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Survival in Alaska Whitewater

by Jeff Varvil

Photo Courtesy of Jeff Varvil

Nothing quiets a man’s soul like the sound of Alaskan Class V white water. As I dig hard on the sticks for more power, my right fiberglass oar shatters, as if made from ice. With no time to go for the spare, the Cataraft spins out of control as we miss our safe water chute and instead tumble sideways off the ten-foot waterfall. We hang on for the eminent impact that eventually comes. I grab onto my raft's seat bar and hold on for my life as the frigid water quickly overwhelms me. The raft is caught in a giant toilet bowl and is violently sucked to the bottom of the river where only the rear of the raft is visible as it is violently spun around and around. Brian scrambles to the rear of the Cat and is rewarded when the Cat is sling shot out of the hole and completely clears water, tossing him a full sixteen feet into the air. A bull rider in a previous life, he somehow manages to stay on the end of the big bucking blue missile. As the raft began to tip over I committed the cardinal sin of a rafter and elected to leave my big inner tube. I did a perfect Peter Pan from ten feet in the sky and cannonballed into the white soup. I immediately was sucked to the bottom of the violent white froth and all went silent. I know better than to try to swim out of the rapid 6 Mile Creek boaters affectionately call “Suck Hole”. Physically, I was already wasted by the time I hit the water. Mentally, I was just beginning a journey all white water boaters prepare for. That Journey can only end one of two ways.


Surreal is the only word that describes being underwater in a class V turbulent watery grave like Six Miles local “Suck Hole”. Above water, the thunder of the river and a constant barrage of water to the face drown out all my thoughts. As I submerged under the water I took a deep breath and tucked my knees tightly against my chest. This serves two purposes. First, it prevents you from getting your foot pinned under a rock or log, which would lead to certain death. Secondly, it lessens the chance of breaking bones upon impacting a rock or other underwater structure. I quickly sank to the bottom and made no attempt to swim, trying to reserve precious energy. I am violently brought back to the surface by the hydraulic and I immediately make eye contact with Brian. I rapidly pat my helmet giving him the universal rafters “alls well sign” although I really didn’t believe it. Again I go under, as even my rescue vest is not enough to keep me above water.

You know you’re in trouble, but for those few seconds this is the safest place to regroup and form a plan. I try to open my eyes and get a sense of direction but my eyeballs are frozen and the headache soon follows. From my experience the longer you can stay under the swirling surface, close to the bottom, the more chance you have that the heavy hydraulics on the bottom of the river will wash you downstream. The water in a swirling whirlpool like “Suck Hole” spins around and around looking much like a giant toilet bowl. If you remain on the surface you will continue to cycle helplessly until someone can free you by throwing you a rescue rope or until you can break through the eddy line. A rescue rope is generally 65 feet of poly pro line attached to a nylon bag with a floating foam insert attached to the bag. The rescuer throws the rope to the person and the bag will float allowing the victim to grip the floating rope and be rescued. The eddy line is the water surface on the farthest edge of the cycle or swirl. The best way to swim through an eddy line is to swim directly into it and then roll over to your back 360 degrees and then back to your front several times until you break completely free of the hole. By rolling over you break the suction of the water surface on your body and in most cases you punch through the current.

“Suck Hole’s” canyon is unique because steep granite cliffs on either side border the eddy line. Even if you make it to the side, you are reduced to clinging to the sheer faced rocks with the tips of your fingernails. This is why having another boat with you is always a good idea. We generally leap frog through the holes and if one of us get into trouble the other boat comes to lend assistance. There is no use swimming under the water as you are so disoriented you would use up your reserve energy in a futile attempt to reach an unreachable destination.

So, here I sat underwater contemplating my next move. I knew Brian was still attached to the raft or at least he was when I went under. The raft was in his able hands when and if the raft freed itself. He would have to first reach the spare oars, which were strapped to the floor of the boat. He would come looking for me. Our rescue raft oarsmen would not run the chute until he saw that I had surfaced, acting much like a rodeo clown swinging in to grab a distressed bull rider in one desperate swoop as the river would then pull him downstream. As I hugged the bottom tight I was suddenly slingshot downstream as if I were shot out of a cannon. I surfaced and quickly took a deep breath. I put my feet straight out in front of me to let my legs cushion the impact of the rock garden that was fast approaching. As I looked back I saw Brian was still pinned with the raft against a large boulder. An oar suddenly appeared next to me and I grabbed it and threw it into a small eddy to my left. If Brian could get free it would give him a third oar if it remained in the eddy long enough for him to get at it. That’s if he saw it at all.

Photo Courtesy of Jeff Varvil

I took the first of the three boulders off my left leg. I bounced squarely off the second and the third with my shoulders. I felt helpless as I bobbed down the narrow granite water slide using my butt as a shock absorber. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, I spotted what I was looking for. It was a small eddy tucked behind a large rock. I twisted my body onto my stomach and swam for that eddy with every ounce of energy I had. Upon reaching the rock it was all I could do to just hold on and stay out of the fast current. I was too physically exhausted to do much except wait until help arrived. Even with a Gore-Tex dry suit, neoprene boots, gloves and a helmet, I was beginning to feel the effects of the ice-cold water on my brain. My body would hurt later but the cold just made my body ache, which would turn out to be a blessing in disguise. My mind was wandering, thinking random thoughts that had nothing to do with my current situation.

“Tdorf Re Toooooat” was what I heard. It came from above and behind me. I turned and saw Brian struggling to hold the nimble Cataraft in the heavy current. I focused on his lips and then it became clearer. “Get In the Boat”. It was more a desperate plea than a request. Below us awaited another class V drop and Brian was sure I could not withstand another swim. I grabbed onto the floor and he pulled me into the mesh floor of the raft by the back of my neck. I gave him a lame smile and struggled onto my knees in an attempt to brace my self for the next canyon. I fell over. He patted me on the top of my helmet like a pet dog and said, “ya did good, boy”. We shot the rapid uneventfully and as fate would have it, we rescued the rescue boat that had been trailing us. Upon reaching the pull out I discovered my helmet had multiple scratches and one hell of a dent. Brian had to help peel my dry suit off when I was unable to; we discovered my arm was broken. Just another trip! This is what whitewater boaters do day in and day out. Not because they have a death wish or they have something to prove to the rest of the world. Simply put, I think they do it because most people can’t or won’t.


Whitewater boaters are defined into three basic categories. They are Hard-shell Kayaker’s, which are generally small highly maneuverable plastic boats. There are the less maneuverable but more stable Ducky’s, which are inflatable kayaks. Then there are the more common raft and Catarafts. What do they all have in common? The river rats operating them are adrenaline junkies from all walks of life. They are doctors and teachers, priests and unemployed students. They are also highly skilled at reading water and most have blood running through their arteries, which is colder than the water they run. Their ability to stay calm under terrible circumstances is what gets them through another run. They lend advice to those who desperately need it even if they were not asked. They rescue each other every day. No heroics, no media, they just do what needs to be done because they could be on the other end of the hand as I was dealt.

If you stay involved in any high-risk sport for a long time it becomes a matter of when, not if, bad things will happen to you. Preparing for those times can mean the difference between a great campsite story or a funeral. There are many organizations nation wide that are dedicated to teaching people self rescue. The important thing is to not get your self into a situation in the first place. The problem is incidents occur and you should be trained in how to handle most situations. Here are some Alaska organizations that can help you learn more about local rivers and river safety. .

Anchorage and Surrounding Area

Knik Canoers and Kayakers is a non-profit paddling club based in Anchorage, Alaska. They have members throughout Alaska of all skill levels who raft, ocean kayak, whitewater kayak, and canoe (on flat-water, moving-water and whitewater). The club offers instruction in all types of boating with emphasis on safety. Learning a new sport can be difficult. KCK understands this and provides informative club supported paddling instruction each spring. Their emphasis is focused primarily on safety followed by education. The KCK teaches classes to the membership in basic flat water canoeing, moving water canoeing, whitewater kayaking, sea kayaking, and rafting. Each class is a mixture of classroom and hands-on exposure to equipment and techniques followed by one or more days/evenings of practical on-the-water experiential learning.

Chugach Adventure Guides
Girdwood Alaska
DBA - Class V Whitewater
tel: 907.783.2004
toll free: 1.877.783.2004
Class V Whitewaters highest priority while enjoying the rivers of Alaska is your safety. Providing a great river experience is usually the easy part, keeping guests safe takes much more consideration. Class V Whitewater is committed to providing you with the most qualified guides who are comfortable making decisions in the field. Good river safety starts with awareness. Your guides will do their best to be aware of your needs and desires. We intend to keep you challenged and entertained, yet not compromise our safety considerations. Your guide’s instructions and your commitment to following them are paramount to an enjoyable and safe day in the Alaskan backcountry. Respect your guides decisions, but don't be afraid to ask questions about our decision making process. Class V offer rowing seminars and on River instruction classes.

Alaska Raft And Kayak
401 West Tudor RD
Anchorage Ak 99503
Whether you're looking to buy a complete whitewater package or planning a Recreational float or a fishing or hunting trip to the great Alaskan Bush Alaska Raft has the answer. They carry all the gear you will ever need to have a successful experience. Most of our packages break down small enough to fit in a small airplane enabling you to get away from the crowds and into the REAL action. They offer River and rescue books. They also offer instructional and rescue videos.


Fairbanks Paddlers Association
Telephone (907) 455-6559 or (907) 479-6172
To Protect access to and navigation of rivers, water bodies, and waterways in Alaska by canoes, kayaks, rafts, and other non-motorized craft of all kinds. To Support the conservation of the quality of Alaskan waters, and of the shoreline environment, and in stream flow reservations of enough water quantity for boating. To Encourage water safety on rivers and lakes through training, instruction, and the assimilation and dissemination of information pertaining to waters of Alaska. To Encourage boaters to progress in their skill level and help others to progress, in hopes of maintaining a sufficient pool of available and willing paddlers to ensure a members’ opportunity to boat with others whenever he wishes.

National Agencies

The United States Geological Survey (USGS)
USGS maintains gauging stations on many of the rivers, streams, creeks and lakes around Alaska. From these stations, current stream flow conditions are transmitted every few hours via satellite into USGS district computer systems and from there onto the Internet. This data should be considered PROVISIONAL in nature. What does this mean? Well, it means that this data may be significantly inaccurate due to any of the following causes: backwater from ice or debris such as log jams; algal and aquatic growth in the stream; sediment movement; or malfunction of recording equipment. All data will subsequently be reviewed and could possibly be changed by the USGS, usually within 6 months of the end of the water year.

American Red Cross
Each year, the American Red Cross responds immediately to more than 70,000 disasters, including house or apartment fires (the majority of disaster responses), hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, tornadoes, hazardous materials spills, transportation accidents, explosions, and other natural and man-made disasters. They offer training and CPR classes.

Jeff Varvil has been an Alaskan fishing guide and rafter for many years and is currently the Manager for West Marine in Anchorage. 


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