“WHICH WAY?” I shouted over the roar of the engine. Seth leaned forward, speed-reading the three-way split in the river that lay ahead. He gestured left.We both knew we had two chances to make that gooseneck turn into a six-foot-wide, three-inch-deep slot at 30 mph: slim and none.
Crouching, trying to keep my hands loose and my field of vision wide, I heeled the jet skiff back and forth to set up the turn, spun the wheel back to correct for over-steer, and hung on as we skittered sideways, surfing over the shallowest spot. We thudded into the edge of the gravel bar, ricocheted right and somehow ended up still headed downstream.
We weren’t so lucky two bends down. Halfway through the turn, I felt the rear of the boat chatter into an uncontrolled skid. I yanked the ignition tether as we glanced off a rock and spun 180 degrees with a screech and a wham. We came to rest with the bow pointed upstream, 20 feet from what little water there was.
“I just can’t seem to kick the habit of jamming boats where they have no business going.”
As Seth unloaded gas and gear, I slogged downstream in my waders, scouting the braided maze of rivulets ahead, seeking a stretch of knee-deep water long enough to let us get back on plane. Too shallow, and we’d slurp rocks into the intake grate and have another mess on our hands. The nearest likely slot was a good 75 yards downstream. We’d be lugging 20 gallons of gas plus a pile of gear and dragging the 750-pound chunk of skiff and motor that far. Even with the big rollers we carried for just such occasions, a half-hour, sweat-it-out grunt lay ahead.
It was our fourth train wreck in as many miles, and we’d taken our own licks, too. Seth had slipped and gotten soaked wrestling the boat down a boulder-plugged run, and I’d half-doused myself, sprained two fingers, and taken a major whack to one thigh. We still had 20 miles of sketchy water ahead before the river gathered itself, and even then, one wrong move and we’d be augured in again.
We had no practical reason for running up that valley last September, beyond the point where the Ambler River split into two boulder-strewn sluices so steep you sometimes had to lean against gravity. We couldn’t claim a subsistence errand; our autumn meat and fish were in hand. And we knew the water was too low to make it more than halfway. Well, we’d take a look, anyhow. Soon as it got too tough, we’d call it quits—famous last words of a jet-boat junkie.
At several junctures, the Ambler separates into tangles of constantly shifting channels that are almost impossible to read under the best conditions. What seems to be the main run can split into a half-dozen rills that you could wade across without getting your ankles wet. A mile later, you’re battling whitewater cascades that could drown a moose. The startling clarity of the blue-tinged water doesn’t help; figuring depth is all but impossible. And, as you climb up-valley, sand gives way to gravel, then mixes with hull-shredding bedrock and boulders. All considered, the Ambler at low water might as well be a graduate course in jet-boating.
Somehow, though, we managed to shuck and jive up one death-spiral chute after another, until we were just too close to the top to give in. We ended up forging a mile farther than I’d ever managed over the years, though most of those runs had been in much higher water. This time, we called it quits when canyon walls ended in a six-foot waterfall. We camped a mile below that dead end and in the morning went for a hike up the surreal limestone badlands of the upper west branch valley, trying to forget that the downstream run was going to be far worse than the going up: the cold hand of the current shoving us twice as fast as going against it, and the water level inches lower as frosts deepened. In some places, channels we’d barely squeaked through would be dry.
So there I was, slam-dancing down some far-flung valley for no good reason. Some folks get their kicks pulling slot machines; others hang glide off mountaintops. Though generally a careful traveler, I have to plead guilty to being a jet-skiff junkie, addicted to scooting up rivers to their headwaters. The closest equivalent is the snowmobiling notion of high marking—finding whose machine can climb the highest up a near-vertical slope. I’m not the least bit tempted by that sort of loony behavior, and never have been. But put me on a river in a stripped-down, overpowered, welded skiff, and off I go. Though age has brought hard-won caution in dealing with bears and cliffs, and a thorough understanding of my own mortality, I just can’t seem to kick the habit of jamming boats where they have no business going.
Paradoxically, jet-boating skinny water is both a touchy business and a fullcontact sport. Give a bit too much throttle or a hair too much wheel, and you’re slam-dancing down a rock garden in the middle of nowhere. I’ve been thrown out and run over, blasted the steering console free, half sunk my boat, driven up cut banks, and administered all manner of gouges, bumps and ejections to travel partners. In my first 20 years I thrashed a procession of hulls and engines, learning my chops the hard way. The last decade, I’ve kept the mayhem down to one ruined boat. The rig on this particular trip had lasted me (with steady rebuilds and repairs) for 15-plus years—more a tribute to the hull’s stoutness than anything else. The trip reminded me of the only way to jet boat Brooks Range headwaters in safety and comfort: don’t go. But once you’ve been there, you see those mountains in your sleep the rest of your life.
Back home in Ambler that evening, I surveyed the damage from our 160-mile round trip: a tortured rock grate; two newly cracked welds; a strake ripped half off, and a boat bottom pocked with a dozen new golf-ball-sized dings. For the next few days, I’d be post-holing around on a stiff, purple-black thigh as I figured repairs. Seth shook hands, grinned and jumped in his own skiff, headed down the Kobuk 30 miles to his place. Great trip, he said. And that’s the crazy part. One junkie to another, he was right.
Nick Jans is a longtime contributing editor to Alaska and author of the national bestseller A Wolf Called Romeo, available from nickjans.com.