SI Vault
 
CAUGHT UP IN A HELL OF WHITE WATER
Walt Blackadar, M.D.
August 14, 1972
The Alsek River flows in a torrent into the Gulf of Alaska. So fierce are its white-water rapids and so menacing the huge icebergs that break away from glaciers along its banks that no man had ever run the river in a boat. There were reports of an especially treacherous gorge named Turn Back Canyon with 500- to 1,000-foot vertical granite walls, numerous waterfalls and dizzying whirlpools. The water was flowing at 50,000 cubic feet per second. In comparison, the Colorado, the ultimate in U.S. white-water rivers, moves through the Grand Canyon at 10,000 to 20,000 cubic feet per second. The author, a physician in Salmon, Idaho, decided to challenge the Alsek alone.
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
August 14, 1972

Caught Up In A Hell Of White Water

The Alsek River flows in a torrent into the Gulf of Alaska. So fierce are its white-water rapids and so menacing the huge icebergs that break away from glaciers along its banks that no man had ever run the river in a boat. There were reports of an especially treacherous gorge named Turn Back Canyon with 500- to 1,000-foot vertical granite walls, numerous waterfalls and dizzying whirlpools. The water was flowing at 50,000 cubic feet per second. In comparison, the Colorado, the ultimate in U.S. white-water rivers, moves through the Grand Canyon at 10,000 to 20,000 cubic feet per second. The author, a physician in Salmon, Idaho, decided to challenge the Alsek alone.

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue

Aug. 13 My birthday—49! Looked in the mirror and realized I wasn't getting any younger. Decided to paddle the Alsek alone, though it is against sanity and all safety codes. I've tried for six months to get others to join me. I'm not suicidal but get depressed watching so many patients with incurable diseases. Take-off date next Thursday.

Aug. 19 Busy week. A close friend, who is a former national kayak champion, phoned from Boston this morning and gave me hell, as has everyone else who knows of my plans. But I'm going anyway. Took out a two-week accident policy for $50,000, which would pay off all my debts and leave a reserve.

Aug. 20 After an all-night drive to Seattle, flew to Juneau and sent my kayak airfreight on the same flight. The boat is a Mithril Vector, made of fiber glass and other flexible plastic material, a little over 13 feet long and 23 inches wide. The seat, footrests and hooks over my thighs are all molded to my body so that I wear the boat rather than sit in it. A watertight spray skirt closes the cockpit around my waist so that no water can enter the boat, even when I'm upside down.

When I reached Juneau, the bow of the kayak was caved in, dented like a Ping-Pong ball. I took two three-pound coffee cans, rammed them forward with a paddle and popped the dent out. There is no visible damage.

I've weighed, in every sense of that word, what I'm taking on this trip—the boat (26 pounds); food (17�); sleeping bag (3�); tent and air mattress (8); life jacket, clothes, wet suit and boat repair equipment (14�); my 86-inch paddle and take-apart spare (5); float bags (3); toilet kit, fishing rod and two-way radio (7)—a total of 84� pounds. I'm another 175 pounds.

There was a terrible storm in Juneau during the afternoon, but at 5:20 p.m. I was able to take off in a chartered plane piloted by Layton Bennett to overfly the Alsek and examine Turn Back Canyon. We ran the river between storms, a three-hour round trip. Started flying up the gorge at 500 feet. Then after two trips at 200 feet with, it seemed to me, wing tips nearly touching the canyon walls, I called a halt to the low flying. A kayak would be safer.

The severest part of the canyon looks to me shorter than the 12 miles previously reported. I would guess just five miles long. But it's as tough as I imagined. There are two or three good stops for a kayaker, but there is no way to walk the riverbank and scout the worst rapids. There are too many cliffs that are too severe to climb. From the air I saw a way to portage around the toughest spot in the gorge. Also saw several very impressive boiling pots with water spouting 10 to 20 feet high. I think I can avoid these. There is one eight-foot roller wave all the way across the river that will be a sure flip, but I don't believe it will trap a kayak sideways. A roller like this is caused by a ledge that acts as a dam. The water streams down the nearly vertical spillway and, as it meets turbulent water at the bottom, a huge wave forms and curls backward like a surfing wave. If a kayak turns sideways and doesn't crash through the crest, it will tumble over and over and be held fast in the wave. There are several sure flips but no holding holes and no danger, unless I swim.

Except in the gorge, there are sandbars all along the river, so I feel I can make a landing field for a rescue plane every five miles if I am stranded. Lay-ton Bennett has told me how to do it. I am not sure of the size of the waves; they look big. I was told there is a waterfall in the canyon. I saw a couple but feel they are runnable. There is nothing in the Grand Canyon, however, with as much violence or power.

I'm glad I'm going solo. I wouldn't want the responsibility had I talked somebody else into making the trip. I know any sensible person will say I shouldn't run this river, but it is in my blood. I must prove things to myself.

Now for my plans: the pilot will pick me up at the mouth of the Alsek 10 days after I set out. I think I can paddle the 230 miles downriver (the first 22 miles of the trip will be on the Dezadeash, not the Alsek) in seven days, but I have allowed myself extra time. If I am late, the pilot is authorized to spend $1,000 overflying the river before calling my wife. Should he find something suspicious like a tent, boat on shore, etc., and no sign of me, he will land if possible or send a helicopter. I have left a letter at home with instructions to spend up to $5,000 to prove me alive or dead, but if my boat is found swamped and there is no sign of me for 14 days, I am dead.

Continue Story
1 2 3 4 5