This Saturday I decided to take my young friend, Wesley, from South Florida for the first trip he has ever been on down the river. I introduced him to fishing for Copper River Red Salmon (in the Klutina River) the prior week and though we didn't catch any he was "hooked". I thought a trip down the Gulkana would be a good opportunity to show him the type of place he had moved to while providing an excellent chance to catch a few of those beautiful reds and maybe tie into a king or two. The river has been running high (and a little muddy) but I still thought it would be a fun trip.
So I loaded up my 18' Mad River Freedom Whitewater canoe, a cooler with snacks (no bananas) my two Ugly Stick fishing rods, enough tackle & bug dope to make it through the day and some spare clothes in a dry bag. It's not unheard of to flip so why take more stuff than you are willing to lose??
I'm sorry this is not a photo diary, I'll get into why that is the case momentarily.
(Also, I'm writing this now because I'm mostly healed.)
Even though the Gulkana is a fairly mild river it can be very problematic in some places, usually nothing I cannot handle. The day started off well enough it was beautiful and we were getting an early start (night owls) putting in at 9 am. The snow covered Wrangell Mountains provided the backdrop as we carried our gear down the bluff to the river, Wes could see this but, since I was wearing my canoe as a hat, I had to take his word for it.
Things started off with an immediate adrenaline rush when I set the canoe down about 20' above the river on the edge of a steep bluff so that I could climb down and then launch it. My canoe hasn't been in the water for over a year so it was a bit impatient, it decided to launch itself as Wes and I watched from the bank. I performed a hasty gear striptease as I ran down the river while trying to plot the course of my canoe trying to decide how wet I was going to get. I managed to only need to go up to my knees. I picked up the trail of gear as I towed the canoe back up to the launch reminding Wes that I told him he would be getting wet feet.
We launched (this time in conjunction with the canoe) and my 20 year old friend nearly squealed as we started floating down the river. Man, this was going to be a lot of fun. I showed him the ins and outs of managing a canoe and what the different paddle strokes accomplished. I've dumped exactly two canoes in my life, once in the Pere Marquette River on April 1st when I was a teenager with my dad Steelhead fishing (that was a cold day), and once two years ago in a very warm Gulkana River with my wife (she was less than thrilled). I say this because I feel very confident with my canoeing abilities and thought I had a lot to offer my young friend in the ways of becoming a canoe snob. Little did I know....(Pride goeth before the fall).
After looking for fish and trying several likely holes it looked like we were on our way to getting skunked again. We were taking our time, we passed a couple rafting, and traded the lead a few times throughout the day with them. At about the 1/3rd point of the trip we started seeing some whitewater, and Wes was getting a bit of rush out of the standing waves we were riding over and a few submerged rocks we barley avoided. I was laughing quite a bit as I knew their was rougher stuff to come. We found some rougher stuff a couple of bends down. A pair of VW Bug sized rocks sticking out of the water in a tight spot. The current speeds up at that spot in the river you need to dodge quite a few rocks before you shoot past the big rocks. I generally don't have a problem keeping my boat pointed downstream, but the weaving can sometime get you a bit sideways (especially with the turbulence). With the high rocker and low stability it is pretty easy to get in a bad way quickly and then bad things happen before you have a chance to respond. I saw it happening, we got a little crossways to the rocks and I tried to correct, too much weight upstream, SPLASH.
The first thing that went through my mind was "Damn there goes my brand new rod and Mitchell reel!" the next was "The current is going to break my boat on those rocks".
Wesley came up in a panic. I grabbed him and pulled him up on the rock as I climbed out myself. I looked him in the eyes and told him he was okay, and to BREATHE. He did a lot of breathing and praying over the next few moments while I started trying to figure out what configuration my boat was in (keel to the rocks). It was bad. I handed Wes a seat cushion and pointed him towards the shore telling him to get to the bank. He shook his head, "NO, I'M STICKING WITH YOU!", shouting over the current. I shrugged and said "OKAY, LETS TRY TO GET THE CANOE OFF OF HERE!" We got on the "downstream" gunwale, planted our feet on the rock and pulled, the canoe didn't budge, the current was putting a tremendous amount of pressure on my boat. About that time the rafters caught up to us and pulled over to the the shore near us. I decided to consult with the guy so I jumped in and swam to that side of the river.
As it turns out, Aaron, used to work swift-water rescue on the Snake River in Idaho. (Coincidence, that one of the only two other people on the river had this type of training?) He was well prepared and had a rope among other things. I went upstream and roped back over to Wes in the current. We roped the cooler and the dry-bags to shore (I should have thrown the rods over at this point). At this point I looked at Wes (I was doing fine) but he was starting to shiver (Southerners), I asked him how he was. He said "FINE!". He wasn't fine. I tied a bowline to the stern of the boat so that Aaron could pull as Wes and I would lift the upstream gunwale. At this point the current swept me away (over the stern) and I managed to regain my footing in behind the lee of the rocks and got back to Wes. I then proceeded to get washed off the bow end of the boat. With both feet firmly planted on the bottom of the river and both hands on the gunwale I still got swept away, with both hands holding on to the bow and my feet waving in the current. I can do many pull-ups and yet there was absolutely no chance for me to hold on to the bow. This time I got a ride over some pretty nasty rocks. Regaining my feet I started wading back to Wes again, tripping as though blindfolded through an obstacle course of coffee-table like shin punishing rocks. Got back to Wes, reset to push again, washed out again.
At this point I knew I had to get Wes to shore and warm. His hands have been busted up from his time playing wide-receiver in college and I know that they get cold really fast (40 below is brutal on him). We gave it one more try, both of us pulling up as hard as we could, we moved the canoe! After breaking some of the pressure Aaron was able to pull the canoe maybe an inch or two. That was all it took, the balance tipped from the pressure being more on the bow to near parity. My boat folded in a way God never intended canoes to fold. Aaron gave me the cut-throat signal, I nodded yes, my boat was dead. After fighting the current for what seemed like 5 minutes and nearly coming to tears at the exertion I managed to get my bowline knot untied (that's supposed to be easy). We roped Wesley over after Aaron demonstrated how we should wrap him. Wesley's eyes got really big when he went in the water. I got back to what was left of my canoe to look at what was left to salvage, my rods had washed out, my tackle wasn't worth bothering with, and the cool rock I had picked up for my wife was long gone. So I swam to shore.
Aaron and Sarah were kind enough to give us a ride to the next pull-out where I called my wife on my still dry cell phone. As we walked up to the road (about two miles) carrying all of the wet gear we had salvaged (hands full) we had the pleasure of being devoured by horseflies and a small cloud of mosquito's. As we shivered, ached from the pounding the river gave us, and double timed it, I mentioned to Wes something I had brought up earlier that day. As we were getting skunked, I said "You know not catching fish isn't as bad as being cold, wet, and hungry on the riverbank wondering how you are going to get home." (Why don't they make cheap wooden paddles anymore?)
Since Wesley was packing a pair of paddles in one hand and a completely soaked 'dry'-bag in the other he didn't have any hands free to hit me which was good. I decided to try and lighten the mood by reminding him of the Shackleton expedition and how this wasn't anything compared to that. Sure we lost our boat but we did it with a lot more alacrity. That seemed to cheer him up a little, or maybe it was the fact that my wife had showed up with something to eat, drink, heated leather seats, a place to throw our gear and a respite from the insect swarm.
Aaron got a few pictures of my "retired" boat, he seemed to enjoy that in a kind of unhealthy way. As we floated down the river he said he would get me the pictures, but in my spacey condition (and the fact that I was busy bailing his overloaded raft) I forgot to get or give enough specifics to make this happen (Aaron? You reading this?) Wesley says he'd go again (but I think Wesley knows it's not likely that I'm going to get another canoe). I'm thinking my next boat is going to be a raft which, after virtually living in a canoe as a child and young adult, makes me sad. I don't have the stuff anymore to canoe in the one canoeing river in my neighborhood. All my rafting buddies are going to gloat..
Now that my obligatory sunburn is mostly healed, the slimey rock dermabrasion has scabbed, the bruising has gone down, the horsefly bites are less itchy, and I've got my Cabela's order in, I reflect on the very Buddhist philosophy of my longtime junkyard dwelling uncle. He would ask "How do you get everything you want in life?" and answer "Want less." My life isn't defined by what I lost on Saturday, it's defined by the friendship that deepened between me and Wes. He'll never forget that first day he floated the river and neither will I.