SE Alaska Near-Disaster

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acrosome

SE Alaska Near-Disaster

Post by acrosome »

Greetings, Friends,

I have returned from my planned Alaskan jaunt and I am notionally whole, but also wiser.

For those of you not in the know- I have spent the past year planning a trip down the mightly Stikine River in British Columbia, into the Inside Passage near Wrangell AK, and up to LeConte Bay. Some friends and I planned to have an outfitter take us 160 miles up the Stikine via jet-boat, after which we would spend about 5 days going downriver and then a few days on the sea near Wrangell, to include the aforementioned peek at LeConte Glacier. (The river trip goes quickly because the current is as fast as 9 knots.) Despite its speed the river is flat, and described as a "novice river" in all the guidebooks. The authoratative work on the river, by Jennifer Voss, describes many people drifting serenely downriver even in sea kayaks (many of them folding) over the years.

Well, it turns out that spring was late and sudden this year in SE Alaska. When we arrived the Stikine was in full flood. But wait! Not only in flood but in "the worst flood since the 1950s." Hmm. That water seemed to be flowing pretty fast, too, even for 9 knots... (Later we'd find out it was more like 14 knots.) Our outfitter assured us that the high water really only meant some difficulty finding good camping, since a lot of the sites were under water, but that the river was still flat and broad.

The local river rats at Telegraph Creek (the town 160 miles upriver) recommended portaging one spot, which we diligently marked on our maps. The Voss book had said that the same spot was the only remotely hairy spot on the lower river, so portaging seemed reasonable. We had noticed some moderately sized standing waves during the boat trip upriver, but they were all in the first 20 miles or so and all in the main channel and we thought we could avoid them by sticking to the eddys as the river is very wide.

Wrong.

You must understand, when the current is 14 knots you have little reaction time (especially in a sea kayak). Also, while none of the waves were really big, there is a LOT of water pushing you through them. We made it about 6 miles.

The first bad omen- Sam slipped in the mud while getting in his kayak and got wet. We then pushed out into the channel and found our sea legs for the first mile or so. We then plowed right through the first set of waves, which had been hidden around a turn. Invigorating, but not difficult. Nonetheless I was having doubts about the river conditions. Tyler got spun around in those first rapids and almost hit the second going backwards as I watched helplessly from an eddy, but he managed to pirouette nicely just before entering them. (He had actually been taking whitewater classes, and thus in some respects may have been the best prepared of us all.)

We progressed downriver, and I only really got sucked into one other set of waves, but I really had to fight to keep from broaching. I soon realized, however, that I was generally the only one who was successfully staying out of the main channel (and the waves). Actually the rest of the group may not have been TRYING to stay in the eddys and soon was spread out over a half mile ahead of me, fighting their way through the heavy water in the main channel. I had just decided that we had had enough fun and was going to set about rounding everyone up to get out of the water when I came around a bend and saw Greg's kayak pushed up against a wall on the left bank where the main current nudged against it.

Greg was not in the kayak.

My first thought was "Hell, Greg's dead."

I pulled a little too close to his kayak to look for him and had to make a few vigorous moves to stay away from the wall and pull into the eddy just before it. Greg's kayak was turned sideways, pushed up against the wall, though all the gear he had stowed on deck seemed intact. Still no sign of Greg, though.

Then I spotted a quick flash of something above the water a good half mile downstream. My heart soared! It was Greg's arms churning as he swam for the right bank! (Greg later described "I was under water far too long, on the kayak, then the kayakon me, then just pushed down, upside down, rightside up..." etc.)

Thus, my second thought was "This pretty much validates my decision to abort, though."

I pulled into the current and made for him with a will. Nonetheless I couldn't quite make the bank where he landed and had to settle for calling to him as I slipped past him. He answered and seemed OK. A glance back showed that his kayak had gotten free and was following me down the river. A glance ahead showed Sam and Tyler still proceeding downriver in blissful ignorance. I decided to catch them and tell them to stop. I was off.

I caught them in pretty short order, actually, because they pulled into an island around the next bend to wait for us. I pulled in and told them about Greg, then set about rigging a tow out of my throw-bag, then told them to stay put and listen to channel 16 and set out after Greg's kayak. I never could catch it though- didn't even catch sight of it actually- it had gotten too far ahead of me while I talked to Sam and Tyler. Eventually I though better of risking my life chasing it by myself for tens of miles downriver, even if there was a VERY expensive camera lashed to the rear deck, and I pulled in and called Sam.

The weird thing was that Greg has been kayaking for years- longer than any of us. If I were to pick the guy in our group least likely to take a swim it would have been Greg. He was just happily plowing straight down the channel but, as I said, the river was pushing a LOT of water and just shoved him into the wall.

Anyway, Sam and Tyler crossed to the right bank and asked some locals for help fetching Greg. A very helpful Tahltan gentleman named Arthur (and his two boys) hauled me to where the group had collected at a local fishing camp in his pickup truck. Arthur's first words to me, upon seeing my rifle, was "Jeez, I'm sure glad one of us has a gun. This spot you landed in has a lot of Griz." Food for thought. Greg got warmed up at a campfire then checked out in the town clinic, and we hired the local river rats to haul all of our gear (less Greg's) back to Telegraph Creek.

Of course, all the locals were saying "Yeah, any other time this'd be a novice river, but not now..."

As an aside, teenaged Tyler caught an enormous salmon when one of the guys at the fishing camp let him throw a line in. He was quite proud, and remains unfazed by the days events.

We called our outfitter in a foul mood. Though we acknowledged that we had gotten ourselves into this mess, he also could have better appraised us of the river conditions. In particular a little heads up before we actually flew up there so we could modify our plans would've been nice. (But I guess he really wanted the $800 he charged for the water taxi service- which was admitted a very good price.) He felt a little sheepish, especially since the crew that dropped us off just refueled and jetted away in notime flat, but this didn't stop him fromasking us to at least cover the cost of gas to come pick us up and take us back to Wrangell. We still had to cool our heels in Telegraph Creekfor a couple of days waiting for an opening in his schedule, so we did some hiking and hauled the (remaining) kayaks to a local lake. We also spent most of the nights teaching Tyler to play Texas Hold'Em. I learned that Greg can't bluff to save his life.

Actually, the area is stunningly beautiful. It is much drier on that side of the coast range, and the nearest neighbor is 80 miles away.

Well, we decided to stay in Wrangell overnight, then have the outfitter drop us off near LeConte Bay so we could salvage something fromthe trip. Sam and I donated clothes to Greg, but he had also lost his tent, sleeping bag, and all the cooking supplies that the three others (less me) had planned to share. He bought a cheap Coleman sleeping bag as a replacement, and I decided to let him use my tent and I'd just sleep in my Hennessey Hammock. We also decided to use my Kelly Kettle to cook for the whole group for the rest of the trip, as it had performed admirably up to this point. (Incidentally, I was VERY impressed with both the Hennessey Hammock and the Kelly Kettle. I may buy the smaller Kettle soon, for less arduous trips. And for those of you who bemoan your kayaks' cargo capacity as being only sufficient for weekend trips- the Hammock packs MUCH smaller than a tent and pad, thus making room for more food, etc.)

Now, recall that I mentioned a late spring? One of the outfitter's crews came in and reported that the LeConte Bay was still chock full of bergs. We decided not to push our luck.

Ultimately we spent the rest of our time on a kayaking excursion around the Wrangell area. We crossed the 4-mile channel to Woronkofski Island and spent some time there- we had lunch next to a quite scenic beaver pond. After a brief hiatus we then made our way to the mainland near the Stikine Delta.

There is a US Forest Service cabin at a place called Garnet Ledge that we spent a very comfortable night in, using the wood-burning stove to full effect. We even spent an evening digging garnets, and produced quite a collection. (As fate would have it my daughter's birthstone is garnet, so in a few years when she is in the "pretty-rock stage" I shall present her with the little sack of garnets I dug for her myself in Alaska.)

We then hopped our way south down the coast, camping as we went. At one point Greg and I hiked up to a 2-mile long alpine lake where we had heard there was another USFS cabin. We were scouting to see if we could have another cozy night similar to our time at Garnet Ledge, but the trail dead-ended at the lakeshore and the cabin was nowhere to be seen. There was however a battered aluminum skiff there, with one broken wooden oar and one cheapo aluminum canoe paddle. We got halfway down the lake before we decided that even if there was a cabin at the far end of the lake that returning and hauling ourselves, the other two guys, and our gear was not worth the effort. Also, the skiff was taking on an unsettling amount of water through a badly patched crack in the hull. We decided to just camp.

Another spot we camped was apparently a very poplular fishing spot. All the groups who motored over from Wrangell in their boats were heavily armed, which made me feel vindicated for packing my Marlin. Never did see a single bear, though.

Ultimately, a very satisfying paddle, though not the epic one we had planned. And of course the details of the last few days are not as entertaining as the first few... (Actually, come to think of it one night we nearly lost the kayaks to a freak midnight high-high tide. Another lesson driven home.)

But despite the difficulties I have decided that I really love this stuff. I'm certainly going to stick to sea kayaking and totally forgoe even "novice" rivers, but I loved camping out of my kayak. It may be a very long time until I can devote more than a long weekend to it, though. I just moved to Kaiserslautern so I'm sure the next couple of years of vacations will be spent doing fascinating European things with the wife and kiddo.

But in a couple of years or so I have a plan... I figure our wives will be the sticking point, as usual. But what if we went for a paddle somewhere that they could spend a few days at a spa or some thing? I know my wife would go for it. I'm thinking Florida in the winter, when there are less bugs, with the wives at the spa and us guys spenting a few days on the Wilderness Waterway in the Everglades. (With our luck we are at near-certain odds of getting flattened by a hurricane, but thats what NOAA weather radio is for, eh?)
Last edited by acrosome on Mon Aug 06, 2007 8:33 am, edited 3 times in total.

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krudave
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Post by krudave »

acrosome wrote: But despite the difficulties I have decided that I really love this stuff. I'm certainly going to stick to sea kayaking and totally forgoe even "novice" rivers, but I loved camping out of my kayak. [snip] But in a couple of years or so I have a plan... I figure our wives will be the sticking point, as usual. But what if we went for a paddle somewhere that they could spend a few days at a spa or some thing?

Right on, brother! You had quite an adventure ... and very happily nothing irreversibly horrible occurred. If the conditions had been closer to "normal," I suspect all would have been well.

You've certainly got more balls than I do; I would never take a sea kayak down a wild river such as you describe.

On the other subject: you might consider a stay at Sechart in the Broken Group, Barkley Sound, Vancouver Island. It has the requisite hot tub and bar, along with some outstanding paddling water ... and a water taxi to shuttle all your gear back and forth to any of the eight campsites in the BG, part of Pacific Rim National park. And, there is a truly charming steamer ride from Port Alberni to Sechart, which can also take rubberneckers to Ucluelet and/or Bamfield, at opposing corners of BS ... and hot spots for the gawk, walk, and talk set.

Might meet everybody's needs.

Here is a photo essay on the BG:
http://www.westcoastpaddler.com/gallery ... m=85&pos=0
Dave Kruger
Astoria, OR
--
Folbot Kodiak, Cooper, and Edisto; three hardshells; Mothership: Surf Scoter the Bartender; dinghy Little Blue Duck.

Paul
knight of the folding kayak realm
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Post by Paul »

8-14 knots? Good call aborting. Too bad you couldn't have checked on the conditions prior to the trip and rescheduled. By the sound of it, it may not even be sea kayakable this season.
certainly going to stick to sea kayaking and totally forgoe even "novice" rivers,
The sea is full of surprises as well...

What items were lost to the river gods? Was the kayak ever recovered?

How did you find the people?

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tsunamichuck
Brotherhood of the Golden Paddle
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Location: Anchorage Alaska

Post by tsunamichuck »

Deployments prepare wives for the latter trips. Enjoy Ktown
Feathercraft Kahuna ( Angela )
Mariner Express ( Miruku Maru ) ( In Storage)
Northwest Sportee (SuperBoat)
Innova Safari
Mariner I
Feathercraft Java
Nautiraid 14
Innova Sunny
Aire Tributary Sawtooth

acrosome

Post by acrosome »

No, the kayak is either lost in the river, mounted over some river-rat's fireplace, or on its way to the Sea of Okhotsk. Greg had to pay for it- luckily it was a cheap rotomolded plastic thing. He lost clothes, tent, Jetboil, food- basically everything. But the real kick in the butt was the $5000 Hasselblad camera, plus probably another $5000 in lenses and other accessories, that he had lashed to the rear deck.

Ouch. At least he had it insured.

The locals all said that many novices use sea kayaks on this river, but the freak spring flood made it undoable at the time we tried. (Actually, if one had a whitewater boat it was probably doable with little struggle even during the flood.) Maybe some day when the kids are in college I'll give it another shot in August or September or something- just so the river doesn't win. I hold grudges like that. There's a hike in Rainier National Park that I need to have another shot at, too- supposedly you can hit 7 peaks in the Tatoosh Range in just over 12 hours if you hoof it, but I always have to skip the last one and still end up going down the Longmire/Eagle Peak trail in the dark.

I ackowledge that the sea can kill you just as dead as a river, and is actually more sneaky about it. But it is easy to verify conditions for the sea most times, in that you can check weather forecasts, NOAA radio, etc. Our error this time, IMHO, is that once we got to Telegraph Creek and saw the conditions were were already too committed of time and money to just abort without having a shot at it.

I reiterate that while the water was running wicked fast it was still flat and there weren't any real rapids, just some big standing waves (that weren't breaking) in spots. "Fast but flat"is how all the guidebooks describe the river. It truly isn't "wild", save that we found it in flood.

Anyway, sour grapes. If in a couple of decades you read a news story about some crazy retired army doc getting killed on the Stikine, you'll know who it was.

As for finding the people- I passed a fishing camp while chasing Greg's kayak, after I left Sam and Tyler on the island. When I radioed to Sam that I had given up the chase, I told him to make for the fishing camp and ask the people I had seen there to check on Greg, who was just over a mile upriver from them. The right bank has a dirt road running ten or fifteen miles downriver from Telegraph Creek to a cluster of cabins that styles itself the town of Glenora, which we hadn't yet passed, so the locals helped us fetch our stuff back to town in a pickup truck. It was fun hauling the loaded kayak up the bank and through the 200 yards or so of forest to the road.

So, what good non-river paddling is proximal to Kaiserslautern? I guess there's always Garmisch and the lakes in Bavaria, but the ocean is a bit far for a weekend drive.

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chrstjrn
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Post by chrstjrn »

I was near Kaiserslautern, a little while ago (see the thread on velomobiles-- you're right near the center of the unusual-bicycle universe).

I hear the Croatian coast is terrific, and would probably fit the bill as your wife/wives could stay at the hotels and you could paddle from one to the other. Might work out really nicely, and it would be much, much cheaper for your buddies to get there from CONUS than it was to Alaska (but Croatia isn't Alaska, either). Scottish islands? Scandinavian islands? Greece? There's a lot around.

I've heard the Frisian Islands (Northwestern German coast) are very nice. Read the first spy novel ever written, http://www.amazon.com/Riddle-Sands-Mode ... assics/dp/
0812966147/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1/102-4635586-1555365?ie=UTF8&s=
books&qid=1185705347&sr=8-1 (re-assemble link),
for an idea of it (and a great read!). The other books that Amazon page links to (John Buchan, Eric Ambler) are also absolutely terrific. Back when the spy thriller was a fresh form...
Chris T.
Klymit Packraft
In storage in the US:
~'91 Klepper A2 w/ BSD schooner rig
'64 Klepper Passat/Tradewind
'64 Klepper T12
Early '90s Old Town Canoe
Previous:
'04 Pakboat Puffin II
'05 Swift (prototype)
'84 Hobie 16.

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krudave
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Post by krudave »

Chris, might be a good idea to take that great last post and start a proper thread with its own title. I bet others would like to know of those places, and they might not find your post down here at the end of a thread on SE Alaska.

After you have moved it, we can put in a reference to take flks there.

Thanks.
Dave Kruger
Astoria, OR
--
Folbot Kodiak, Cooper, and Edisto; three hardshells; Mothership: Surf Scoter the Bartender; dinghy Little Blue Duck.

acrosome

Post by acrosome »

Patience, while I figure out how to add pictures...


Image
This is one of the Wrangell docks- the one just outside the Stikine Inn, where we stayed the first night. Wrangell is a pleasant little town, though while we were there it was a tinderbox polarized by the campaign for homecoming queen. Every local business had a poster for one candidate or another in the window, and talk of it dominated local conversations. Brittany had the best apple booth at the fair, though, so she gets my vote...

@%&$. Is there any way to make these pictures smaller?


Image
This is a typical view on the lower Stikine River, near the delta. I took it on the boat trip up river. If things had gone as planned we would have spent most of a week making our way through the water gap in the Coast Range.


Image
This is the beaver pond on Woronkofski Island where we had lunch. No beavers sighted, though the mosquitos were exceptional specimens. Tyler was nearly carried off. We didn't camp here.


Image
This is an ironically-named wreck on the shore of Woronkofski Island. The guy standing next to it is Greg- the guy who took a swim in the Stikine River after hitting the wall. He feels much better, now.


More to follow...
Last edited by acrosome on Mon Aug 06, 2007 8:34 am, edited 2 times in total.

acrosome

More photos

Post by acrosome »

Image
Here is a nice shot of Tyler as we were leaving Woronkofski Island. The area is spectacular. His PFD needed fitting, though. We fixed it later.


Image
This is the National Forestry Service cabin at Garnet Ledge. REALLY comfy compared to tents, etc. The knucklehead standing in front of it is Sam. Sam is an old college buddy of mine, and Tyler's uncle.


Image
From left to right: Tyler, Greg, Sam. They are digging garnets at Garnet Ledge. The area was left to the Wrangell Boy Scouts in some guy's will, and if you find any particularly big ones you are supposed to turn them in to the local Boy Scout group. One inch garnets are not unusual- we found a dozen or so- but they are pretty low quality with internal fractures and inclusions. Industrial quality, I guess- good for making abrasives and the like. But it was fun, nonetheless, especially for Tyler.


Image
Here is a neat picture from the front yard of the Garnet Ledge NFS cabin. The figure is Tyler. He tends to be in a lot of my pictures since, as a teenager, he was usually the one doing the scenic / exciting / foolhardy / stupid stuff while I had my camera ready. In the water in the distance you can make out the many trees and root-balls caught on the mudflats. The Stikine delta is off frame to the right. So much water was coming out of the river (in flood) that the Eastern Passage was fresh enough to drink a third of the way down Wrangell Island.
Last edited by acrosome on Mon Aug 06, 2007 8:35 am, edited 4 times in total.

acrosome

Post by acrosome »

Image
We called this "Too Small To Name Alaskan Creek", because it wasn't named on the map. I assume you understand the irony- the inlet is huge! We camped here on a little island. Hmm, Tyler's PFD had crept up again. I KNOW I fitted that thing, but I guess I should've checked him every time he put it on...


Image
Here is the camp at Too Small To Name Alaskan Creek, to showcase my Hennessey Hammock. It is sagging a little in this picture and needs tightened. It worked great; I really can't endorse it enough. And it is incredibly light and small-volume compared to a tent with pad, etc. It packs into a bag the size of a box of Kleenex. The other guys' tent is just off-frame to the right. I wish I had gotten some pictures of the Kelly Kettle, but I forgot.

These pictures were all taken on one of the new 3 megapixel Digital Hero waterproof cameras. Frankly, I'm disappointed with it. In bright light it is very contrasty, and in low light everything washes out or is incredibly blurred by the slow shutter speed. When you get the lighting JUST RIGHT the pictures can look good, though. It may be great for its intended use (dive photography, which I haven't tried it at yet), but it sucks when just used as a waterproof kayaking camera.

But then again Greg lost about $10,000 worth of high-end camera equipment, so maybe a $130 dive camera wasn't a bad investment... Anyway, the other guys have yet to send me copies of the photos they took in their little disposable cameras.
Last edited by acrosome on Sun Aug 05, 2007 3:19 pm, edited 1 time in total.

acrosome

Post by acrosome »

Image
this is one of my two attempts at an artsy picture with the pathetic little Digital Hero camera. The gear had droplets all over it from a light rain and the whole scene looked very fresh and clean. It almost works slightly out of focus as it is, but seeing the droplets would have been better.


Image
Okay, okay, here is my other attempt at an artsy picture. (Or more accurately it is the one frame of the dozen or so I shot of the same scene that looks decent.) The hulking dark object on the left is an old generator at the abandoned mill at Mill Creek.


Image
And now, another obligatory action shot. This is Sam and Greg in the double, on our way back across the Eastern Passage to Wrangell Island. By this point they had lost a bit of their spunk and had lashed quite a lot of gear to the deck rather than spend the time packing more carefully. I guess they figured we were on the home stretch, and were in a hurry to get under weigh.

Man, I really need to figure out how to make the pictures smaller. I'm sure that all ate a lot of memory.

So, final summary from the trip:

1) The river will always win.
2) The Hennessey Hammock rocks.
3) The Kelly Kettle rocks.
4) The Digital Hero sucks.
5) All mosquitoes must die.

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