I vividly remember that first river float I pursued in Alaska. I drifted a popular Interior stream with my best friend and hunting partner at the time, and we hoped to harvest two bull moose. It would be my second hunting season and second moose harvested since moving to Alaska, my friend’s first bull and second season. We carried out the steps we’d heard were necessary and obvious, such as reading what literature was available on the subject of “float hunting” and river travel.
That took us all of about 6 hours, since there were only a couple of sources: 1) a small paragraph is Chris Batin’s Hunting in Alaska book and 2) Karen Jettmar’s description of our river choice in her book, The Alaska River Guide. While I would eventually write a book on the subject of Float Hunting Alaska, I had no idea about it at the time. I just wanted to get out into the wilderness and hunt for moose while I serenely floated ten days in search of true adventure. Boy, I had a lot to learn, and my education started the moment we launched our raft into the shallow current.
I had no clue that I should have contacted the land managers for river description and details. I had no idea what type and size watercrafts were suitable or unfit for transporting two moose and two hunters plus gear. Heck, I didn’t know how to identify a Class III rapids from a Class IV, especially prior to seeing it firsthand on the river. In fact, I’m truly surprised we made it out alive, but just barely! By the end of that first float hunt for moose, we had our two bulls, but only one air chamber remained intact on our K-Mart brand dingy. The rest of the tubes had been blown out by sharp rocks, sewn together, patched, and covered in duct tape just to hold air long enough to reach the take-out. We managed to limp off the river and return home with our lives and lots of unbelievable stories. However, float hunts aren’t supposed to end that way. In fact, when they do it’s usually because hunters go afield without taking the necessary steps to understand the area and river they’re about to attempt. Today, there is no excuse because the research is available to help folks like us enjoy Alaska’s rivers without the burden of blind travel and false expectations.
The reason for this article is not to brag about the knowledge I’ve gained over the years or to promote a subject about which I’ve written books. Instead, it is to shed light on the value of a subject that until now has not been discussed with the average hunter. More importantly, it is information that I was not privy to prior to embarking on that epic first float hunt where I was forced to learn many lessons the hard way—the wrong way. Perhaps it will help unlock the vagueness of researching Alaska’s rivers in search of new areas to hunt.
It was early summer 2003 when a father and son decided to fly into the headwaters of a popular river located in the southern Brooks Range. The two rafters chartered a floatplane out of Bettles, AK and were dropped off and left to float back down to town. A day or two later, after having drifted several miles, the two men began noticing ice forms (aufeis) remaining along the edges of the river. Soon and without much warning the ice along the edges had crept into the middle of the stream, choking the current with freighting force and causing the increased flow to double their floating speed. Suddenly, out of nowhere, they found themselves facing the unthinkable. The raft was assaulted by a barricade of razor sharp ice and mind-numbing cold water, launching the two men overboard and grinding them into the frigid darkness of the depths below. They managed to escape death but were left stranded for several days without basic survival gear (i.e., food, clothing, and shelter) before being rescued by another pilot.
So what did they do wrong and how could they have avoided their frightening near-death experience? Well, they made several errors in judgement, such as: 1) not properly researching the river, 2) not asking the pilot to fly the river course to their put-in, 3) floating too early in the season for that region, and 4) not stopping to scout questionable ice flows prior to continuing. These points may be sharpened as we digress through the particulars of research techniques.
For such a simple topic as “researching a river,” it’s one of frequent discussion where no one technique is useful by itself, but rather compiled with numerous methods used to help a boater understand the personality of a particular river during a given time of year. In fact, when I first got into river running I gave this subject very little thought, merely because I figured the road to river knowledge had been thoroughly paved by exploration and resources, not to mention by scientific and theoretical approaches. Wrong!
While the laws of physics and a certain degree of other sciences are involved with the essence of any river’s character, there are huge gray areas in the study of such factors that leave the average boater in the dark about understanding Alaska rivers and how to properly research them. Sure, some streams have been researched and pertinent data collected to help cautious boaters know what lies ahead, but what about the unknowns, such as transient aufeis on a popular river, or a newly created logjam that stretches a half-mile? And then there is the instance where boaters wish to pioneer new areas of Alaska, where no one has traveled or collected useful research data, such as flow rates, gradient, river character, and whether floatable or impassible. Well, there are many elements of a well-executed river research project, regardless of how many times a river has been floated. Let’s explore some methods to improve your knowledge of how to properly carryout such a task.
Is it a Good One to Hunt
Many hunters are looking for freebies when it comes to “where to go” and “how to get there,” the rest they can handle on their own. Therein lies the problem of today’s Alaska. There are simply fewer places today than yesterday to pursue river adventures for big game hunting without encountering a swarm of hunters. Serious hunters appreciate writers who can supply the goods without spelling it out for the not-so-serious sportsmen who will inadvertently travel to the areas outlined in publications. I guess my delivery is more appealing to the former. Either way, both types will gain tremendous satisfaction by pinpointing their own destination while using this article to help answer some of the unsaid complexities of a particular watershed. You see, with the proper research techniques, hunters can visualize the true character of a particular river and learn that fewer surprises make for a richer hunting experience. And like I’ve always said, it’s more important to learn how to hunt than where to hunt and thorough research is the foundation of hunting technique.
The way I select a river is by first identifying the popular areas with decent game densities, then I locate some potential routes that begin and end away from those select hot spots. This usually demands floating smaller tributaries that feed larger, more popular rivers. The problem then becomes more concerning with regards to watercraft types and styles, water levels, access potential, cost, and river classification. To compound the problem of exploring these out-of-the-way tributaries is the lack of published data regarding knowledge of a particular stream: Is it floatable? Where are the hazards? How fast and dangerous is the current? What watercraft is suitable? Has anyone floated it before? Is it possible? Here are some methods to follow that are sure to help answer these questions and more.
The first thing to do is determine who owns and manages the land, both under and around the river you have chosen to research. While Alaska is largely unpopulated, most land and rivers have been claimed by state, federal, or private entities. And although most rivers are legally “floatable” without concerns of land ownership, the streambed and surrounding “camping” terrain may require land use permits. A visit to any Alaska Bureau of Land Management (BLM) office will provide an opportunity to view or purchase a map of the state with abundant land manager status overlays, which indicates who to contact for access and use concerns. Next, if you haven’t gained technical proficiency with reading and using topographical maps, you must do so before attempting to explore new areas by watercraft. Maps are one of the most fundamental tools for river travel, so make it happen.
Once you have become fluent with maps and their uses, purchase navigational aids that serve to enhance a boater’s performance and safety in the field. Such aids include a quality Global Positioning System (GPS), and it is necessary that users learn how to use this device prior to relying on it for direction. By doing so will help prevent guessing errors with map reading and river navigation. A standard compass for land navigation is also a good idea as a backup to more modern navigational tools such as the GPS. While I don’t prefer using a compass, they do not require batteries like the GPS, which makes a compass, though slightly crude, a less-complicated navigational tool. However, a GPS is the ideal technology for relating latitude and longitude grid coordinates to USGS topographical maps, not the compass. Have extra batteries for your GPS!
The final step for beginner researchers is to become a safe and proficient boater. This requires time inside a watercraft and on actual rivers. Start out on a lake to grasp the basics, then get out onto flat water and increase your skill level as your proficiency advances. Never attempt a river descent that is determined to be far more technical than your skill level allows. Enough said!
Topographical maps are the standard for river and land navigation, despite the fact that most maps were first collected and recorded in the 1950s and updated nearly a quarter-century ago. River channels have a tendency to change over time due to soil erosion and the like, but maps still provide the essentials for orientation and navigation. I prefer the map scale 1:63,360 for river navigating, , which provide the greatest detail for interpreting terrain types and river layout. Obtain topo maps in Anchorage at the USGS office (907) 786-7011, or in Fairbanks at the Geophysical Institute (907) 474-6960. To perform online research for free, visit www.topozone.com.
Aerial photography can be an incredible asset to river research. The name describes the benefits over conventional topographical depictions of terrain, but know this: most readily available aerial photographs were recorded (with spy plane technology) from 60,000 feet elevation during the late 1970s and 1980s when ample funds were available for geological advancement and research. Today, thousands of photographic transparencies are kept on file by the USGS and affiliates, which can be obtained for under $20 per print. Aerial imagery offers up-to-date information on a river’s navigability and presence of concerning obstacles, such as rapids, logjams, falls, aufeis, etc. For example, I pioneered a river (first descent) in 2001 after comparing topographical data to aerial photographs taken in 1982. Even after 20 years, much of the characteristics of that shallow stream were accurate, such as two beds of aufeis and a one-mile stretch with continuous rapids. After identifying the whitewater in the aerial photograph, I referred to the topographical maps of that river section and measured the drop in elevation for that mile. I determined a drop of 53 feet in just over one mile, which contributed to the Class III personality of that river section. You’ll learn more about elevation drop a little later. If you’re interested in obtaining or viewing high altitude imagery transparencies, visit the Geophysical Institute in Fairbanks (see above). Now, for the serious (and wealthy) researcher, you may wish to hire someone to obtain updated photographs targeting concerning sections of a particular river instead of buying high-altitude photos of the entire river course (both methods are expensive). Contact AeroMap US in Anchorage at (907) 272-4495 or Tom George in Fairbanks at (907) 455-9000. Even though this method of river research is spendy, it could mean the difference between certainty and a guess!
I won’t cover satellite imagery any more than a brief introduction, mainly because it remains cost prohibitive. Perhaps in the near future real time imagery of wilderness rivers will become available to the average boater, but we’re not there yet. The most affordable satellite photographs available today are by Land Sat, which provide color images at low resolutions (one pixel = 30 feet). For about $600 you can purchase a 185 square kilometer (115 mi2) frame. Like I said, we’re not there yet!
Wear a waterproof watch for keeping track of time. This is very important when boaters wish to estimate float times, not to mention the general benefits of remaining time oriented. Boaters can easily use time in conjunction with maps and river orientation to predict final arrival times, devising daily float schedules, and estimating river speeds.
Factors Determining a River’s Character
Hold on to your seats, folks. It’s about to get technical. When we think of river character, images of whitewater, steep drops, advanced route maneuvering, and high waves readily come to mind. In fact, all these river attributes help comprise its character, or personality. In order to gain an accurate depiction of what a river is going to present, from the classroom setting to the field, one must achieve a basic aptitude for what determines a river’s depth, flow, speed, character (whitewater classification), and navigability. Some of the basic contributing elements include elevation gradient, streambed composition (river width and depth), sources of runoff, valley (drainage) size, terrain layout, time of year, and weather. The individual boater and which watercraft type is chosen often determine navigability. For example, a river with a gradient (elevation drop) of 6 feet per mile is generally considered a mild float in any watercraft, but a river with a gradient of 30 feet per mile is five times greater than the former and will likely pose serious threat to canoes. Now, here are additional facts that should paint a clearer picture of a river’s character.
A river’s depth is directly proportionate to its flow volume and streambed composition. In simple terms, the amount of water flowing between a river’s banks and the shape of the streambed (river floor) determines the depth of a river. For example, since river floors are uneven, it’s easy to image why river depth varies tremendously everywhere along its course. Now, with variables like affects of runoff, glacial melt, precipitation, and soil erosion, there is little chance of accurately measuring the depth a river without precise cross section analysis of the streambed. And even then a cross section provides marginal assistance with judging depth elsewhere along that river. Therefore, while river depth can help boaters determine flow rates and river speeds, it becomes less important due to the difficulty, or impossibility, of accurately measuring the depth of a river channel along your intended course. It’s more practical to understand the factors that change river depth and how they influence river navigation than studying in depth cross section analysis of rivers.
The discussion of river flow (volume of water moving downstream) is so complex that an entire profession is devoted to the science, known as hydrology. River flows are measured in cubic feet of water flowing past a fixed point (gage), through a cross section of river floor, per second. This defines the term “cubic feet per second” (cfs). Only some rivers in Alaska have active gaging stations, so precise flow rates are not known for most rivers statewide. To prevent losing anyone not interested in scientific jargon and complicated formulas for determining actual river flow rates, let’s keep it simple. If you wish to know what a particular river’s flow (stage-discharge rating) is for a particular time period (past and present) contact the National Weather Service’s River Forecast Center in Anchorage at (907) 271-3479. However, for the average boater, here’s all you need to know to estimate a river’s flow status as “high,” “medium,” or “low.”
When looking at a river to determine whether it’s high-, medium-, or low-flow, study the river surface level in correlation with the surrounding landscape and vegetation. If the river is flowing through the trees and no riverbank can be identified, the river is likely at flood stage. If the river is flowing below the trees but is in the alders and willow brush, it’s at very high-flow. If the tops of the willow and alder brush are exposed but no rock or gravel is visible, it’s at high-flow. If the river is near the brush line but only a little gravel is exposed and some cut banks are visible, it’s at medium-flow. If lots of gravel bars are showing and the riverbanks are visible on both sides, the river is at normal- to low-flow. This information is extremely practical, for example, when boaters contact the River Forecast Center for up-to-date status on a particular river and the operator provides such information as flood-stage, medium-flow, low-flow, etc. The boater now has the terms to help him or her imagine what that river must currently present.
Factors that influence river flow are: 1) the size of the drainage, 2) runoff types and amount (glacial melt versus precipitation), 3) streambed size and shape, and 4) elevation gradient.
River flow and gradient (elevation drop) determine river speed. Simply, the steeper the gradient the faster the river speed. Now, speed is a tricky subject, believe it or not. This is because river speeds are greatly influenced by depth (flow). The fastest current is usually found at the surface over the deepest channel. Conversely, the slowest current is generally found in the shallowest section of the river. Therefore, to locate the fastest current on any river, boaters should know how to identify the deepest channel. To do this, boaters need a healthy knowledge of actual river surface patterns, but here’s a trick that will get you in the ballpark: the deepest channel, and therefore the fastest river speeds, are generally found about a quarter of the way off the highest bank. So, to locate this “sweet spot,” which is typically the safest route because fewer obstacles are present, divide the river channel into four equal parts. The imaginary line your eye identifies ¼ of the way from the highest bank and ¾ of the way from the lowest bank is generally where the highest river speeds are found.
But what if you are boating a river that has equal-sized banks on each side, instead of the “standard” high bank and low bank (a.k.a., cut bank and beachside)? Well, this one’s easy as well. Remember that when you’re floating downstream with the current, you are also moving downhill with the gradient. Try to remember what happens to the ball bearing in a pinball machine once the hammer shoots it into the game. The game is tilted enough to allow the ball to gravitate downward, right? Well, as the ball bearing rolls downhill it bounces off every obstacle in its path. The same thing happens to a river and its banks, but instead of a pinball machine it’s a riverbank, and instead of a ball bearing it’s a river of water. Therefore, as the water flows downstream (downhill), it bounces freely into and off of opposing banks of land, first the left side then the right side, back to the left, right, and so on. Every time the river makes a turn (bend), the force of the current causes erosion while guiding it to change its course. Over time, this creates the cut bank (high bank). Everywhere you see a river change directions from left to right or vice versa, there will be a low bank (beachside) directly opposite the high bank, merely because the river hasn’t been as forceful on that particular side, so less soil has been eroded. Typically, rivers that have similar banks on each side, making it difficult to distinguish high from low, are usually in areas where the river’s gradient is less steep over the course of several miles (slow moving water) and the terrain is less sensitive to erosion effects. However, remember that the laws of gravity demand that for every right bend in the river, the next one will be a left bend, and a bend usually indicates the deepest bank. This is important information when boaters wish to beach their watercraft and wish to do so on the shallow side of the river, which is the safest method. Similarly, learning to identify the high bank will help boaters avoid shallow section that could stall their momentum.
The character of any river is determined by several factors. First though, character should be defined as the nature of its runs, presence of excitement, its speed, and in most cases, its level of danger. So, the factors that impose a certain river’s character are terrain layout, gradient, and flow volume. Mentally revisit, if you will, all the factors that influence gradient and flow as mentioned earlier, which will help you understand how and why they influence a river’s character. Terrain layout, on the other hand, varies so greatly from river to river that it over shadows the other two factors when discussing river character. How, you ask? Well, let’s say you have identified a three-mile section of two rivers that, on paper, appear very similar. Now, both rivers show a gradient of 30 feet per mile for three consecutive miles, and through research you determined they each have similar flow volumes. What still remains unknown is the true character of either river because you haven’t explored the terrain features. River A, though sharing the same gradient and flow volume as River B, cuts through a broad valley floor and gradually courses relatively flat landscape. Remember that streambed design is critical when judging a river’s character. Now, using your map scale you discover the width of River A is roughly a hundred feet, while River B is about half that size. However, upon closer examination you notice that the map contour lines surrounding River B are much closer together than River A’s within that three-mile section. In fact, River B courses through a rugged canyon and has three separate 10-feet falls (vertical drops). So, while you have determined that both rivers share identical gradient and flow volume, River B’s character is much stronger than River A’s.
So, how do you uncover these little surprises before actually floating them? You have to rely on more than one resource for determining the actual character of a river, because maps are only accurate to the smallest contour line they provide. For example, a map with a contour interval of 100 feet (most common) will not depict a vertical drop less than that interval. So, a river may actually have a vertical drop of 100 feet without red flags being waved on a topographical map. The exception to this rule is falls that stair step downward like River B. However, a drop of ten feet is microscopic in relation to what information is lent by most topographical maps, so even River B’s vertical drops go unnoticed on paper. This is why it is strongly recommended that researchers rely on not only topographical maps, but also aerial photography. This will allow real time viewing of critical areas like the one in that three-mile section on River B. Without both resources, a river’s character is nearly impossible to predict! Another element of terrain layout that is impossible to identify on a map is streambed design, which includes such things as presence of boulders or other obstacles peppering the channel, accurate river width, and cross section analysis. These factors are all crucial in accurately determining a river’s character.
And yet another element of consideration is what Class level a particular river holds. Whitewater classifications are simply a set of general guidelines or descriptions that are placed on rivers to define their level of difficulty. These classification numbers, listed as roman numerals from I to VI (1-6), were collected and assigned by a well-respected collective of boating minds some years ago. These professional boaters, all forming hundreds of years of experience and thousands of river miles floated, comprised a set of commonalties with various river characteristics. Here is a synopsis of those river class levels:
CLASS I – Easy in difficulty and can be traveled by beginner boaters. This type of river is generally flat water with an occasional swiftness or small rapids, which are characterized by low waves. Though river obstructions may be present, they can be easily avoided. Suitable for all watercrafts. Personal flotation devices are recommended.
CLASS II – Medium in difficulty and can be traveled by the beginner boater with experience in maneuvering their craft through fast waters. Obstructions are easily recognized and easily maneuvered, but should be traveled with caution. High, regular waves up to three feet may be encountered. Easy to medium falls, back eddies and ledges may be present. Flotation devices are recommended. This Class is suitable for all watercraft.
CLASS III – This Class of river is difficult and should be traveled by experienced boaters. These rivers are not suitable for most inflatables with heavy loads of meat and gear. Waves are high and irregular and require experienced maneuvering through falls, chutes, ledges and back eddies. Gear should be secured if you must run this Class. I recommend portaging or lining if possible. Scouting is recommended before approaching these waters. Suitable for most rafts and catarafts. Other watercraft, loaded heavily, may not be suitable and should be used with caution. Flotation devices should be worn. Be sure to keep gear off the bottom of the raft because you may encounter damage from sharp rocks or other unseen objects. Physical strength is often needed to maneuver the raft.
CLASS IV – Very difficult and should be traveled with extreme caution and only by experienced boaters. Rapids are often lengthy and characterized by very high, irregular waves, narrow canyon walls, powerful back eddies and whirlpools, and sharp bends in the river. Often the best route is difficult to determine, and scouting is a must. Suitable for whitewater crafts only. Do not attempt these waters with a full load of hunting gear and/or meat. Inflatables should be inflated to the maximum allowance. High buoyancy is a must. Gear should be tightly secured and flotation devices should be worn at all times. Prepare to get wet. Physical strength is necessary, and much maneuvering is needed to control your heading downstream.
CLASS V – Extremely difficult and must be traveled only by experienced boaters. Rapids are characterized by high, violent, irregular waves, which are inevitable when negotiating this river Class. There are extremely fast currents, with powerful back eddies, holes, and hydraulics. Scouting is a must. Flotation devices are mandatory, as are helmets and all safety gear. This Class is not suitable for float hunting and should not be attempted. Physical strength is a must!
CLASS VI – Highly dangerous and must not be attempted by the average boater. These waters are only traveled by the (NSS) Not So Smart! There is a definite threat to life and limb. I would update my life insurance policy prior to attempting this Class of river. Drops are insanely steep, runs are fast and objects unavoidable.
Navigability is a relative term to describe a river’s suitability or possibility of being negotiated with a watercraft. The ambiguity lies with individual preferences of watercraft types and designs, which is why there are so many boat designs available today. However, the question of a river being navigable can be discussed in general terms to help the average boater understand the limitations of the meaning.
The big question I have in mind when I’m researching a new area is “is this river navigable?” The answer invariably depends on numerous factors. The primary factors include individual and collective boating skill level, watercraft type, river gradient and character, time of year, and terrain layout. The secondary factors include individual confidence level, time constraints, and budget. Since some of these terms have surrounding questions, let’s explore them one by one.
Individual and collective boating skill level: As much as it pains me to admit it, we’re only as strong as our weakest team member; therefore, while individual skill level is extremely important, a collective knowledge will see to it that everyone returns home safely! Furthermore, collective skill level is most important with team paddle sports, such as with tandem canoeing or paddle rafting.
Watercraft type: The actual watercraft is a critical determinant of whether a stream can be safely negotiated. For example, a river with a gradient of 25 feet/mile is a breeze in a 14-ft raft, but poses serious threat of upset in an open canoe. Also, buoyancy factors are critical in relation to river depth. While certain watercraft are suitable for carrying heavy loads, its design may allow it to sink deeper with increased poundage and cause boaters to have to carry or drag heavy gear over shallow river sections. Needless to say, much research is due prior to selecting your watercraft and should be tailored to the specific function you demand of a boat (i.e., family boating, hunting, pioneering)
River gradient and character: I believe we covered this point extensively above. Just remember that if you are a novice boater, river character is a huge determinate of its navigability by you. It then becomes more a matter of personal issues and not theoretical ones. A good rule of thumb that I picked up from a well-respected canoe guru, Cliff Jacobson, is this: a gradient of 1 to 8 feet/mile is safe for novice boaters; between 8 and 10 feet/mile is about the most novice boaters should attempt; drops of 15 feet/mile or more and portages become likely; and more than 20 feet/mile drops require advanced maneuvering and therefore greater skill level with expert ratings.
Time of year: Think back to the story of the father and son who were stuck in survival mode after a boating mishap. Time of year proved detrimental to their plans to leisurely float an otherwise meandering stream without trouble. However, they chose to float that river too early in the year. While they could have identified the troubling ice flows by asking the pilot to fly the course of the river upstream to their drop-off, they likely would have decided to forego the float altogether. Therefore, the only one who benefited from their haste was the air charter company who delivered them. Keep in mind that rivers thaw at different rates and cycles, even those in the same region. Breakup occurs on the North Slope about two to three weeks later than in the Interior and portions of southern Alaska. This is why advanced research is due, not only to uncover pertinent river data, but also to determine when rivers become “navigable” in the spring and summer. Even more complicating is the fact that glacial rivers are influenced and react differently than clear water streams. In general, breakup occurs around mid May in Interior Alaska and early June in the Brooks Range. Latitude, glacial influence, seasonal weather, and other factors greatly decide when a river is free of ice. And don’t forget about water levels! When a particular river will achieve peak flow rates (flood stage) is determined by snow melt, precipitation, glacier melt (heat sensitive), drainage size, and general time of year. All these factors are valuable indicators of whether a river is actually navigable during the time of year you wish to explore it.
Terrain layout: Recall the anecdote about the two rivers and how closely they resembled one another yet were so drastically different. This was due almost exclusively to the terrain layout. Study, study, study! Remember too that each boater builds a cache of knowledge without really trying, and this knowledge will help him or her learn to “understand” the applications of terrain layout associated with river running. In short, the more rivers you float the easier it becomes to read rivers in relation to terrain features found a map.
Confidence level: Confidence is a key element to safe boating. Without it, boaters can rely on nothing but failure. They will fail to react properly to river hazards, fail to identify the proper route, fail to counteract a boating error, fail to know when to back out, and fail to return home! Gain confidence as you advance your skill level, then use that confidence to guide your decisions about safety and river travel through Alaska’s harsh wilderness. There are many rewards to be claimed in remote Alaska, but none are achievable with meek or feeble minds lacking confidence in their own abilities. I tell my student boaters to focus their attention on proper maneuvering techniques and to visualize the safest route in front of them, and this allows their confidence to guide them through that run before fear can conquer their actions. Confidence prevails!
Time constraints: This one’s simple! Do you have the time to commit to your float plan? Allow yourself one to two days following any river adventure, which provides ample time for unwinding, gear cleanup, emergency delays, etc. Trust me on this one, river trips are a tremendous physical exertion on both your mind and body. Truly the best part of any adventure is the moment you return home. This is when your experiences are reflected upon and sharpened for sharing with friends and family. Don’t cut yourself short on time. If you don’t have it to spare, simply choose another river or don’t go at all.
However, determining how much time is needed to complete any river float is a huge concern, but also a simple one. A rule of thumb that I use for determining “estimated” float times is this: the average river allows a floating speed of around 3-4 mph in most non-motorized watercraft. Simply use a map scale and a length of thread to follow and measure the distance from your intended put-in to the take-out. Relay that info to the map scale and come up with a rough estimate on the number of miles from point A to point B. Next, divide your river speed (average is 3 mph) into the mileage. This will provide average float times. For example, I plan to float 60 miles of river and I am estimating my speed to average 3 miles per hour. Sixty divided by 3 is 20. That’s 20 hours to float 60 miles going an average speed of 3 mph. Not too difficult, right? It then becomes a question of how many hours you have to spend floating each day to finish on time. A float plan of 2 days to travel 60 miles at that speed requires 10 hours each day (20 hours / 2 days = 10 hours/day). Note: all GPS units have a function to display actual speed over ground, so while this is no help in the research phase, it removes a lot of guesswork while actually floating.
Keep in mind too, that the 3-4 mph average rule-of-thumb is just that-average. That leaves room for tremendous errors in time estimates without accurate GPS readings. If you falsely estimate a river’s speed at 3 mph during the research phase and devise a float plan too tight for error correction, you will be shocked when you arrive to find out the true river speed is barely 1 mph. You’ll have some catching up to do. Now, instead of a 20-hour float you have a 60-hour float. Start paddling!
Budget: Budget is also simple. You either can afford the adventure or you can’t! Boaters must determine the costs incurred with such adventures, which include food, special equipment, transportation (air, river, and road), special permits (land use, fishing, or hunting), clothing, shelter, and emergency funds for unplanned deviations from the budget.
Contact Local Experts
If you wish to learn valuable knowledge of a particular river and you have exhausted all your resources, contact local experts. Local paddling clubs are a great start. Check the Yellow Pages or even the local outdoors sporting goods shops that sell boats. They should be able to help you get in touch with the right resources. Also, contact pilots that service the area you’re interested in pursuing. Either method will likely require a few telephone calls to reach the right contact, but the details they often provide are well worth the effort. If all else fails, contact me. I offer professional trip planning and make a career of researching rivers across Alaska. However, I won’t try to sell you anything, but I will provide the resources you need to get you going in the right direction.
Above and Beyond
There are a few topics that I didn’t mention, but which demand thorough research before heading out to the field. These include: 1) choosing the right watercraft, 2) filing a float plan, 3) making all the arrangements, 4) physical and mental preparation, 5) clothing selection, 6) food selection, 7) choosing proper shelter, 8) economical means of access, 9) air charter considerations, and 10) gathering a list of valuable resources. All of this information and much more is included in my book, A Complete Guide to Float Hunting Alaska. This book took me over five years to complete, but which resulted in hundreds of resources to help common boaters plan their own river hunting adventures, as well as know who to contact for the right job. And while it is a book specifically tailored for river hunting, Alaska boaters coveted it because of the invaluable resources and guidance included. Visit your local bookstore or library, or simply contact me for a signed copy.
Author / Wilderness Guide