Dropping Fish Creek falls

Kayaking buddies claim first-known descent of 20-foot drop on Fish Creek

Posted: Friday, December 17, 2010

It's one thing to enjoy a leisurely sea kayaking experience in Southeast Alaska, but it's another thing entirely to stare down the barrel of a 20-foot drop on upper Fish Creek in an 8-foot kayak.

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Courtesy Of Joran Freeman
Courtesy Of Joran Freeman

On purpose, no less.

But for kayak enthusiasts Joran Freeman and Doug Kolwaite it was a chance to do something never done before.

"I was thinking, 'This is higher than I thought it was, so I better nail the entrance. Otherwise, it's going to hurt,'" Freeman said.

While no official records have been taken of such a feat, this is believed to be the first descent down that particular stretch of Fish Creek. Freeman said given the number of river kayakers in Juneau, another descent would have been acknowledged had it been done.

"It's a small boating community, and for such a challenging creek, many of us would know if someone had done it or not," Freeman said. "So, it's quite certain nobody had done it before."

Kolwaite and Freeman had been planning this daring maneuver for about the last three years, Freeman said. And while most good friends enjoy going out for a slightly less dangerous experience, these two prefer dropping off a 20- to 25-foot waterfall in a 50-pound boat that's barely longer than an average man.

"Doug and I have been kayaking for 20 years together," he said. "(Kolwaite) recently moved to Juneau, so that allowed us to go out, as good friends do, and do something fun."

While this definition of fun is more for the thrill-seeker than the couch-surfer, it's something no "newbie" should attempt. But Freeman and Kolwaite have been doing this for a while.

Freeman has been a Juneauite for about eight years while Kolwaite has only recently moved to the capital city, but the two have plenty of experience in Alaska's whitewater.

"I started kayaking 20 years ago in Denali National Park part-time when I was a river guide," Freeman said. "When I wasn't river guiding, I was out on the water learning to kayak."

From there Freeman attended Humbolt State University in California before eventually finding his place in Juneau. Here he found a small contingent of whitewater kayakers looking for similar thrills. It was a group of people with whom he shared a similar interest.

"I had been thinking about doing (upper Fish Creek) for about three years, and I know a few others in the community had thought about doing it," Freeman said. "Some people, including myself and Doug, had done some scouting to get more familiar with the line and what it would take to actually kayak it."

Whatever scouting was done prior to the first descent, it worked. The first attempt by Freeman and Kolwaite was a success. And the boats they used are perfectly outfitted for such a descent.

"We use what's called a creek boat," Freeman said. "They have solid bulkheads to where they can take a beating if you enter too steep and hit some rocks."

As for the paddles, Freeman said each boater has their own preference.

"Mine's a hybrid paddle. It's got a wooden shaft and synthetic blades," he said. "Wooden paddles can allow for less chattering on bigger water and provide a stronger, smoother paddle, where the lighter synthetic ones can make for really fast, quick paddle strokes."

Fish Creek consists of two sections on which people kayak. The lower portion is a 2-3 mile stretch of continuous whitewater that Freeman described as Class 4 rapids, which are considered very dangerous and capable of easily capsizing your boat. These rapids are generally for very experienced kayakers.

But upper Fish Creek is roughly a quarter-mile area of water that boasts a series of waterfalls ranging anywhere from 10 feet to more than 20 feet. And they wanted to wait for the right conditions where the water wasn't flowing too high, or too low. They made their descent during a medium flow.

"It was just a real delight and challenge to get on that upper section," Freeman said. "It's one of those things where, if everything goes right, it's a great run. But if not, it certainly comes with some consequences."

"I think it was exciting and rewarding enough to want to go try it again during a different water level," he said.

And while Freeman said he and his friend Kolwaite enjoy the spontaneity of heading out on a new adventure, they are certainly doing their research and looking for that next line. But Freeman also said he and Kolwaite are hardly the first to this kind of thing in Southeast Alaska.

"There are several other people in the area who are scoping out those first descents and looking for places nobody's ever been," he said. "And so we're certainly not ambassadors of that genre or anything.

"There are other people around here who have done lots more crazy things and many more first descents."

As they say, there's a first time for everything.

• Contact Matthew Tynan at matthew.tynan@juneauempire.com.

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