Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Floating the Gulkana River: I survived

Yes, take a moment and dab off your fevered brow.  I realize (and regret) that I left you all in suspense after my last post wherein I mentioned in the interests of family togetherness I would be floating off into the wilderness for a few days. A surprise for the Last Frontier Gardener: we made it. Hardly any broken bones, animal attacks, or lost baggage/children.

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No snorts of derision from the pack and paddle crowd.  As a city-bred female, I am particularly and devotedly attached to the modern comforts of indoor plumbing and have quite given up expecting men to empathize. Sadly, “indoor plumbing” and “Alaskan adventure” are not often found arm in arm. But fear not, I won’t bore you with graphic details of attendant suffering during this journey.

[OK, maybe just this one graphic detail: our commode was a bag attached to a rickety comfort seat. Yes, you read that right, we had to pack everything solid out. On the liquids end of things and to save millions of women and girls the pain of piddling on a shoe whilst squatting in a mosquito infested patch of Devil’s club, I am in the process of patenting my drip proof wilderness bathroom commode for women and girls (“Potty Cup”) which I picked up at a gas station beforehand.

For humanitarian reasons, I will risk spoiling this trademarking process. I will help campers all over the world and share, for free, my idiot-tested invention: a large (plastic is most durable) concessions cup. See last picture in this post. And your welcome.]   

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Floating down a river with unseasonably high and fast water (class IV rapids anyone?) was a bit daunting.  On the Daunted Scale, 1 being a visit to your local library and 10 being a visit to your local fast food play land at noon on a rainy Saturday, I was about a 7.  At the risk of this post turning into a War and Peace saga, here’s the condensed version of our 47 mile/75 km Gulkana River float on June 27:

Day One, Wednesday

  • Drive to Paxson Lake, make arrangements for someone to take truck from lake (start) to Sourdough Creek Campground (finish), $60, worth every penny if you are a lousy hitchhiker, the alternative.
  • Put on approximately 34.97 pounds of gear. Pump up raft. Slowly. Sweat. Wish gear off again. Wish raft was on a trailer already pumped.
  • Three hours later, kids cranky. Wind picks up. Starts to rain/hail. Hard.
  • Begin 4 mile paddle down lake. Wish small motor wasn’t rubber band horsepower and on the fritz.
  • As the hours pass, and no discernible progress is made across lake, silently curse the outdoors, family trips, and occasionally husband.
  • 10pm- Find first camping spot available. Set up tent. Put sodden, hungry, and crying kids in it. Make dinner.
  • Midnight- Go to bed and hope bears eat us in the night and save us more misery tomorrow.

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Day Two, Thursday

  • Wake up and rue the day. But hey, the rain stopped, for a few minutes.
  • Eat breakfast, pack up camp for two hours.

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  • Load up boat again and float off. Do some fishing, catch/release quite a few grayling and one trout.

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  • Get to tricky Canyon Rapids section (class III and IV depending on conditions), stop and grind teeth.

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  • Portage all gear to campsite (there is an outhouse!!! well, more of a shack, really, and bring your own toilet paper and hand sanitizer, kids), abuse young children silently for not being able to carry as much as a Sherpa.

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  • About forty trips up and down hill to campsite and back, laden with gear.

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  • 9pm- Camp set up, ready to float rapids. Pray. All rain gear on. Kids stowed on bank, watching with video camera to document our deaths for insurance purposes.
  • 9:02pm- Float by two gentlemen on the cliff, sipping their beers, they holler, “Good luck!” and laugh. More beer swilling men appear to watch our demise. No women appear to be within twenty miles of this place. Feelings of apprehension.
  • 9:03pm- Swept towards giant boulders. First time death imminent, but avoided.
  • 9:04pm- Second time, avoided, but small scream escapes mouth. More prayer.
  • 9:04.5pm- Third time, a steep drop and boulder thrown in for fun. I get wet, very wet.
  • 9:05pm- Pull over to side after rapids section, tie off raft, squish over to campsite. Change undees. Oarsman unscathed and laughing. Requests another float next week.
  • Sleep the sleep of the reprieved. Remnants of s’mores still smeared around face.

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Day Three, Friday

  • Pack up raft. Again. Float away. Into next section of rapids. Assured by husband that this is a cinch after yesterday. Get stuck on a couple of large trees in the water. Both adults exit the raft into fast, deep water in order to push it free. Entertain fantasies about what children would do if they floated away and we weren’t able to jump on in time. Thoughts turn slightly uncharitable towards husband. Raft slips free, we throw ourselves in.

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  • Pull out for lunch. Hot dogs on the bank. Look for hot dog loving bears over shoulder. Swat mosquitoes.

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  • Float in between every spare rock not busy holding something up in Alaska. Hit a few.
  • Campsites all full.

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  • Except this one. Stop and haul most of the gear off the raft. Again.
  • Eat a sumptuous dinner of green enchiladas cooked in a Dutch oven. Preparing food ahead of time and freezing it does have its benefits. Pat self on back.
  • 9pm- Set up portable bear fence.
  • 10pm- Still setting up portable bear fence. Electrical engineer hands housewife directions in five languages for properly attaching battery to fencing. Achtung! Peligro! Steam escapes wife’s ears. Engineer repents and figures out problem after three tries. Hint: make sure batteries are properly installed.
  • 11pm- slight humming sound of electrified bear fence is music to ears of neurotic camper. Oblivion.

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Day Four, Saturday

  • 3:30am- awake instantly and determine no more humming is heard. Hear branches crackling nearby.
  • 3:31am- force other adult to wake up and check batteries. Still going strong. Might as well use Potty Cup. Paper version on it’s last legs, determine to bring a plastic cup next time.
  • 10am- camp packed up and put back on raft (again). Float off for the last time.
  • Smooth going. A little boring. Wishing anemic, unreliable 2.5 horsepower motor was attached again.

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  • Pull into the landing at Sourdough Creek Campground after passing under the Trans-Alaska Pipeline (above pic). The end.

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  • Maybe not. Unpack gear from boat (again) and haul up to truck. Deflate and fold raft.
  • Eat a sandwich with a little sand in it. Swat bugs.
  • Pack up truck. Put whining children in it. Drive away. Resolve to take a long, hot shower at home, draining the hot water tank if possible.

And next year, we’ll do it all again.


Any camping or rafting this summer? Feelings about concessions cups? And please do weigh in if you’ve floated the Gulkana!


  1. I'd have been asking for a divorce well before day one!

    1. I did consider it, but decided to use this trip as leverage instead. For what, I'm not yet sure. But something BIG.


  2. I am admiring you from afar Christine. You've got more spunk and tenacity than I'll ever have. I like the idea of rafting on the river, observing the calm scenery. However, hauling and camping and fear of bears and sandy food and no hot shower gives me pause. I'm so glad you lived to tell about it. And TELL it you did, with much entertaining humor. I love the SBG or Super Big Gulp. I'll be on the lookout for the potty patent.

    1. I'd say it's more resignation than spunk. The hauling parts of the trip were rather tiresome, but good exercise. I think it must be like giving birth: I sort of remember the unpleasant bits but not the gory details. Otherwise, who would ever go camping/give birth more than once?


  3. Great post. Family camping holidays are like English picnics, great idea until reality hits - traffic jams, rain, wasps, flat lemonade and sand in the sandwiches.

  4. My idea of Hell - I like the idea but hate the reality. I have had several similar holidays, but never again. I clearly remember only truly enjoying about 10 minutes of each day.


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