Floating Campbell Creek: An Anchorage waterway draws drifters to a unique urban adventure

The excitement of a Campbell Creek riffle seemed to catch 6-year-old Clark Jacobs by surprise as his orange kayak leaned in. It was a momentary thrill he shared with his dad, David Brust, in a unique location. The Seward Highway passed directly overhead.

In the vast wilds of Alaska, floating Campbell Creek might be an overlooked adventure, but there's hardly another quite like it. The creek passes under several of the busiest roads in Alaska, by backyards, past businesses and into urban woodlands.

"And it's the easiest way to get to the Peanut Farm," Jacobs said. Brust pulled the boat toward a waiting vehicle in the restaurant's lot before stopping inside for dinner.

"It's unpredictable," Brust said. "But as creeks go, this is about as friendly as they come."

It's a popular pastime, if only for a handful of days each year. During a week of uninterrupted sunshine in early July, floaters could be spotted frequently on kayaks and inner tubes of varying quality and size. Most chose to begin their trip at Campbell Park near Lake Otis Parkway and East 48th Avenue, not far from where the north and south forks of the creek converge.

An internet search led Michelle Moore, of Eagle River, and Larry Hodges, of Fairbanks, to put in there earlier this month. They have floated the Chena River in Fairbanks, but this was their first voyage through Anchorage. They weren't sure how far they'd go, but modern technology would make it easy for one of them to fetch their vehicle, they figured.

"We decided the Uber was the easiest way to do it," Hodges said.


Later, they took out at the Peanut Farm's outdoor seating area.

Downstream of that spot, near Old Seward Highway and International Airport Road, Campbell Creek presents more challenges, according to kayaker Pete Johnson. He cautioned that users shouldn't expect a zero-effort pleasure cruise. Busted light-duty tubes and rafts are sometimes left as litter, tangled in the rocks and brush.

"Personally, I wouldn't do it on an inner tube," he said.

Johnson said he and Sean Nelson took about 2 1/2 hours to kayak about 8 miles from Lake Otis Parkway to where the creek flows by Dimond Boulevard near Victor Road in southwest Anchorage. He described the water as Class I with a just a few "thrill rides" that might be categorized as Class II. That's the easy end of the rating scale for paddlers.

But branches and trees pose challenges in dozens of places, he said. Adventurers should expect to do some "power paddling" to steer clear of them.

"The water's not super deep, so that's not the issue," Johnson said. "But when it's hitting those sweepers and those strainers, it builds up a little more force."

Johnson and his kayaking partner, Sean Nelson, had to take their kayaks out of the water three times to skirt logjams, Johnson said. He also encountered a bike in the creek, which they stopped to remove, and a cow moose with calves that headed toward them. But for prepared floaters, it can be a memorable endeavor.

"If you don't freak out because your kayak turns sideways, and you can paddle hard … then it's super fun. It's kind of thrilling," he said.

John Rodda, the director for Anchorage Parks and Recreation, said floating Campbell Creek has long been part of city life. But the waterway, which flows through a municipal greenbelt across Anchorage, isn't maintained for recreation, he said.

"We always tell people you're doing this at your own risk," he said. "We always recommend that they wear a life vest."

Decades ago, the waterway was home to the Campbell Creek Classic, a madcap event sponsored by the Anchorage Jaycees each July that attracted hundreds of racers in canoes, kayaks and homemade boats. Hundreds more lined the creek's banks to watch.

The Classic was ended after 17 years in 1986 due to water pollution, according to Anchorage Daily News coverage at the time. Rodda, who was one of its participants, recalled many overturned boats and lots of distractions for floaters.

"While it was fun, I saw a lot of people with scrapes, a lot of people with bruises," Rodda said.

"And the other part of it I remember vividly (is) going under a bridge, and having the entire bridge lined with people up above and they're bombarding you with water balloons."

He hopes today's users will be more mindful of safety on the water, he said.

"That's tantamount to everything," Rodda said. "If you're going to do it, do it safely."

Experience has taught the Rawhani family about navigating the mighty Campbell as well. On a warm summer evening, the family of four walked their inner tubes from home to Wickersham Park in a residential neighborhood east of Lake Otis Parkway.


There, they embarked on a float to Arctic Roadrunner restaurant, a stretch of water that was suitable for their inexpensive inflatable watercraft and a trip they expected would take about a half-hour.

That's long enough, said Karina Rawhani.

"After a while you start to get a little frozen on the tushy side," Rawhani said. "It's cold. It's definitely cold water."

They carried yard game paddles to help steer as they drift downstream, an experience that has kept them coming back occasionally each summer for last several years.

"It's refreshing. It's in the middle of the city," Rawhani said. "It's just so peaceful, and I love the sound of the creek."

Marc Lester

Marc Lester is a multimedia journalist for Anchorage Daily News. Contact him at mlester@adn.com.