Birch Creek, Part 1

June 10th, 2008

Docking with the Mothership

Group photo at start of floatOn the float trip was Luke, Weslly, Taj, Drew and myself. Our flotilla consisted of two kayaks, a canoe and a raft. The raft was actually a small Zodiac with oars rigged up with rope and one of the kayaks didn’t have a spray skirt… but they would get us down the river. One of the kayaks was specifically Weslleys (the one with the skirt) so he rode in that one the whole time but the rest of the alternated around the other boats. I’d been on a couple of float trips before, including the Middle Fork Wes chillingof the Salmon River in Idaho and the lower half of the Grand Canyon, so I’m no stranger to week long river trips, but this was a beast of a different color. Whereas my previous trips were permit-only, leave-no-trace backcountry-hippie trips, this was the full-on Boy Scout’s wet dream trip. There was no packing out or poop on this trip. Each of the Alaskan’s had their own rifle, there was a .22, bunch of fishing gear, and Drew's sweet eagle pictureit was bear of caribou sausage for breakfast every morning. Instead of colorful city-slicker GorTex outdoor wear I have it was full on wool and camouflage. And me with my long hippie-hair! I felt a bit out of place, but they are all great guys and put up with me. :) The guns were not just for show, of course. I don’t know if I have mentioned with before, but if you are an Alaskan with a hunting The Booze Formationlicense, and it’s the right season and hunting district (it was) you can shoot three black bears. It was all very much within their rights (and Alaskans make breaking hunting regulations a pretty serious taboo) but it felt weird to me. If we saw that many bears, we could have come out of there with 9 dead bears. WTF? But, when in Rome. I had heard Luke’s stories of bear hunting for years, slept on his bear skin rugs and even stirred my drinks with the bear penis bones he brings back for that explicit and kitschy purpose. It was time to go bear hunting I suppose.

Birch Creek

Me and Luke padding the canoeSo we started the float. Birch Creek is a really nice trip because it’s a totally scenic and remote 130 mile float through mountains with three rapids which eventually goes out onto the Yukon flats, and both the put-in and take-out are accessible by road. Many floats in Alaska have to be flown into, so this was perfect. It’d take us about 6 days and give us the full on bear-tastic Alaskan wilderness experience without the expensive hassle of a flight. The last two days of the trip we would be The elusive Alaskan mosquitojoined by Rick and Laurel who would come up the river in the jet boat (the Predator - a truly bad ass craft if I’ve every seen one) after Rick was done with work for the week. The top part of the float is the headwaters of the Birch Creek so it’s too shallow for the jet boat anyway. We had heard that a week or two prior the creek was still really low and the floaters had to drag their canoe for miles and miles at the beginning. We did not have to problem. The curiously red colored water of Birch Creek was plenty high and even at the very beginning we only had to drag a little when the river really fanned out. As far as I could tell it was the perfect water level to run it at. Fast and high, but not dangerously flood-stage.

Weslley kayakingTaj on the Mothership

Me going under one of the many sweepersThe first few days were the most exciting, because the river was fast and narrow. We had to keep alert the whole time to avoid gravel bars and the current taking us underneath all of the “sweepers”, the trees that tilt out over the creek as the permafrost thaws the and bank erodes and threaten to sweep you right out of the boat. It was cloudy with the occasional drizzle, but the weather wasn’t too bad all told. We found some fishing holes and caught Arctic grayling, which we fried up each night to supplement out Caribou Helper dinner. Lower in the river there are other fish, like pike, but in the headwaters it’s pretty much just Grayling. They are beautiful fish with quite tasty white meat. The main excitement for the first few days was Drew’s propensity for swimming. He managed to fall in the An Arctic graylingwater once or twice a day, which is pretty cold water. This wouldn’t have been a problem on a sunny day, but it was overcast. The main problem stemmed from the fact that we would float until 1AM looking for bears (since there’s plenty of daylight), and by that time it was awful cold. Campfires each night helped us warm up though, so it wasn’t that much of a problem. Just about the middle of the float we came to the rapids. There are three… and a half. We floated the first two and half, and thought we were done. The very fist one looked too sketchy for a canoe, so we walked it through, but everyone else ran it no problem. It’s been a while since I gauged such things, but I’d say they were big Class II rapids. Then we all ran the second one since it was wide and deep and easy. One of the Birch Creek rapidsThen we ran a third smaller one, and pulled out around midnight to drink some whiskey to warm up. Quite a bit of whiskey, actually, because we were quite cold and wet from all the waves in the rapids. Then we decided to float for another hour or so to look for bears again, and hopped in the boats. Well, around the next bend was the thrid rapid. I’d say this might actually be a Class III, because there was a big hole in the middle of it that would chomp up a canoe pretty soundly. So we pulled out and looked it over. There is was a sneak around that side that avoided the big wave, but set you up kind of awkwardly for the second Drew's sweet artsy paddle shotand third sets of waves. It looked doable though. Wesley and Drew ran in the kayaks just fine (except… Drew’s kayak swamped because it doesn’t have a spray skirt and he did end up swimming at the very end). The raft rocked it right through the main hole, and he broke and oar but bounced out alright. Then Luke and I took the gear out of the canoe, spotted our line one more time and dove in. I’m pretty sure I am a better canoer when intoxicated; we stuck the line, although we took on more water than we expected and almost rolled the canoe at the end like Drew. It was a great time that reminded me of how fun whitewater is. Especially in Alaska, at midnight, with whiskey. :)

Me kayaking one of the rapids

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One Response to “Birch Creek, Part 1”

  1. I just got done floating Birch Creek. The water level was a bit lower. The third rapids which you mention are actually not the last at this time of year. Spray skirt can be the determining factor of sinking and swimming. and at some points in the year, these rapids can turn into a class IV. I’m stoked you were able to experience this float!

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