The Thrill of Whitewater
June 17, 1984
"Here comes the first boat! Get ready!" A 16-foot inflatable Avon ripped by, four of its passengers already bailing.
"We push off after the second one!" My rafting partner seated himself on the wooden thwart, attached by Velcro to my untried 10-foot Zodiac. He was ready to row hard to the center of the Chickaloon River to miss a jagged rock the water boiled around just below us.
People shook their heads in amazement that we were taking such a small raft. I wondered at its seaworthiness on this river myself. "You're going to get wet in that boat!" we heard.
We were prepared to get wet, coated with layers of wetsuit, wool, and raingear. And we'd prepared for the float by listening to two slide show lectures sponsored by Knik Kanoers and Kayakers Klub on technique and safety. I had second thoughts (to put it mildly) as we were shown spectacular slides of rafts in all stages of destruction. But I'd promised my friends and I couldn't just back out.
Now, I felt ready. I was confident. It couldn't be too dangerous, or the club would have refused to take us.
"OK. We're off! ROW!"
My partner backed into the current and pointed the boat downstream. Within seconds we were in the rapids and a frothing wave rolled over the boat. They were right about getting wet!
"Cheat to the inside around the corner!" I yelled as we fast approached a rock wall. The boat tossed wildly through the waves, taking on more water as it splashed down a long straight stretch.
"To the left, no, to the right! We've got to miss that logjam! Row, row!" I shouted in panic. "Row faster!"
"I can't," he screamed back. The oar came out of the oarlock a long time ago!" I looked around and, sure enough, the right oar was loose, useless. Rowing with one oar would put us sideways in the stream, even more out of control, so he was simply trying to keep the boat going straight, straight, it appeared, into approaching sticks and logs.
We hit, bounced back, hit again, and grabbed on.
"Pull us up into that eddy," he said. I pushed away from the sticks, grabbed the cracks in the rock and eased us upstream to a shallow sandbar. Tom got out and pulled up the boat. I kind of rolled out, shaking and disoriented, with water swirling around my feet. Dizzy, I grabbed the side of the raft.
"Here, hold the bow line while I bail it out. We'll have to paddle from here," Tom said.
"Oh, no! Where's the other oar? It was here when we hit the logs!"
"It must have slipped off!" Within ten minutes, we'd lost one piece of equipment.
Tom picked up the bailing bucket, an old green canvas one, and worked fast. The last boat in the flotilla pulled up beside us to see how we were.
"We're fine," I shouted above the roar of the water. "One of the oars broke the oarlock so we're going to paddle."
"Let's move the thwart up front for me and you can sit on the rear tube," I suggested. We attached the board seat to the forward strips of Velcro and I got in. Tom pulled the boat upstream in the eddy as far as possible, then jumped in and yelled, "Go!" We paddled hard and fast. It didn't look like we would clear the logs and rocks this time, either.
"Harder! Now head it downstream!" We scraped by the rock. The bow dipped, then hit an oncoming wave. Water splashed over the sides. Wet again! The thwart detached and I tumbled hard onto the rubber floor, just as Tom yelled, "Quick! Paddle left!" In moments, I'd pushed the loose board aside and was kneeling in front, braced hard against the sides with my legs.
We rode out the next stretches conservatively, staying away from fast current. But then below us the river turned between two huge boulders and dropped quickly.
"What do we do now?" I screamed.
"No way around that! Stay to the center and keep it straight."
As the boat dipped, I leaned back to avoid being freshly drenched and discovered that doing so pulled the bow up and kept the waves from splashing in so badly. Hmm! This was starting to be fun. We were getting pretty good at steering away from rough stuff and reading the river enough in advance to position the boat.
We were in the middle of the current when I saw we were approaching a bridge, as well as a pillow of water that could only mean a big rock, right in our path.
"Paddle right!" I yelled. We cleared the rock easily, but the Glenn Highway bridge abutment was directly in front of us, approaching fast (pictured above).
Our attempt to change directions put us sideways to the current, the most dangerous way to hit an obstruction. It was too late to do anything but hold on.
The boat struck and tipped vertically onto its side, filling quickly as upstream water rushed in. We hung on for a long moment, then somehow bounced around the abutment and slogged on downstream. The boat was swamped to the hilt, floating underwater. But still floating! Rafting was apparently safer that it seemed!
Around the bend a girl smiled, waved and took a picture of us, two floating torsos with paddles. We pulled into the next eddy and emptied the boat, then ferried easily across the Matanuska River to a gravel bar. Eight other rafts awaited us there; another had stayed behind us to ensure our safety.
As we pulled up to the gravel bar, a woman said, "We were really surprised when you came around the corner!"
"Surprised we made it alive?" I asked jokingly.
"No," she replied, "surprised you were still smiling!"
Go on to read Resurrection Bay
Source: www.SusanCAnthony.com, ©Susan C. Anthony