Facing the 'Iatolla Hola'

Sometimes the banter is wilder than the rapids

Posted: Tuesday, September 04, 2001

Despite its mostly demure demeanor, the Mendenhall River can conjure adventure with a flick of a paddle.

Two tour companies offer float trips down the Mendenhall: Goldbelt's Auk Ta Shaa Discovery and Alaska Travel Adventures. Goldbelt offers rafting with a naturalist guide, eight to a boat, through the rapids on the Mendenhall. It also provides a tour canoeing Mendenhall Lake near the perimeter of the glacier.

Alaska Travel Adventures' tours carry eight to 12 passengers, plus a guide, in large rubber rafts on the river from the lakeshore, near the West Glacier Trail trailhead at Montana Street, to the Brotherhood Bridge. The tour comes with a chance to paddle the rafts, see the sights and enjoy wry descriptions of local color from guides with snacks at the end of the two-and-a-half hour ride.

Though most of the journey is tame, it takes passengers through small class-two rapids halfway through the journey. Dave Frederick, ATA guide, said the rapids shouldn't deter people from trying the tour.

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"It's a medium-speed float with a set of rapids that is really good for beginners," Frederick said. "(During training) they won't certify us until they feel comfortable with us guiding their grandmother down the river."

Frederick said each of the guides has to take at least 10 tours down the river without passengers. Guides carry weights to simulate passengers until they are capable of handling the rafts themselves.

As tour buses arrive at the launching point of the river at Montana Street, Frederick teased the crowd like a haunted-house barker at a carnival.

"The water is 34 degrees. For those who don't know, that's really, really cold. Don't go in it," he said as passengers signed waivers. "If you do fall in you will get swept into the rapids but we can probably save you. You can fall in. It could happen. It probably won't probably."

During the trip Frederick gave passengers, pale from his earlier pep talk, instructions on how to paddle the raft including preparing them in advance for rapid-fire instructions through the rapids as well as ways he would save them if they didn't follow instructions.

Jennifer O'neal of Aroyo Grande, Calif., said her family was looking forward to their trip down the river, but she was a little nervous.

"We wanted something we could all do outdoors together," she said. "But I'm really worried about tipping and going in."

Mendenhall River Float Tours

Alaska Travel Adventures

Start: Montana Street trailhead.

End: Brotherhood Bridge.

Cost: $101 tourists, $55 locals.

Duration: About 21/2 hours.

Contact: (907) 789-0052.

End of Season: Sept. 25.

Goldbelt Auk Ta Shaa Discovery

Start: Replica clan house in Vintage Park.

End: Vintage Park.

Cost: Call for details.

Duration: About 21/2 hours.

Contact: (907) 586-8687.

End of season: Sept. 25.

There is a good hour of simply floating down gentle parts of the Mendenhall before the excitement begins. Like a general going into battle, Frederick stops the raft huddling his tour battalion together to prepare for the rapids. As the rafts approach the rapids, passengers have to watch other tour rafts disappear one by one into the spinning, crashing waves.

"Can't we go around them?" O'neal asked.

Frederick explained his tour would not take the normal route but would take the "mother of all routes" on the Mendenhall: The Iatolla Hola.

Passengers, including O'neal, were not amused by the name but went on. The first set of waves hit the raft, sending it careening up and then quickly down at what seemed like a 90-degree angle to some sharp rocks. Frederick barked orders to paddle backward, paddle forward and finally to stop.

Once through the rapids, with a little more water in the boat and a fewer white knuckles, the first smile broke out and a range of relief giggles escaped everyone's lips, including O'neal's.

When asked why the Iatolla Hola isn't on the normal route, Frederick just smiled and said, "You know that big rock we almost hit?" he said.

No one had seen it and no one asked any more questions.

Melanie Plenda can be reached at mplenda@juneauempire.com.

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