Rapid Exposure, Paul Foglia, Associated Press
FAIRBANKS, Alaska — Even with 20 years as a whitewater rafting guide under his dry suit, Jeff "Mudflap" Estes admits he was "a little nervous" heading into the Nenana River Canyon on Saturday.
That's what 20-foot high waves will do to even the most experienced paddler.
The 41-year-old Estes, who prefers the handle Mudflap and has been working as a whitewater rafting guide for 20 years, was one of seven guides from Nenana Raft Adventures who rafted the Nenana River through Healy Canyon last weekend at the highest water levels ever recorded on the popular whitewater river 125 mile south of Fairbanks.
"It was huge," Estes told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner (http://bit.ly/QzlTT6 ) by phone Tuesday, talking about the water conditions the paddlers faced. "There were holes big enough to eat a house."
Why would someone want to paddle a raft through such water?
"They're boatmen," Nenana Raft Adventures owner John White, who has been rafting in Denali since 1986, said. "Everyone was thinking about this."
Fueled by heavy rains on the south side of the Alaska Range — the headwaters of the Nenana River actually are on the south side of the range even though the river flows north — the river was at its highest-ever volume of 35,300 cubic feet per second and a record 14.9 feet on Saturday afternoon. To put that in perspective, the normal rafting trip for tourists on the Nenana River is run at an average of 9,000 cfs and trips are canceled when it hits 18,000 to 20,000 cfs because of safety concerns. The previous record high-water event on the Nenana River was 14.4 feet on Sept. 14, 1990, which equated to about 25,000 cfs.
For a whitewater rafter, it was a dream come true.
"Oh man, it was pretty spectacular," Estes said. "It was awesome. We got to hit it at its peak."
The seven rafters were split up in three boats — two 16-foot catarafts rowed by lone boatmen and a 16-foot paddle raft powered by five paddlers. The more sturdy catarafts served as safety boats for the paddle boat.
The high water allowed the rafters to put in at Riley Creek inside Denali National Park and Preserve, which was a treat in itself. Normally, Riley Creek is merely a trickle and boaters put in on the Nenana River.
"Even though you only float about a half-mile in Riley Creek, just to say you went into Denali National Park and got to raft from there is pretty awesome," Estes said.
The rafters had spent more than six hours scouting the river the day before they floated and another hour the morning of the run, so they knew what they were getting into. Even so, it still came as an eye-opener when their boats hit the water.
Shortly after merging into the Nenana River from Riley Creek, the rafters came to "Terror Corner," which is somewhat of misnomer because it is typically a relatively placid section of the company's wilderness, not whitewater, float.
"We came around Terror Corner and there were 20-foot swells right from the get go," Estes said. "They were ocean-type waves. Right then we said, 'It's going to be game on for sure.'"
Connor Zwiingi, who rowed one of the catarafts through the canyon, said he could hear rocks moving in the water underneath him "like popcorn."
"You could just feel it as soon as you dropped into the Nenana," he said. "You could feel the force."
Big and gnarly
Whitewater rapids are rated on a class system from I to VI, with I being the easiest and VI being unnavigable.
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