FAIRBANKS — They say once you go whitewater, you never go back.
After my first whitewater kayak trip down the Gulkana River during the Labor Day weekend, I can see why the excitement of rapids could ruin flat water for some folks, including people in my party, even if it didn’t for me.
Of course, I wimped out on the biggest whitewater of the run, so perhaps I’m not the best one to say.
The Gulkana River has been on my radar since I moved to Fairbanks two years ago. The river, which parallels the Richardson Highway for much of its length, flows from Summit Lake to its confluence with the Copper River. Our plan was to float the 47-mile stretch from Paxson Lake to Sourdough Campground, a portion of which is designated as a national wild and scenic river.
This year’s late spring nixed tentative plans to do a longer version of the trip starting on the Denali Highway, but late August rainfall helped make it possible to do a late summer trip without much boat dragging.
While the Gulkana River is best known for its salmon fishing, the most appealing part of the trip for me was extended areas of Class II and Class III rapids. I’ve always taken a canoe on past river trips, but for the Gulkana trip I used a whitewater kayak for the first time, thanks to Tony Mustered, a friend who owns a tour business, Alaska Dream Adventures, and a Liquid Logic kayak dealership.
The boat I chose was what is referred to as a “play boat.” It was a stubby, heavily curved boat known as the Stomper. During our three-day trip, I came to hate the spinny craft on the flat water sections of the river, but it performed wonderfully in the faster whitewater.
Our party of six kayaks and one canoe left Paxson Lake on Saturday morning for what would be a three-day float.
Mustered, who’s been floating the river for years, said the changes from this year’s heavy spring flooding were noticeable as soon as we reached the Paxson Lake outlet. Not long after leaving behind hundreds of spawned out sockeye salmon, the river current picked up and started throwing lots of rocks and sweepers our way, a great preview for the main whitewater we would face the next day.
We reached the portage around the Gulkana Canyon Rapids on the afternoon of the second day. The Canyon Rapids, located at 20 Mile of the 47-mile trip, represents the biggest whitewater on the river. The rapids are rated as Class III or IV, depending on water flow, and the Bureau of Land Management advises that “only experienced whitewater boaters should attempt to navigate Canyon Rapids.”
That’s one of the reasons, after looking at the several hundred feet of rough water punctuated by rocks much bigger than our boats and one drop some two or three feet high, I decided to take the easy way out by portaging around the rapids.
On top of that was the fact that I had just heard a few weeks earlier about a Fairbanks Paddlers group that encountered a boy that needed urgent medical attention and had to be evacuated by helicopter. The thought of an injury in such a remote area, perhaps from slamming into a rock, was not one I wanted to become a reality.
Three members of our party kayaked through the rapids. Mustered and first-time whitewater paddlers Matt Yonder and Jesse Swibold made it look easy.
Downriver from Canyon Rapids, there aren’t any big drops or as many big rocks, but the rest of us got plenty of practice playing in the fast current and waves that pushed us along for the next four or five hours. We frequently stopped to bail the canoe and one kayaker took a couple of accidental swims, but we generally fared pretty well.
The slower flat water section at the end of the trip felt like a lot of work after negotiating the fast-moving rapids above. The lower section of the float also felt more scenic than the upper portion, or maybe it was just the fact that we weren’t focusing so much on navigation and could better enjoy the sights. There were abundant bald eagles and a great view of the Alaska Range framed by the trans-Alaska oil pipeline bridge as we neared our destination at the Sourdough Campground on Monday afternoon.
While the trip down the Gulkana River gave me my first taste of whitewater kayaking and I’m eager to sample more, I’m far from done with flat water and hope to squeeze in a trip on the Upper Nenana River this weekend.
That said, I’m eager to go back to the Gulkana.
Next time, I won’t be such a whitewater wimp.