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Thread: Willow creek and little willow creek

  1. #1
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    Question Willow creek and little willow creek

    Im new to Alaska floating and I am looking for the best resource for river conditions. I looked at the Alaska river forecast site, but I am looking for current information re: log jams, sweepers, etc.

    Any advice on floating these two creeks for a novice? From what i've read, Shirley towne bridge on down is class I and 2 and little creek is good but a long float. What advice is there re: the willow state park take out?

    What other rivers/creeks would you recommend for class 1 and 2?

    Thank you.

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    Portage creek. Little su (especially with king closure should be quiet). Come to mind as low commitment easy water in the area.

    Floats are straightforward, scout out takeouts before hand and you'll be good to go.

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    Also the susitna from talkeetna to the parks hwy bridge will give you a big glacial Alaskan river setting but a low commitment beginners float near civilization.

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    Floated two different sections of Willow Creek over two consecutive weekends and had two entirely different experiences. Both times I took the whole family, myself, wife and our daughters 11, 10 and 8. I am fairly experienced, while my gals are not as much. Both floats were a first for us, but, I had done some research and kinda knew what to expect.

    First trip, we used a Sotar SP-13 raft to float from the Parks Highway down to the confluence with the Susitna. Had a great Class 1 trip, took about 3.5 hours.

    Second trip, we decided to float the next section upstream: from the Shirley Towne bridge down to the Parks Highway. Because we had been told that this section was more narrow and braided, we decide to take two narrow boats: a SOAR Pro Pioneer with Oar Saddles for myself and my two youngest girls, and a tandem hard kayak (Old Town Dirigo XT with spash skirts) for my wife and oldest daughter. While we were preparing to launch, numerous sport kayakers were pulling out, having paddled down from "Red Gate". Everyone was having a great day on the water! But, during the first mile after leaving Shirley Town, we encountered strong Class 2-3 rapids, and shipped so much water, that we had to pull off on a gravel bar to bail out both boats. Then things calmed down and we floated the next few miles without incident.

    At somewhere over the half way point, the creek split in two, with the right half going off strong and narrow into the forrest, while the left branch went more out into the open, with some braiding. We stopped to eat lunch and I scouted ahead a little ways. Due to our ealier "bailing" experience, we decided to go left. As we drifted along, we encountered more and more "wood" and braiding. After about a mile, my wife's kayak, being the faster boat, had gotten out ahead. As she rounded a tight turn, I saw her and my daughter start back paddling like crazy, but I couldn't see why. Before they could get to shore, they were pushed under a sweeper, cap-sized, and were carried out of my line of sight around the bend. I got my raft beached on the opposite shore, told my other 2 girls to stay put, and immediately ran like a mad-man downstream and across numerous logs, etc. As I vaulted the last obstacle, I saw my wife and oldest daughter climbing out of the water onto a tangled log-jam, and their submerged kayak wedged against another log nearby. Further downstream was a really BIG tree completely blocking the river. The water barely, and I mean barely, rushing under the trunk! (That's what my wife was frantically trying to avoid. The rest of the mess that actually flipped her, was just debris that had piled up in front of the main blockage.) I couldn't cross the creek right there, but we were able to yell back-and-forth over the noise of the water. They were shaken, but unhurt. I told them to head upstream on their side of the creek to get closer to my boat, while I extracted their kayak from the tangle in the middle. I yanked their boat out and dragged it back over all the obstacles, reaching my boat before they reached a parallel position on the opposite bank. Adrelaline will do that!

    As soon as I got back, my youngest daughter said, "Daddy, there's a sign over there, with a picture of a man who died here!" Sure enough, there was a laminated dedication to a young man, who drowned at the same spot, while wade fishing a few years ago. I told both girls, "Don't show that to your mother!" Then I used the Pro Pioneer to ferry my wife and oldest girl over to our side of the creek. We portaged everything about a quarter-mile beyond the log-jam, and I distracted my wife as we passed the signs. (There was another one on the downstream end of the log-jam, VERY SAD!)

    We eventually made it down to the Parks Highway, but slowly, since I had to scout ahead in the kayak at numerous places, and then beach it and walk back upstream to shepard the rest of the family through the rough spots. Thank goodness for long summer days in Alaska. We loaded up the truck and made it down to the Dairy Queen in Wasilla, just before they closed at mid-might. Just as everyone was enjoying their banana-splits, and forgotten about the log-jam, our youngest girl blurted out about the "signs"! We talked alot about river-safety on the drive home, and why we always wear PFD's, etc. After such an eventful day, everyone got a good night's sleep, and we all went to church on Sunday. Then my radio alarm went off Monday morning . . . the lead story was about another young man, a gold miner, drowning in Willow Creek! My wife said calmly, "We are NEVER going back to that 'Creek'!!!"

    But, we did float the Kenai last weekend!

    Just be careful on Willow Creek! And if you're a novice, float the lower section below the Parks Highway. The Willow Resort, located right at the highway, will even give you a shuttle ride from the Susitna, for only $30.
    "Luckily, enforcement reads these forums, and likely will peruse this one...Especially after a link of it is forwarded to them....." - AlaskaHippie.

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    I am glad things turned out okay for y'all. The creek can be deceptive as it is small but the log jams and current are nothing to be taken lightly. You are right about the PFD's- that can be the difference between a rescue and a recovery!

    BEE

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    Great post! Thanks for sharing this trip report. Since you know others may criticize you, it takes courage to post a “float trip gone wrong” story; your honesty may very well save another boater the same (or worse) misfortune on the Shirley Towne stretch of the Willow.

    The Willow is a super cool river system. It truly has something for every type of boater, from the rowdiest to the mellowest. The section from Shirley Towne to the Highway has had some nasty wood in it for a long time. Others I’m sure know more about this than me, but about six or seven years ago it caught me and my passengers off guard in a 16’ cat. We got off lucky, as our misfortune was nothing more than a punishing portage over and around a vicious logjam, instead of a chill day of fishing. Our mini-ordeal took place during low water, so we had time to react. When the water is really moving (like it has been lately on the Willow), you don’t have as many options to slow down or catch an eddy in order to adequately scout and keep safe spacing with your group. In my experience, accidents happen quickly, and getting caught up in a strainer at these flows has some deadly potential. Through my own bad judgment with wood in rivers, I have really learned to give this hazard the ultimate respect; therefore, I make a point in all of my prefloat talks to stress the danger of strainers and sweepers. I make sure they are aware of the seal hopping technique if they are swimming and cannot avoid the strainer. Here is a quick video that shows the power of the river and why you need to do the seal hop instead of trying to muscle up and over a strainer:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o7M4atRL_-4

    BluNosDav, I’m stoked to here you are back on the water. My family and I were also down floating and camping on the Upper Kenai this weekend. Crazy amount of people but when you have great weather on a beautiful river life is not too bad, great way to spend the Father’s Day weekend. Have fun in those boats this summer!

    Josh

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    Default high water

    Your major problem was the high water. At a normal summer fishing type of flow, you will find the stream is not so pushy. On another note; before you take the family down something, go first yourself. By doing this you will eliminate those ugly suprises, and your trip will be fun.
    Try again at lower water, the fishing is great in that section.

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    Koleary,
    Willow Creek from the highway down to the state park take out is a great float to get your "feet wet" with Alaska floating. We floated it Saturday and with the creek being a little high (1100 cfs) for fishing but great for rafting. Over the last several years there has been a log jam with a tight slot to the river left, that shute is now plugged up, but the right side has cleared with only a few low hanging branches. As you get toward the end of the creek it will split in two, take the left channel. There is a sign with an arrow that points to the raft take out. About another mile down river you will see a branch of the big Su coming in, at that point look for another raft take out sign, hit a hard left into the slough. You will have to back row or drag (depending on water levels) your boat a few hundred yards up to the raft launch. Have fun and be safe. - Chad

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    Hello Blue Nose and thanks for sharing,

    I'm in harmony with what some others thought on this thread... glad all is well with you and family. Likelihood is important perspectives gleaned from outcomes of these strategies that could have lead to much worse stages of events. On water lessons learned like these often stick with people (good to the bad through positives and the negatives).

    I'd agree with Heg that putting yourself in the spotlight or hot-seat of critiquing --- ventures along uncertain lines of criticism.

    Here's my more or less debrief of sorts:

    Willow Creek (like scores upon hundreds and more floats here in Alaska) is highly changeable seasonally. Snow-melt runoff, rains, warm sunny days, combo of just about anything can make significant changes to all sections of the Creek. This is not to say it’s unpredictable because it is a day-tripping creek with roadside access points. This is to articulate nonetheless that ‘Each/Every’ segment demands a meaningful game plan, good communication (everybody in the know of the float plan w/ contingency), paying attention, choosing a part or the whole creek that is near fit to skill-sets, going with suitable (even familiar) equipment, then placing the most experienced boater w/ best suited boat at the lead having the watchful eye back up-stream.

    Without getting brand specific... the 13' SOTAR Self-bailer trumps all other boat selections you went with! Why?
    a.) ’Highly likely’ the better game plan for the family (particularly early season getting familiar again or starting out on conservative to more stable side along with age and collective group experience)
    b.) Oar-rigged communication and decision-making is between yourself and the oars... your skill-sets are the most experienced of everyone aboard plus everybody gets to become introduced or more familiar with the creek. Everybody can enjoy floating together, gain comfort zones, and added confidence while you go through the motions, talk about good techniques, practices, and explain any trouble spots.
    c.) You may have considered floating it before the whole family goes (I sort of agree w/ mark)... however, I'll differ w/ probably most (in that) this is often not a practical way to explore the outdoors in Alaska and therefore will rarely happen (only so many weeks of the summer). Heart of the matter tho' is that in the 13' Raft you are the leader, #1 decision-factor, and much more in control of the overall float. The age factor unassisted is not as big a deal as when inexperienced paddle solo or tandem kayaking in front of you.

    Please do not see this as armchair expert advice after what unfolded in your account of the Willow Creek. I’m not focused on your special situation of events or wish to echo the overly critical. I believe it is good practice to break down the chain of decision making, tie in the events and outcomes, then present important insights/perspectives that can help others mitigate risks, aid others toward making better to more calculated float trip planning --- based on the account you candidly shared.


    Cheers! Good to hear you are back on water and thanks again for sharing.
    Sincerely,
    Brian

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