Grand Canyon-Running the Colorado River
August 1, 1977
River running was featured front and center on the cover of the the August 1, 1977 Sports Illustrated. The cover photo shows Regan Dale guiding a dory through one of Grand Canyon’s famous rapids. It was the first time whitewater river running graced the cover of a magazine usually given to sports stars such as Reggie Jackson, Larry Bird, and Tony Dorsett during the 1970s.
The Cover story by Melissa Ludtke and the photographs by John Blaustein did a good job of bringing the fun and thrill of running rivers to anyone who read Sports Illustrated. “Waves crested with white foam thrust the bow up and out of the water like a sailfish dancing at the end of a fisherman’s line. For a moment the dory hangs suspended like a punching bag, rocking from side to side as waves sweep underneath, leaving one oar, and then the other, flapping uselessly at air. Before long the passengers are drenched and the dory is partially swamped.” Ludtke also does a nice job explaining the relaxing part of a river trip. “Now at night travelers lie on the beach in sleeping bags, and the Colorado’s restful murmur lulls them into sleep.”
Walt Blackadar’s First Descent of Turnback Canyon and the Alsek River
August 14, 1972
Although the cover featured Bobby Fischer the Chess Master, this issue had a feature story about Walt Blackadar’s first ascent through Turnback Canyon on the Alsek River. The story connects to Colorado River & Trail Expeditions on many accounts. We have operated on the Tatshenshini and Alsek rivers for a long time (since 1978), and both rivers are dear to our hearts. They are one of the last places to find true wilderness and we hope they stay that way forever.
Sports Illustrated frames the story “The Alsek River flows in a torrent into the Gulf of Alaska. So fierce are its white-water rapids and so menacing the huge icebergs that break away from glaciers along its banks that no man had ever run the river in a boat. There were reports of an especially treacherous gorge named Turn Back Canyon with 500 to 1000 foot vertical granite walls, numerous waterfalls and dizzying whirlpools. The water was flowing at 50,000 cfs.”
Walt Blackadar wrote the article himself. Here are some of the highlights.
AUG. 13 “My Birthday–49! Looked in the mirror and realized I wasn’t getting any younger. Decided to paddle the Alsek alone.”
AUG. 19 “Took out a two-week accident policy for $50,000, which would pay off all my debts and leave a reserve.”
AUG. 20 “When I reached Juneau, the bow of the kayak was caved in, dented like a ping-Pong ball. I took two three pound coffee cans, rammed them forward with a paddle and popped the dent out. There is no visible damage.” Blackadar’s kayak was 13 feet long and 23 inches wide and he carried 84.25 lbs in addition to his body weight of 175 pounds. At 5:20 pm he “was able to take off in a chartered plane piloted by Layton Bennett to overfly the Alsek and examine Turn Back Canyon….Started flying up the gorge at 500 feet. Then after two trips at 200 feet with, it seemed to me, wing tips nearly touching the canyon walls, I called a halt to the low flying. A kayak would be safer.” After flying Turnback, Blackadar was sure “There is nothing in the Grand Canyon…..with as much violence or power.”
AUG. 22 Blackadar started his trip on the Dezdeash River in Haines Junction, Yukon. “Left the road at 7 pm…..river flowing 2 mph. Camped at 8:30 with a headwind of 40 mph and waves 2 feet high.”
AUG. 23 “I paddled down the Dezdeash to the Alsek. Rain quit during the night. Slept well.”
AUG. 24 “Big water today. Not stops needed to scout rapids. Stayed in the center but constant maneuvering necessary to avoid rocks and holes. No flips, but my heart pounded once or twice as I passed cliffs with boils and huge hydraulics—violent currents that twist and turn and grab from all directions at once. The water is now icy, and I can’t force myself to practice rolling up and thus psychologically prepare myself for the canyon ahead.” Blackadar goes on to describe the landscape “Lowell Glacier, off to the right is tremendous. It is a mile of bright blue ice wall over 100 feet high and extending out into the Alsek.” By now Blackadar was constantly planning for Turnback Canyon “Must have paddled 50 miles today so quit early but could have gone all the way to Turn Back Canyon, where the worst rapids begin. Plan to sleep late in the morning and proceed gradually, but if I get to the canyon before 2 p.m. I’ll tackle it then; otherwise, will rest until noon the next day. I have been paddling in my full wetsuit, including boots and gloves, but no wet suit head stall; only my regular protective helmet. I want to remove the gloves in the gorge, if the icy water is not unbearable, so that I can grip the paddle more firmly. I’m three days ahead of schedule and going strong–very relaxed.”
AUG. 25 “I want any kayaker to read my words well! The Alsek gorge is unpaddleable! Unbelievable. After carefully scouting the rapids I found it twice as bad as it looks. There’s one huge horrendous mile of hair (The worst foamy rapids a kayaker can imagine), 30 feet wide, 50,000 cubic feet per second and a 20 degree downgrade going like hell. Incredible! I didn’t flip in the mile or I wouldn’t be writing.” Blackadar then goes in-depth describing Turnback Canyon and its incredible rapids. On our Alsek river trips we portage over Turnback Canyon with cargo nets. It is an amazing feat that Blackadar paddled Turnback solo during the high water month of August.
One of the rapids was particularly exciting. “I saw an immense cresting wave blocked the way, the one I had seen seven days before from the air….I paddled furiously through the easiest spot to crash the roller, which was well to the right of center, accepting the risk of plummeting into a terrible hole some distance below should I fail to roll up in time. Got my paddle and body through the wave and hung on upside down, feeling my boat tear apart above me. Missed my roll and in fact found I was outside the kayak. My first instinct was to swim to the surface, but instead I snuggled back into the overturned boat. Before I could roll up, the kayak washed into the feared hole. I got scrubbed, tumbled and shaken; rolled and missed—rolled and missed. Finally I caught a breath, calmed my nerves, jammed my knees solidly into the sides of the boat and on my sixth try made a perfect roll and popped up.” Blackadar quickly found out he “had torn the left thigh hook off the deck , and part of the deck as well…the (wave) had popped the spray skirt and swamped (the boat).” He spent the rest of the day fixing the fiberglass kayak and penned his famous quote about Turnback Canyon. “I’m not coming back. Not for $50,000, not for all the tea in China. Read my words well and don’t be a fool. It’s unpaddleable.”
AUG. 26 “Second patch placed on the boat in the morning and both hardened well even in the cold. Deck solidly fixed by two p.m. so took off….Am spending the night relaxing at the base of Vernritche Glacier and glad I’m out (of Turnback Canyon).”
AUG. 27 “At Dry Bay, the mouth of the Alsek. I can’t find the airfield in the dark….saw grizzly number 7. The Alsek Glacier was terrific with a whole string of ocean liners (icebergs) coming down.”
AUG. 28 “Got through on the radio to Layton Bennet. He will pick me up this evening in a float plane and take me Juneau with my kayak strapped outside. A man from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game flew in to interview me regarding the Alsek. He said the gorge is too fast for salmon, even kings, the only huge river known where the speed of the water stops fish. Usually it’s a dam or a falls.”
If this blog was interesting to you, be sure to check out these trips offered by Colorado River & Trail Expeditions:
June 24-July 5 2021 Alsek River Adventure–We are super excited about this trip in 2021. Please join us for the trip of a lifetime!