Ground Truth Trekking
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Susitna Leg 2: Damsite and Devil's

Last Modified: 18th February 2016

Start date: September  2012
End date: September 2013
Distance: around 400 miles
Mode of travel:  packrafting and walking

 

I completed this leg of the journey in July 2013.

Proposed Susitna River damsite

courtesy of P. Roderick - Coalition for Susitna Dam Alternatives

source: Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial

Floating silently downriver barely above the surface of the water I could only imagine what I might have looked like from above; a little boat bobbing down an immense river, a red spot on a great gray ribbon, both engulfed in a rolling expanse of green. At times this expanse of tree and tundra broken up by mountains and lakes would have stretched in every direction for hundreds of miles and several days journey to the nearest person or road. From a high enough vantage this gray ribbon on which I floated could be seen tying the mountains to the ocean. For nine days I was this speck in the wilderness as I floated and portaged my way down from just south of the Alaska Range through the Talkeetna Mountains and on to the town of Talkeetna.

Starting Out

The Susitna confronted me with its size. Though not a terribly long river-- running 310 miles from beginning to end-- everything along its length is on a tremendous scale. I had previously experienced the river’s birth from its glacial headwaters, and from the very outset the river is huge. The Susitna’s womb is the eastern Alaska Range-- steep glaciated mountains, white monoliths, rising nearly two miles above the surrounding landscape. The river begins nearly a mile above its terminus in the ocean from three giant glaciers, crushing masses of flowing ice tearing their way through the mountains, crawling toward the sea, a liquid river gestating within. The river seems to skip infancy altogether as it explodes forth from the toes of its glaciers. Like a moose calf, it is on all four legs immediately after birth. Though consistently large, the Susitna varies a great deal on its course. At times it widens so that it resembles a large lake more than a river. Some portions contain great wooded islands, and later, the river passes through two tight canyons filled with powerful rapids.

Leaving the Alaska Range

The river was consistently alive with birds like these trumpeter swans

Wooded islands are a unique feature of the Susitna

The second leg of the journey, which took me from the Denali Highway Bridge to Talkeetna, began slowly. As the Alaska Range receded from view I found it hard to believe that this grey slug – this shallow, sandy, serene river – would later explode into Devil’s Canyon, and that I was paddling my way down to this fury. Thoughts of the canyon and the difficulties I expected to face there kept me in my tent each night studying my topographic maps, twisting and turning a bit in my sleep. I had committed myself to following this river all the way and I had only a vague idea of what to expect ahead. I only knew that by launching out from the bridge I was essentially forced to get to the other side of the canyon.

At that moment, things were calm. The clouds were exceedingly beautiful – various textures and layers intermingling. The river was intoxicating to watch as well: a nearly indescribable color, translucent yet full of steamy clouds of suspended silvery-brown silt; strange whirlpools and spirals twisted through it all, along with giant boils which burst to the surface intermittently, shaking or spinning my boat a bit, making me feel as if I were paddling through a boiling cauldron or surrounded by giant spouting whales. I wondered what the boils would look like when this river picked up speed.

Bear tracks

There was no shortage of life along this section of the Susitna. In particular, birds were plentiful. It seemed that a mew gull perched at every clear creek pouring into the river, undoubtedly waiting for a chance to pluck up a tasty fish. Bald eagles were common as well; on more than one occasion I witnessed a chirpy adult bald chasing off a juvenile. I also spotted ducks, sandpipers, hawks, cliff sparrows, a flock of trumpeter swans that noisily departed when I floated by. A sizeable fish population must have supported the diversity of birds along the river.

Tree scarring caused by breakup ice

Thus far, the journey felt wild: mainly animals, forests, and water. There were minimal signs of human development and I had seen no one since departing from the Denali Highway. The only significant exception to this was the occasional sound of air traffic overhead. Throughout much of the journey I occasionally saw dam study helicopters bringing crews of contract scientists to various locations along the length of the river. More notable were the Air Force jets which ripped apart the silence, tearing through the sky above the clouds. Alaska has a notable military presence and it is not uncommon to see and hear Blackhawks, jets, Chinooks, and others. The Denali Highway corridor and surrounding area seems to be a favorite practice zone for jets, likely based out of the Eielson Air Force Base near Fairbanks. I had heard them at the headwaters and on the northern parts of this second leg. On more than one occasion the world would erupt with a thunderous explosion – a sonic boom. A lodge owner on the Denali Highway related that he once had a sonic boom shatter glass in his lodge. I wondered what the moose thought about all this.

Eroding permafrost river bank

Corkscrew fish catch in Oshetna River

The river gained mass and speed as I continued downstream; the gray slug had become a quick, white-spined serpent. Each tributary pours in its small contribution, diluting slightly the thick gray silty color of the Susitna’s glacial flow, yet this flow still remains the driving force until the Chulitna River junction near Talkeetna, the river never approaching clarity in the summer. As the river gains water it also narrows, constricting between ever steepening bluffs, while muddy banks are left behind and replaced with solid granitic rock.

The Oshetna River is a gorgeous clear-blue color hinted with a tinge of silt from the tiny remnant glaciers at its headwaters. Previous studies indicate that the Oshetna is an important fishery, mainly for resident (non-anadromous) fish, but some rare and precious Chinook, or king, salmon as well. This is likely the reason for the large corkscrew fish catch in the river, just above its junction with the Susitna. It slowly turned in the current, resembling the payload of a water-bound cement truck. Rather than sifting cement however, it was catching juvenile fish and fry, swirling them into small boxes where they could later be injected with radio tags to track their movements.

The Oshetna also marks the beginning of the reservoir floodzone. From here on for the next forty-plus miles I would be plunging into what could become a future lake. Just past the Oshetna the Susitna enters its first canyon. The reservoir wouldn’t reach high up into Watana Canyon, likely just enough to stagnate the river and drown the class 4+ rapids.

Reservoir and damsite montage

I soon reached Watana Canyon. The reservoir would not reach high up into the canyon, likely just enough to stagnate the river and drown the rapids. I chose to portage the canyon. I thought it the safest course since I was alone in so remote a place. The views from on high were fantastic so the portage was just as well.

Arrival at Watana Canyon

Watana Canyon bat study instrument

Watana Canyon

Watana Canyon

Just as I was preparing to launch my boat downstream of the canyon a study helicopter spotted me and circled back around, clearly surprised to see me. I also spotted a dragonfly on the river edge that appeared to be dead. I picked it up and placed it on a rock. Before too long it began to twitch, then to vibrate its wings. After some time it dried off enough to launch, quickly buzzing out of view.

Paddle-tailed Darner Dragonfly

I left the canyon descending ever deeper into the potential reservoir’s watery depths. Many caribou with patchy summer coats relaxed along the river, including a group of cows on a shallow gravel bar island, part of the Nelchina herd whose population runs from around 35,000-45,000 members. The reservoir would inundate portions of their current spring and fall migration routes which could potentially disrupt their movements. Most animals can currently swim across the river, but the reservoir’s greater width could impede now connected habitats.

The sandy riverbanks were coated with great wads of matted silvery caribou fur mixed in with bits of smooth driftwood, all contoured in the wavy patterns of the river’s high mark. I wondered what else the reservoir would take from them. Do the gravel bars and river banks serve as important refuges from insects and predators? My own experience of the area was that down on the river there were few if any insects, yet while portaging higher up the flies and mosquitoes were incessant. Caribou are unfortunate hosts for skin-embedding bot flies and nasal-dwelling warble flies. I wondered how important these small islands and narrow riverbanks were for them and what would happen when they were inundated.

Large wooded island

Posed action shot

Wildflowers, like these Arctic Lupine, were abundant throughout the entire river stretch

Driftwood

Shattered

Bull caribou

Caribou on gravel bar island

Tremendous quantity of molted caribou fur on river beach

I often spotted bald eagles and other birds upstream of and within the proposed reservoir

In addition to the many caribou within the damsite I saw a variety of birds including quite a few bald eagles, likely feeding primarily on the resident fish like grayling, pike, whitefish, and burbot, but also on the few Chinooks present. Alaska is generally a relatively sparse place due to its climate extremes. To have witnessed so much life in so short a time seemed telling. Not only animal life, but a cabin site I stumbled upon indicated that there would be at least some humans immediately impacted by the dam’s reservoir site.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cabin site in proposed reservoir

Cabin site in proposed reservoir

Cabin site in proposed reservoir

Clear creek water joining silty Susitna

Flooded creek under cottonwoods

Watana Creek

Widest part of the proposed reservoir - 2 miles wide, everything in this picture will be submerged

Watana Creek

Widest part of the proposed reservoir - 2 miles wide, everything in this picture will be submerged

Camp at Watana Creek

The experience of being in a place that could become so fundamentally altered was novel and thought provoking. I tried to imagine, with some difficulty, my camp and everything I had seen that day all disappearing underneath hundreds of feet of water. Could I really be one of the relatively few eyes to see this place – one of the last of my generation to float this river in its native condition? I took inspiration from the likes of Ansel Adams in the Sierras ("I have thought about the land while traveling through it and observing its precarious status quo: beautiful, yet on the verge of disaster…"). Or as though I were creating an Alaskan version of “The Place No One Knew,” a book of photography and prose about Glen Canyon in Utah prior to flooding by Lake Powell. While the Susitna through the proposed reservoir is very different aesthetically than Glen Canyon, while there I felt that it was an incredible and wild place. I wondered how it could possibly be lost.

More than any other state and most other land regions on earth, Alaska is characterized by its wilderness condition – a place largely untamed and undeveloped. Though many small-scale dams exist, especially in the southeast of Alaska, none of Alaska’s major rivers are currently dammed. The Susitna River runs entirely unimpeded, with only two road crossings and one rail crossing. It is exceptional for a river of this size and volume to be undammed anywhere on the planet. My journey down the Susitna was motivated in large part not only by a concern for the fate of the Susitna River in particular, but also by a concern for the future of this land as a whole. The Susitna Dam is only one of a pantheon of mega-projects being proposed by the state of Alaska and various corporations including mines, roads, pipelines, oil platforms, and bridges, many in areas completely or nearly devoid of human development. I worry Alaska will become like so much of the rest of the world, a wild place in memory only.

The Susitna, like Alaska as a whole, is enormous. However, the size of Alaska is deceptive. Alaska’s nickname “The Last Frontier” is appropriate in certain respects, but also unfortunate. It seems to imply that, like the “lower 48”, its land and waters will similarly succumb to taming - to being developed, managed, and carved up into oblivion. The “lower 48” was once thought of as an endless intractable wilderness by immigrants from the crowded European subcontinent, but today the frontier is closed and settled and in places entire ecosystems have been decimated. As an example, less than three percent of the original tall grass prairie of the United States still exists with less than one-hundredth of one percent still remaining in Illinois. According to Maude Barlow in his book Blue Gold, only 2% of all the rivers in the lower 48 with the capacity for a dam are left free-flowing (though this is in fact increasing with dam removals). Meanwhile, only about 2.5% of the total area of the lower 48 is protected from development as wilderness. The wilderness which remains is confined to a disconnected patchwork of areas that were difficult enough to access, unusable for development or resource extraction, of a high enough scenic quality, or unique enough to be deemed worthy of protection.

The Susitna currently flows from beginning to end without human obstruction – a rare phenomenon both within the United States and across the globe. Consider the Missouri River as an example. According to Clifton Stone of South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks, “The Missouri River of today, now ‘tamed,’ is very different from the river prior to human influence. Today, the river is divided into approximately three equal parts: the lower one-third, below Sioux City, Iowa is channelized; one-third is impounded by six large dams; and one-third consists of remnant ‘free flowing’ stretches of water. Only one percent of the river's entire length remains truly uncontrolled by humans.” Undoubtedly, similar statistics could be given for the Mississippi, the Columbia, the Colorado, and on. The World Wildlife Fund states that “Out of 177 rivers longer than 1,000 km [621mi], only 64 rivers (less than 40 per cent) are still free-flowing. Most of the remaining free-flowing rivers are large tributaries of the world’s major river systems. Rivers within the Amazon system alone account for 20 per cent of free-flowing rivers over 1,000 km. Tributaries in the Lena, Yenisei and Amur river systems in the far east of Russia account for another 20 per cent of free-flowing rivers.” Certainly, Alaska must account for a good portion, though it is worth noting that the Susitna is less than 1000 km.

Caribou tracks at Watana Creek

A low sun lights tree-covered bluffs which would be covered by the reservoir

Sandbar at Deadman Creek

Deadman Creek joining Susitna

 

The proposed damsite

Caribou crossing very near the proposed damsite

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The currently proposed damsite is not far past Watana Creek, where the river rushes through a section of narrow rocky bluffs. I had reached the depths of the reservoir, a point that, if the dam is built, could be submerged under about 700 feet of water. It is one of the more dramatic sections of the river with its rapids and rocky walls. It is understandable, from a purely utilitarian perspective, how this could easily function as a damsite.

Within moments of leaving the damsite, I had a remarkable and telling encounter with a bull caribou sporting a great arching, velvety rack. I spotted him initially on the left riverbank. As I approached he suddenly jumped into the river and swam across in front of me at a smooth and remarkable pace. He quickly hopped onto the right riverbank, running downstream, with me floating not far behind. After running up against a bit of cliff he incredibly jumped again into the river and swam back across to the left bank. I was amazed at the sight but was worried I would wear him out so planned to take a break, giving him time to get away. The moment I turned my gaze from the caribou to find a rest spot, I noticed a distant group of people on a distant gravel bar. See below for a video of the caribou crossing at the damsite.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Montage - downstream of damsite

 

Upon arriving at the bar I was immediately greeted by two Alaska Energy Authority contractors – a rifle-donning bear guard and a boat captain, a funny and personable pair. Not far away a group of scientists worked, huddled over various instruments, seemingly unaware or uninterested in me. “Wow!” They exclaimed. “You’re the first person we’ve seen out here. We saw you coming and thought you were a caribou. As soon as we realized you were a boat we saw the caribou swimming and running from you! We didn’t know what was going on.” These were the only people I had seen and would see again for days.

I leisurely observed the AEA scientists at work. They had been helicoptered in from Gold Creek camp on the railroad south of Devil’s Canyon. This particular group was collecting organic matter of various types for isotope analysis. A shirtless technician, wearing only waders, sifted through small rocks in a tray pulling out specks of algae and other plant matter, shoving them into small bags; others worked with minnow traps for the purposes of utilizing “gastric lavage” (forced puking) on the fish in order to collect their stomach contents; while others collected live flies and insects. All of this material would later be analyzed for nitrogen isotope signatures for the primary purpose of determining how much organic material is marine unique which would thus indicate the presence of anadromous species, or species which migrate from the ocean to freshwater in order to spawn, salmon being the most notable. This was one of dozens of studies taking place along the entirety of the river.

AEA scientists collecting organic samples for isotope analysis

"Sample"

After some nice conversation and lunch I continued downstream where I found an island on which to camp filled with tall spruce and cottonwoods. A bull caribou calmly grazed across the river from me, while I calmly grazed on my pasta dinner. Afterwards I strolled around the island, spotting bear and caribou tracks. A telemetry station at the far end of the island formed a strange contrast to the world around its metallic symmetry. According to its log the station, it was quite new and was located at “Devil’s Island” – an appropriate name since it was just upstream of Devil’s Canyon. It was hard for me to believe I was so close yet I was mostly calm and ready for the difficulties ahead. I could only imagine what the suspense would be like for a kayaker preparing to run the full canyon.

As I studied the station a red signal light flickered to life and stayed lit for a few minutes before fading away. I imagined the enormous king salmon who had triggered that light swimming past me at that moment, hidden from view in the gray waters, exhausted from its battle up the canyon, yet undoubtedly fiercely proud of its accomplishment in its own salmon way. It had to grow strong to match the challenges of the river; its strength a product of the power of the river; its life a product of this place.

I was struck by the human imprints left on the island: two sets of helicopter skid tracks and a few boot prints. The boot prints led directly from the skid tracks to the station and back, nothing more – a purely utilitarian and technical operation, a job to be done. I wondered what the contractor who made these prints was thinking. Were they thinking about more than the chore at hand? Did they notice the beauty and wildness of the world around them? Their boot prints seemed to indicate that they did not, but I really didn’t know.

There is something difficult, or perhaps impossible, to quantify or study scientifically that will be lost if this dam is built – the wildness of this river and place. We might say that this is the life, the inner driving force of a place, organism, or other entity. It is found in all of the components of a place, each following its course independently yet completely interlinked and, at some level, indistinct from all other parts. Wildness is a quality of the land that we all know to be there. It is felt, it is palpable. We sense it yet cannot pin it down, cannot assess its presence and loss neatly in graphs. We may disagree on its value. Some see it as something of ultimate value, while others see its destruction and transition to human dominion as the proper course. In either case, it is a real quality that can only be known by direct contact, by spending time with and in a wild place. It is found in the silence and the solitude, in the undomesticated animals and plants, the open and ever-changing sky, in a river’s unimpeded flow, in the fragmented bits indicating prior and current human presence largely overwhelmed by the immensity of the surrounding landscape. It is this quality of wildness which makes a place wilderness.

While resting on the banks of the Susitna I could envision its totality as it rushed past me. It moves as a whole, a single organism, and like all living things, it plays host to uncountable numbers of other life forms, from microbes to salmon and bears. It struck me with its seemingly endless flow, though, like many creatures in the far north, it hibernates in the winter. Yet even then it doesn’t cease entirely - it still creeps toward the ocean in spurts and hidden trickles. The entirety of the mountain-glacier-river system can be seen as a whole. The Alaska Range thrusts freshly created rock upward, spawned from within the Earth’s belly, and the conveyer belt of glaciers and rivers carries this material in all directions. The range also traps moisture, some of which immediately flows downward, some of which forms into semi-permanent glacier ice, all of which inevitably flows to the ocean. The Susitna forms a significant branch of this system, carrying a tremendous amount of water, sediment, deadfall, and other material. Even dammed, this downward flow inevitably continues. A dam, however, puts human control at the centerpiece of this system, and once this occurs something irrevocable has been lost. Even if the fish and animals still survive and carry on largely as before (which they never fully will), the river and the land has nevertheless suffered something of a fatal blow – it is now under human dominion and has thus lost its wild quality.

I gazed downstream at the river bend hiding Devil’s Canyon from view as the sun fell beneath the surrounding bluffs turning the trees a brilliant orange.

Camp on Devil's Island

Telemetry station on Devil's Island

Bear paw print beside my toe print

Spotted sandpiper

Devil’s Canyon

A short float the following morning brought me around a bend, presenting a river beginning to spring to white life, bounded by a densely-vegetated, cliff-walled canyon. I was fully committed now. Before me was eleven miles of Devil’s Canyon, where the Susitna erupts into some of the biggest runnable whitewater on the continent as it slices through the hard bedrock of the Talkeetna Mountains. The canyon “walls” are hardly less formidable – intensely dense thickets of alder, spruce, and devil’s club, cling onto loose dark-gray boulders and steep cliffs where they can, giving way to bare rock at times, all cut through by sharp ravines plunging down to the river. I pulled over just shy of Devil’s Creek, packed up my boat, and began the first of several grueling portages. I caught an initial glimpse of the rapids from on high, but exclaimed in awe once I had a view of the whole. The sight of Devil’s Creek Rapid just below me was incredible – the foam and fury and speed and noise, cut through by gargantuan holes. One particular hole struck me with its dreadfulness – a surging explosion of power – a death trap. No wonder this place was regarded by the pioneers who named it as some concoction of the Devil itself. Standing just above the rapids I was reminded of the AEA contract boat captain’s remark that he would never want to run the canyon and that “it’s even scary flying over it.” Andrew Embick writes about Devil’s Canyon in his book Fast and Cold:

"Devil’s Canyon is the biggest whitewater on the continent, and some of the biggest ever run in the world. Sections of the Indus in Pakistan, the Yangtze in China, and the Stikine and Alsek in Canada are comparable. Described as the “Mt. Everest of kayaking,” the rapids have a roar which sounds like a couple of 747’s taking off. Standing on the banks scouting, one almost can feel the ground shake with the power of the awesome hydraulics. Flying in, a couple of thousand feet above the canyon, the huge waves are visible far below as their crests explode into spray and foam…For the few kayakers who attempt to run it, the mental impact of the run is greater than any other they’ll ever make…Devil’s Canyon veterans even a decade later can just shut their eyes and the whole run will come back to them, so great an impression does it make…The canyon is a classic “overwhelming force encountering an immovable object”…[and] Devil’s Canyon is not really a reasonable portage [so] potential canyon runners need to be highly committed."

Not a reasonable portage indeed, as I would soon discover. See the video below of Devil Creek Rapid.

Devil Creek rapid cliff

I portaged past Devil Creek Rapid, descending onto a stretch of gorgeous pure white granite. In the sand I noticed wolverine tracks. This would be the first of several sets that I would see. After completing my journey I would speak to a canyon kayaker who had seen ample bear tracks through this area when he came through.

Susitna running through white granite

Hotel Rock

The canyon has a colorful history. The river here has been run successfully just a handful of times and has been unsuccessfully attempted another handful. One of the early explorers of the area, gold prospector William Dickey (who infamously gave Mt. McKinley its official name), was stopped by the canyon on his trip upstream. The first successful descent was made by Walt Blackadar, an Idaho physician, who used a kayak in a series of runs from 1972 to 1976. The first and only successful jetboat run through the canyon was an ascent made by Steve Mahay of Talkeetna-based Mahay’s Jetboat Adventures in 1985. It was a harrowing trip that pushed Mahay to the limits, despite a custom foam-filled jetboat and helicopter support. 

More recently, Jeff Shelton and some of his friends produced a video of their canyon run. While speaking to Jeff, I mentioned Embick’s description of the rapids as sticking forever in the mind of someone who has run it. Jeff concurred, “thinking about it makes me want to shit myself, it’s just so big.” When I asked him about the proposed dam’s potential effects on the river Jeff mentioned that the river would be controlled and so something significant would be lost. Additionally, the dam would change the character of the water downstream lowering its summer temperature and leaving it clear. Jeff mentioned that this might change the character of the rapids because currently “when a gallon of water smashes into you a pound of silt comes with it.” Recreation will certainly be affected by the dam and American Whitewater formally opposes it.

The group of AEA contract scientists I met had flown in past the canyon by helicopter with their jetboat hanging precariously below. This was probably the only other boat on this stretch of the river besides mine at the time I was there. The boat captain had told me an interesting story of a jetski flown in previously. It had been left tied to a tree on the river upstream of the canyon while everyone returned to Gold Creek Camp. In the night the river flooded and the tree was uprooted. Eventually the jetski was spotted floating by the camp still tied to the tree, but completely trashed after being flushed through the canyon. This wasn’t the first boat to be destroyed in the canyon.

Devil’s Canyon has formed a substantial barrier not just for many migrating fish but for migrating people. It has made access to significant portions of the Susitna impracticable and nearly impossible. It is this which has allowed the land and river upstream of the canyon and through the damsite to remain so wholly wild. An “accident” of nature has left something unique in its wake – a natural barrier for preservation.  All of this would change if the dam is built.

Intense, cliffy bushwhacking

Loose moss over boulder cliffs was a common obstacle. Often grabbing overhanging vegetation was a useful means of conveyance.

Heavy Brush

More bushwhacking

The Susitna River makes an amazing journey starting in the Eastern portions of the Alaska Range, heads south a bit before colliding with the Talkeetna Mountains which force it around in an immense arc to the west nearly back to the Western Alaska Range, which has meanwhile been curving to the southwest. It felt like I had completed a great loop when Denali and the Alaska Range appeared above the river bluffs and surrounding mountains. A long waterfall snaked down a nearby cliff, one of many throughout the canyon. I climbed a cottonwood in order to get a clear picture and as I dangled precariously at the topmost reaches of the tree a study helicopter flitted by, though I’m fairly certain they didn’t notice me.

From a treetop

Reunited with the Alaska Range

Cobbled river beach

I floated and portaged to a point just upstream from the Pearly Gates and the start of Devil’s Gorge, the final rapid of the canyon. Here I found remnants of studies done in the 1980s to determine the suitability for a dam site. (If built, it would have flooded Devil’s Canyon). USGS maps still indicated an airstrip and road in the area, but I didn’t see any signs in my hasty search. There were, however, scraps of material here and there including a strange metal box, a tattered footbridge perched across the river, and a survey marker dated 1980. Though current plans call for a single dam at Watana, damsites are much like fossil fuel in the ground – once discovered they are always possibilities for development.

Notice the footbridge in the background

Footbridge leftover from 1980's studies

Footbridge detail

Survey marker from 1980's studies

Note: I spotted a black bear nearby

Remnant from 1980's studies

Lush vegetation and fungi

 

Signs of wildlife and birdlife were scarcer here, but still present. As I popped out of a dry creek drainage, I spotted a furry black creature about the size of a large dog, two or so branches high in a tree, no distance at all from me. At first I thought it was a bear cub until it swung its head around – a large weasel-like head – a wolverine, pitch black, punctuated by sparse brown streaks. It let out a couple of vicious snarls letting me know I was not welcome. Wolverines are renowned for their viciousness and willingness to challenge creatures of any size. I didn’t stick around long enough to find out, quickly dropping back into the creek bed and carrying on my way.

Portaging Devil’s Canyon was a difficult ordeal, often consisting of slopes of loose, muddy rock or cliff with a thin layer of moss and dirt on top, frequently with mixed brush scattered throughout. This brush could be helpful as a handhold but overall proved a difficult hindrance to movement. The climbing was tough and was never simply a climb up, then neatly across, as the canyon has no true rim. Rather, the river sits within a large sloping basin, eventually terminating in peaks thousands of feet higher, though the steepest walls are directly along the river. Above these walls, the slope continues upward, interrupted by scattered cliffs that would often force me to climb higher than I would have preferred.

Devil’s Gorge would prove to be the most difficult section of portaging. The drop in altitude contributed significantly to increasingly more difficult bushwhacking conditions – from around 4000 feet at the glacier’s toe to less than 1000 feet through Devil’s Gorge, more than ¾ of the way down from the river’s beginnings to the sea. This altitude difference was reflected in the vegetation, a huge change from the glacier’s toe, but even a big change from the mouth of the canyon. The portaging became more difficult – thicker, more jungle-like, with fern and devil’s club, and this stretch around Devil’s Gorge was the culmination. In the midst of the challenging circumstances, I took inspiration from John Wesley Powell‘s slow journey down the Colorado through closed canyons punctuated with brutal portaging. Or from the Lewis and Clark expedition’s portage around the Great Falls of the Missouri, dragging their boat across the thorned ground, barefoot after their moccasins had given out. (Ironically, the Great Falls and portions of the Colorado are currently dammed.) I continued the portage, spotting a rumbling Mahay’s jetboat tour down on the river at the first major rapid on the downstream side of the canyon.

 

Devil's Gorge

Sheer cliff in Devil's Gorge

Mahay's jetboat at first major rapid of Devil's Gorge

The portaging culminated with a descent down a narrow drainage with precipitous cliff walls, choked tightly with brush, including thick inflexible alder and great congregations of spiny, itchy Devil’s Club. Not only was it thick, but it was steep and the unstable ground was hidden from view by the dense vegetation. Each step was onto a morass of loose, unseen boulders and slick mud and moss, often a thin layer over slippery rock. I was glad to finish and relax on a small, placid river beach.

Final brushy challenge

Devil's club

Well deserved rest on beach

Portage Creek joining Susitna

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


The portage was truly over when I arrived at Portage Creek marking the end of my journey through Devil’s Canyon. Portage Creek is a rich deep blue. Within these waters long, sleek, blood-red king salmon with tattered fins slowly made their way upstream. Not far from the creek is an engraving by William Dickey and company from their expedition up the Susitna dated July 2, 1891. I arrived on July 15, 2013, 122 years and 13 days later, but coming from the opposite direction. Dickey wrote: “finding the path very steep and difficult, dangerous even to carry our packs, we gave up the attempt without seeing the falls, which must be very high, from the appearance of the canyon and surrounding country.” Though there are no great falls in the canyon, his general synopsis is correct.

William Dickey and company's engravings indicating their furthest upstream point

King Salmon in Portage

I admired the creek’s king salmon, watching a larger one harass a smaller away from his resting spot. I wondered how many salmon decided to take the easier route up this creek rather than try their luck with the canyon just upstream. What motivated the ones who tried the harder route? What affects would the dam have on all of these fish? With these questions in mind, I reluctantly pulled myself away and floated down the river back towards civilization. The country became far more open, though still ringed by mountains and the occasional bands of cliffs and rapids. Giant wooded islands began to reappear in the river filled with tall cottonwoods. The first significant sign of human presence I had seen since the Denali Highway Bridge was the Alaska intertie, a remote transmission line connecting the disparate grids of the Railbelt together. Transmission lines like this would become a more common site in the Susitna Basin if the dam is constructed, running from the damsite to the intertie across lands now devoid of any development.

Telemetry helicopter at Portage Creek

Alaska Intertie: transmission line connecting Fairbanks to Anchorage

Intertie continuing southward

Gold Creek Bridge with passenger train

“We don’t want any trouble” I was told by the newly hired assistant as I walked into the Gold Creek study camp hosting Alaska Energy Authority contract scientists at the Alaska Railroad Gold Creek stop. He had himself stumbled into camp a week or so prior and was hired on the spot after attempting to hike to Devil’s Canyon via the old study roads still marked on USGS maps, though he quickly changed his mind after encountering horrific overgrowth. “I just wanted to lay eyes on it,” he told me disappointedly. I again bumped into the boat captain and bear guard: “We’re glad to see you’re still alive and survived the canyon!”

The camp contained a number of contractors working on the river doing a wide range of studies, though only a small portion of the total taking place. I spoke to several geomorphologists who mentioned some of the impacts the dam may have, including sediment settling in the reservoir thus producing a clear river downstream which could affect everything from fish to sandbar beaches. The beaches could potentially disappear, much as they have on the Colorado downstream of Glen Canyon Dam. It is important to note, however, that the downstream additions of the Chulitna and Talkeetna Rivers would greatly mitigate the dam’s downstream affects. The distance from the proposed damsite to these tributaries is about 85 miles, certainly a significant distance of impacted river but it would still lessen the overall impact more so than a dammed river totally lacking similarly sized tributaries.

“Do you really believe that your studies will have an impact on the fate of the river? How do you feel about your role and responsibility in shaping the future of this place?” I asked the contractors. They were surprisingly congenial and willing to engage seriously with my concerns. All of the contractors with whom I spoke believed that their studies would have a real effect on the ultimate outcome of whether the dam would be built or not, primarily because of the federal environmental regulatory process. They also seemed committed to their work, believed that they were doing good science, and that it was their job to present the facts as accurately as possible. The array of studies being conducted is certainly impressive and all of the information is being made publicly available.

Nevertheless, I was still skeptical that the decisions aren’t essentially predecided by powerful, politically connected tycoons of industry, and politicians motivated more by economics than by species health and the preservation of wild lands, especially in the context of the abundance of other proposed projects throughout Alaska. This skepticism persisted despite refutation by the geomorphologists with whom I spoke about this and the additional proposition that they as contractors have a financial stake in the continued proliferation of mega-projects wherein environmental impacts must be assessed and thus consultants like themselves must be paid. One consultant also refuted the notion that the river is simply too complex to grasp. He called this an “intellectual cop out.” “The river system is extraordinarily complex,” he stated, “and a full understanding is impossible, but nevertheless enough of an understanding is possible for the purposes of an accurate baseline and I do believe that a three year study is enough time to achieve this baseline.”

Many of the contractors also admitted some level of conflict about their role in the process. Nearly all expressed an interest in the river, an excitement to be a part of the project because of the opportunity to visit the locations involved, and some degree of apprehension of what could happen to the place. One geomorphologist mentioned his conflict because “I am a ‘river guy’ and have spent a lot of time recreating on rivers like Cataract Canyon of the Colorado in Utah. I even delayed my retirement for the opportunity to come up to Alaska and work on the Susitna.” Another consultant doing fish studies mentioned his interest in fish and thus his own apprehensions, while yet another told me he hadn’t yet considered the moral implications of his role as he had just started in the process.

Gold Creek study Camp

Notice intertie above

Unexpected game of catch at Gold Creek Camp

Sherman

After the Gold Creek visit, I continued my float downstream passing an active homestead and the site of an historic resort which has since burnt down and is now home to a second study camp, this one for contractors who are utilizing fish wheels for the purposes of tagging as many upstream bound salmon as possible. It was their telemetry station that I had seen on Devil’s Island and their helicopters I had spotted while up in a tree. 

Curry

Fish tagging at Curry

Erosion control along Susitna

Junction of Chulitna and Susitna Rivers

Note: Susitna on viewer's right. Alaska Range is in cloud.

I had arrived in Talkeetna, the first town I had encountered on the river and by far the largest and most significant community on the Susitna River, estimated to have about 876 people. The primary organization opposed to the dam, the Susitna River Coalition, is centered here. They oppose the dam for a variety of reasons including the possibility that the surrounding faults pose far too great a risk to the dam’s stability and could even potentially threaten the town itself in the event of a dam failure. They worry about the adverse effects of artificial river flow, lowering the temperature in the summer and raising it in the winter. In fact the very possibility of a flowing river in the winter could disrupt ice formation and stability which could affect winter travel. They are concerned about the impacts on fish and other species which could interrupt migrations and negatively affect terrestrial and marine habitats. The Coalition further argues that the costs are not only too high but ought to be used to invest in truly renewable resources like tidal power, that hydro is not in fact a renewable resource, and that there would be significant impacts to wild lands. They see natural gas as a stopgap energy source until true renewables can be implemented. Various other opinions are reflected in the following quotes:

·         “We'll mess this place up [like the lower 48], it'll just take longer because of the weather.”  -Jim Bailey, master guide at Stephan Lake Lodge

·         “The river is my heart”  -Israel Mahay, boat captain for Mahay’s Jetboat

·         “The soul of the river will be gone”  -Matthew Kaso of Denali View Rafting

·         “Will they ever really build it? I’m almost 50 and they’ve been studying it since I was a kid.”          -John, a Gold Creek resident who was born at Gold Creek

·         “I’m sick of them studying it to death…and I’m all for the dam”  -Butch Gratias of Gracious House Lodge

Talkeetna River junction and railroad bridge at Talkeetna

Talkeetna dam opposition

Talkeetna is the first and most significant town on the Susitna. The opposition to the dam is centered here and signs of this opposition can be found sprinkled around town. Note the far right picture has two graffiti messages – the rightmost shows a skull and dead salmon.

Sunset over Denali and Susitna

Appropriate ending of leg 2

Continue to Leg 3: To the Sea

Upon arriving at the bar I was immediately greeted by two Alaska Energy Authority contractors – a rifle-donning bear guard and a boat captain, a funny and personable pair. Not far away a group of scientists worked, huddled over various instruments, seemingly unaware or uninterested in me. “Wow!” They exclaimed. “You’re the first person we’ve seen out here. We saw you coming and thought you were a caribou. As soon as we realized you were a boat we saw the caribou swimming and running from you! We didn’t know what was going on.” These were the only people I had seen and would see again for days.

I leisurely observed the AEA scientists at work. They had been helicoptered in from Gold Creek camp on the railroad south of Devil’s Canyon. This particular group was collecting organic matter of various types for isotope analysis. A shirtless technician, wearing only waders, sifted through small rocks in a tray pulling out specks of algae and other plant matter, shoving them into small bags; others worked with minnow traps for the purposes of utilizing “gastric lavage” (forced puking) on the fish in order to collect their stomach contents; while others collected live flies and insects. All of this material would later be analyzed for nitrogen isotope signatures for the primary purpose of determining how much organic material is marine unique which would thus indicate the presence of anadromous species, or species which migrate from the ocean to freshwater in order to spawn, salmon being the most notable. This was one of dozens of studies taking place along the entirety of the river.

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By Chris DunnBretwood HigmanGround Truth Trekking

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Date Created: 5th July 2013