The Tlingits called it Great River. The name still fits. The Stikine River drains 20,000 square miles, runs 400 miles, is North America's fastest-flowing navigable river and is one of the few remaining free-flowing rivers.
Historically, the Stikine served as a transportation corridor for Natives and gold seekers. Today it offers an unusual experience for Southeast kayakers and canoeists - the opportunity to move quickly on the water without paddling.
The trip usually begins in Telegraph Creek, a small community in British Columbia, and after a short ocean crossing, ends 160 miles later in Wrangell. Along the way, boaters move from gentle sloping uplands with spruce, fir, aspen and birch, through the steep, glaciated Coast Mountains and finally return to the familiar Southeast spruce and hemlock rain forest.
"I'm really glad I went," Merrill Lowden of Juneau. "It's the prettiest scenery I've ever seen."
Telegraph Creek is accessible by a rough road from the Cassier Highway or by plane. In late August a group of 10 Alaskans - seven from Juneau and three from Kodiak - chose to fly with all their gear, including six collapsible kayaks.
The first surprise of the trip was the river's speed. Instead of having to paddle to move, much of the time was spent simply sitting in the kayaks, riding the fast current and watching the changing scenery flash by at more than five miles per hour. That's twice the speed most kayakers paddle while on Southeast waters.
With the strong current comes standing waves and strong eddies. Two hours into the trip, the Alaskans approached a place the map labeled Bad Rapids.
"We didn't know if the rapids were bad," one kayaker said. "But the name certainly was."
The group pulled into a sandbar and waited while trip organizer and leader Larry Musarra of Juneau walked ahead to scout.
It's a piece of cake if you avoid the rapids, he reported back to a relieved group. "You're toast if you don't!"
Larry's initial observation held true for the rest of the trip. With a bit of river sense and experience, the numerous riffles were easily navigated by staying in the main channel but away from the riverbanks where fallen trees sometimes presented obstacles.
The first few days on the water, in the Coast Mountain rain shadow, were the kind you hope for but never really expect on trips planned far in advance.
These were the so-so days of the trip: so much sun, so much changing scenery, so much river speed, so many miles covered, so little paddling.
"We use so little sunscreen in Juneau," Lenné Musarra said, "You think it lasts forever. I hope we brought enough along."
Although the shoreline vegetation and geography changed throughout the trip, braided channels and sandbars dotted with weathered logs were a constant. From a distance, the channels looked similar and picking the proper course was difficult. As the lead boat floated closer, however, the main channel became clear. Then the leader yelled, "left channel," or "right channel" to the following kayaks.
The flat sandbars served as convenient rest stops and campsites. And at virtually every stop, fresh wolf, moose and bear tracks were easily visible in the sand. Although only one bear was seen on this trip, the frequency of footprints made it clear the kayakers were not alone.
As the miles quickly passed and more riffles were successfully navigated, the group began looking forward to faster water - until Little Canyon. The map described it as "a one-kilometer, 100-meter-high canyon. The most difficult stretch of water on the lower Stikine."
Approaching the canyon, the lead boat picked the route and the other five followed in a line. Once in the canyon, action came quick along with the adrenaline: Paddle hard to the right to miss a big rock, paddle left to avoid the current deflecting off the canyon wall, balance over upwellings and back eddies, and then it's over. The whole adventure took a minute.
Days developed a comfortable routine that began with people climbing out of sleeping bags and tents about 7 a.m., eating and getting under way by 9:30 a.m. There would be a mid-morning break, lunch, an afternoon break, and then the evening camp about 6 p.m. While on the water, kayakers sometimes rafted together to chat, sometimes floated alone, sometimes let the currents twist them in 360-degree circles. Each day included different highlights. During six days on the river, they included hiking to a waterfall or up an interesting valley, balancing rocks on a beach to practice a Japanese meditative technique, looking for petroglyphs on one beach only to be informed by a homeowner who kindly motored across the river that the petroglyph was buried in the sand, seeing occasional jet boats powering against the river's current, meeting a couple from the Czech Republic who were motoring up river and stopped by to talk, passing a fish processing plant, seeing the old Canadian customs house, and passing the straight swath cut through the trees that marks the border between the United States and Canada.
A guide to kayaking the Stikine River
For the Juneau Empire © 2003
The best time to travel on the Stikine River is from late May to late September when the snow has left riverbanks and before fall rains.
It's always safest to paddle with several boats. Once started, it is impractical to think of returning upstream without aid from powerboats because of the river's speed.
Some Juneau airplane charter companies fly to Telegraph Creek, British Columbia, and can help clear customs. On this trip, it cost less than $300 per person for one-way air transportation from Juneau to Telegraph Creek for the 10 people, gear and six collapsible kayaks.
A number of jet boats operate out of Wrangell and one company quoted a price of about $400 to carry two hard-shell kayaks and two people up the river to Telegraph Creek.
For information about the Stikine River see the British Columbia Ministry of Forest's "Lower Stikine River Recreation Map." Call (250) 847-7207 or visit www.maptown.com/bcforestry.html to order.
The U.S. Forest Service has produced a map, "Stikine River Canoe/Kayak Routes," for the U.S. portion of the river, which is available at the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center.
Jennifer Voss has written a book, "Stikine River: A Guide to Paddling the Great River," published by Rocky Mountain Books.
Then there were the hot springs. After five days on the river, the group took a side channel to Chief Shakes Hot Springs, a popular destination for Wrangell residents in powerboats, and an anticipated respite for all river travelers.
Long, blissful "ohhhhs" and "ahhhhs" erupted from dusty kayakers as each descended into the tub's hot waters. Eventually the group returned to the boats, cleaned, refreshed and ready to be lazy.
"It's about 11 miles or two hours to the cabin," Larry Musarra said to the group, some of whom were ready to camp where they stood. He had reserved the Forest Service's Mount Rynda Cabin. Everyone agreed the extra effort would be worth the cabin's comfort and slid clean bodies into dirty kayaks to paddle on.
Longer days and more miles during the beginning of the trip allowed extra time near the end in case or weather or other delays. The last night was to be spent a short distance away at the Garnet Ledge Forest Service cabin, only 8 miles from Wrangell. A weather check during lunch at the ledge, however, confirmed the forecast for 30-knot winds. Rather than wait, prudence dictated making the three-mile crossing of the Inside Passage's Eastern Channel while the water was still calm.
Finally safe and settled in Wrangell after six days and 160 river miles, the group took part in the city comforts, then packed boats for the flight back to Juneau. Everyone said they'd take the trip again.
"Awesome," Brad Stevens of Kodiak said.
"I thought it was great fun," echoed his young daughter Cailey.
"It was a very peaceful experience. Very centering," Meri Holden of Kodiak said.
Several mentioned the long river trip reminded them of what it must have been like for early explorers making their way into unknown country. It was a role played for many years by the Great River.
Scott Foster is a writer and outdoorsman living in Juneau.