Sixmile Creek offers whitewater thrills -- and chills

Posted: Thursday, August 10, 2000

SIXMILE CREEK (AP) -- Driven back once again by a chest-high wall of water, Tod Williams' thoughts were on the awe-inspiring power of gravity-driven water.

Only later would he be able to detail these thoughts.

Then, he and two paddling buddies would use the word ''awesome'' over and over again to describe the whitewater thrill-ride to be found just off the Seward Highway south of Anchorage.

At the height of the awesomeness, however, there was no chance for Williams to talk.

He was too busy listening to guide Pete Gautreau of Nova Riverrunners screaming from the stern of a 16-foot paddle raft. A paddle raft is a strange creature that depends for its survival on the judgment and helmsmanship of one man and the steadfast obedience of everyone else.

It was Gautreau's job to pick a safe line, use his paddle as a rudder to steer the raft as best he could, and shout out simple commands. Basically, these amounted to ''forward!'', ''back!'' and ''rest!'' with a few variations.

For instance, he could yell ''forward right!'' to activate the paddlers braced against the raft's right tube. Their stroking on that side would move the raft gently to the left.

If Gautreau wanted to make a faster turn, he would yell ''forward right! Back left.'' This would almost spin the boat as the paddlers on the right tube paddle furiously forward against the force of the paddlers on the left tube paddling furiously back.

Usually, on this trip, Gautreau's commands were simple and straightforward: ''Forward two,'' an order for a couple strokes by the two paddlers on either side of the boat to reposition the craft in the current.

''Back left,'' a couple more strokes by only the paddlers on the left to swing the raft onto the line.

Only when the boat slammed into a big Class IV or Class V wave was Gautreau forced to yell ''forward! forward! forward!''

This was the signal for everyone to paddle like crazy -- their enthusiasm driven, in descending order, by a little apprehension, a shot of adrenaline, the water pouring over the bow to flood the boat, Gautreau's cracking voice, and someone's profanity punctuated shout to ''keep paddling.''

For the wiry Williams, this was not particularly easy at times because the force of the water was so great it physically drove him backward in the boat. On the port tube, his lifelong buddy David Webb, a 240-pound former Alaskan now living in Louisville, Ky., did better -- when he stayed in the boat.

Twice he went into the water, which was to be expected on this sort of adventure.

This is the reason NOVA outfits all its clients in dry suits, helmets and personal flotation devices. Then, the company puts clients through a lengthy safety briefing before anyone gets in a boat -- be it a hard-to-control paddle boat or the tamer rowed-boat over which the guide at the oars has real control.

And NOVA doesn't stop there.

''What we always do,'' said Jay Doyle, ''is make people swim before they go down. ... It helps a lot.''

Doyle wants people to know what to expect if they hit the water. The clients seem to like the lesson in how to float a whitewater steam: feet up and facing downstream so they can't get caught in anything and drag you under, arms and feet stroking when necessary to stay in the main current, eyes looking for that eddy where you can roll onto your belly and crawl-stroke hard for the safety of shore.

Survival is a genuine concern when floating the Sixmile.

''The Sixmile has had seven known fatalities (though none to experts) and less serious mishaps, such as shoulder dislocations, bruises and cuts occur regularly,'' author Andrew Embick wrote in 1994 in ''Fast & Cold: A guide to Alaska White Water.''

There have been at least three more deaths since then, including that of Kenai paddler David Worman this year. A NOVA-guided group witnessed the accident that killed Worman, pulled his body from the water and tried to revive the 40-year-old former weightlifter.

NOVA, Doyle said, always tries to err on the side of safety. One of its firmest rules is that it will not run the river if the water is above 11 feet at the gauging station near Sunrise. That occasionally shuts the business down in summer.

But this was to be a smooth, safe run, although several of the rafters were pitched into the chill waters. All were recovered quickly.

''It was just an unbelievable day,'' said Webb, who already was contemplating how he might describe this thrill ride to co-workers back in Kentucky.

Words, he realized, probably just weren't going to be enough.

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