Tippa-Canoe & Cana Too   10 comments

Life in Alaska is, on one hand, just like everywhere else. We crawl out of bed in the morning and go about our lives, working, shopping, writing, raising kids and …

Yeah, that’s sort of boring ….

And then there’s the adventure. That’s really what you tuned in for, right? Alaskans are adventurous people because we live in a challenging land and what’s the fun of hiding in our houses. Right?

The problem for me is narrowing down the adventures. In a half-century life, there have been a few. So, as I flip through my memories of all the interesting times we’ve had … I throw a mental dart …

Ah, yes, this one ….

But, first, you should go check out my fellow blog hoppers posts because they have experiences too and, just me personally, some of theirs might be more entertaining than mine.


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On a lovely late May Saturday six of us decided to go canoing. An early spring  convinced us that the Upper Chena River was ready for canoes on Memorial Day weekend. The river looked tame enough. Some of us had enough experience to know that appearances could be deceiving, but hey, this is Alaska — if you’re not endangering your life, you aren’t having fun.

We took two vehicles and three canoes to Chena Hot Springs Resort. We had to drive all the way to the Resort to unload the canoes and then two vehicles had to go about 15 miles down the road to our take out so that we could drop one of the vehicles there. We managed to get an early start that morning, despite having two members (a married couple) who are not early risers and are known to be disorganized.

Brad decided to take our black Lab with us at the last minute, mainly because she was doing that thing — you know the one — with the droopy ears and the sad brown eyes. How could we go somewhere involving water without her? (Ah, Cana, we still miss you!)

After stopping for coffee along the way — with a canoe on top of the Jeep — and a 60-mile drive followed by a vehicle shuffle, we were ready to put the canoes in the water. There is nothing like the bite of May river water on the ankles to make you know you’re alive. This was early in our marriage, so Brad and I had never canoed together before, though we both had canoed separately and had once been in the same group of canoes, but not together. Our friends Kris and Roma were recently married, disorganized and young. In the third canoe were Dan and Tessa, also newly married, but more organized and Dan was born mature.

And then there was Cana. Labs never grow up and they really don’t understand the difference between drawing and prying with your paddle.

The trip started off well. The glorious sun sent sparkles across the water and the trees along the river were bursting with fresh growth, that bright green that follows the golden buds. Fish were biting and Cana jumped out of the  canoe to play in the shallows.

The Chena River is a backyard playground for many residents of Alaska’s Interior. For much of its course, it parallels Chena Hot Springs Road, but there’s enough trees and the banks are high enough that you really aren’t aware of it. A meandering river, the Chena in its upper courses is a multi-faceted stream. In some places, it’s narrow and deep, in others it’s wide and shallow. You can float along in Class 1 boredom for a while and then — do you know what Class 3 rapids are? The Chena is a Class 2 river – supposedly within the novice range — but the Upper Chena has some Class 3 rapids involving complex maneuvers in fast current and good control in tight passages … in other words, the sort of situation where you want good communications and teamwork.

Brad and I had about equal experience in canoeing, so when he shouted “pry” I knew to hold my paddle sort of under the canoe, which turns you sharply away from that side of the canoe and, hopefully, away from the hazard, but Kris and Roma starting arguing at the first rapid. She had been canoeing often as a kid. Kris had a lot of powered boat experience. Neither of them knew terms like bow, port, or draw – which does exactly the opposite of pry. Tessa broke out the fishing pole.

This first part of the trip was pretty good except for the arguing. We stopped for lunch along a high cut bank. While we were eating lunch, we noticed a thunder shower near the headwaters and the current had definitely increased. We were getting into the part where there could some tricky rapids, especially in the summer, especially with new rain in the system.

First, Dan and Tessa started to experience problems with maneuvering. Actually, Dan had been having this problem all morning, but he’d just not been complaining. While the water was low and slower, it wasn’t that big of a deal, but now that the current was getting stronger, he found he had a tough time keeping the canoe straight. The canoe eventually turned sideways on a snag and swamped in about 5 feet deep water.

Did I mention how cold Alaska water is … always … but especially in May. They had life vests, but they came up stunned and flailing. Tessa is not a strong swimmer. Brad pulled us along side a tree and jumped in to help. Cana naturally played rescue dog and swam Tessa to the shore. Kris and Roma were caught up in a current and swept around the bend, but they were grabbing the wayward paddles and a floating mini-cooler.

I managed to get us tied off and to help Tessa first onto the horizontal tree and then into our boat. I convinced her to strip down to her swimsuit so she would dry and thereby warm up. Brad and Dan were chest deep in a swell and the canoe was nowhere to be seen — no, wait, I could see silver half submerged under the snag. Since there was no way I could stand up in that water, I used the tree to maneuver onto a nearby sweeper (a tree that overhangs the stream) that allowed me to shinny out to where the guys were.

Dan’s father-in-law’s canoe was stuck in the Chena River and he couldn’t figure out how to get it loose. There was no way he was leaving it, but they couldn’t get a purchase on it with icy cold hands.I crawled back to our canoe, got a rope, returned to the guys and Dan submerged to tie it off. He emerged from the water with purple-blue lips and Brad ordered him to shore. I went back to our canoe where Tessa still waited. Reading the current, I took stern and paddled like a crazy woman to get us across the river without swamping. Dan was shivering convulsively, so I stripped off my shorts and told him to go change in the brush while I built a fire. Meanwhile, Brad was rigging up a rope harness on Cana. Though no sled dog, she did enjoy a good freight pull, so the two of them managed to dislodge the lake canoe from the snag.

Did I say “Lake canoe”? Yup. River canoes do not have a ridge on the bottom, so they are much more responsive to paddler control. Dan had borrowed a lake canoe and never realized it. His reward for this was that he had to walk around the rest of the day in hot pink shorts.

Where were Kris and Roma? They’d gone around the bend and ….

Without paddles, Dan and Tessa were pretty stuck, but Brad is not without bravery. He found a couple of long stout poles and tied the two canoes together end to end. I took stern in the front canoe with Tessa in the bow and the two guys poled their canoe around the bend. There was no room for Cana, so she tore along the shore, sometimes swimming, barking, doing her best to keep up. No Kris and Roma around the bend … or the next bend … or the next. We hit rapids and the guys nearly swamped their canoe three times only to have Tessa and I pull them straight by maneuvering our canoe.

And then the river opened up for a long straight away of relatively deep water. The flotilla moved like a barge. Paddling was placebic at best, but the current was carrying us. Cana ran out of shore. Being a Lab, she just floated like a third canoe, reading the current, her eyes shining — until we got to the outside of the log jam. We had to help her through where two logs overlapped and prevented her going forward. For a moment, I think she was scared that she was going to succumb to cold water and the current driving her under those two trees. Right after that, the current began to rush around a bend. There was no shore to takeout on. I paddled for the center of the stream, hung, suspended and then leapt foward while the second canoe slammed into fallen trees on the shore, dragging our stern sideways, and then, suddenly we were free as Brad untied the tow rope.

Tessa and I paddled between jutting trees of a side logjam, ducking and getting slapped in the face by leafy branches. We got hung up twice and had to push ourselves out of small bays created by trees. At one point we were going backwards, but I got us turned around. Cana had opted to stay with the guys, so  we found our way through and, coincidentally, found Kris and Roma just on the other side of the jam, with both of the missing paddles and the mini-cooler and an exciting story to tell about how the only bank they found had a bear sitting on it.

Kris, who had brought a gun on a canoe trip, hiking back to where we’d left the guys, taking three paddles with him. With three guys to control the recalcitrant lake canoe, they were able to bring it through the rapids and the logjam, though Dan promised he would never borrow his father-in-law’s canoe again. Last one through was Cana on her own strength, swimming furiously — with a beaver stick in her mouth.

Labs! She left that stick — her prized possession — to us when she passed several years after this experience and we gave it a place of honor.

After lunch, we started down the river once more. The water level was coming up and there was spring debris in the current. We ordered Cana into the canoe. We successfully maneuvered some rapids and then entered a nice peaceful straightaway that split into two streams around a gravel island. Both had magnificent sweepers hanging nearly all the way to the island. Brad started shouting orders at me. “Left!” he shouted. “Left!”

Under the tree to the left we went, branches slapping us in the face. I ducked under the main trunk thinking we’d make it when suddenly the right side of the canoe went into the icy cold water and my breath was instantly taken away. There is a kind of mind-numbing shock that comes over you when you hit Alaska’s 40-degree water. My life vest informed me of which way was up and a large Labrador back presented itself to tow me to the shore, else I don’t know if I would have made it to shore.

Brad stumbled up onto the gravel next to me, complaining that I didn’t listen to him. Turns out, he meant for me to pry left, which would have steered us right, but his screaming command had been to go left, which was what I was doing — except with no cooperation from him. I hate the bow. We laugh about it now, but it just goes to show you the importance of communication … in marriage and in canoeing.

Ultimately, Cana swamped our canoe. She didn’t understand being slapped by branches, so she bailed, dropping the edge of the canoe under the water. She happily fetched one paddle and that danged beaver stick. Brad had managed to hang onto his.

Kris and Roma had built a bonfire on the shore by the time we all got to Rosebud Campground. Turns out that, despite all their bickering, they were the only ones not to dunk that day.

We donned warm clothes, loaded the three canoes into Dan’s trailer and drove back to Chena Hot Springs Resort. After a nice soak in the hot springs we ate a great dinner there and then headed home with another Alaska adventure in the books.

Posted March 14, 2016 by aurorawatcherak in Blog Hop

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10 responses to “Tippa-Canoe & Cana Too

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  1. Goodness, how brave! It would never occur to me to do something like this!


    • It was a lot of fun, Stevie. It was only really afterwards that we considered that we’d not properly prepared and could have gotten ourselves hurt. We’d do it differently now (30 years later), but we’d still do it.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. That sounds and looks like a lot of fun!


    • It was. We’re not so daring now. We had kids. But this is a land where challenges are around every corner. You can either be miserable dealing with them or you can embrace it and then tell the story making people laugh until snot comes out their noses.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Wow! Sounds like fun adventure!. I’ve never been canoeing but I can’t say it’s on my bucket list at this point in my life! Darn.;-( Thanks for sharing.


  4. After that day, you deserved a long soak in the hot springs!


  5. I’m in awe of your bravery! What an adventure.


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