"I'm just looking for rocks and getting splashed in the face, unknowing that the skipper only has one useful eye."
Alaska Diary: Day 7, September 6, 2001
We both woke up during the night and were happy to not hear rain. It was raining at first light, but it stopped and we forced our feet into our clammy hip waders and became vertical after about 14 hours. We had had some dampness on the bottom of our sleeping bags from touching the inside of the tent. I had had the bright idea of putting a plastic garbage bag over the end of the bag. We discussed this and worried about vapor from our bodies condensing on the inside of the plastic bag and then soaking into the sleeping bag. We weren't sure of this and said we would check our bags during the night. But, of course, we didn't and the bags were damp from exactly this process. Our own water vapor passed through the sleeping bag, encountered the plastic bag, condensed on it and then soaked into the sleeping bag.
So we felt pretty stupid. Here we were in the cold, wet climate of Alaska where the worst damn thing that can happen is to have a wet sleeping bag because it is your last resort if you get chilled from falling into the river for instance. We hoped we could dry them out later in the day.
We used our last purified water during breakfast. When we had shaken all the excess water from our gear and packed up, we shoved off only to stop on the opposite side of the river. We wanted to take advantage of the last of the clear Kisaralik River water. The Quicksilver Creek water was muddy. The river below the confluence was half clear for about 200 yards; it then merged to become all muddy. We filled our water and theoretically kept a lot of silt out of our water filter.
We were ecstatic to be moving again! Our minds turned to the next obstacle: Lower Falls. We kept a close eye of the map; we did not want to come upon them suddenly. We passed through the Kilbuck Mountains, elevation averaging about 2000 feet. The highest peak near the river is Kisaralik Mountain 3094 feet. We were traveling at about 850 feet on the river. Back in Tennessee we planned to camp near the base of the Kilbuck Mountains and spend some time climbing them. But some of the forty hours of rain had turned to snow at the higher elevations. We had been so cold that the thought of climbing into the snow and fog did not appeal to us. We enjoyed the view but kept floating.
Papa Bear had told us to apply the Kisaralik River Rule at Lower Falls (keep right). But we stopped a little way above them. Norm got out and lowered the raft and me down until I could see the whole rapid. The falls were only on the left side; there was plenty of room on the right. Norm hopped in and we floated straight through without any problem. In fact, we wondered why Lower Falls made the caution list. The higher level of water probably made our passage much easier. This was very different terrain than the basin we first floated through. Steep mountains came right down to each bank and the current moved along very swiftly.
Then we came to the Class III S-Curve, which is not mentioned as a caution in Alaska River Guide. We were into it before I was really prepared. I had my raincoat's hood up over my knit hat and it had worked around until it was blocking the vision from one of my eyes. The current was moving too fast for me to take a hand off an oar to adjust the hood. So I had to ferry across the current with only one eye. We tried to keep right but the current carried us out into the middle and we went over a big gator in the middle. It might have been trouble in lower water; but we slid off easily. Actually keeping right might not have been the best idea. There was a sharp point of the bluff with an eddy that might have pulled us into it.
Class III Golden Gate, mentioned as a caution, was four miles downstream. Papa Bear had showed us an aerial photo of this too. He told us just to fold the oars in and shoot down the middle. I remembered a straight entry to the chute; but in reality the river curved left before it entered the Gate. I struggled to get lined up and store the oars. I thought we were going to hit a huge rock just above the main drop; but the current grabbed us and shot us into a huge standing wave into which Norm disappeared and soaked me from the waist down. Here's Norm's verbatim description of it taped later that afternoon:
Papa Bear said, "Just ride it out right down the middle."
SHIPP: Stow your oars and just --
NORM: Float it.
SHIPP: -- float it.
NORM: So as we were coming into it, we kind of came into it and it kind of curved again to the right, not as sharply as the S-curve. But the current was taking us right toward a bluff, this big, black rock rising out of the bank.
NORM: And I could hear Shipp saying something in the back that might have been summarized by, "Oh, shit." I think he thought we were going to go slamming into that, and I didn't really have much time to tell him my thought was that the current was so strong there, that it was going to suck us right away from that because you could see it was just boiling down this trough. And that was a big wave, but that wasn't as big as the next one we hit.
And the next one, literally, I asked Shipp after we got out of it, I said, "Did that go over your head, too?" Because that's what it did to me.
NORM: And I hadn't even planned or thought about it. If I had, I would have zipped up my raincoats and tightened my hood and everything else. But as it was, I got some water down the neck and some trapped in the back of my hood that was lying on the back of my neck.
We began to look for a campsite. Many of the gravel bars we saw were underwater. We stopped at a couple of places but they were too boggy and bugs began to appear so we kept going. We hoped to find an island or gravel bar with spruce trees, which would help us get a fire going with wet wood. Our speed was four or five mph and it was not easy to stop. Finally we found a wooded island with a gravel bar on the downstream end. I was able to get out of the current and we landed there. We got a fire going and made good progress drying out our sleeping bags and other things. We rigged the raft as a windbreak but used the oars to hold the tarp up high to protect the fire. It held the smoke down which dispersed the bugs. Patches of blue sky appeared and suddenly we could actually see our shadows for the first time in several days! We cooked our meal and out mood improved noticeably. We also noticed that the river was dropping and we went to bed feeling much happier.
The newly snow-capped Kilbucks. A climb up these is a reason to return.
We usually kept the tent farther from the raft/tarp where we cooked. But we had no room here. You may be able to see some smoke rising above the tarp; the wet cottenwood we burned made a lot of smoke. Also note the bag of rocks holding up the oar; we finally learned that tent pegs do not hold in gravel. Those are some of the first spruce trees we saw. We have left the tundra behind and are in a spruce-upland hardwood ecosystem.