Susitna Watana Dam Project Shut Down

Alaskan Environmental Advocates and Big-water Boaters Rejoice

Haven't knocked Devil's Canyon of Alaska's Susitna River off your Triple Crown list yet? Don't worry, you have more time.

The Susitna and its heralded big-water Class V stretch Devil's Canyon—which comprises the notorious ‘Triple Crown’ along with the Grand Canyon of the Stikine and Alsek's Turnback Canyon—was saved from being dammed by the stroke of a pen June 29, when Alaska Governor Bill Walker canceled plans for the Susitna-Watana Dam megaproject.

"We are closing down the Susitna Watana project," Walker said. "We will do that in such a way that preserves the work done to date. But those projects we can no longer continue to advance in our fiscal situation we are in today."

The Susitna River, where the dam was proposed, is North America's fourth largest undammed river and sustains Alaska's fourth largest king salmon run. The vast valleys that feed the Susitna River comprise some of one of the state's most visited areas.

Susitna-River

Flying over the Talkeetna River, a major tributary of the Susitna, with the Alaska Range beyond. Photo by Todd Wells / Mountain Mind Collective

Upon hearing the news, everyone from environmentalists to fishermen and paddlers celebrated the future of a free-slowing Susitna.

"The Susitna River is one of the most beloved rivers in Alaska," says Dave Costello, former editor of Alaska magazine. "It has world-class sport fishing and whitewater, and is one of the wildest free-flowing rivers left in North America, completely inaccessible by road. The official shutdown of the Susitna-Watana Dam project is a major victory for Alaskan environmentalists looking to maintain the wild, free-flowing nature of the river, and for the wide variety of species that call the Susitna watershed home. For paddlers, Devil’s Canyon, one of the crown jewels of North American whitewater, has been saved–at least for the foreseeable future."

Devil's-Canyon susitna-river

Devil’s Creek Rapid. A humbling entrance and the first rapid of Devil’s Canyon. Photo by Brendan Wells / Mountain Mind Collective

The proposal would have created the second tallest dam in the United States, posing harmful impacts to the Susitna River's five species of salmon, caribou migration routes, and tourism and fish-based businesses. It's these reasons why environmentalists are cheering.

"I'm elated to stand along side our partners and friends who rely on the Susitna today and proud to have helped work toward this victory," says Sam Snyder, Trout Unlimited Alaska engagement director and coordinator of the Save the Susitna campaign. "Thousands of Alaskans have spoken up so that future generations can use and enjoy the Susitna as we do today – the Governor made the right decision. It's an immense victory for our salmon, our waters and tens of thousands of Alaskan families."

River-runners are also rejoicing, from the likes of expert kayakers Todd and Brendan Wells, whose Battle of the Susitna video from their production company Mountain Mind Collective heralds the river's Devil's Canyon section, to big-water kayaking pioneers like Rob Lesser and Doug Ammons, who have each paddled Devil's Canyon as part of the Triple Crown.

“I was happy to hear the Susitna project was taken off the actively funded list of state projects by Gov. Walker,” said Lesser. “Unfortunately I think that just means until oil prices turn around. Of course, two dams were proposed back in the mid-’70s and they didn't go anywhere due to cost either. Never will any of these projects be cost effective if just funded by the consumers who would receive the electricity.”

Photo by Shawn Robinson.

Photo by Shawn Robinson.

"Devil's Canyon is one of the big-water North country classics that any aspiring expedition kayaker should do," says Ammons. "It's not as dramatic a canyon as the Alsek or Stikine canyons, but quality Class V way in the Alaskan wilderness with a great history.

"Above 20,000 and especially 25,000 cfs, it romps, with giant holes, surging waves and seams that will eat you," he adds. "This is one of the places that spawned the epic myths of ‘boat-eating’ holes, because it indeed has them."

He points to the seams at the section's Hotel Rock as "one of the most violent places I've ever been," and advises people to watch Walt Blackadar's 1976 episode of ABC’s American Sportsman, which was filmed there, "to understand in an instant why this heralded the future of the sport." (Check out the footage of the famed 1976 second descent of the Susitna's Devil's Canyon below.)

Had the Watana Project gone through, Lesser noted that, as he understood the proposal, that the flows in Devil's Canyon would have been reduced to 10,000 cfs or less coming out of the dam. “That would essentially kill the types of big-water runs which have given the place it's reputation,” Lesser said. “It's my opinion that you need at least 22k+ to get the true offering of Devil's Canyon. The highest I know it's been run is around 30K … I'll leave it to and encourage the younger generation to up the level it's been run at.

“Go run it anytime at any level,” Lesser added. “Just so we have more examples of its recreational awesomeness when the next dam proposal rises.”

From the Denali Highway, the stretch runs 200 miles down to Talkeetna if you paddle all the way, on a waterway laden with grizzly bears, caribou, and fast-moving water laden with glacial silt. "You start out in the endless willows and boreal forest, looking up at big craggy mountains, then enter the long relatively shallow canyon that for 120 miles plows through the wilderness, until it stomps into the bedrock of Devil's Canyon for 10 miles, pouring through a dozen or so huge rapids, all in scenery that will sweep your heart with the power of the north country." says Ammons.

— Read more on the Battle of the Susitna, and check out the Wells’ brothers tribute to the Susitna on C&K’s list of Most Threatened Paddling Classics.

See more photos from kayaking the Susitna.