Where Have All the Canoes Gone?

by Stan Justice

Years ago one of the more popular interior floats was the Reindeer Hills section of the Nenana River. It was popular because it is high in the hills, has great views, and mellow water (class II). Plus it is road accessible via the Parks and Denali Highways. Then Denali Wilderness Jet Boat Safari, a jet boat tour company badgered the state into letting them operate on this section of the river, against noisy opposition from the paddling community. I keep paddling this section but don’t see many other quiet craft anymore – and I may give it up myself. Spending all my time worrying about meeting the jet boats does not make for a relaxing trip.

Stopping and letting the quiet folks pass has become common practice by snowmachines and 4-wheelers. Unique to jet boats is they can’t even slow down!!! The only way such large boats can travel on a small river like the upper Nenana is by being ON STEP, skimming along on the surface of the water. OFF STEP and they sink deep in the water, or onto the gravel if the water is not deep. This problem is worst while going downstream because they have to travel faster to stay up on step. The river has narrow section where there is no room for passing. Paddle boats need to be off the water.

The jet boats are very noisy so one would think it would be easy to hear them coming. But there are places where bluffs and dense forests block the sound or splashy rapids mask the noise. Several paddlers have stories of close calls. So where we once had a high quality river trip we now have a tourist thrill ride.

Stan Justice
Fairbanks, Alaska