Ice Ice Maybe

Breakup season on several different Interior waterways this past week. A day of hoping to see a bunch of ice, and a several days of hoping not to.

Went down to Nenana with Yi on the 3rd, which turned out to be about two days late for watching the mass exodus of Tanana ice this year. While I did get a couple of good shows last year as the ice went out, witnessing massive flows smash their way down one of the bigger Alaskan rivers remains an elusive experience. Wah wah, better luck next year. Did take the opportunity to walk out on the train trestle and up the river a ways. Nice day for certain, and I’ve decided I could happily live the rest of my life in the 65° range.

Couple days later I ended up scouting a trip I had scheduled for work. Had no idea how much ice might or might not be blocking the route down Piledriver Slough, a casual half-day float trip a few miles out of North Pole. At the put-in the water was open, but the banks were still covered with several feet of snow and ice. As the ice melts each spring it ends up forming big undercut shelves on the sides of the river. This can be quite dangerous if there are rapids, or simply problematic if there aren’t, as there’s no good way to get into or out of the river. Knowing the take-out was clear, however, I opted to go full send and got in a fun little seal-launch followed by several miles of tranquil paddling. Very cool to see all the waterfowl back in town, as well as a couple big beavers busy at work after a long winter. I was also privileged to see a large wolf run through the trees as soon as it caught a glimpse of the boat coming downstream.

Two days later I took a group of folks down the same stretch, though we started a mile downstream to avoid the ice shelves. On that trip we saw several bald eagles, slowly floated past a couple of moose in the bushes, and spotted a couple more walking across the river just before the take-out.

Photos: Mike D.

And a couple days after that it was over to the Upper Chatanika and an informal river safety day for a few neophyte boaters looking to get into some good Alaskan adventures. I honestly had no idea what to expect, as all of the lakes and some of the creeks on the way out there were still completely frozen over, but once we got to the river itself things looked pretty clear. Well, actually, like really brown, but open water, good flow, and minimal ice on the banks. Ended up doing close to 30 river miles that day, and did indeed have to portage around and over several sections of ice dams in which the entire river was packed solid with massive blocks of ice. Extreme caution is advised when messing around with said features, as large hunks are subject to shifting without warning. Falling through and ending up underneath the entirety of it all would not be a happy scenario. We also got to paddle through a lot of ice as well, including one really fun little rapid comprised of a small drop through several berg-esque features. A little over two-thirds of the way down, a great teaching moment presented itself in the form of six-inches of canoe bow sticking out the top of one of those ‘deadly strainers’ I’d been harping on about all day. A little rope work and a lot of hearty pulling and we were able to salvage a thrashed Old Town from its watery grave. Paddled it the rest of the way down, and will hopefully one day paddle it again in restored condition. A long but awesome day, and a solid week of (mostly) fluid adventures.

Walking down the river.
Ice Capades
Score! Photo: Ryan F.