In August and September a handful of us ran a bunch of steep creeks within an hour or so of Anchorage. Most are rated Class IV in Timmy Johnson’s book and Class V in Embick’s book. Embick attempted to apply his own rating system, but of course it never caught on.
I posted a You-Tube video (“Packrafts Are Real Boats”) that also shows some of their character, but you might not like the music (my wife Peggy for instance dislikes it intensely). I’d like to describe what each is like for packrafting.
Mid-Ship Creek I have long scorned for its treacherous wood and shifting, chaotic boulder drops. Elsewhere I have written on the Lower Ship Canyon. Above this section and below where the Arctic to Indian Trail reaches Ship Creek is what I often call the “middle section”. Several years ago (pre-deck days) I had a bad swim here and my son broke his paddle. This was at 5.4 feet and far too high! In August, first with Shoutdiggity, and then with Brad M., I ran the middle section again, somewhere below 5 feet. The run is pretty shallow, and cleaner of wood than it’s been in years. I did not portage on either run, although there is a very nasty strainer/sweeper about midway down on river right that got Brad. There are also additional logs upstream that require precise maneuvering. The best way to run this section is to either run it with someone who knows its current condition, or to scout every drop and there are plenty! Many are very narrow chutes bordered and formed by big granite boulders (beware foot entrapment) and the creek valley has a lot of beetle killed spruce and beaver cut cottonwood.
Brad likes to make a fuller run of Ship by adding this on top of the lower canyon. I still prefer the Lower Canyon for its amusement park ride qualities and quick hit of fun. But, if you can run the lower canyon without mishap, then you likely have the skills to make it down the middle section. But again, it’s best not to go at any level above five feet at http://aprfc.arh.noaa.gov/ahps2/hydrograph.php?wfo=pafc&gage=shia2&view=1,1,1,1,1,1,1,1.
If you break or lose a paddle or rip your boat, be ready for a heinous walk out over fallen beetle-kill in tall grass with rose hips, devils club, and nettles.
In essence, and unlike the Lower Canyon, the Middle Section of Ship Creek is about a 1.75 miles of steep boulder garden studded with logs followed by a gentler section of also about 1.4 miles before the 0.8 mile lower canyon. There are maybe a half dozen drops that, I’d say, could flip most boaters who are not on the ball. The worst is the “Broken S Turn”, about 15 minutes after put-in and about 3 minutes downstream of the six foot boulder on river right, where Tokle Creek comes in. There’s another manky section signaled by a tall 10 foot Huge Boulder in the center of the creek. The Broken S turn is a long and steep series of boulder drops, starting with a left hairpin and ending with a steep left turn. Below it is mellow for about 5o yards then a manky (i.e woody) boulder drop. Similarly after snaking around the Huge Boulder, there’s a series of boulder ledge drops cris-crossed with wood.
Little Susitna above upper Fishhook Road Bridge and below Motherload Lodge is another boulder garden with some extremely violent and constricted drops. I recall about four, including the final, sort of blown-out Bridge Rapid (seen clearly from the upper Fishhook Road Bridge). Brad and I ran this at about 300 cfs (or 3 feet on LSUA2 gauge: http://aprfc.arh.noaa.gov/ahps2/hydrograph.php?wfo=pafc&gage=lsua2&view=1,1,1,1,1,1,1,1) and all of it – save about three violent drops through big boulder studded bedrock mini gorges – was easy and fun. It took us about two hours on August 31. We only bank scouted one drop. I’d say if you can run Ship Creek Lower Canyon, then you can do Little Su at 300 cfs. Little Su and Middle Ship are both boulder drop runs, so be careful of foot entrapment should you fall out of your boat. Little Su has more volume but less wood – essentially none – and is right next to the road. I’d say it’s the easiest PR5 creek to do AT LOW WATER. Don’t go at mid-water as it’s then too shallow to swim out and too deep to wade, and it’ll be a bossy and rude river. I made that mistake back in 2003 when I wrote in my journal “never again!” at 4 feet and 800 cfs. At 300 cfs I was almost disappointed.
Bird Creek Of all the creeks I’m describing here, this is the one I liked best, despite its muddy and confusing walk to the put-in. Thai Verzone and I ran Bird Creek (when Ship was at 4.85 feet) in 3 hours September 4 and it feels more technical, perhaps one half- grade harder, than Lower Ship Creek Canyon, with about the same flow and similar gradient. It’s pool drop and gorge-y, with sharp rocks and logs and three mandatory, semi-premanent portages. For a packrafter I see it in three sections: the upper section rolls along through a pretty, forested canyon section, with a few ledgy 1-4 foot drops (like Ship Ck Lower) and some temporary wood (i.e. logs that’ll wash or get cut out) as well as one mandatory portage on river right through devils club where the river runs under two big logs and up against a left hand canyon wall. We boat scouted everything.
Eventually the creek makes a sharp right and blind turn, and you feel compelled to get out. Good thing! This is the Mushroom and signals the beginning of Timmy Johnson’s “Lower Sanctum” and Embick’s “Labyrinth”, the second and best section of the run. It requires a long detailed scout from the high canyon rim on river right. There are about seven distinct rapids in there that need full attention, each with a line as hard to cleanly drop as anything in Lower Ship Canyon, the last being 10 foot “Center Falls” which will bury your boat in its plunge pool, so be ready to paddle paddle paddle.
The “Lower Labyrinth” is like a shorter (around 1/2 mile), more technically demanding Lower Ship Canyon. Next summer I plan to just walk in and run this section several times as it’s only about 30 mins from the car, both walking in and walking out. For good boaters living on the Hillside or Southside, this run could prove as sweet and easy-of-access as Ship’s Lower Canyon is for us Eagle River and Muldoon folks.
The third section starts below the BIG waterfall. Right after you finish the “Lower Labyrinth”, the creek again makes a sharp right hand turn. Time to get out, this time river left and either walk back to your car on a maze of game and ATV trails, or portage the last two drops (both big and nasty), then bump your way down to the mud, fisherman, and bridge next to Turnagain Arm.
Canyon Creek was often suggested to me by kayakers as a good packrafting run. Kayakers, whose only understanding of packrafts is that they are light and would likely be easy to portage, don’t yet know what’s good for a packraft any better than I know what’s good for a kayak. You see, Canyon Creek has a big mandatory portage in the middle. Other than that, I do not think Canyon’s that well suited to a packraft. It’s harder than Six-Mile in my opinion because it has far more violence in its sharp ledge drops than Six-Mile. Six-Mile requires finesse for most of its drops; Canyon requires only bold, brutish power matched to good balance. There are no lines to choose from or snake through, just lean forward, hold on, and paddle paddle paddle.
A creek that is well suited to a packraft requires maneuvering and placement on smooth lines. Kayaks don’t twist and turn nearly as easily as a packraft but do punch and run curling waves far better. Canyon Creek is set deep in a bedrock stream of sharp shale ledge drops – so sharp that my red boat, loaned to a kayaker, was cut.
Because there are so many drops in eight and a half mile Canyon Creek, Timmy J is able to name only two! The" Portage Rapid" (a waterfall) and “Saddle Slide”. Brad M. and I on our first attempt (SIxMIle running at 9.9 feet) found Saddle Slide easier than at least six or seven other drops that would upend us with a squirt then threaten to slap us down with lateral waves. There is one particularly nasty section, a series of four drops I call “the Boxcars”, below Saddle Slide that I think is the hardest stretch of Canyon to do in a packraft, ignoring the mandatory waterfall portage. By the end of the complete run that Thai Verzone and I did on Sept 12 (Six-Mile running at 9.8 feet), we were wupped from the effort of staying upright on what seemed like dozens of powerful, constricted drops.
Overall, I’d say there are at least seven rapids equal to the Commando Drop on Lower Ship Creek. It’s no place for novices or intermediates, but I hope to get a clean run in next summer.
Lower Ingram Creek is a modern classic kayak run, a “solid class V” according to Timmy Johnson. In Embick’s time it had not yet been done. It’s something Thai Verzone described as like nine holes of golf: a series of waterfalls linked by easy boogy water, fast, splashy water that keeps us packrafters alert but not threatened. Jeff Conaway invited me along when his co-worker, and Class V kayaker, Paul Schauer suggested there were maybe two falls that a packraft could drop among the seven mapped in Timmy J’s book. We managed five of them: Launch Pad, Cabin, unnamed IV, Breach Baby, and Green Room. I will not go into detail here about them as right now, most packrafters will not want to do this run. I felt lucky to get three clean drops (I tipped over at the bottom of Launch Pad and Green Room). Unlike Lower Ship or Bird, I wanted to “have-done” rather than “do” Ingram.
The best thing about the run was the 180-degree turnaround in attitude that Paul’s kayaking buddy made after watching us: he went from disrespectful critic to an “I-wanna-get-in-your boat!” enthusiast. He called them “first descent machines”.
In conclusion I must admit that, while I do enjoy wilderness use of the packraft, running ever harder creeks is pretty satisfying in a pioneering sort of way. If you have run Willow Creek’s Guardrail section and Echo Bend on Eagle River without flipping or feeling too frightened/out-of-control then you are ready for Lower Ship Creek Canyon. If that feels good, then go for low water Little Su and Mid-Ship. Once you’ve got those and Lower Ship, then give Bird Creek a try – and me a call! That thing made me feel better than anything else I ran this year.