I have paddled Alaska’s arctic rivers for more than a quarter-century, in everything from inflatable kayaks to 15-foot rafts. Rivers in the Brooks Range characteristically begin in the mountains, running swift and clear in their upper reaches. Most rivers on the south side of the Brooks Range eventually meet up with the boreal forest and lose their speed, slowing into gentle meanders that cut through wetlands and stunted spruce trees. On the north side of the range, rivers twist like a French braid, spreading into numerous channels, and gradients on some are steep enough to generate considerable whitewater. The last Ice Age has left its mark in this country, and even on rivers that seem to be of fairly low gradient, smoothed glacial erratics and ancient boulders offer up beautiful boulder gardens on some rivers.
There’s probably no single answer to the questions: “What’s the best boat for the river? Or “What’s your favorite arctic river?” Many boats have merits; many rivers are my favorites…
In the summer of 2004, I decided to try out SOAR’s new Pioneer on rivers that are traditionally paddled in rafts. I have rafted the Hulahula many times, so it was with more than a bit of joy that I pulled together a team of 6 experienced paddlers for our “test-drive” with the Pioneers. These canoes are big! I don’t know if I read it, or someone said it, but these boats are like SOAR 16s on steroids. You cannot flip them. They are so stable that you could stand up and do a few West Coast swing dance moves while moving downriver. I swear you could set up a tripod in one!
We loaded them up with food, gear, and ourselves, and they still floated high in the water. I think it would be hard to overload this boat. In the shallows, we dragged them across rocks and gravel, and they never showed any wear. In the Hulahula’s Class III water, the waves splashed up all around us, but I don’t even remember getting wet. The hull design seems to deflect the waves.
The Hulahula melts out in early June, cutting a channel or two through extensive shelves of ice that fill the river throughout the winter. This “aufeis,” or overflow ice, can be a real hazard. Sometimes the channels don’t break through and the river goes UNDER the ice. People have been dragged under, losing their boats, gear, and sometimes, their lives. By mid-June, there are usually decent channels running down the river, but there is still plenty of ice. Often, going downriver, we’d watch huge chunks of ice break from the shelves, similar to an iceberg calving from a glacier. Big surge waves radiate out, and you aim your bow into the wave to maintain stability.
We loved the boats for this trip. They were easy to paddle, easy to maneuver, and manageable in the wind. The Hulahula has a swift current throughout most of its journey. I think the Pioneer might feel like a barge on a slower river, but its as stable as one. It’s a bit much for a solo paddler, even with a long kayak paddle. I think it’s best used with 2, paddling canoe-style.
We tried the boat on a couple more Arctic rivers, and gave them a good run through the biggest boulder garden in northern Alaska. With some pushing and yanking, we got through it; the only casualty was a brief swim by one paddler. The canoe hit a rock, sending him into an aerial acrobatic until he hit 38 degree water.
The main thing I don’t like about the Pioneers is their weight. It’s a hefty load for me to lift by myself. For this reason, I’ll probably switch to the SOAR 16s, with their slightly smaller tube diameter. The other feature that could be improved is the seats. We all decided that it would be better to make seats that are long enough to sit on top of the tops on the sides of the boat. A couple holes set in from the ends of the seats would be used to lash the seats in. You’d be able to sit higher when you want, and you would be able to move all the way out to the edge of the tube for deep vertical paddle strokes.
The Pioneers worked great; it was stable, responsive, and fun to paddle. It’s roomy, too; we could have carried a month of food, and still had room to stretch out! I can’t wait to take them on another river.
Karen is the author of The Alaska River Guide: Canoeing, Kayaking and Rafting in the Last Frontier. She runs backpacking, sea kayaking, and river expeditions in the Far North with her company, Equinox Expeditions.