Last weekend I finally got around to running the infamous Upper Willow Creek.
I grew up hearing stories of the nasty/crazy/dangerous/class VI Upper Willow Canyon. For the longest time I had no desire to ever go in there. Before I learned how to roll I saw an old video of people running the canyon and they said that it was the best run in the entire state. I thought that they were crazy. They were paddlers from the Southeastern US and they got to paddle a lot of different rivers through out the year. In another video of theirs I watched them run their kayaks down drops that had more rock than water. At that time, when I was ten, they seamed to be on an unattainable pedestal. The next year I would float around in the raft pointing to all these cascading creeks falling into the U shaped glacial valleys though out Alaska asking my Dad if the crazy kayakers from the video would run those creeks.
The biggest deterrent for me for not wanting to run the creek for so long, was growing up hearing stories of my Dad and his kayaking partners putting on the Upper Willow Canyon by accident and having an epic. As I remember the story, after many rehashes (kayaking stories tend to become their own entity after so many tellings), was that Ken Leary, Doug Blockolsky and my Dad had been traveling around the state on one of their many "fun tours", road trips throughout the state where they would hit up as many rivers as possible. During this fun tour they stopped by Andrew Embick's place in Valdez. Embick at the time was working on the Alaska boating Bible, "Fast & Cold". He told them that Willow Creek, up Willow Fishhook Road, was a really fun Class III run that they should run on their way back to Fairbanks. Sure enough on their trip back to Fairbanks via the Parks Highway they drove up and up and up Willow Fishhook Road to where there was a bridge that crossed Willow Creek. Not knowing any better they put on there to run down to the Parks Highway. After several miles of enjoyable Class III they entered a shear walled granit canyon. They ended up running a drop or two, and portaging their boats waist deep in the water around a nasty sieved boulder drop. Upon regrouping after my Dad got swept around a blind turn upside down and Doug and Ken not knowing if he was swimming or not they decided to climb up the river right side of the canyon to portage. After two miles of bush whacking they descended back into the canyon where it finally mellowed out. After a short distance of paddling they came to a horizon line with a small sandy beach on river left. They got out there to scout, but quickly took one look at a sieved out water fall and promptly left their boats and climbed out of the canyon. They then bush whacked in the dark back to the road, hitting their shins on the guardrail (which is the marker for the regular put in). Mean while my uncle Mom and I (four months old at the time) were waiting in the dark at the supposed take out not knowing what was taking them so long. We all blasted back to Fairbanks, rolling in just in time for Ken, Doug and my Dad, all teachers, to show up to the first inservice in their best boating clothes, picking devil's club out of their hands. Ironically enough the first presentation at the inservice was on dressing for success. They went back with ropes the next weekend to retrieve their boats and paddled the regular Guardrail run.
The next generation of paddlers came along and worked their way up to running Upper Willow Creek. The run started getting run enough that there began to be names for a lot of the drops. To me it was still a fabled place that should be left alone. Slowly after hearing more and more stories and knowing more and more people who had done the run, I began to entertain the idea of doing the run at some point. I set up three rules that I had to meet if I was ever to go in there. First I would go when the water was the right level. From what I had heard it was between 650 and 750 cfs. Secondly I would only go if I had been doing a lot of paddling recently. Finally I would only go with a group that I had paddled with before and that I trusted. For several years I could never get those three things to align.
Finally this spring the stars aligned. This year I was determined to get into the Upper Willow Canyon. I felt like it was a test piece or a stepping block for bigger things. The three rules still applied, but this time the run was always in the back of my mind. I got out to paddle as much as I could. I've been trying to get out and paddle as much as I can, averaging three to four days per week. Last weekend everything came together.
Last week Xavier asked me if I wanted to go with him and Evan down Upper Willow Creek. I jumped at the opportunity. The week before, during the festival, Xavier and JD had asked if I wanted to go in there with them, but after two hard days of paddling and a late night at the bonfire I decided it probably wouldn't be the best idea for my first run down the Upper Canyon. Xavier, JD, and Evan had a mini epic that day after JD got pushed off line in Sieve 57 and partially dislocated his shoulder. They ended up hiking out above Triple Drop.
Xavier, Evan and I had a great day at a good first time level of approximately 620 cfs last Sunday. Upper Willow Creek is now one of my favorite runs. The canyon is flat out amazing with over hung granite canyon walls above your head and dark green swirling pools between amazing rapids. The canyon is definitely committing and demands a lot of respect. It is not a place to have a bad day. There are a lot of undercut walls and boulder sieves, and the rapids can be long and complex. All of the unnamed boggie water between the named drops would be a named rapid on any other run in the state.
I made a short video of our day, but it hardly does the run any justice.