Jet Boat Adventure on the Chatanika River

A "three hour tour" on a wild river brings surprises and challenges!

Trip Report:  20070812

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The Trip

Upon his arrival back in his home town of Fairbanks, Dan bought a shallow draft jet boat. The boat was used to access the large number of rivers in the area. These rivers are choked with debris and gravel bars that would stop a regular boat. Since he had only used the boat one other time, he was ready for a trip to his cabin. The cabin as about 7 miles from the nearest road, accessible only by boat on the Chatanika River or overland via ATC. This time, he elected to use the boat to access the cabin. Once we were hitched up and the cargo was secure, we were off. The day would prove substantially more challenging than any of us expected as the shots below will show.

The photos below are what we saw.

We started at the intersection of the Chatanika River and the Alaska Pipeline. In the photo above, PLMP means pipeline mile post. We never figured out what the walking fish icon meant.

The pipeline travels 800 miles from the North Slope to bring oil to points south. In a substantial portion of the route, the line is above ground to prevent damage to the permafrost. Here, the line is on sliders that allow for expansion in the pipe due to thermal changes. This was a huge engineering effort.

The pipeline is visible in the distance as it traverses the ridge. Note that the line is buried for a portion of the route where there is no permafrost Also, the pipe goes under the Chatanika River so as to not impede the flow on the river and eliminate the need for a pipeline bridge.

The river at the put-in point was calm and placid. The flow rate would increase downstream due to inflow of side creeks and an increase in the river grade.

Personal Flotation Devices (aka life jackets) are a must on the river. And part of the Alaska laws. The reason is if something happens, it will usually happen very fast and will not allow time to put on a PFD if there is trouble.

We are off. Note the gravel bar on the left. We would become intimate with these shortly.

There were a number of challenges this day. Challenge One: a set of trees had fallen across the river totally blocking our ability to go down river. We were going to abort, but then realized that we had an axe on board. So, we went to work.

Cutting from the boat was awkward and dangerous. If you slipped with the axe, you could cut through the hull of the boat and that would be bad. We were soon joined by another boat with folks heading to their cabin as well. The group took turns chopping and soon we breached enough of the tree to allow the boats to pass. Once we were by, we switched drivers and I took over. Shortly, we hit challenge number 2: another tree across the river in a blind spot around a tight turn. I was confronted with a tough choice: throttle back and hit it with no steering control (due to the fact that a jet drive loses steering when the pump is not engaged) or hit the log at full speed. I chose the latter and the boat skimmed over the log with no damage to the boat or passengers. It was tense, but Dan's aluminum hull boat was designed for just such a situation and has plastic skid plates on the keel to make the sliding over obstacles easier.

After the second tree across a narrow part of the river, we were all acutely aware of the state of the trees on the stream bank. Earlier, we would have ignored the trees on the right, but now, we see them for what they are: obstacles to be.

Shortly, we spotted this bald eagle in the trees above us. He is looking us over closely before he got bored and left.

Dan spotted this beaver "slide" on the river bank. The beavers use these routes to gain access to the river from the plateau above.

The river looks calm, but shortly we reached challenge 3: debris in the pump inlet. Dan's boat has a special ability purge debris, but no matter how hard we tried, we could not dislodge the debris. So, we motored on at about 3 mph since the jet could not produce much thrust due to the blockage. Conversation turned to what would be required to clear the debris including going for a very, very cold swim, hoisting the boat out of the water using a tree. And, we also discussed walking out the 6 mile path to the highway and using the satellite phone to have someone pick us up and staying the night at the cabin. Before we could reach the cabin, we were confronted with challenge 4: stuck on a gravel bar. Since we had minimal thrust and therefore minimal steering capability, we hit the bar and became stranded. We used the paddle as a lever and rocked the boat. It took awhile, but eventually the river moved the gravel that held us up. And, as luck would have it, the gravel also stripped the debris from the bottom of the boat, freeing the inlet port for the jet pump. We were off at normal speed for the cabin!

We stopped to see Dan's buddy John Ryer. John has the cabin just upstream, perhaps a mile from Dan's place. He has both a new and an old cabin. The old one is intentionally small so it can be easily and rapidly heated. The new cabin will be better insulated so it should heat nicely too. Unseen in this photo is his .44 magnum pistol sitting on a stump next to the cabin. Bears are a problem here as you will see in the photo below.

John has bear problems. For some reason, there are tons of bears in the area and they target his cabin. He said they have broken in many times and trashed the place looking for food or "because they are bored". Being an engineer, John came up with an innovative solution - he wired his cabin with an electric fence. Now, when the bears come a knockin', they will be rockin'. He says it works great and the damage has stopped.

John found and restored this old sourdough stove. This stove was sized for transport on dog sleds. He added the legs.

Dan's very deluxe place. Note the interesting virus-based knots in the railings and the cool stairs. Dan says that the stairway seems to deter the bears for some reason.

The inside of the cabin is very nice and has nearly all the amenities.

A storage area with the refrigerator. The frig is the can on the right that is buried into the ground. It keeps thing around 40 degrees during the summer due to the permafrost.

The view from the front porch of the cabin.

This is the sauna shack.

This place is really deluxe despite being rustic. This is the inside of the sauna shack. The heater is wood fired and once the rocks are hot, you drizzle some water on them to create the steam. Currently, the vent pipe is being repaired.

An extensive set of mushrooms growing on a log outside the cabin.

On our return to the put-in point, we scared this duck. He flew next to the boat for quite a distance as he was interested in checking us out. He was close enough for me to get a clear shot.

This section of the river had a smooth surface making nice reflections of the trees in the water.

We came around a corner pretty fast and startled this baby moose. He started swimming toward shore.

He was moving fast, look at the "bow wave" in front of him.

Once he hit shore, he was out of there.

We finally arrived at the put-out point back where we started. Here, Dan positions the boat to load on the trailer which can be seen in the lower right of the photo.

This was great adventure. Just enough adversity to make it fun without so much that it detracted from the enjoyment. But, next time that Dan goes on the river, he will have a large pry bar, chain saw, high lift jack and extra rope. Just in case.

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