Creek classroom teaches what paddlers need to know

Posted: Wednesday, July 18, 2001

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- On a tiny beach along Campbell Creek near the Peanut Farm, a man on foot approaches the paddler of an inflatable kayak, curious about seeing a boat on the creek. The man then confesses to having floated the clear stream through the greenbelt heart of the city a few days earlier with his sister.

''She flipped four times,'' he adds, by way of warning before walking off.

Welcome to the wilderness challenge in the center of Anchorage.

Unfamiliar with that common Alaska river hazard called a ''sweeper''?

Campbell Creek offers a sweeper lesson at almost every twist and turn on its snaky run from Lake Otis Boulevard to Dimond Boulevard.

Often a paddler is so busy maneuvering around sweepers, he or she forgets this is a waterway through the city. In places, this is easy to do. Except where the creek drops under major thoroughfares the city is strangely distant.

Ducks take flight from along the overgrown streambanks or scurry along the water with ducklings in tow. Kingfishers weave their way through the narrow airspace over the alder- and willow-choked channel.

Paddlers are kept busy maneuvering around the sorts of obstacles usually found only on the wildest Alaska rivers.

''You will find narrow channels with strong currents that force the boat into overhanging willows and sweepers, beaver-cut logjams or rootballs,'' warns Rich Crain of the Knik Canoers and Kayakers. ''These channels frequently have shallow riffles that form strong side eddies (or whirlpools) that turn the boat upstream at an inopportune time.''

Crain uses Campbell Creek to teach the club's Basic Canoe Class the intricacies of moving water.

''Campbell Creek,'' he said, ''has all of the fine hazards of Alaskan streams in an urban setting with a 'stand-up and walk-out' safety factor.''

Judging from the number of deflated vinyl rafts wrapped around stumps, sweepers and rocks in the creek, there have been plenty of people standing up and walking out.

In addition to the rafts, you'll find cheap paddles with their plastic blades broken in half and the occasional sunken inner tube. All attest to the challenge of this small waterway.

Experienced boaters will find Campbell Creek a treat in some places, most notably in the drops under the Seward Highway and Dowling Road, and an easy wilderness tune-up in others.

You either pay attention coming out of the creek's oxbow bends, or the eddies spin you into trouble.

''Useful skills are upstream as well as downstream ferries, lot of back strokes and mixed in are strong draws and prys,'' Crain said.

The backstroking cannot be overstated. Between Lake Otis and Arctic, the creek has dozens upon dozens of bends, and at the exit of almost every one backstroking is required to keep a canoe or kayak from being spun about by an eddy.

''I tell people that if they develop their skills to where they can move their boat where they want it to go instead of being at the mercy of where the creek wants to put them, they can paddle almost any of the under-class III Alaskan rivers,'' Crain said.

This might be something of an understatement. Compared to Campbell Creek, most Class II streams are easy. Some Campbell Creek bends are so tight, particularly at low water, you nearly have to put a boat into the sweepers to avoid grounding on the shallows on the insides of the corners.

This sort of positioning leaves very little room for maneuvering when the boat starts to spin in the ubiquitous eddy coming out of the bend. Throw in overhanging willows and alders, and the maneuvering becomes an even greater adventure.

In some places the overhanging brush is so low and so thick, a kayak paddle is almost a liability. The free end can get hung up in the bushes while a paddler is limboing under an overhanging branch and trying to use the paddle end for propulsion.

''There are wonderful bends of less than 90 degrees where you can't see what is waiting for you around the corner,'' Crain said. ''Frequently, I jump out of my boat and stand in the creek waiting to rescue someone who is having a little difficult paddling.''

''Wonder'' is obviously in the eyes of the beholder. Others might use different words to describe some of these bends. The best might be challenging.

This creek is a good test of Bush paddling abilities.

''My favorite place to start is the park at Lake Otis south of Tudor Road,'' Crain said. ''Forty-five minutes will get you to the Peanut Farm or Arctic Roadrunner, and in another 20 minutes or so, you will get to the takeout at a small greenbelt park two blocks south of Dowling Road.

''From Dowling Road to C Street (at) Arctic Boulevard takes another hour or so. It is best to consider this a separate run from the other, upper part of the creek. The creek begins to slow a little because of more bends and may be deeper here.

It's the same story of overhanging brush and sweepers but fewer rocks. The takeout is conveniently located near Arctic Boulevard and the Old Gallo's (Mexican) Restaurant.

Behind Arctic, the creek gets heavily brushed in. Some efforts have been made to at least maintain a canoewide channel upstream of Arctic. A paddler will pass places where small limbs have been cut out of the way.

Downstream from Arctic, this ends. You'll find overhanging brush almost choking the channel and a couple of downed spruce trees nearly cutting it off. One of these requires some serious backpaddling and ferrying to maneuver around. The other you might be able to float over depending on stream flows and your boat.

There is a good downstream takeout on a boardwalk in the streamside park off of Dimond Boulevard, but for most paddlers, it probably isn't worth extending the trip beyond Arctic.

Downstream from Dimond is Campbell Lake, which has no public access. There is no takeout there unless you are lucky enough to be friends with a Campbell Lake homeowner.

For those interested in finding someone to paddle Campbell Creek with them, Crain is starting ''Wednesday Nite on Campbell Creek'' for (Knik) club boaters who aren't ready for Eagle River ''Bridge to Bridge.''

If you're interested, contact him via e-mail at Knik Canoers and Kayakers is always looking for new members with an interest in blue, white or flatwater paddling.


(Distributed by The Associated Press)

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