Float trip big on wildlife, serenity

Little river, big adventure

Posted: Friday, June 15, 2001

Anxious anglers standing shoulder-to-shoulder along riverbanks. Frenzied fishers waiting for boats to be tractor-launched onto Cook Inlet. Campgrounds filled with motor homes snugly parked next to motor homes.

Summertime in Ninilchik.

But drop a raft onto the slow-moving waters of Ninilchik River and all that hustle and bustle disappears.

"When I first started floating the river, it was just an experience of peace," said Jodi Leah, of Ninilchik. "I used to go three, four times a week. When you're on the river, everything disappears."

Beginning in May and continuing into October, Leah and her friends have watched the seasons change as they floated the river on its journey from the snow-covered Caribou Hills to the salty waters of the inlet. Although they have been known to float the nearly eight miles from Brody Bridge to the inlet, the usual course is a four-mile stretch of graceful twists and turns between Brody Bridge and Garrison Bridge.

"I have had minimal white-water experiences," said Leah, who has floated the Kasilof and faced the challenges of Sixmile Creek, a thrill-a-minute river in Turnagain Pass filled with class IV and V rapids, with a guide. "That was incredibly fun. Like a roller-coaster ride."

After doing Sixmile, Leah said she spoke to the guide at length, picking the guide's brain for ideas. Leah's dream of creating Riversong Rafting on Ninilchik River started to solidify.


Ninilchik River guide Jodi Leah poses in her raft. Leah is in her second year of floating the river commercially.

Photos courtesy of Riversong Rafting

A crucial part of the river experience that Leah discovered on her own was having a suitable raft. Working her way through different types, she found that rafts with wooden bottoms tended to get hung up on rocks, while inflatable bottoms did not. Wear and tear on the fabric of one raft made her aware of the durability required. The shallow depth and narrow confines of the river made it necessary to have a raft that wasn't too big.

Armed with those requirements, Leah narrowed her options to a bright blue 11-foot Otter made by Northwest River Supplies. It has a self-bailing inflatable bottom and can carry four to six people.

"I'm really happy with it," she said. "It's just a beautiful little raft."

Also satisfied with the raft -- and the float -- are the people who join her on the river.

"I started out by taking people along with me and they would love it," Leah said. "Everyone I shared it with said I should do it as a business."

Last summer she took her first paying clients. This summer, the interest has expanded.

Joe and Ginny Schuster, of Napoleon, Ohio, rafted with Leah between Brody and Garrison Bridges.

"I don't like water, usually," Ginny Schuster said. "I'm kind of afraid of it. But it was shallow enough that I could just step out. And the water was clear. There wasn't anything scary about it at all. I've never rafted. This was my first time, but I loved it."

Part of what Schuster loved is the landscape -- the lush green grass lining the banks, the tall cottonwoods with their sweet-smelling leaves, the bald eagles soaring above the river valley.

Schuster remembered how Leah hollered every time the raft came to a bend in the river, careful not to surprise any wildlife that might be in the area. Later, standing on the hill overlooking Ninilchik River, Schuster saw bears playing in the shallow water.

"And I thought, 'We were right down there on that river,'" she said.

There's a method to Leah's hollering madness.

"Once I was floating with two boatloads of women, and I was in the second boat," Leah said. "The grass was high. And from the boat in front I heard someone yell, 'Bear!' I yelled, 'Backpaddle.' And then we saw the sow. When we yelled, the sow stood up and we were whooping and hollering at her.

"She watched us, standing, and her three babies took off up the ridge. She went after them, stood up to make sure we weren't following, and then went on up the ridge. We were never closer than 200 feet, but that was close enough. She was huge."

Leah's Oilwell Road neighbor, Frank Miller, occasionally keeps a lookout when Leah's on the river.

"He's seen us coming down the river and then seen a bear on the river," Leah said. "And then he's seen the bear become aware of us, take off into the bushes while we float by, and then come back to the water. The bears are aware that we are on the river. They're as watchful for us as we are of them. If they hear us coming, they'll leave."

After the sow and cub encounter, that area of the river became known as Three Bear Bend and Three Bear Ridge. Other areas of the river also have names that come complete with stories. A short distance after putting in at Brody Bridge is Salmon Central, the deepest part of the river where the water churns with salmon heading upstream to the spawning grounds. Gourmet Island is a favorite spot for both bears and humans.

"There's a little spot that's matted down by bears and it looks like they have their lunch there," Leah said of the island. "Sometimes we stop there, too."

There also is Big Rock, Mermaid Rock, Dogwood Rock, Sacred Willow and Cool Island.

"Once we were floating the river and came around a bend and saw clothes, but no man," Leah said. "Obviously, the man was in the bushes. We call it 'Clothes But No Man Bend.'"

Some animals have left signs that the river valley is their home. Off to one side a beaver dam divides a shallow pond. Newly felled, heavily chewed trees are on the opposite bank. Eagle feathers litter the ground beneath towering cottonwood trees. Carcasses of animals that didn't survive the winter occasionally appear in the spring.

Other animals have no problem sharing the river with the rafters. Bird families bob in the current near the bank. Some sit on top of rocks, curiously watching the rafts float by. Moose occasionally wander out of the neighboring forest.

Leah said midday is the best time to see wildlife. It's also the warmest time of the day, offering a break in the chilly breezes that blow down from the hills or up from the inlet.

Lori Garrison, who summers in Ninilchik and winters on Washington's Vashon Island, is one of Leah's rafting buddies.

"We started rafting so many years ago," Garrison said. "We've even done it with ice on the river. It was an experience, but we made it through. I bet I've floated the river over 100 times."

What the river lacks in adrenaline-fueled white-water experiences, it more than makes up for in opportunities to relax.

"You're out in the middle of nowhere," Garrison said. "There's no traffic. No people. It's a good time to forget about the cares of the world. It's one of the most relaxing trips you'll ever take."

Leah calls the experiencing of rafting Ninilchik River a "big adventure, little trip."

"You never feel like you're going to be swept away," she said. Not by the river's gentle current and not by time.

"Time stops," she said, referring to a phenomenon she called "river time."

Will that change if more rafters take to the river?

Leah thinks not.

"Being able to share it is like seeing it again for the first time," she said.

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