A memorable day on the Mighty Mendenhall

Posted: Sunday, June 08, 2008

The tumbling water off the right bank of the Mendenhall River looked slightly uneasy, so as captain of the 15-foot plastic canoe, I barked to my colleague Alan Suderman that we should veer left where the water appeared to be smooth and docile.

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Photo Courtsy Of James Di Loreto
Photo Courtsy Of James Di Loreto

For weeks I'd been touting my paddling prowess to my newly arrived Texan friend, filling his ears with grandiose tales of rafting Class V rapids, so therefore on our sunny Memorial Day I felt more than confident in my ability to charter us down our community's most accessible glacier-fed waterway.

Channeled into what I perceived to be the ideal line down the river, the froth from the edge of an ominous hole slowly came into view and I noticed a rock hugging the left shore that was creating a miniature two-foot waterfall that we were heading directly for. I instinctively back-paddled for a moment but there was no battling the sheer force of the spring-melt current and the nose of the canoe soon dropped into the pit, springing Suderman from his seat before we tilted to our right, flooding the boat with at least a dozen gallons of water.

We managed to briefly recover but our nose drifted to the right and another set of small tumblers dumped our floating tub, and the crisp glacial runoff carried Suderman and the canoe downriver as I gasped for breath. He contests this after the fact, but all I could hear were his shrieks of panic drowned out by the static noise of water rushing through rocks as I nervously laughed, shrouded in humbleness for flipping a canoe on what I arrogantly took to be a very basic river.

When you lose respect for a river or body of water - that's generally when things tend to go sour. In essence I disrespected the Mendenhall River by internally rating it as a glorified Disneyland ride that geriatric adventurers off cruise ships raft down. In actuality it is a fairly simple river to navigate if it's respected, but I was reminded on Memorial Day that humility is an admirable quality to possess when boating.

The river made a slight bend to the right, and Suderman, the 85-percent sunk canoe and I wound up on a small glacial silt beach crowded by alder trees on the river's left bank.

I hadn't until that moment been worried about the numerous commercial rafts I saw staging off the shores of Mendenhall Lake earlier that were just moments away from passing by. We laughed before Suderman scolded me for allegedly telling him our chances of rolling the canoe were "minimal." After dumping the dozens of gallons out of the canoe we watched numerous tourist-filled rafts float by, possibly being the only true "wild life" they observed on their semi-urban Alaska excursion.

I'm not sure what the temperature of the water was that day, but I attest that it was abrasive and raw.

There is really only a one-mile section of the six-mile long Mendenhall River that has mildly turbulent water when the flow is at a moderate level. If you are overly confident in a canoe you very well might roll like we did, but that is generally the exception and not the rule - although Suderman probably feels differently now. Luckily all that was lost were his glasses, something he finds less and less humorous each time I mention it.

The real moral of the story I came away with - besides keeping the canoe afloat - is to take all necessary precautions even when embarking on what you consider to be a small outdoor endeavor.

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