Bears, Waves and Wild Blueberries
Kayaking Alaska's Talkeetna River

by Lisa Farin


There are really only three things you need to know about whitewater paddling in Alaska. One, bears are numerous. Two, bears can swim. And, three, once youÕre on the river, thereÕs nowhere to go but downstream.

With this knowledge in mind, I was somewhat comforted by the fact that we were a group of four (thereÕs safety in numbers), and that the bears on this particular river were already full of salmon. I hoped.

So, when I noticed the three kayakers in front of me backpaddling furiously, I had a pretty good idea why. On this easy, shallow creek, there were no big drops or obstacles. No waterfalls or killer holes. The only obstacle I could imagine my companions backpaddling that hard to avoid had to be of the brown and hairy variety.

WeÕd actually been expecting bears since we started, earlier in the day, on this small, splashy tributary of AlaskaÕs Talkeetna river. From our float-plane put-in on Stephan Lake, through Murder Lake and the upper reaches of Prairie Creek, our eyes had been peeled for the big grizzlies. WeÕd paddled past flocks of terns and numerous eagles feasting on the salmon bounty. The fish were so thick, in fact, that we heard and felt a loud ÒthumpÓ every time one would hit one of our kayaks as it thrashed its way upstream. At numerous logjams weÕd had to get out of our boats and portage. Lucky for us, we found conveniently-placed trails Ð bear trails, complete with fresh tracks and scat Ð which saved us the effort of bushwhacking through this rarely-traveled wilderness. Rarely traveled, that is, by humans.

On our last portage, we climbed a hill to get around some steep rocks. High above the river, in the midst of a wild blueberry patch, Mike, our guide, suggested we stop for lunch. When I protested that the presence of all these berries made this a likely bear feeding spot (and thus a dangerous place to break out our lunch bags) Mike had a quick retort. ÒSure weÕre in danger,Ó he said, Òbut weÕre in no more danger here than anywhere else on this river.Ó

My hunger finally overcame my misgivings. We ate turkey sandwiches and wild blueberries and talked, and ate, and talked, hoping our loud conversation would dissuade any wandering grizzlies. Fortunately, no bears came looking for blueberries. Or turkey sandwiches.

Twenty minutes later, back in our kayaks, we started to relax. After all, we were almost at the confluence with the Talkeetna, and we had yet to see a bear. Until I suddenly noticed the backpaddling in front of me. Less than 100 yards downstream a brown, furry face attached to the enormous body of a grizzly stood on a gravel bar looking straight at us. As we struggled to remain upstream of him, he continued to stare, most likely wondering whether weÕd be good for dessert. After what seemed an inordinate amount of time, our whistles and shouts must have convinced him that we werenÕt good eating, as he went running off into the bushes. By 3:00, weÕd run the eight-mile length of Prairie Creek. Mike let out a loud ÒwhoopÓ and I thought for a minute heÕd seen another bear. But it was just the jade-green Talkeetna he was hooting and hollering about. That, and the fact that weÕd made it without having to resort to gunshots or pepper spray. The confluence was impossible to miss: as the clear creek made a sharp turn, the vistas suddenly became wide and the water took on the TalkeetnaÕs characteristic, opaque green hue. This part of the river was calm, but fast, and as we drifted the mile or so to camp we marveled at the lush spruce forests and vast wilderness surrounding us.

The next morning, we awoke to brilliant sunshine, always a welcome sight in this part of Alaska. We were camping on Cache Creek, another tributary of the Talkeetna, and our group had grown to 16 with the addition of three rafts which had begun further upriver. Our guides started talking up Òthe Sluice BoxÓ Ð a 14-mile-long continuous stretch of whitewater Ð as soon as we finished breakfast, and once we were on the river I began peering anxiously around every corner. ÒWatch for the canyon,Ó they said, Òbecause after youÕre in it the whitewaterÕs almost nonstop.Ó After an hour or so of fairly easy paddling Ð minor playspots here and there, but nothing youÕd really call class III Ð we came upon what I recognized immediately as the start of the canyon. The walls closed in around us and, sure enough, there was a horizon line. As we pulled out to scout, my breathing became faster and shallower; my mouth parched. Climbing the hill for a better look, I became a little queasy and dizzy, and I donÕt think it was just my fear of heights.

Far below lay ÒEntrance ExamÓ and ÒToilet Bowl,Ó two contiguous rapids signifying the start of the serious whitewater. ÒEntrance ExamÓ was a riverwide hole, while ÒToilet BowlÓ, so named because of its constricted, surging boils, looked as if it would suck you right under. ÒTake Entrance Exam on the left,Ó said Jay, one of the raft guides, Òbut donÕt head straight downriver. See how the slot is angled? Hit that perpendicular, then you only have to get through the swirlies below before you set up for the final drop on the far right.Ó Right. Easy for him to say. I reluctantly climbed back into my boat, following the first two rafts. Catching the micro-eddy at the top of the drop I was able to line up, hit the slot, and maneuver through Òthe swirlies,Ó avoiding the undercut on the left bank. A couple of solid strokes and I was positioned on the right for the last part of the rapid. Dodge this rock, then that, brace into the breaking wave and turn into the eddy at the end. The rafters waiting at the bottom never even got to use their throw bags!

After we all passed the ÒEntrance Exam,Ó the river continued to tease us a little. Though we were technically in the canyon, the rapids eased up and it seemed weÕd completed the exciting part of the river. But gradually the waves got bigger and the canyon got narrower. The once scattered holes became nearly continuous. We caught eddies near shore when we needed a break, but the eddies were weak in that constant barrage of offset waves and not-so-friendly-looking holes. Every once in a while, weÕd stop to surf one of the enormous waves, but surfing was tough on the fly since the water was so fast and continuous Ð stop for a minute or two and youÕd lose sight of everyone else.

We stopped for lunch on a sandy beach and stripped off our drysuits to bask in the warm afternoon sun. The forty-degree water kept us from overheating on the river, but it felt wonderful to overheat on the beach. Our guides served us lunch, but getting out of cook duty wasnÕt the only reason weÕd gone with an outfitter. The remoteness and inaccessibility of the river made it even more important to have knowledgeable guides. Mike told us the story of a pair of paddlers who ran into trouble in the canyon and had to hike out. Two weeks hiking through rugged terrain with only the bears to keep them company. No thanks. Besides, our guides were great cooks.

Back in the water after lunch I had my first flip of the day: bracing on the first wave in a set, I braced a bit more for the second, and then got ready for the third. But by that time I had no room left to brace, and I was over. Mike looked back after I rolled up and said ÒI see the brim of your helmetÕs askew. Did you just roll?Ó So much for keeping an eye on me!

Less than three hours after weÕd entered the canyon, it came to an abrupt end. The walls closed in ahead of us like a gate, and once we passed them we were in open country. The river channel became braided, and the intensity was lessened by orders of magnitude. Our surroundings changed from steep headwalls and forest to rolling hills and broad panoramas. The afternoon sun lent a golden cast to the hillsides as we lazily floated the remaining few miles to camp. We camped at Disappointment Creek, which was anything but disappointing, where some of us relaxed in the evening sunshine and others wandered off to fish.

On that early August night it wasnÕt dark until nearly midnight, and on this, the first clear evening of the trip, I was anticipating watching for the Northern Lights. Unfortunately, I couldnÕt keep my eyes open long enough to wait for them.

Our final day on the Talkeetna was somewhat anticlimactic. A couple of prime surfing waves downstream of camp had tempted us all evening, but quickly spit us off once we finally got out on them in the morning. We passed a short, scenic gorge and the river once again became braided as it flowed through the Susitna Valley to the take-out at the town of Talkeetna. Passing gravel bars and fishing lodges we slowly got used to seeing people again, after not having seen seen another party in almost three days. But even a drift on this big, wide river was pleasant. After all, we still had our memories of ÒEntrance Exam,Ó and that perfect day in the canyon.

© 1996 Lisa Farin

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