It was Friday and Molly and I had a 3 day weekend ahead of us so we decided that we would take the boat north for some sort of adventure. I don’t have any jet boat friends like I do 4wheelin friends, so I called by good buddy Sledneck to see if he wanted to do some boat camping and to find out if he knew anything about the SusitnaRiver. It turned out that he had a friend that was planning on heading down the "Su" to his cabin on AlexanderCreek, and had been invited to come along. Some phone calls were made and we had a plan. We ended up getting to Deshka at around 9pm and were in the water at around 9:30. It was getting dark but the river was fairly high and we had a guide so we pressed on.
Nate and his friend Jeremy were in Jeremy’s 16' Jon boat with a 35 hp jet and Molly and I were traveling in our 18' River Runner with a 115 Jet. The severe difference in boats and HP made it very difficult for us to stay behind our guides so we spent most of our time in front traveling at about 25 mph, but Nate and Jeremy could only do about 16 mph down river, a good 4 mph below what my boat needs to stay on step.
As the remaining light faded into the night we made our way 32 miles down the Big Su and toward the mouth of AlexanderCreek. Molly and I had managed to navigate the Susitna for about 25 miles, but when we neared the braid headed over to Alexander we decided that it was time to let Nate and Jeremy take the lead. All the different braids of the Su were getting hard to read and I really didn’t want to take the wrong turn and end up stuck on some sand bar in the middle of the night. We found a good place to stop and transferred some of Nate’s gear into our boat and Nate jumped on board to help Jeremy’s boat gain a bit of speed. Light now completely gone we pressed on.
Next thing we knew the ride got really smooth and our boat came to an abrupt halt. When you run into really shallow water with a jet boat the water displaced by the hull creates a cushion that offers a feeling line nothing else. You know your about to have trouble but it happens so fast there is not much you can do, not to mention that if the shallows are short you can throttle on and shoot right over the top and back into deeper water, or you can throttle on and get stuck even worse. 6 of one, half a dozen of the other. Especially when its so dark you can't read the water.
Jeremy was stuck as well, but with his little boat and lack of Nate and his gear, he was able to push himself into deeper water without too much trouble. Once he was free Jeremy walked over and helped us push our boat the remaining 50 - 60 feet to deeper water. Fog had started in, and visibility was limited to about 100 yards at best. We broke out the flashlights but all they were good for was looking straight down into the water, and spotting the occasional glimpse of something you just passed.
We turned into Alexander creek and headed up stream on step. The first couple miles of Alexander were fairly uneventful except for the occasional grass bed that plugged up our jet intakes and brought us to a fairly sudden stop. After tilting the motor and pulling a football sized clump of weeds off the intake we would be back on our way and making good time despite the limited visibility. Jeremy had been up through all this in the dark once or twice before and several times in the daylight so he had a good understanding of the river and where the channels were, but following him was not as easy as it sounded 5 hours ago. The fog was getting thicker, the moonlight was pretty much worthless, and our flashlights weren't doing anything more than highlighting the fog, and the two stroke and cigarette smoke. Our method was to keep Jeremy far enough ahead of us that if he stopped or got stuck we wouldn't run him over, but close enough we could see the moonlight glimmering off his wake.
2-3 miles up Alexander we lost sight of Jeremy for a second... I chopped the throttle and coasted forward into the darkness. Here was Jeremy, about 10 feet up the bank. He was having as hard a time seeing as we were, couldn't remember all the turns, and had run aground at full throttle, skidding out into the bushes. Here is Molly and I on our very first river trip with the boat, cold, tired from traveling for the last 12 hours, having been up for the last 20, sitting on the side of an ever increasingly small creek, in our new boat that had spent the last couple hours sucking weeds and rocks. Being the mechanic I am, and knowing a thing or two about what happens to pumps (jet units) when they are abused, I was starting to wonder what I had gotten us into.
We all took a minute to discuss the situation and decided that we were close enough to our destination (a warm cabin) that it would be best to press on regardless of how difficult the next 6 miles were going to be. The next 6 miles consisted of us pushing, pulling, shoving, and idling our boats from one weed bed, to the next, from one sand bar to the next, all the while digging rocks and weeds from our intakes, tripping over all the gear stacked in our boats, and trying to not run each other over.
We finally made it to the cabin and were in bed at about 4 am. 22 hours after I woke the morning before. Normally I don't sleep well while camping, but that night I got a solid 5 hours without so much as rolling over.
We woke up the next morning and had a wonderful hot breakfast of sausage and eggs that Jeremy’s father cooked. The cabin was great, overlooking Alexander creek and up toward Mt.Susitna. We spent the day chilling out, fishing, and telling stories. In the morning Molly and I woke early hoping to make a quick trip back down the Alexander and up the Susitna in an effort to get back to Nikiski before it got too late as we had to work the next day. What difference daylight makes! Molly and I navigated the 9 miles of the creek at full tilt and only got stuck twice. (There were a couple spots that made 90* corners in about 4" of water) Our plan was that once we reached the Su we would just follow our GPS track and we would be fine, all I needed to do was find the little zig zag where we had got stuck the night before, avoid that spot, and cruise. Well, it turns out that when you boat in the dark you can’t always tell where you were so much when you come back a day or two later, even with a GPS. (Note to self, mark a waypoint when you get stuck)
As we rounded the corner off the Alexander and onto the Susitna we ran around not 20 feet from where we had gotten stuck the first night, but this time we were alone, and had gone much farther into the sand bar! We came to a rest about 50 yards from the nearest "deep" water. Nothing to do but start pushing!
I unloaded our cooler and sat it in the water, stacking as much gear on top of it as possible, dug out the anchor and my rope-a-long. I tried to winch off our anchor but it just pulled out of the soft sand. I tried to have Molly stand on the anchor while I ran the winch but we only managed to get the boat turned 180 degrees. After that we couldn't make it budge an inch. Molly and I tried pushing together, Molly pulling and me pushing, and even considered harnessing up the dog to help.
After about a half hour of pulling my hair out a man and his daughter motored up and offered to help! I thanked God and we got to work. With Molly pulling on the bow, all our gear loaded into his boat, and the two of us pushing for all our worth, we were able to get our boat floating an hour later. Exhausted, drenched in sweat, and completely dehydrated, we headed back up river. The Good Samaritan even offered to guide us back to the landing so we wouldn't have any more trouble! I think I said thank you a hundred times, but if it had been a thousand, he couldn't know how much I appreciated his help.
Lesson learned - no boating at night!
Stuck on the Susitna...