Soggy summer won't dampen enjoyment of Alaska river experience

Raft operators in Matanuska area report that mild float trips remain popular

Posted: Sunday, August 17, 2008

MATANUSKA RIVER - Gray water rushed beneath us as we bobbed on a fast current. Even grayer storm clouds lay low over the mountains, feeding the air with light rain.

Everywhere you looked, in fact, were the colors of a summer gone bad. Off-white mist coated the gaps between mountains, settling like a damp blanket and removing views easily seen on a sunny day.

Instead of the faded gray of sun-baked wood, logs and other river debris were soaked chocolatey by a season of rain.

Still this Matanuska River outing with a gang of friends was one of those weekends that make Alaska so rewarding. Layered in rain gear and crouched under tarps, we groused about wet weather.

We reminisced about sunnier summers and daydreamed about tank tops and sandals.

But still, we were there.

As summer 2008 marches its way toward becoming the most miserable in recorded history, those who live for the activities this time of year may be wondering what gives.

Trails are muddy. Snow lingers in the mountains, and in the lower elevations golf courses and soccer fields are swamped and soggy.

But the rivers are wet as ever.

Erin Kenney works for Nova River Runners, which offers trips on the same area of the Matanuska on which our private party of four boats, 10 adults, three children and four dogs floated. She tells clients who call Nova they couldn't pick a better outdoor option.

"It's raining, but people are definitely still rafting," Kenney said last week. "It's the perfect thing to do on a rainy day because you're going to get wet anyway. At least they can enjoy it."

While rafting companies throughout Southcentral are monitoring the rivers' flow - if it rains too much, flooding can make the rivers high and dangerous - most are reporting that business is OK.

Especially popular are milder float trips that don't involve dangerous rapids, Kenney said.

These areas experience less fluctuation in water depth when the rain is coming down and give participants a taste of Alaska adventure without the heart-thudding anticipation of the challenging Class IV and V white water of such areas as Sixmile Creek.

Megan Grass of Chugach Outdoor Center, based in Hope, said the center offers mellow float trips along the upper portion of Sixmile Creek, called the Turnagain Pass Float Trip. It's been popular this summer.

"It's just a fast current, but you get to see the mountains and some of the wildlife of that area," Grass said. "People really seem to like it."

The outfitter also offers tame floats on the lower Resurrection River, near Exit Glacier.

Those outings have no white water, but give newcomers to the sport a sampling of river running.

For more experienced boaters, both Nova and Chugach Outdoor Center offer canyon runs of Sixmile, but the season's variable weather conditions have prompted some of those trips to be canceled, Grass said.

"We have a certain level where we will cut off and not run Sixmile because it's not safe," she said. "Because there has been so much rain and so much snow melt, we've had to cancel a lot of our trips this year because of high water."

Still, Grass said, rafting is a great option for less-than-sunny days.

Whenever potential clients inquire about rafting, she tells them to dress in layers and be prepared for cool weather.

Also, Chugach Outdoor Center, like most outfitters, supplies its guests with drysuits, which, when worn properly, keep you snug and dry as a cactus.

On the Matanuska River, the party of six on our boat had no such luxury. Dressed in heavy-duty rain gear and wearing life jackets, we felt the chill of the steady drizzle and were drenched by the occasional splash of Matanuska River water when riding a wave train.

Dressed in layers, though, we stayed relatively comfortable and dry next to the skin and were able to take in the sights of raptors flying overhead and Dall sheep perched on faraway cliffs. The most sharp-eyed among us even spotted a black bear scrambling up a scree slope into the protection of some trees.

Bobbing along on the water, we still lamented the loss of sunshine and grumbled about how much nicer it would be if the sun popped out. But once at camp, we left those gripes behind.

We pulled into an eddy, followed by our friends in their boats, and began unloading camping gear. Our campsite was a flat, brushy area frequented by moose. With unspoken efficiency, we began transforming it into home for the night. One group organized the kitchen area, another erected a triangle-shaped shelter to keep out the rain. Others scattered far and wide to set up sleeping tents in various spots.

Soon the rhythm of the evening set in, and we wandered back toward the rain shelter. A roaring campfire had been coaxed to life despite the wet wood.

A few hundred feet away, the scent of roasting garlic came from the kitchen as dinner got under way. By the campfire, the guys began filling the portable hot tub with river water that would be heated up via the fire.

Then, as if rewarded for our perseverance, the rain subsided, slowing to a drizzle then disappearing altogether. No rain was enough reason to celebrate, so out came the toys - a bocce ball set Sam Dennis had welded out of aluminum and a whiffle ball set Scott Fahrney had stowed away on his boat.

Lively games of both went on until well into the evening, when it was announced that the "hot tub was ready." With intrepid bravery, we stripped down to bathing suits and swim trunks and dashed on tiptoes through the slick ground cover to stew in the warmth of the hot water.

Even Caroline Knollenberg, visiting from California and the only nonresident among us, got into the spirit, plunging into the hot water and embracing the Alaska mentality of "mind-over-weather."

Kyle Kelley, general manager at Alaska Wildland Adventures based in Girdwood, said that's the best attitude to have. His company offers scenic float trips down the Kenai River, where the weather hasn't been much better.

"People have been weathering this pretty good," he said. "What's interesting for me, living here year-round, is that this (summer) is sort of like how we feel in winter. If you don't force yourself to get out there, you're going to be gloomy all winter.

"You don't want to be that way for summer too."

Coming off the river on Sunday afternoon, the drizzle had returned and our gear was thoroughly soaked. At the take-out, we pulled silt-covered dry bags from the boats and sat back to wait on the drivers of the vehicle-swap to return from the put-in.

Rain seemed to come in waves, at times a steady drizzle that then turned to random sprinkles. The kids, impervious to weather, dug in the sand, chased each other along the river bank and, eventually, talked Fahrney into one last game of whiffle ball.

Out came the plastic balls and the bright yellow bat. Gone from our minds was the fact that we were choosing - voluntarily wanting - to be out in this rain, on a glacier-fed river, at 50 degrees.

Because in Alaska, that's what you do.

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