Alli Harvey: A January paddle down Chester Creek

Alli Harvey

The Chester Creek trail is a place of (mostly welcome) surprises. I've seen a black bear in a tree. There are often moose. There are big rocks that I have mistaken, with my stellar peripheral vision, for moose.

Then there are the people out in the creek on rafts. In January.

I noticed them during a run as I was heading over a bridge on the trail near Sullivan Arena. I saw something shiny and bright red edge out underneath me in the water. I stopped running on the other side of the bridge. There was a person -- no, there were people; more brightly colored boats were emerging -- on inflatable rafts in the creek.

The banks on either side of the creek were still, of course, covered in snows but none of the five men looked uncomfortable or cold. Several of the paddlers paused in the water to pivot their rafts and smile up at me where I stood.

"You like running, you'd like rafting!" one of them said to me. I thought that he was probably right, although I wasn't sure why.

When we talked later that day, Jim Gonski voiced an opinion shared recently by many people in the area: "Look at the weather. Can't go skating, skiing sucks, everything's just such a mess.

"We said, you know the creek's running. Let's go check out Chester Creek."

Gonski is the owner of Alaska Kayak Academy, based in the Valley. Before taking the trip, he and a small group of friends checked out the creek to make sure there weren't any ice bridges (places where ice has frozen over the water, usually the reason you wouldn't want to raft Chester Creek in January).

Gonski answered before I had a chance to ask:

"Nobody was cold -- it was a seasoned group. Everyone had a dry suit. Everyone knew what layers to wear. Everyone knew what to put on their hands to keep them warm. We had thermoses of hot tea at the end. Even though we were standing in 33-degree water for a while, when we were trying to break up a log jam or something, everyone was seasoned and had proper equipment."

So what kinds of experiences led to including "rafting Chester Creek" on Gonski's checklist for a 37-degree Sunday in January?

Gonski first got into rafting when he was a teenager and "was like all young men looking for excitement and adrenaline," he said. His dad was principal at a middle school in Colorado, where Gonski grew up. One of the teachers in the school had a few river rafts. When he was a teenager, Gonski went on a trip to Desolation Gray Canyons of the Green River in Utah -- "before river rafting was totally mainstream like it is now" -- and got hooked. The teacher went on to start a river rafting company, and offered Gonski a job his first year of college, which is where he learned to white water raft.

Then, 10 years ago, Gonski started his own business: Alaska Kayak Academy

He said his clients typically fall into one of three categories.

The lake kayakers are people who are curious about paddling but haven't tried it before. Generally, Gonski said, clients like this want to get into some beautiful scenery, but are fine for a relaxing, calm water adventure.

A sea kayaker, meanwhile, is the "type of individual who likes cross-country skiing. They want to see glaciers. They've had friends who went on sea kayaking trips, and maybe they've gone on a kayaking trip someplace. They want to take that next step and making kayaking one of 'their' sports."

And finally, the pack rafter. According to Gonski, "the stereotypical pack rafting client tends to be between 20 and 40 years old. It's a great woman's sport, and a great couple's sport. It's not white-knuckled, adrenaline scary. It's to get out and travel in country, and that's what the boat was invented for -- to get through water barriers. People who are physically active end up liking pack rafting."

Kayaking and rafting season will pick up in force again in the summer, and Gonski had some advice for would-be adventurers:

"In the beginning, always paddle with people who are better than you. They know more. They know what can go wrong." Leave a trip plan with someone who loves you, or at least someone who is paying attention and would notice you missing, like a coworker. Extra gear -- matches, extra clothing, safety equipment -- are essential, especially in Alaska.

And above all else? "Gotta not panic."

As for the season's first float down the Chester Creek, it sounded pretty mellow. The crew put in at Lake Otis and took out at C Street, a journey that took a little over three hours.

The obstacles? "There was more debris in there than I expected, we had to get out and walk around stuff more than I thought."

Just in case any of us needed another reason to love Alaska and the amazing things that people living here do, keep your eyes on the creek. Yes, even in January.

Come summertime, I'll be training my eyes on the rivers.

Alli Harvey lives, works and plays in Anchorage.


Alli Harvey