2, 2011 5:44:07 PM AKDT
To: Roman Dial
Cc: Mike Curiak, Roman Dial, Eric Parsons, Dylan Kentch

Ok this idea has my full attention.

In fact I'm thinking about selling my #25 Don Mclung bike to finance my way, shit i'd sell my left nut if it was worth anything!

Late June early July would work for me. I have a wedding that I must attend in SF on july15th. I guess the farther away from that date would be best, as to give me some time to work in-between.

Things that I could possibly help with are my unwavering good attitude, camera skills, and possible film ideas.

I'm very close friends with all the mountain film telluride people, in fact they are all starting to get fat bikes. If we made a film that we all felt good about putting our names on, it would be a shoe in at MF.

I also have a friend from telluride, that just took a summer bush pilot job, based out of homer.Not sure if he could help us? He flew his personal plane up to AK with the intention of exploring (flying) to some amazing places, and told me I should come up this summer and he'd fly me anywhere.

I would love to be a part of a tour like this, as much for the company, as for the experience of riding and boating in such an unknown( to me) place.

Let's keep the ball rolling with some ideas and dates.

I leave one week from tomorrow for a 13 day trek across Utah that will involve the usual bike boating bushwhacking, but this time there will be a legit climbing section, and bachelor party thrown in the mix.

Should I return from this mess with my sanity and liver still intact, you can count me in.

All the best


By 10 PM of May 2, less than a day and a half after Mike C's first email we were all in and planning:

From: Mike Curiak
Subject: RE: RE: Psssst, hey buddy...
Date: May 2, 2011 9:51:00 PM AKDT
To: Roman Dial
Cc: Eric Parsons, Steve Fassbinder, Dylan Kentch

Sorry about the email binge. I’m procrastinating real work, which is the only time I get emails answered…

Last of June/First of July is probably the best compromise for all, yeah? Eric? Dylan? I can agree to it.

I’m not worried about being sandbagged, Roman. You’ll be waiting on me plenty regardless of locomotion. If, somehow, I can keep up on the bike and in the boat, I still won’t because I’ll be fixated on filling as many memory cards as I can. I expect y’all knew that already.

Looking at the maps I see *lots* of notable obstacles. I’m so green to this that I should probably keep my mouth shut and just follow closely. I’m of the opinion that we’re gonna have our work cut out for us regardless, and more beta is mo betta.

But that’s just me. Happy to go in ~blind if that’s what the group decides. It always works itself out.

AK guys—any guesses at what we’ll be spending to get to Yakutat, and back from Gustavus/Juneau all-in? Just looking for a round number to budget.

Roman—after the debridement has the impingement lessened?

Sleeping fitfully already…


And the rest is video and blog entries....more of which I'll try and trickle in, too.

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