"Six Mile is in."
That's the message that made its way through the whitewater kayaking community two weeks ago. Boaters eagerly watched as warm weather and rain brought river levels up on Six Mile Creek near Hope, a rare occurrence for January.
The flow on Six Mile was measured at a volume of more than 500 cubic feet per second, more than double the normal flow volume for the time of year. Typically those flows are associated with sprint melt in early summer.
That amount of water was enough to bring the region's whitewater kayakers out of hibernation.
Six Mile is perhaps best known by its ubiquity on whitewater rafting brochures around Anchorage, marketed as a Class IV-V thriller during summer run-off. But for whitewater kayakers, the run is a familiar stomping ground for outdoor play on either end of the commercial rafting season.
The prospect that Six Mile might be in was enough for Girdwood-based paddler Megan Smith to make the 45-minute drive to Hope to scout the river Jan. 23.
Smith and a friend spent the whole day looking at the river from its banks, searching for trouble spots of ice.
"We took a couple of hours hiking into the second canyon and then into the third canyon," Smith said, adding that they could only see a handful of rapids. Six Mile has a total of three canyons that kayakers typically run, but Smith said they were just scouting the more difficult bottom two.
The scouting trip was to determine whether the river could safely be run. Even though the volume of water was right, Smith had to see if ice would be a problem and if there were enough eddies -- calm water where kayakers can stop -- to paddle it safely.
"We were able to see that the river was mostly open," Smith said.
Smith returned the next day with a friend, Matt Peters, to paddle the river. Not long after launching into the second of Six Mile's three canyons, they saw something they weren't expecting.
An avalanche had slid down into the riverbed.
"It was a huge debris pile that was like 40 feet high coming out of the river," Smith said. "The river had slowly been washing it down; it was calving like a glacier."
Long-time Alaska paddler Paul Schauer said the Boston Bar slide is a pretty common avalanche pass. Schauer was another one of the boaters who took advantage of Six Mile's unseasonably high water level.
"A group of six of us went (Jan. 25)," Schauer said. "There were no ice bridges whatsoever. There was actually less ice on the creek than when you typically run it for the first time of the year in May or the end of April."
Schauer thinks Six Mile has probably been run in January before, 2006 was another unseasonably warm year, but he said seeing this kind of low to medium-low water level is still very rare.
Back on the river, Smith said she, too, was surprised by how open the riverbed was.
The lack of ice meant she and other kayakers could paddle where they otherwise may have had to portage around blocked stretches of river.
Smith guessed she and Peters were the first to paddle Six Mile after the level came up, and they were extra diligent about scouting for hazards.
At one point, Smith and Peters got out of their boats to scout a rapid when the ice shelf they were standing on collapsed, sending both of them into about a foot water. Smith said getting her feet wet was the worst.
"I was definitely doing finger and toe crunches to get feeling back," she laughed.
Smith and Peters were both wearing drysuits, which are generally made of a waterproof Goretex-like material and seal at the neck and wrists with latex gaskets. The paddlers also wore Neoprene skull caps and pogies on their hands.
The water was still chilly. Smith said that by the time she got to the bottom of Nozzle, the first big rapid, "I had an ice cream headache and I didn't even flip upside down. That was so cold.
"After I got done with that, I was like, 'My goal for today is not to flip over!'"
Peters said he did a roll -- where he flipped the kayak over intentionally -- in flatwater to acclimate.
"It's kind of funny, when you're underwater it doesn't actually feel that cold," Peters said. "But when you're up again it hits you in your nose and your ears and it is really cold."
By the time they got to the end of the third canyon, they were both chilled, but still having fun.
"Everything was all good, (Peters) and I were super fired up and excited the whole time," Smith said.
Smith and Peters know the features of Six Mile intimately from paddling it so many times.
During the summer rafting season Smith kayaks along with guided raft trips to take photos of the customers at the rapids, a job called "photoboating" in the kayaking community. She's also the regional ambassador for SheJumps, an organization that encourages women to get outdoors by offering roll clinics and other workshops. Peters is a long-time local boater.
U.S. Geological Survey Hydrologic Data Program Chief Jeff Conaway said the Six Mile flows seen two weeks ago are not the norm.
"It's a very rare event to have ice-free conditions on rivers in Southcentral Alaska at this time," Conaway added.
Because spring flow volumes are correlated to snowpack volume, the melting seen in recent weeks could detract from the available snowpack for next spring's runoff -- but that's only one possibility, Conaway said. Alaska's winters are long and there's still plenty of time to catch up.