Terrifying times on Alaska’s treacherous Tanana River

Summertime calls us to the water. In canoes, kayaks, pontoon boats, fishing platforms. We take it slow these days in our Mad River canoe, Cocktail_Hour_Cover-FINAL(1)floating lazily on the region’s lakes. But we’ve had our share of terrifying waterborne experiences. This one is drawn from our Alaska adventure book, Cocktail Hour in the Land of the Midnight Sun, and tells the story of the Great Tanana Raft Race, one of the wildest, most dangerous events ever. (You can read more adventures on Kindle)

Life can be boring in Fairbanks during the Alaska winter. There is not much to do in the darkness and those bone-crushing temperatures except go to work, go home after work and get drunk at the Big I Saloon once in a while.

The fun thing about getting drunk is that people have such wonderful ideas, although upon awakening the next morning those ideas don’t always seem so great. This is the story of one of those drunken inspirations that stuck and blossomed into an insane, dangerous event that got the attention of the national news media. Even the great Charles Kuralt came there to report on it.

Hundreds of rafts sweep from the Chena River in Fairbanks out onto the wide and turbulent waters of the mighty Tanana River

Hundreds of rafts sweep from the Chena River in Fairbanks out onto the wide and turbulent waters of the mighty Tanana River

The event, conceived in the dim recesses of the Big I, was the Great Tanana River Raft Classic. It came to involve hordes of people — many of them drunk or working on getting that way — floating 60 road miles; I could not guess how many river miles — down the wicked Tanana River from Fairbanks to the village of Nenana.

The Classic had a checkered history. At one time, the Coast Guard decided too many people were getting killed and tried to stop it. The Classic continued in fits and starts with varying degrees of success. But in the event’s early years, when yours truly came on the scene, it was in its heyday, with a thousand what-me-worry participants clinging to hundreds of flimsy rafts.

I participated in the Classic in 1972 while working as an outdoor writer for the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. We decided the newsroom should enter the Classic that early summer, so we put the bite on publisher for money to build a raft. Since I had built rafts before, I was put in charge of construction.

Our raft was typical of the Classic fleet. The flotation was two pontoons, each made of three 55-gallon oil drums, end-to-end. The drums were attached with metal banding to a frame of two-by-fours, and a deck of one-by-sixes was nailed to the frame. At the rear was the sweep — a long oar gripped by a feeble wooden oarlock.

Our crew had six members. There was news editor Chuck Hoyt, a foul-mouthed reporter, my wife at the time, Barbara, our dog, Chrissy, and a reporter from the Anchorage Times. Her name was Betty, and she was to miraculously escape death by impalement that day.

Barbara and I supplied a mountain of tuna sandwiches and Chuck, an experienced rafter, knew just what else to bring — three cases of beer.

Early the morning of the Classic, we launched the raft on the Chena River, which runs through Fairbanks and joins the Tanana at the edge of town. We floated a mile before we came upon hundreds of other rafts moored to the riverbank. Chuck was on the sweep, straining to buck the raft across the swift current and onto the bank, when the oarlock snapped and we spun out of control. I don’t know how Chuck did it, but he got us to shore and we repaired the oarlock.

We waited about an hour for the official launch. The sky was leaden, a damp breeze blowing and it was spitting rain. The temperature was about 40 degrees and would grow no warmer during the long and miserable day ahead of us.

We heard several shots. Perhaps it was a murder, perhaps it was the launch signal. Whichever, all the rafts began shoving off. We were inches from the bank when the current grabbed us and slammed us against the raft parked alongside. A man standing on it fell overboard. He flailed to the surface in an uproar of profanity as the current swept us away.

Onto the broad breast of the river we swirled, surrounded by hundreds of other rafts. Some had railings, some were two levels high. Some were tiny, others were huge, with a dozen or more people on them. Some had bars complete with brass foot railings, Some had roofs and couches and easy chairs. One had a piano and piano player, and you could hear him tinkling away. Most had a sanitary facility of one kind or another.

At a rear corner of our raft, we built a biffy of a frame of two-by-twos enclosed in offset printing plates and a privacy curtain over the doorway. The facility itself was a toilet seat on three spindly legs. A heavy plastic bag was suspended from the seat.

My neighbor had been bragging for days about the clever arrangement that his crew had for a bathroom. Over a hole in the deck was bolted a toilet, sans tank. For privacy, the toilet user would don an enormous cloak, sweep it over the toilet, and be seated in confident modesty. There was only one flaw in their plan, although they didn’t know it. When it was necessary to adjust the cloak, which it almost always was, it would fly up in back and its user would moon the whole river. (Do you suppose that’s where the song “Moon River” came from?)

The fact that the Tanana is big and fast, slashed by currents and spun by whirlpools, isn’t all that makes it so dangerous. Along the entire course to Nenana, it churns between banks covered with huge trees. These trees topple into the river as the water eats the bank from beneath their feet. The prone trees extend over the river and are called sweepers. They will sweep you right off your raft.

Chuck was a good helmsman and usually managed to keep us out of the sweepers. The only time he didn’t was when Betty was using the toilet. The raft careened into a sweeper, and a big branch lanced right through the biffy. Betty was screaming around in there but was not hurt; it was a miracle that she was neither impaled nor knocked into the water. The frail structure was destroyed and the toiled knocked overboard, but we saved Betty. For the remaining eight hours of that cold, rainy trip, she was even grouchier than she had been at the start, when she was suffering from an evident hangover.

Finally, thank god, the bridge at Nenana came into view and we rejoiced, assuming we would soon gain respite from that terrible journey. Hah hah. It took two more hours of suffering before we came to the bridge. Chuck slammed the craft onto the bank below the bridge and we all leaped off. He gave the raft a kick and it spun down the river, carrying a cargo of an empty sandwich box and three cases of beer — minus four cans.

A year later, I was on a canoe trip far down the Tanana, and every so often we would see an old raft along the bank. My canoe companion told me that most rafters sent their rafts floating away. People who lived down the river would haul them in and use them for firewood. Good riddance, I say.

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