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Rain and Butterscotch Schnapps

By John Locke - Posted on 02 September 1996

The river no longer looked smooth and gentle. The view from the pinnacle aroused my concerns for our party. Here we were, fifteen miles from the nearest road, beginners canoeing a river that nobody had travelled in the last two weeks. The constant drizzle tried to dampen my spirits as I surveyed the rapids. Would we end up swimming? If we swam, would our boats survive? What had my mom gotten us into this time?

I should have known she was getting us in over our heads. The last time she asked me to take her on a wilderness trip, it was a ski trip to the primitive Tolovana hot springs north of Fairbanks. She told us it was eleven miles each way. She didn't tell us that eleven miles included first a thousand feet downhill, then a thousand feet uphill, and then another thousand feet downhill--and she had never skied with a pack.

Now we were canoeing the Delta river in interior Alaska from Tangle Lakes to the Richardson Highway, a twenty-nine-mile three-day trip involving a portage around a waterfall and the stretch of class II rapids now in front of us. "Boaters must have white-water experience to successfully float this section of shallow rocky rapids," the brochure describing the National Wild and Scenic River states. "Potential hazards [include] bears, sweepers, wrapped canoe fragments, cold, wet weather and high winds."

I scanned the river looking for canoe wreckage. Breadloaf-sized rocks broke the surface, peppering the right half of the river. Beyond them, the main current funnelled into a series of two-foot waves. Those look fun, I thought--just big enough to splash my mom in the front of the canoe, but not so big that we would swamp. But then, at the bottom of the dozen waves, the water pillowed up on three motorcycle-sized boulders, too closely spaced to risk weaving through. We would have to ferry back to river right before the last wave.

And once we got over, we would have to weave through an obstacle course of odd rocks, until the current recombined where the river went around the corner out of sight. Just around the corner, I glimpsed two car-sized boulders dividing the now vigorous current. We would have to choose the best channel when we got there.

I descended the pillar to find my mother and her friends Jean and Phil, just arriving with the last of the gear from the portage.

My mother has always been adventurous. In the mid-seventies, as an unemployed mother of two, she remarried and went to teach school in an Eskimo village in bush Alaska. When she retired and moved south to Fairbanks, her adventurous spirit started taking her outdoors. She rafted the Grand Canyon with her friend Jean. She learned how to cross-country ski. She took up fly-fishing.

I have spent a lot of time in the wilderness, on various expeditions and work projects, but I was fairly new to white-water. I had learned how to kayak up to class III rapids (large standing waves requiring some maneuvering, capable of flooding an open canoe), but I had never canoed in a river. My mom told me that Phil, Jean's husband, had run his college's Outdoor Program years earlier. All of us had spent a lot of time in canoes, just not in rivers. "John," she said, handing me a brochure describing the Delta river, "I'd really like to do this trip. Do you think you could take us? It doesn't sound too hard, does it?"

I glanced briefly at the brochure. "It doesn't look too bad," I said. "Sounds fun."

Before I knew it, we had rented a canoe and were on our way to the put-in at the Tangle Lakes--and I was the supposed leader.

A fine mist moistened our stuff as we spread it out at the campground. It was the second Saturday in August, and we were at Round Tangle Lake, two hundred miles from Fairbanks. Jean and Phil pulled up in their truck, after driving 250 miles from Anchorage. We looked at the gear.

"Did you guys bring a throw rope?" I asked.

"Yeah, we brought some rope," said Jean, showing me a small coil of white and red braided nylon.

"Um, er, I mean a rescue line, something you can toss to somebody floating down the river." I showed them the little bag I had, filled with rope, which I could toss instantly fifty feet out.

"Uh, no, nothing like that."

"Hmm," I thought, my dread increasing. "Did you bring anything warm to wear in case you swim?"

"We have our rainwear."

I thought about our lack of appropriate rescue equipment, about our group's non-existent skills. "Mom, you said you brought your neoprene waders? Better wear them when we go down the rapids." I packed my wet suit. If we swam, we would be warm, if they swam, hopefully we could rescue them quickly.

As we paddled away from the beach, I talked about canoe maneuvering strokes--draws, pries, and sweeps.

"What's an eddy?" asked my mom.

"You didn't learn eddy turns on your Grand Canyon trip?" I asked.

"We probably did, but I don't remember," she said.

Oh, boy, I thought.

"There are two things the person in front has to remember," added Phil. "Don't stop paddling, and never look back." He reclined in the stern, using the paddle as a rudder, as Jean, in front, continued paddling across the lake.

Green and brown slopes rose in a gradual arch from the lake's edge to the fuzzy edge of a band of fresh snow. The white of the snow faded into the white of the clouds. We could not see the top of the hills around us. "Oh boy!" said my mom, breaking a moment of silence. The overcast light made the greens and yellows of the alpine tundra intense. The dampness felt alive. The world thrummed to a hidden beat.

The two canoes separated, came together, drifted apart, and shuffled around as we found our paddling rhythms, got our muscles accustomed to forgotten motions. But we weren't there to work. Barely had we started, when we reached the mouth of the Delta river, here only a small creek, emptying into the lake from its alpine sources. We beached the canoes and cast some flies into the channels, but nothing bit. Back in the canoes, we paused to watch a loon floating in a small corner of the lake. Three different eagles soared the skies above, one of them perched on a tree nearby. Each new sight evoked a murmur of appreciation from my mother. Then she laughed. A troupe of ducklings paddled away from us as we approached. The mother squawked, and splashed across the surface of the water, trying to lure us away from her babies as if she were injured.

The black and yellow furry ducklings paddled flightless as fast as they could away from us, swerving back and forth like an unstable toy. Then pop! a duckling went under. Pop! Pop! They disappeared so quickly you couldn't see them dive. Pop! My mother laughed.

The current increased as we left Crooked Tangle Lake. We passed through two sets of riffles, and then pulled into the eddy on the left. By the time I had emptied my bladder, my mother had disappeared into the brush, searching for berries.

I pulled out my fly rod, and started casting a nymph, letting it drift into the eddy-line. The rain had eased slightly, and the clouds weren't quite as thick as before. You could almost make out the shape of the sun. On my third cast, I had hooked into a fish, but it got away. On the seventh or eighth, I brought in a ten-inch Arctic Grayling.

Encouraged by my success, Jean and Phil pulled out their rods, and started casting downstream, where tiny fish were rising so fast it looked like rain. My mom emerged from the brush and dug out her rod. "It seems like there should be berries here," she said, "but maybe it's just a poor year."

Phil discovered the hole, a little further out than I had been casting. Toss a nymph out beyond the current, into the eddy on the other side, and you had a strike more often than you didn't.

"Oh, Oh!" said my mom, when a fish finally took her fly. Her mouth opened wide, her eyes nearly popped out of her head. Her expression resembled that of the ice-cream scoop-sized grayling she landed. She cradled it as if it were a holy relic. "Are you sure I should let it go? It looks tasty."

"Yes, mom, we already have two of them, and dinner won't be for hours," I said.

"But we can eat more than that. What if we don't catch any others?"

"Mom, we have plenty of other food, and besides, we'll have to carry them over the portage."

I almost thought she was going to keep it anyway.

We got back in the canoes and paddled through the remaining two lakes. All in all, we had come through four of the Tangle Lakes, nine miles. Finally, we entered the river. From here on, it would be a relaxing, effortless float--except for the portage and the rapids.

After the glassy lakes, the canoes bounced down the river, scraping bottom here and there. It was shallow and swift, more unnerving than difficult. The clouds lifted slightly, and we could watch our progress along the ridge to our left. It seemed we had barely started, when a white sign appeared on the left, warning us of the portage ahead. Around the next bend, there it was--a patch of brown dirt on the right bank, a break in the thick brush.

"Okay, mom, let's try and do an eddy turn here," I said, paddling towards the beach. "Draw, now!"

We approached the tiny pool at the beach--and bounced over a couple of rocks. Not exactly a graceful turn. We waded, dragging the canoe to shore.

Phil and Jean missed the beach, but reached out and caught an alder right below it, and my mom helped them in to shore. Whew.

At that moment, it wasn't raining. We pulled the canoes out of the river, and walked down the trail towards the falls.

The river sped up below the take-out, tumbling over boulders until it reached a big gash. We walked out on the rocks, on one edge of the slot that formed the falls. The entire river spilled into a corridor six feet across, dropping some eight feet in the process. "Even the most adventurous white-water thrill seekers usually portage around the falls, after scouting it from the trail," read one of the trip reports at Public Lands. Fifty feet downriver the corridor opened into a pool, and then the river passed through another boulder field and around the corner. We hiked on to see the second falls, two five-foot drops that immediately dumped into moving water, which continued through a class IV canyon. Spectacular.

But my mother was missing. Where was she? I wandered back along the trail, and then found her to the side, picking blueberries. "This is the best place around!" she said. "There are a lot of berries here."

All around the falls were large ripe blueberries we collected and ate by the handful. The little round blackberries were even sweeter, and just as plentiful. But just then the skies opened up, and the drizzle turned to rain. I sprinted back to the canoes for my parka.

By the time Jean and Phil returned, I had emptied our canoe. I hoisted it to my shoulders, and Phil helped me negotiate the steep initial rise on the trail. But after a short distance, the trail forked. I dropped the canoe and went scouting.

The left fork ascended to a clearing that felt like a mountainside ledge. It peered over the river, staring across at the cliffs towering over the other side. But it only showed where we had been--where we had yet to go was behind the rock that was the camp's backdrop.

The right fork led to an outhouse and a trail register, and then descended behind the rock. This was obviously the portage trail. I entered our group in the register and noticed that the last entry was nearly two weeks before.

"Okay," I said, returning to the river. "There's a great campsite up there, or we could finish the portage now and be able to see the rapids." It was late afternoon, but, being in Alaska, we still had plenty of daylight. We decided to get the hard part finished.

I shouldered my enormous dry bag, grabbed a couple of other bags, and scrambled up the slope, Phil and Jean carrying their Grumman behind. My mom grabbed a few other bags and limped along last.

From the outhouse, the trail dropped down a ten foot muddy slope, and then wound along between the mud bank and some tall grass. This was the stretch with the obligatory mosquitos which accompany every canoe portage on earth. They were groggy, though, taking shelter from the rain.

And then, there it was--the beaver pond. According to the brochure, the portage is "a 1/2 mile maintained trail around waterfalls and through steep, rocky terrain; trail is divided into two sections with a pond crossing after the first 1/4 mile."

This was no pond in front of me. It was a canyon with vertical rock walls, filled with water, created by a dam--a miniature Lake Powell.

We paddled reverently. We were in a cathedral, dizzy from the towering walls, kneeling on a mirror. It was only three or four canoe-lengths wide, and maybe a city block long. From the far end, we could still hear the whispers of Jean and Phil.

The Glenn Canyon Dam at the far end was constructed with a mixture of willow and alder branches, and mud. It looked as if it had withstood many decades of weather. Its architect and builder was long gone, but the dam, and its lake, lived on.

The route down the draw to the river didn't deserve to be called a trail. Sharp rocks penetrated the soles of my booties. Step, slide. Ouch! Step, step, slide. It went down more than across, wove between large rocks. Somehow we got the canoes and all the gear down, without casualties, though my mother's ankle, which had never been entirely healthy ever since that Tolovana ski trip, was sore from the strain.

And here we were, at the rapids. We could portage past the standing waves, and the minefield of shallow rocks, but down at the next corner, the steep scree slope came right to the river. We would have to put in right before the unknown, without a warm-up. No, better put in here, where we have a stretch of smooth water. But we would do that tomorrow.

"That portage separates the men from the boys," said Phil, as the grayling roasted on the fire and we huddled under the tarp. "I'll bet not everybody makes it this far."

"But once you make it to the portage, it's too late," I said, "you're committed."

"The last group to sign the register went through on July 31," said my mom. It was August 11, and since leaving Round Tangle Lake, we had seen nobody.

"Well, they must have made it through," said Jean.

"Maybe not. Maybe we'll find their wreckage in the morning. I wonder how often they read that register," I said, smiling grimly.

Jean pulled out plastic bottle of Butterscotch Schnapps. "This will take away your aches and pains," she said. It was a favorite of Jean and my mom's, on the trips they've done for the last few years. "It tastes just like a butterscotch drop." Sure enough, it did, and soon we were feeling little pain from the portage.

The next morning the rain quit, and we discussed rescue strategies and reviewed river maneuvering. The adrenaline was building before we even entered the river. We lashed everything down, and Phil made a throw-line using the mostly empty Schnapps bottle. "That gives new meaning to the term Life Ring," my mom said. One last review of the river, and our plans, and we eased the canoes into the water.

We aimed the bow upstream, and backed down the eddy to give us room for a running start. "Ready? Let's go!" I shouted. We paddled hard, right for the upstream pillar. My mother reached out, pushed off the rock with her left hand, and our bow swung into the current, lurched a little the wrong way, and then settled us into the center of the river, facing downstream. We had entered successfully, and were right where we wanted to be.

I steered us into the wave train on the left side of the river. We hit them squarely in the middle, going over the rock at the top without touching it, and bobbed and splashed down the waves, just feet away from the left wall of the canyon. So far so good. But we were headed for the boulders at the bottom of the waves.

"Back paddle!" I yelled, steering the stern of the canoe so that it would catch some of the current and push us sideways to the right. "Harder!" I yelled, as the rocks approached. "Draw!" The pillow of water gave us just enough of a push that we avoided the rightmost boulder. Now we were in the shallow rock garden. We bounced harmlessly on a couple of stones, and then dodged and weaved our way through the larger rocks, down around the corner. The left channel looked best, and we rode down another wave train and caught a large eddy at the bottom to wait for the other canoe. "YeeeeeHaaaa!" we yelled.

We got our cameras out and waited. Where were they? Should we get out and hike back up? There wasn't anything drifting by...

Then they came around the corner, bobbing on the waves, paddles high, eyes focused, negotiating the final hazards. Whew! We had all made it. "Way to go! Yeah!" I yelled at them.

The rest of the trip was a pleasant float, another 19 miles of braided, varied river, surrounded by rolling hills with the occasional snow-capped peak towering over them. We rafted together for miles at a time, wondering at the solitude of the river, enjoying the fishing and the wilderness. We competed to see who could catch the smallest fish. We camped at the mouth of Eureka Creek, where the river turned silty from glaciers. And on the third day, the current carried us through the gravel bars and channels a final seven miles to the car.

"That was just the right amount of excitement," said Jean.

As my mom greeted her husband and the dog, I was struck by how amazing it was that at 53 years old, she would undertake a wilderness river trip by canoe, never having done one before. And still more amazing was that the smile never left her face.