What's better than a lazy Sunday afternoon nap? Pack rafting! I was on my way up to Kennicott on the shuttle when Wrangell Mountain Air radioed the van and asked if I wanted to go pack rafting. "Sure," I said. One of the pilots was going rafting and, his wife not feeling up to it, had an extra seat in his boat. I turned to my friend on the van and asked, "what did I just volunteer for?" She laughed and said I'd have fun but I'd probably get a little wet and cold. It was a pretty chilly, overcast day for a water adventure, but I met Don* and Lynn who gave me a dry suit and oversized water shoes to wear. We rode on their four wheeler to the lake at the bottom of Kennecott glacier where we unpacked the raft, inflated it, put on our gear and launched. Sitting in the front of the raft, my job was to be the muscles of the boat paddling and paddling while Don was the brains, steering us in the right direction (okay, he was paddling pretty hard too).
The first notable sight was a giant iceberg in the lake**. I guessed it was at least 20 feet high with an odd knob on the top, like a strange structure out of a Dr. Seuss book. We paddled past and came to the footbridge (the primary way of entering McCarthy). People watched as we battled the rapids before the bridge. There were rapids followed by moments of calm. When lazily floating, I could take in the scenery: bright and deep green trees mingled atop the ridges on either side of the Kennecott River. Beyond the forests were lavender mountains blanketed in fog and distant rain.
Coming up on the largest rapid yet, Don said "paddle hard!" Apparently my best efforts weren't quite enough--we flipped over. Flexing my foot to keep my large, water-filled shoe on, I simultaneously attempted to keep my grip on the paddle and find my way out from under the raft. Meanwhile, Don lost grip of the boat. I found my way out from the boat, popped up (pushing the boat toward him), and took a deep breath of air. We managed to flip the raft, he hopped in and stabilized the raft as I crawled aboard. That was perhaps my favorite part of the trip! Though the water was very cold, it just recently melted off a glacier--no chance to warm up, the dry-suit kept me relatively dry. The rest of the trip down the Kennecott was beautiful--large green cliffs and mountains rising on either side of the river. Several more sets of rapids and twists and turns later, we saw Lynn waiting for us with the four wheeler and trailer.
We got out of the river, packed up the equipment, and drove across the meadow, over moose tracks, through wild flower patches, and up the side of the bluff. We eventually arrived at their house and Lynn and Don had me stay for tea, smoked salmon, mango, and banana bread. They entertained me with stories about family, wild game hunting, and Alaskan winters. It was a lovely afternoon!
*Don is a pilot with Austin here at Wrangell Mountain Air. In talking about why he was excited to come to fly in Alaska, Austin often said he looked forward to flying with Martin--the best pilot he ever met. Martin says that he likes flying with Don, who is the best pilot he has ever met. Shortly after marring Lynn (over 30 years ago?), they moved to Alaska. He has worked as a bush pilot, wild game hunting guide, carpenter, etc. He's survived pretty extreme situations (including a grizzly bear biting and cracking his skull) and enjoys things like landing on a snow-covered mountain, dropping his daughter off on skis and racing her down: plane vs. skis. Don is quiet, reserved, and very humble. Lynn is one of the most gentle and sweet gals I know (reminds me of my mother-in-love, Leanne!), and has a tough-adventurous spirit that helps her make it year-after-year through lots of snow and 30 below 0 temperatures (in their cabin where a wood-burning stove is their only source of heat--oh, and no indoor plumbing).
**Each year, the Kennecott River has a flood, usually around the week of July 4. This year it happened at the end of June because of the unusually hot temperatures. High up on the glacier, Hidden Lake begins to form in the spring. The glacier begins to melt in places and flows to one spot, but it is dammed by a large portion of ice. Eventually, enough water collects in Hidden Lake that it pushes the ice dam upwards allowing Hidden Lake to rush down the Kennecott River. As the water rages under the glacier, bits of ice are broken off and carried downstream. The river rises twenty feet in places, and the footbridge shakes! The river sometimes has large changes, sometimes small. The flood happened just a week-and-a-half before we went rafting, so it was lower than normal with recent changes to its path.