A Love Letter to River Rats
Why raft whitewater? It’s simply a natural love of water and a desire to conquer the elements.
When it comes to wilderness whitewater, Sixmile River can’t be beat. Flowing within Chugach National Forest, Sixmile drainage starts as Granite Creek and flows from the top of Turnagain Pass, with snow melting and cascading into booming whitewater flowing through narrow canyons. It’s known as some of the best whitewater in Alaska.
Chugach Outdoor Center (COC), a rafting operation out of Hope, offers guided trips down Sixmile River. Co-owners Jay Doyle and John White bought COC for its perfect location when it was undeveloped forest. When it comes to rafting whitewater, logistics is often a deal breaker when it comes to offering guided trips, so their location on Hope Highway is prime.
With a fifteen-minute drive to the put-in, and a take out directly in front of their office, it’s an ideal river for customers and guides alike.
“Guides say that Sixmile is the best river to work because of the combo of great whitewater to convenient logistics,” explains James D’Spain, one of the raft guides.
The center offers two trips a day from mid-May to mid-Sept, employing six full-time guides. All the guides at Chugach Outdoor Center have 5-10 years of experience. Tommy Giordano, who grew up rafting the Chattooga River in South Carolina, is the head boatman, along with an experienced crew of James D’Spain, Archie Prentice, Neil Cheesewright, Sam Kellerman and Greg “Gumbie” Knicker.
The classic trip Chugach Outdoor Center offers is their three-canyon whitewater excursion. Traveling through three canyons with ascending whitewater difficulty, the last canyon is their Class V showcase. This spot is where the rapids are given names like the “Anvil” and “Jaws.”
Upon check in at the office for whitewater trips, rafting clients are offered hot drinks as gear is passed around on the large deck.
“Ok guys, there’s a lot of water in that river,” D’Spain jokes as we gear up in dry suits and helmets.
Once insulated, rafters are shuttled to the put-in at the Canyon Creek Bridge, where the guides start with serious safety instruction and a swim test.
Sam Kellerman is a guide who came to Alaska with experience rafting the notoriously gnarly Gully in West Virginia. He explained the best way to handle falling in the river.
“If you fall in, you have to swim, hard,” Kellerman said. “Most guides tell you to float and wait for help. We don’t. That’s what makes us different. I can save your life, but you have to swim for your life, too” explains Kellerman.
Archie Prentice, a fellow South Carolina rafter, leaps nimbly into the raft like it’s an extension of his own body, and explains how essential it is to follow the guides’ instructions.
“When a guide shouts hard left, you jump left, hard. No questions asked.” Prentice explained, bringing home the point how essential it is to work together out there.
Next, the guides coax every rafter to jump into the frigid river, swim hard against the current towards the other shore, then wait for instructions to flip over onto their back and float with the current. Rafts are waiting at a small eddy downstream. Swimming to the raft, you must allow yourself to be “rescued.” Then, quickly, you must turn around and pull in another swimmer.
The swim test and practice rescues are intended as a gauge for a rafter’s physical ability and mental willingness. Of all the responsibilities one assumes when participating on a raft trip, honest self-evaluation is the most important. Once everyone completes their swim, the guides check in: “How’s everyone feeling?” After consent from their dripping clients, the raft continues on.
Myriad obstacles await as we approach the first canyon, and it’s the guides job to manage the risks. Currents on the bottom of the river are faster than surface currents, and rapids have unique features. Each requires a different approach at an altered angle. In addition, the river changes depending on flow, so it pays to have experienced guides. A love of their craft comes out in those moments, as their skills safety navigate the rushing water.
For most guides, a love of water was born early. Giordano describes growing up in South Carolina seeing people rafting down the Chattooga in inflatable boats, thinking it looked like so much fun he knew he’d do it too one day.
Guides here are pros, that’s what makes the rafting so enjoyable. Being a great guide is no easy task, requiring a combination of outdoor skills, courage, and responsibility.
Often a labor of love, when you start out guiding, you aren’t making a sustainable living, and guiding whitewater season is only a few months. Several guides travel to the southern hemisphere to continue the lifestyle, rafting rivers in New Zealand and chasing the summer season throughout the globe.
“I basically try to avoid winter entirely now if I can!” jokes D’Spain.
Thoroughly prepped and ready, the rapids are a blast. Approaching the first canyon, the initial rapids have been named Predator and Merry-Go-Round.
Giordano shouts “Hard left hard LEFT!” as we approach the rapid. You must trust yourself, your guide, and your fellow rafters, who now feel more like your team. There is a split-second moment when the raft is poised to enter the rapid, and now you have to “ROW, ROW, ROW!!” The raft hits the rapid hard, crashing into the wall of water in a moment of pure exhilaration.
Joy bubbles up from your lips, in giggles escaping your throat in helpless pleasure. It’s the buoyancy of life, the boost of adrenaline. This sensation is why people raft whitewater. Once the rush of canyon’s rapid are over, the raft drops into calm pools and floats gently. We meander past Resurrection Creek, a popular gold mining spot. Fireweed blankets the hillside. Giordano peppers the conversation with history of gold mining and stories of previous trips’ wildlife sightings.
“Ever see any bears?” someone asked. “Yeah, we let them out of their cages at noon,” Giordano cracked.
A tourist job, raft guides must field all the classic questions with good humor, and there are some doozies like “Where can we fish for smoked salmon?”
Five minutes later a bear was on shore. A juvenile, likely a yearling, had followed a creek bed to the river’s mouth. He loped off when we paddled near, back to mama, as the rafters excitedly craned necks to catch a glimpse.
“You never know in Alaska.” Giordano says.
Last summer, he explained, there was a spot in the second canyon where eagles always hung out to try to catch jumping salmon. If he was guiding in the second raft, inevitably the first raft would scare an eagle skyward, and as they plummeted into the rapids the eagle would soar thrillingly close above their heads.
Over the crashing whitewater, he’d shout to his crew, “Paddle forward to whitewater and liberty!” He smiled at the memory, his affection for Alaska palpable.
Thank goodness for the river rats.