#6: The Susitna River
World-class whitewater in the shadow of Denali
By Todd Wells
In 1972, a solitary Walt Blackadar paddled into a wildly turbulent Class V gorge in Alaska. His goal: to become the first kayaker to complete Devil’s Canyon, the last unrun section of the Susitna River. When he emerged from the canyon in one piece (and after his second descent was covered by an ABC television broadcast) the Susitna came to be seen by many paddlers as one of the world’s most difficult sections of runnable whitewater.
Today, Devil’s Canyon sees far more kayakers than forty years ago, but nonetheless the Susitna is still regarded as one of the most remarkable Class V expeditions on the planet, and is considered to be part of the legendary triple crown of expedition big water paddling.
My own two voyages down Devil’s Canyon were nothing short of exceptional. On both occasions the trip began early on a cool Alaskan morning just south of the small town of Talkeetna, where we loaded our paddling equipment, boats and camping gear into the back of two Cessna 206 floatplanes. From Fish Lake we took off and flew fifty miles north over some of the most wild and untamed country I had ever laid eyes upon. The panorama of rugged tundra, vibrant marshes and dense spruce forests made up the foreground, while majestic views of Denali and the Alaska Range painted a picturesque backdrop. Little more than black dots from the air, herds of Caribou grazed upon the pristine garden that spans between the Talkeetna and Susitna Rivers.
But all of that was just the shuttle.
Fifty miles later, we landed at an unnamed alpine lake higher up in the Susitna watershed where the true adventure began. The planes departed, leaving us feeling very alone in a vast wilderness.
Once to the river, the thick, mesmerizing water drew us towards the ominous canyon below. The banks on either side of the river grew steeper and steeper until towering basalt walls loomed hundreds of feet overhead.
We entered each rapid of Devil’s Canyon with caution and ease, but the whitewater was out of this world. Spectacular standing waves, powerful crashing holes and mysterious eddy lines propelled us downstream, deeper and deeper into the abyss. At each pool between the rapids we shared smiles, at times erupting into exclamations of joy and at others quietly embracing the satisfying state of tranquility.
At our campsites and lunch stops there was never an indication of another human being. No bits of litter, sounds of engines or even signs of footprints could possibly transport us away from where we sat. Instead, the smell of fish in the water, howls from wolves in the forest, and grizzly tracks in the sand all constantly reminded us we were visitors in a living landscape. We were in God’s country.
For kayakers, the Susitna stands out as one of the most pristine and remarkable wilderness trips left on our planet. But that’s only a small piece of its significance.
For the Dena’ina speaking Alaskan Athabascans native to upper Cook Inlet, Susitna means Sandy River. This powerful artery, which connects the age-old glaciers of the Alaska Range to the silty flatlands of Cook Inlet, linked Athabascan tribes from up and down the Susitna Valley.
For local subsistence hunters and fishermen, though, Susitna represents not just the river, but also the 20,000-square-mile watershed spanning from the south side of the Alaska Range to Knik Arm. This drainage is home to two of Alaska’s greatest remaining caribou herds, the spawning ground for hundreds of thousands of wild Alaskan salmon, and the birthing place for numerous other fish, waterfowl and big game.
For local business owners, Susitna is the attraction that draws tourists from around the world to go on flight seeing tours, train rides and jet boat trips, and to experience world-class sport fishing, rafting and kayaking. A robust tourism industry is the primary source of revenue for towns like Talkeetna.
For the Alaska Energy Authority, however, Susitna represents something entirely different. It signifies the potential for Alaska’s largest hydroelectric dam and an alluring source of energy that could alleviate the growing concern about energy supply in Alaska.
Interest in developing a dam on the Susitna began in 1948, when the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation started examining the hydroelectric potential of the Susitna River. Thirty-five years later, in 1983, the Alaska Power Administration was ready to apply for a hydroelectric permit from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, but soon after the application was withdrawn.
In 2011, after the passing of a bill to require that 50% of Alaska’s electricity come from renewables by 2025, the Alaska Energy Authority revived the proposed Susitna Dam, which would be the second-tallest dam in the country. In the first year, $66 million was allotted from the Alaska State legislature to conduct a potential impact study of the dam, and now nearly $200 million has been spent on the environmental assessment for the project.
Of course, the fast-paced progression of the project and quick allocation of extensive state funds didn’t come without a rebuttal from the public. Soon the Susitna River Coalition (originally the Coalition for Susitna Dam Alternatives) had sprung into action to stop the dam.
“We formed the coalition in April of 2011 when the first senate bill came out to get the Susitna hydro bill going,” explains Whitney Wolff, Vice President of the Susitna River Coalition. “The coalition originally started as a local committee then branched out within the state and across the nation.”
Now the Susitna River Coalition (SRC), a body composed of over 15,000 supporters, has made their opposition to the Susitna Dam known. A street-side booth in Talkeetna informs visitors about the safety risks associated with developing a dam on the earthquake-prone Susitna, and informative talks have been given across the state outlining the negative impacts the dam would have on the local tourism economy as well as salmon and wildlife.
Recently, the hard work of those at the SRC and by other Alaskan residents has paid off. In the first week of 2015, after hearing enough public disapproval of the project, observing a lack of respect to landowners throughout the environmental assessment and with worries of drawing even more funds (around $7 billion if the dam were to be built) away from the state, Alaskan Governor Bill Walker ordered for work to stop on the project.
“The Susitna was one of six projects that got deemed, ‘Easy to start, impossible to finish,’” said Wolff.
But despite the positive progress, the Susitna Dam has yet to be completely sacked.
“They can’t really kill it because [the state is] still looking for a source of energy for Alaska. It looks like they are going to have to shelve the project for now,” Wolff clarifies.
The governor’s stop work order is a notable benchmark in the effort to preserve the Susitna River, but the battle is far from over.
“Right now our mission is just to preserve the whole Susitna River watershed and represent all the facets that rely on a healthy watershed,” says Wolff. “I think the Susitna has done quite well on its own for generations.”
–See a PHOTO GALLERY of Devil’s Canyon and learn more about the proposal to dam the Susitna.
–For a documentary video by Mountain Mind Collective about kayaking Devil’s Canyon and an interview with Rick Leo, the former president of the Susitna River Coalition, check out Mountain Mind’s feature episode: “Battle of the Susitna.”
This story is part of a C&K series covering the world’s ten most threatened paddling runs. Read about the other runs, and stay tuned as more are released: