Alaskan Enviros and Big Water Boaters Rejoice: Susitna Watana Dam project Shut Down


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Haven’t knocked Devil’s Canyon of Alaska’s Susitna River off your Triple Crown list yet? Don’t worry, you have more time.
The Susitna and its heralded big water Class V stretch Devil’s Canyon—which comprises the notorious Triple Crown along with the Grand Canyon of the Stikine and Alsek’s Turnback Canyon—was saved from being dammed by the stroke of a pen June 29, when Alaska Governor Bill Walker cancelled plans for the Susitna-Watana Dam megaproject.

“We are closing down the Susitna Watana project,” Walker said. “We will do that in such a way that preserves the work done to date. But those projects we can no longer continue to advance in our fiscal situation we are in today.”

The Susitna River, where the dam was proposed, is North America’s fourth largest undammed river and sustains Alaska’s fourth largest king salmon run. The vast valleys that feed the Susitna River comprise some of one of the state’s most visited areas.

Upon hearing the news, everyone from environmentalists to fishermen and paddlers celebrated the future of a free-slowing Susitna.

“The Susitna River is one of the most beloved rivers in Alaska,” says Dave Costello, former editor of Alaska magazine. “It has world-class sport fishing and whitewater, and is one of the wildest free flowing rivers left in North America, completely inaccessible by road. The official shutdown of the Susitna-Watana Dam project is a major victory for Alaskan environmentalists looking to maintain the wild, free flowing nature of the river, and for the wide variety of species that call the Susitna watershed home. For paddlers, Devil’s Canyon, one of the Crown Jewels of North American whitewater, has been saved –at least for the foreseeable future.”

The proposal would have created the second tallest dam in the United States, posing harmful impacts to the Susitna River’s five species of salmon, caribou migration routes, and tourism and fish-based businesses. It’s these reasons why environmentalists are cheering.

“I’m elated to stand along side our partners and friends who rely on the Susitna today and proud to have helped work toward this victory,” says Sam Snyder, Trout Unlimited Alaska engagement director and coordinator of the Save the Susitna campaign. “Thousands of Alaskans have spoken up so that future generations can use and enjoy the Susitna as we do today – the Governor made the right decision. It’s an immense victory for our salmon, our waters and tens of thousands of Alaskan families.”

River runners are also rejoicing, from the likes of expert kayakers Todd and Brendan Wells, whose Battle of the Susitna video from their production company Mountain Mind Collective heralds the river’s Devil’s Canyon section, to big water kayaking pioneers like Rob Lesser and Doug Ammons, who have each paddled Devil’s Canyon as part of the Triple Crown.

“I was happy to hear the Susitna project was taken off the actively funded list of state projects by Gov. Walker,” says Lesser. “Unfortunately I think that just means until oil prices turn around…”

“As to impact of the Watana Project on the flows in Devil’s Canyon, the flows would have been reduced to 10,000 cfs or less coming out of the dam, which would’ve essentially killed the types of big water runs which have given the place it’s reputation.”

Lesser adds the highest known flow it’s been run at is around 30,000 when Polar Bear Productions filmed Adventure Quest.

Walk Blackadar, Roger Hazelwood and Kay Swanson were the first to attempt the section in 1972, portaging Prep H but running most of the rest. In 1976, ABC’s American Sportsman returned with Blackadar to film the gauntlet (he swam in Preparation H on both attempts), with Cully Erdman and Barney Griffith making their rolls for successful runs. Lesser ran it for the first time in in 1977. “Walt was along on our run, but he took a terrible swim in the Nozzle and was never the same after that,” Lesser says, adding Blackadar died while kayaking the South Fork Payette 10 months later. Ron Frye and Al Lowande, he adds, hiked out to High Lake and flew out. Lesse ran it again in 1982 and 1983.

“Devil’s Canyon is one of the big water North country classics that any aspiring expedition kayaker should do,” adds Ammons. “It’s not as dramatic a canyon as the Alsek or Stikine canyons, but quality Class V way in the Alaskan wilderness with a great history.

“Above 20,000 and especially 25,000 cfs, it romps, with giant holes, surging waves and seams that will eat you,” he adds. “This is one of the places that spawned the epic myths of “boat-eating” holes, because it indeed has them.”

He points to the seams at the section’s Hotel Rock as “one of the most violent places I’ve ever been,” and advises people to watch Walt Blackadar’s 1976 ABC Sportsman episode, which was filmed there, “to understand in an instant why this heralded the future of the sport.”

From the Denali Highway, the stretch runs 200 miles down to Talkeetna if you paddle all the way, on a waterway laden with grizzly bears, caribou, and fast-moving water laden with glacial silt. “You start out in the endless willows and boreal forest, looking up at big craggy mountains, then enter the long relatively shallow canyon that for 120 miles plows through the wilderness, until it stomps into the bedrock of Devil’s Canyon for 10 miles, pouring through a dozen or so huge rapids, all in scenery that will sweep your heart with the power of the north country. ” says Ammons.

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Staff Post
Paddlers writing about all things paddling.


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