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Ice Along the Stream’s Edge

Finding Joy & Movement on Alaska’s Freezing Willow Creek

Galen Johnston
“I just got my new boat in the mail a week ago, and I spent all weekend trying (and failing) to find acceptable water to put it in. Now that south central Alaska has decided to have a melt down, it seems I might be in luck! The ski coach part of me is torn, but the paddler is stoked.” ~Galen Johnston.

Thanks so much to Galen Johnston for letting us share this story and video that he first posted on his personal Facebook page on November 6, 2018. We felt like it was an appropriate story to start 2019 with. Happy New Year! You can find more of Johnston’s photos and videos on his Instagram page.

I’ve come alone for one last paddle. Stopped off at Willow Creek on my way south from my parents’ home in Talkeetna. Something about the ice along the stream’s edge and the still flowing water called to me. I park and grab my gear, half changing into paddle gear at the car since I forgot a pack. I tie my drysuit at my waist, pull on my spray skirt, and set my helmet on my head. I stuff my boat into my pfd, grab my paddle and start to walk the shuttle.

After a mile, a nice couple from up the pass stops and offers me a ride. I gratefully accept, and they drop me at Red Gate. Down the familiar pathway to the creek I stroll, reveling in my luck and in the crispness of the winter air. I inflate my boat and launch off of an ice shelf rimming the put in. I paddle on. “I don’t remember the bottom being so soft,” I think.

My paddle blade arcs through the water, but as I pivot into my next stroke the tip of the blade slows, as though an unseen hand has grasped it. It’s a feeling I associate with shallow ponds and silty river bars, and not at all the ancient rocky glacier cobble I am now floating inches above. I peer down through the riffles, expecting to see a sand patch and am instead surprised to watch my blade stirring a freshly crystalline, ice slurry. I paddle on.

The swiftly-flowing stream surface has kept the ice at bay. However, in the turbulent currents at stream’s bottom, ice has begun to take hold and advance the impending freeze up. This is a phenomena I have never witnessed. I have always associated freeze up with a superficial closing-off of an environment–an encapsulation of a seasonal modality of water.

Often as a child I’d envision fish and aquatic beings playing beneath the ice surface upon which I traveled. Now though, floating above this kingdom of ice shrouded stream bed, the stream seems to be pushing out; pushing me out, walling itself off from the inside out as though tired of the continual chaos of the liquid seasons.

I paddle on. I glide onto the glassy waters of a deep pool. Here, below icicle bedecked canyon walls, the slowing of the current brings a more familiar form of freeze-up to me. Concentrically formed ice shelves reach out to greet me from the shore. They’ve nearly connected, leaving only a slush choked, packraft width channel through which I slip my boat.

Below me, the deep waters swirl slowly beneath their icy lid. Here lies the winter home for those organisms who never leave this place. Here lies the womb and heart of this stream. I paddle on, through more splashy channels freezing cumulatively from the rocky floor.

My boat can slide over the shallowest of rivulets here since even a thin film of water over the ice offers a paddle-able flow. There is joy in my movements and on my face as I flit across this ever changing subaqueous landscape.

Ahead, as I reach another pool the stream is blocked, fully sealed beneath its winter cloak. I paddle to the shore and roll myself inelegantly onto the shelf ice, pulling my boat up after me. I slip my way gingerly along the shore until I reach another launch point below the ice dam. I paddle on.

I drift past a fully frozen tributary, a stream I’ve barely noticed in all my times past this spot in summer. Now though, it’s an aggressive, eight foot tall rampart jutting into my channel. It’s a tiny trickle turned glacial behemoth. The pale November sun kisses the glacier’s snout as I drift past, breathless and open mouthed. I paddle on.

Soon the Shirley Towne Bridge swings into view, and I exit the main stream to take out in its shadow. The normally pedestrian take out is rather more sporting today as I grip a cranberry bush and roll out onto the ice to exit. It’s just another hint that I’m pushing the season a little longer than the stream would prefer. Another hint that it’s ready to close up shop for all those watery beings who would cavort in its flow. I’ll paddle on. I’m not quite ready to admit that the season has come to a close.

Music by Colter Wall.