Peace Among Chaos
I show up at the river, not knowing what to expect. I’ve known Danny Crow for years, hung out with his family, even rowed a raft next to his on a gentle river; but I’ve never really had a chance to see the man in his element. That is until now.
We’re meeting several miles up from the mouth of Eagle River to run a popular stretch of water that climaxes in a set of class-III rapids. Spring melt-off has been slow, and that’s fine with me since my whitewater experience is somewhat suspect.
The river begins with a few drips from Eagle glacier high up in the Chugach Mountains of Alaska. It picks up volume and speed before depositing its load of frigid water and glacial silt into the Cook Inlet; a process that will probably give Anchorage residents a lot more land to build on in a few hundred years. But for now, it’s a great mix of gentle, meandering slack water and raging, torrid whitewater. An Anchorage-area treasure, Eagle River offers a little something for every type of paddler less than an hour from downtown.
We’ll be using Danny’s boat of choice these days, an inflatable kayak dubbed the “packraft.” Weighing between five and ten pounds and rolling up to the size of a two-man tent, these single-man rafts were initially designed as an aid to backpackers, hunters, and trekkers. However, the whitewater community has adopted them and now they’re adding a whole new dimension to the sport. Water that was previously un-runnable is now possible with these smaller rafts, something known as 'creekin.'
“At this point in life I am enjoying figuring out the limits of the Alpacka rafts. It is fun being on the cutting edge of class-V creekin’ in packrafts. No one imagined that these boats would be able to do what we are doing with them.” Danny tells me.
I grab my gear out of the truck and head towards a growing group of paddlers and their boats: bright patches of blue, red, and yellow glowing in the evening sun. This mid-week evening float is part of a Meet-Up group event, and I’m curious to see how many show up.
At first count, more than a dozen boats in varying stages of inflation are strewn about along with their soon–to-be paddlers. One gentleman sports a dry-suit and life jacket combination right out of the Cabella’s catalogue, another has fishing waders with rubber boots, while still another has jeans and a sweatshirt. Suddenly I don’t feel quite so out of place. I search for Danny and find him introducing several paddlers to each other. It seems the only connection that many of us have is our desire to go rafting with Danny Crow.
A gentle man of medium build and a great big rounded beard that itself seems almost inflated from within, Danny has warm eyes and a mouth that seems to always settle into a partial grin. His laugh and his zeal for life are infectious, but it’s his love of whitewater that intrigues me. How does a dedicated family man in his fifties with a fulltime job continue to paddle among an elite group of class-V rafters on the wild rivers of Alaska?
As one Alaskan boater put it, “I don't know about Crow. We don't hear a thing about him for years, then he descends from the clouds and throws down these epics runs, I don't know how he does it.”
After being raised all over the Southwest United States, Crow found himself as a young man in Alaska. Rafting with his dad and watching the 1976 Wide World of Sports episode of a kayaker in Devils Canyon spawned a life-long love of whitewater. He spent the early eighties cutting his teeth with Alaskan legend Chris Roach: perfecting his rolls, studying rivers, and running them literally facing forward and backward to get comfortable with any situation. He was constantly honing his skills to navigate bigger and more complex water.
His resume reads like a topo-map of south-central Alaskan whitewater, Peters Creek, Ship Creek, Campbell Creek, Arch Angel, the Little Susitna, the Willow, Ingram, Bird Creek, Kern Creek, Canyon Creek and Six Mile. He has a first descent of Campbell Creek, which drops over 600' in a mile, a first descent of Mills Creek, the second descent of Caribou Creek Falls and the second descent of Arch Angel.
“In my early years I would put in 50-90 days of boating a summer,” he says, “we had 13-foot boats and creekin' was not a possibility. We spent a lot of time shredding the rivers we could run.”
Shreddin' the Snakes Back rapids and Beer Can falls on Kern Creek, Alaska