8) Scanoeing 101

I believe I’ve mentioned I’m from the south. I like boiled peanuts, Spanish moss in trees, Nascar, and fishing in a lazy river. Though for the record, the fishing part wasn’t really my cup of iced tea, that was more my dad’s. I just went along to hang out with him. And I really liked it too, right up until he handed me a pole and a can of…worms. One look at the sharp pointed hook and squirming worms and my love affair with fishing came to a crashing end. But I loved the boat rides. I was always game for a run up the river to see where the fish were biting. As long as I wasn’t the one baiting the hook. Or removing the fish. Or eating the fish, for that matter.

But scary fishes and squirmy worms aren’t the point of my story. That’s reserved for a lesson I learned in being over-confident of your river navigation skills. You see, being the outdoor girl that I am, when an opportunity to go on a two day Alaskan canoe trip came my way, I naturally took it. So what if I’d never before paddled a canoe. I’d been on plenty of bass boat trips along southern creeks. Besides, how hard could it be floating downstream? 

The answer – a LOT harder than you’d think.

First of all, in the south rivers tend to run gentle. Except maybe really BIG ones, like the Mighty Mississippi, but I wasn’t fishing on those. My only experience with a rowdy river came after a hard rain when the creeks were pushing flood stage, but even that wasn’t anywhere close to an Alaskan river full with late spring run-off waters.

Class 5 rapids mean anything to you? Well, okay, maybe that’s exaggerating. It’s just that my previous experience in no way qualified me for running a river that would thrill even a seasoned outdoor guide. But at the time I was happily clueless as to what I was getting myself into.

In my defense, Birch Creek has a name that implies an easy, pleasant float downstream. It’s designated as a national Wild and Scenic River, and I anticipated picturesque landscapes and amazing wildlife views. I wasn’t disappointed. Plus, my date had done this sort of thing before and even though I hadn’t, I was quite comfortable at the prospect of unfamiliar terrain.

Birch Creek

Credit:  www.2paddle1.com  (Birch Creek)

So, friends drove us out of Fairbanks and up the Steese Highway where we dropped our vehicle off at the exit point and continued on another 30 miles or so. Armed with sun block, mosquito repellant, and rain gear, we put in and I eagerly settled in the front of the Scanoe (that’s a flat bottomed, squared stern canoe, in case you’re wondering). We shoved off from the shore with our pup tent, cooler of food, and other supplies neatly tucked in the center, and began our slow drift away from civilization. It was exhilarating, really. To be surrounded by nothing but raw untamed wilderness for two whole days, I thought I’d find heaven on earth.

What I found was Murphy’s Law, lurking, waiting to strike. You see, the trip started all deceptively calm and peaceful, luring me into a false sense of security. The first couple hours were idyllic as we gently floated downstream, softly paddled around bends, and enjoyed spectacular views.

Then the work began. And I mean WORK. Birch Creek is a Class I, II, and a few Class III rapids sort of river. That’s whitewater rafting talk for…Yeehaw! Hang on and let’s have some fun! Or in my case – Oh My God! Is that a tree hanging over the river?

I was about to learn the danger of sweepers.

What I foolishly hadn’t realized was that canoeing is not without peril. We slid into a wide channel where the current picked up and began zipping us through choppy water. Maneuvering turned tricky and my date started shouting commands as we zigzagged through the maze of rocks and boulders. Believe me, I was following his orders to the letter, but the devilish current flung us around a bend and next thing I knew, we were shooting straight into the twisted arms of a downed tree. I paddled like crazy, desperate to avoid the head-on collision, but we ended up broadside against a major sweeper and fighting off a hostile tangle of tree limbs.

My date/guide jumped into the frigid waist deep water and dragged me and the canoe free of danger, but not without muttering a few choice phrases that would make a bull moose blush. Afterward we sat on a nearby sandbar and nursed our cuts and bruises, and breathed a sigh of relief that we escaped relatively unharmed.

But that was just lesson number one. There were many, many more. I learned how to ‘walk’ a canoe, which means get out, get soaking wet, and drag your boat over too shallow water. I also learned how to lower a loaded canoe down a short waterfall by using rope and sheer determination. But most of all, I learned how NOT to tip a canoe over. Fortunately for our supplies and camera, I mastered that skill without actually having to flip upside down.

Major learning curves aside, when I finally settled down and got a handle on what I was doing, I stopped being nervous and started to enjoy the scenery. And what spectacular scenery it was. There were large rock narrows, steep cliff banks, miles of thick forest, black spruce bogs, and a wide blend of meandering channels and rushing rapids. Even now, years later, I vividly remember rounding a bend and coming upon a mama moose with her young calf standing by her side. As we drifted silently by she stared at me, eyeball to eyeball, and we communicated. I swear. I got this crazy feeling of oneness with nature, like Dr. Doolittle or Jane Goodall of the gorillas. And I still have it too, which explains why I now live in a veritable zoo at home.  

But there I was, at a time when late evening shadows should be settling in the hills, at least they would be if we weren’t in the Land of the Midnight Sun. It was nearing summer solstice, the longest day of the year, and that meant perpetual daylight. But it was time for dinner and to set up camp, so we found an ideal place and pitched our tent. We still had another day of canoeing ahead of us, but I knew I was ready for it. I’d been initiated and survived. I could handle anything. Even hoisting our food supplies up a tree to keep the bears at bay didn’t faze me. I was in sync with nature and understood my place in it.

And I wanted more. After that trip I couldn’t get enough. There was Tangle Lakes in central Alaska, Denali whitewater rafting, snowmobiling, glacier hiking, ice fishing, and list goes on. The trouble is deciding what to write about next…

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