Essay: Canoe trip, Situk River, Yakutat, Alaska

First posted in June, 2003

Some background

I have three seasonal employees at work, all young and very energetic. Two of them are native to Yakutat and have lived here their entire lives, but have explored surprisingly little of this area. One of them has been wanting to float the Situk River for some time, and had talked a few people into going this Sunday. She asked if I'd come too, and although I had far too many things to do to justify playing outside all Sunday, it occurred to me that I'll soon be moving, and I should explore while I still have the opportunity or else regret it later. I agreed to go.

Logistically, they really hadn't arranged much, which made me fairly uncomfortable. Floating a twelve mile long stretch of river requires finding enough boats for the people going, arranging vehicle shuttles, etc. None of this had been properly planned, not through any real fault of the primary instigator, Amanda, who is seventeen and has never attempted anything like this before. So, after work on Saturday I began making arrangements.

Planning gone to hell

There's little point going into the specific details of why things transpired they way they did, but suffice it to say that I got everything arranged for the four people that were supposedly making this journey, including myself, only to have two people bail out the morning of the trip. This meant that I was forced to rearrange some of the arrangements at the last minute. A fairly annoying development, to say the least, but nothing much to worry about. However, this meant that instead of being in a small boat by myself, I was now in a canoe with one other person, Amanda, who had only been in a canoe once before in her life, and that was just last Wednesday - on a creek with no current, with a different partner, and now we would be on a larger river, deep in places, full of sweepers (downed trees that can do horrible things to a canoe), and plenty of current. It was also my first time in the canoe this season.

Better yet is that one of the people who'd agreed to go and then didn't show up at the river had borrowed but agreed to bring my personal bear spray and a radio for contacting people should we need help. I mitigated that problem by deciding that the river is quite well populated with fishermen if we needed aid, and we would be on the water almost exclusively, making the chance of a bear encounter less probable.

Even better is that the other person who had planned to join us was the one who had floated the river before and knew its nuances, but she had decided to stay up until three that morning having too good a time and had bowed out at 6:30 AM. This meant I was in a canoe with what was essentially a first time paddler on a river I did not know. Fun, fun. Thankfully, the verbal descriptions this person gave me of the major river obstacles proved to be accurate.

>launch boat

We launched on time, at eight o'clock, which pleased me. Amanda greatly enjoys sleeping in and is not much of a morning person, but she was ready and waiting, just as promised. I gave her a crash course in river safety as we were floating away from the road, and laid down the rules for the trip, long ago memorized from when I'd worked for a white water guiding company back East in my pre-Park Service days. I positioned Amanda in the front of the canoe, and needed her to obey my every command for the trip to go flawlessly; she turned out to be a fast learner and quick on the paddle commands. I was impressed and had hope the trip would go well.

I saw the first major obstacle on the river well in advance, and there was a convenient gravel bar adjacent to the log jam which allowed us to portage the area rather than risk capsizing the boat. We took a break there before continuing.

The river was lovely. Stretches of wide, peaceful water intermingled with class one rapids... mere ripples that really wouldn't have been dangerous were it not for the combination of downed trees, swift current and a tipsy canoe. In the quiet stretches, I had the freedom to enjoy the view, gaze into the woods, search for tracks on the bank, and watch seeds drift down on cottony parachutes toward the water. I listened to the call of varied thrush, robin, humming birds, ravens, and Stellar's jays. I watched eagles soar high overhead. Mergansers led the way, swimming along until we got too close for comfort, then flying only a little bit ahead so that the same scene would repeat itself over and over. Sandpipers and yellowlegs foraged on the bank. From time to time, the water rippled as king and sockeye salmon swam beneath the boat, furiously working their way upstream to spawn.

We paddled along in unison when the current was insufficient to move us, Amanda paddling on the right and I on the left. It felt good, sitting tall in the seat, moving through the water, watching the trees go by. I laughed and remarked to Amanda that I felt a bit like Tolkien's Aragorn, returning from exile and paddling toward the gates of Argonath. She laughed and said that she and Erin had had a similar conversation the previous Wednesday when floating Tawah Creek.

Occasionally, we'd meet other people on the river: eager fishermen who were all too baffled about why we would merely canoe the river, but not fish it as we went.

The story takes a turn

All went well until, in a very unexpected spot, we came around a curve and the current took the bow into the bank. I cursed myself for allowing the river to get one step ahead of me, though it normally would have been no problem, for the curve and current were such that the stern would have swung around, the bow dislodged from the grassy bank, and we would have been on our way. But Amanda panicked, and panic is a bad thing when you're in a canoe. I had just enough time to ask her to relax, but the request went unheeded and instinct took over - her eyes grew wide, her body went rigid, and unable to balance while impersonating a stiff board, the canoe capsized. We were able to keep the boat, thankfully, though it was a fight against the river, who filled the boat with her waters and forcefully tried to steal the canoe from us. Fortunately, the water was little more than waist deep, and we were able to wade the fully-swamped canoe across the river to a sandy bank, where we regrouped.

Amanda was a bit confused as to what had happened and a little upset with herself. She was sorry to have panicked, but I told her it was no problem - I explained that I should have seen the situation well in advance and avoided it altogether, but it was my fist canoe trip of the season on a river new to me. She shook her head, looked at the area where we'd spilled out, and told me that there was really no reason for us to have capsized, the experience had merely unfolded too quickly and she'd reacted wrong. I laughed it off, and told her that she now had the Full Canoe Experience, and would know better what to do next time. It really was no problem - she was new to this situation and the event was now behind us.

She'd lost her paddle and was very worried about that, but I had brought extra paddles and wasn't worried about the paddle she'd lost. I had more where that one came from, I assured her. She promised to watch for it throughout the trip, and I let the matter drop. What I was worried about was hypothermia. It was an overcast day, as is so often the case in southeast Alaska, perhaps fifty degrees Fahrenheit at most, and we were both very wet.

Now is a good time to tell you that Amanda has gone on one major river trip before. Last summer, in conjunction with work, I sent her down the Tatshenshini and Alsek Rivers, from Dalton Post in the Yukon to Dry Bay, Alaska - about 150 or so river miles. I have done the same trip, but I was unable to join her when she went. I gave her plenty of advice beforehand, outfitted her with all the proper gear, and lent her the right clothing for the journey. She was guided by capable rangers from both Parks Canada and the US National Park Service, so I figured she learned something from me, and them, and that experience. I was wrong. She showed up for this trip wearing all cotton, a fabric that is terribly unforgiving and can be downright fatal if you get wet. And now she was soaked.

"Do you remember when I loaned you fleece for your river trip last year?" I asked. She nodded.

"Do you remember the talks on wilderness safety that I just gave at your school, where I talked about how dangerous cotton can be?"

She nodded again. "I guess I just had to learn the lesson for myself," she frowned.

Fortunately, I'd anticipated wanting dry clothes myself, just in case, and had brought extra. A shivering Amanda was shocked as I produced a pair of fleece Patagonia expedition-weight pants and a matching pull-over from my dry bag, much to my amusement. "So that's why your dry bag is so big and heavy!" she exclaimed with delight. I'm sure she'll never wear cotton again on a river trip of any sort.

She changed clothes on the bank, and we threw her amazingly heavy, saturated clothing in the stern of the canoe - their weight would require removing them from the boat at every remaining portage to make the canoe manageable. I kept my wet clothing on my body, as I was dressed almost exclusively in polypropylene, and knew I would stay fairly warm and dry out rather quickly. I removed my rubber boots, poured out the water and rung out my socks. I then donned a fleece hat to retain more body heat until I dried out, and we got on our way again.

A cabin and some mystery

Before long we saw a trail on river left with a sign that read 'Eagle Cabin.' Though I'd never been on the river before, I'd seen the cabin, because there's also a small grass bush strip nearby and Jon and I had landed our plane here before. Amanda, I was sure, had never seen it, so I pulled the canoe to the side and encouraged her to go take a look. She headed up the trail, and I tied the boat up before following her. The Eagle Cabin and its nearby companion, the Raven Cabin, are named for the Eagle and Raven moieties of the Tlingit Indians of southeast Alaska, divisions in the culture which determine who marries who and who cares for who in times of trouble. Managed by the US Forest Service, they're both very nice little structures, a lovely stop for the night perfectly situated about midway between the launch and takeout points on the river.

We returned to the boat and I declared it lunch time. We'd been on the water approximately three and a half hours, and it was about 11:30. We sat on the bank, which was grassy with an eroded drop-off that made the perfect seat. She enjoyed a sandwich and I had half of a low-carb snack bar. We then got ready to depart.

As I was putting Amanda's Nalgene bottle back on the carabiner that strapped it to the boat, I noticed it was full, and suggested to her that she start drinking a bit of water to avoid getting dehydrated - I needed her paddling strength for a few more hours. She insisted she had been drinking her water and was shocked to find the bottle full. This was Mystery Number One of the trip, until I checked the cap, found it lose, and realized the bottle had refilled when we capsized. I poured the bottle out onto the ground and lent her one of my bottles for the remainder of the trip... no sense in her learning the hard way about girardia, an intestinal illness caused by water-borne bacteria.

We got back in the boat when Mystery Number Two was discovered - her paddle was in the boat, and we had both completely missed it earlier. She had been sure it was gone, felt bad about losing it, and had watched for it ever since the boat tipped over. We puzzled over its reappearance as we launched again and proceeded down stream.

On account of our ob-stack-els, and a second mystery solved

After a bit, we encountered the second major river obstacle described to me: the river appeared to dead-end. "Where in the hell does it go from here?" I muttered to myself. Suddenly, a small channel to the left appeared that quickly turned a second ninety-degree angle on a chainsaw-cleared path through a deadfall of trees. The water then flowed over a downed log with a small, less than one foot drop. Amanda was a little nervous about the drop, and seemed to hold her breath and tense just slightly as we went over it, but she was still quick on the paddle. That was fortunate, as there was no way to portage this area. We made it through just fine, and I was pleased.

Before long, we met with another group of fishermen. Their local guide, Michelle, smiled at me and called out, "Hello again, Jacqueline. You're welcome!"

"Um, thanks. For what?" I asked.

"For finding your paddle and returning it to you." she laughed. Mystery Number Two was now solved.

Michelle would save us a second time that trip, actually. She'd parked her boat in the main channel, and I foolishly thought I could negotiate a tight turn in a secondary channel while simultaneously engaged in conversation with her, but we brushed a log and became grounded. Fortunately, Amanda again did not panic, instinctively leaned toward the high side of the canoe, and I didn't have to risk saving the boat myself, because Michelle was wearing waders and she wandered out and pulled us expertly from our perch. She shook her head at the stump I'd tried to swing around. "I don't know where that came from," she said. "It wasn't here last year." She looked back at us and said, "And you two are sort of crazy to run this in a canoe. Have you guys gone in yet?" I can't remember how, but somehow the topic immediately changed in a very eloquent way and we never admitted to going for a swim, though I wouldn't have minded admitting it.

Storm-tossed trees block your way

We proceeded down river once again, and Amanda was getting better and better with her new skill. We successfully navigated a few spots that would have given us trouble earlier in the day. At one such spot, in which we had to negotiate another small, man-made clearing through trees in conjunction with a bend in the river, Amanda nervously called back to me, "If we make it through this opening, you rock." We did make it through, and I have to admit I enjoyed the praise from Amanda, though she deserved a great deal of credit for reacting quickly to my series of fast commands.

"What's the matter, you don't trust me?" I teased.

"Of course," she replied. "I trust you more than I trust myself."

That statement surprised me. "That might not be saying much, Amanda. You might not trust yourself at all!"

She laughed. "No, I trust you, and I'm glad we're doing this. I'm glad it's you I'm here with. I'm learning so much."

About this time, we began being passed by tourist fishermen and their guides in large drift boats - nice, stable craft with a central oarsman and lots of leverage, easy to control, and quite a bit faster with less drag through the water than a flat-bottomed canoe. I pulled over to let the first boat pass, and was surprised at how quickly we lost sight of it. I pulled over for a second boat, and due to the speed of the first I didn't give this one as much time to get ahead before pushing off again: a decision I quickly regretted. The drift boat was unable to float over a submerged log and became stuck, blocking the entire path across the river, and I had no time to stop. They saw us coming, though, and the collision occurred without anybody getting wet. After that, I had us stop for another break, and I used the restroom, allowing that drift boat to gain a considerable lead on us before relaunching.

Upstairs, downstairs

The trip was peaceful and uneventful for quite awhile, until we rounded a bend and began seeing something new: a man-made obstruction that spanned the entire width of the river. It was the fish weir, constructed by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, used to count the number of salmon successfully making it upstream to spawn. Based on the count of fish traveling through the weir, the ADF&G decides what limits to set for sport fishermen and when to allow commercial and subsistence fishing.

There was a large opening in the weir, with a crudely-drawn sign that read "BOATS" with a series of downward arrows beneath it. The metal of the weir ran just under the surface, and though a drift boat might be able to negotiate it, I wasn't so sure about the canoe. I figured if we got stuck I wouldn't be able to get out and drag the canoe, and knew that I would be too low to the water to gain the leverage required to free us. Just to be safe, we landed on the left bank and unloaded the gear for a portage, which involved carrying the canoe up one set of very steep stairs, across side of the weir, and down an even steeper set of stairs on the other side. It was a little tricky, but we managed and continued our trip.

Passing the weir meant we were within a mile of our goal, which made me both pleased and a little sad. I was starting to feel it in my chest, arms, and back, but I was enjoying myself, too, and would be sad to see the trip end.

Even more obstacles

As we approached the take out, we began encountering many more fishermen. The Situk is the largest producing river for its size in the entire state of Alaska, and famous for its fish. It supports runs of all five species of east Pacific salmon, and two runs of ocean-going rainbow trout called steelhead. The steelhead aren't legal to keep unless they are over a meter long, and the salmon are quite large as well, so fishermen fly in from all over the world to visit this spot. They stack so closely in the river that I really don't enjoy fishing there. The locals call it 'combat fishing' with a bit of distaste, but it's a large part of what drives Yakutat's economy.

We wove the canoe through dozens of fishermen without hitting any of them or hurting their lines, and only once were we in the way when a fish struck their hooks. Many of them again remarked on how odd it seemed that we would float the river without trying to catch any of the fish. I looked at one of the younger fishermen and smiled as I wove my way through the crowd. "It's a bit like a video game, isn't it?"

He smiled back and replied, "Yes, but you're not getting very many points... you keep missing everyone!"

The journey ends

Finally, we reached our take out, where I was quite pleased to see my truck. A friend had known I was making the trip and told me that if they had time, they would reroute the vehicle for me, though I hadn't asked them to go to such trouble and didn't expect them to. But they had, which saved us from driving Amanda's jeep (which Amanda had parked there the night before) all the way back to where we'd put in - perhaps a half hour drive one way.

The trip had gone well, and I'm very glad we made it. I think Amanda grew quite a that day, and I'm glad I was able to provide her with that experience. She's becoming a fine outdoorsman.

Home again, home again, jiggety jog

Once I was home, I took a quick nap, and woke to find that my arms were finally admitting that they'd worked harder than usual. "You're starting to age, Jacqueline, don't you know that? You're not a girl anymore," they said to me. I started to argue with them, and decided to shut them up with an Aleve. Today I'm feeling fine, and I'm enjoying that feeling of being in tune with my muscles, of having moved.