(from the April 2016 issue)
An ankle-deep adventure
[by Susan Dunsmore]
I’m not sure how I talked my friend Dave into a nine-day, 110-mile float down Birch Creek, a reasonably remote river northeast of Fairbanks. After our last hiking trip, when at every stop to check the map we realized we were standing at the spot we thought we’d been an hour before, Dave vowed he’d never let me in the house again if he saw me walking up the driveway with a topo map. His wife must have opened the door for this one.
Birch Creek begins as many Alaska rivers do, with a few trickles flowing down a small mountain somewhere, and then a few more joining a stream meandering through the tundra. A hard rain breaks down an old beaver dam and a minor torrent mixes with the flow of hundreds of runnels, all finding their way to lower ground. At 350 miles long, Birch Creek originates between the north and south Steese Conservation Areas northeast of Fairbanks and joins the Yukon on its winding journey to the Bering Sea.
The first humans to settle here were Gwich’in Athabascans, who hunted and fished the river’s banks. Before them came the grayling, pike and caribou. Miners discovered gold in the river in 1893, and for a brief time, people moved into the surrounding valleys seeking their fortunes. But the prospectors left, and the grayling and the pike and the caribou stayed, barely noticing that anything had momentarily changed. Cabins crumbled and collapsed under the weight of each winter’s snow and disappeared back into the wilderness.
Our trip began as many Alaska adventures do: with rain. My dog knew he wasn’t going with us but, determined to prove the usefulness of a wet pooch on a voyage, he repeatedly jumped into the back of the Subaru and nestled down on anything that wasn’t in a dry bag. A phone broke because Dave knows not to leave me alone with technology and put me in charge of it anyway. And we asked the standard question as we passed the last Fred Meyer we’d see for several days: “Should we pick up more bug dope?” We made a U-turn into oncoming traffic to go back to the store for a couple more bottles.
We chose to take inflatable kayaks (IKs) because they are easy to transport, pack and paddle, and they float over river obstructions like corks. If you manage to damage one, they’re easy to repair in the field. IKs are the most forgiving type of boat I have ever used.
I chose to take Dave because the man has a way with bonfires, had more moving water experience than I did and likes to make breakfast. He’s always game to take time off work, which most people are, but Dave actually does it. I was off work for the summer, my commercial beekeeping job on hold until the following spring when I would drive to Texas again to start breeding bees to be shipped to commercial and hobby beekeepers all over the world. I had a couple of months to play.
Float trips appeal to the lazy traveler. Just put the stuff in the boat and ride around with it. Birch Creek, with road access at both the put-in and the take-out and no portages, lends itself to luxury. As someone who has lugged a 70-pound backpack up any number of mountains in this state, I revel in the kind of trek where I can pack enough chocolate to have it every night. Dave’s version of luxury involves coolers and lawn chairs. Dave is a great travel partner.
Getting to the put-in from Anchorage is a pretty easy outing, meaning there are no floatplanes involved. We drove the 360 miles to Fairbanks, then headed up the Steese Highway to the southern access point at Mile 94. There is a big dirt parking lot and an outhouse, pretty swanky amenities for this part of the world. The rain had also stopped, which counts as an amenity.