Destination: Jetboating Alaska

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Having already explored the remote rivers of Nepal, Bhutan, Patagonia, Africa and Siberia by Hamilton Jet Boat, the same group of twenty New Zealand and Australian adventurers shipped their jet boats to Anchorage Alaska for a three week journey to the Arctic Circle.

Four purpose built strengthened aluminium Hamilton model 141a Mk3 jet boats with 383 cubic inch (6.3 litre) V8 engines and Hamilton model 212 Jet units ventured into the Alaskan wilderness, plying the numerous rocky snow fed and glacial rivers, culminating in a push to the Arctic Circle on Alaska’s “great river” the Yukon.

The relatively large Hamilton Jet units fitted to the modest 14’ 11” (4.550m) boats provide a prodigious amount of load carrying capability, each boat loaded with 5 adventurers, spares and survival gear. An almost inconceivable fuel load of 450 litres is carried on board each boat! Some 200 litres in the main fuel tank and an additional 10 x 25 litre jerry cans; this is a load only a Hamilton Jet boat can carry. The four jet boats are ingeniously packed into a custom 40 foot shipping sea container ready to be landed anywhere in the world. This group of adventurers are all highly experienced jet boat drivers and outdoorsmen well equipped to deal with extreme situations, allowing them to penetrate into some of the most hostile marine conditions on earth.

The boats were shipped to the Carlile Transportation Systems yard, of ‘Ice Road Trucking’ fame and prepped for the expedition.  Five Ford F350 Super duty 4×4 V8’s provided towing and support duties to enable the expedition to cross Alaska’s 1.7 million square kilometres. Alaska is the USA’s largest state and shares its border with Canada, curiously Alaska was purchased from the Russians in the 1800’s for just two cents per acre. Working on the boats and taking in the sights of Anchorage at 1am was surreal as the group familiarised themselves with what would become 3 weeks of daylight in the northern Alaskan summer.

Expedition Ready

The first few days were spent exploring the rivers around Anchorage to ensure the jet boats were expedition ready and reliable, after their trip around the world from New Zealand. The first river run was on the Knik River, a glacier fed torrent of water heavy with glacial debris and highly abrasive on our jet units. Expedition boats were met with moderate rapids on a fast flowing river finally ending with a steep climb through glacial moraine into a massive lake full of icebergs, the result of glacial calving. The face of the glacier was some 20 miles wide and the group of boats made their way through a maze of floating ice until they could go no further. The engine cooling water delivery hose on one boat failed, rapidly filling the bilge with a cubic meter of water; with the frigid glacial water lapping at the spark plugs, the boat was run aground on the rocks and ice to prevent sinking. A further run of many hours was taken on the flooded Matanuska River with all boats performing well and now proven for the weeks ahead.

Local jet boaters in their own Mercury Sport Jet powered craft joined the four Hamilton Expedition boats for a run up the Twenty Mile River, a smaller more braided river in spectacular steep wooded country, the glacier face at the top of this river was easily reached with many disembarking to climb the ice and moraine, a bizarre experience as this Glacier moves around 30m per day and there were constant rock and ice falls. Our expedition Doctor spent some time on a large ice berg soaking up the atmosphere, however just 15 minutes after he had returned to his jet boat the ice berg turned over! The local Alaskan jet boat failed to return on the downstream run back to the trailers, investigation revealed that the starter motor had failed leaving the boat stranded and unable to be retrieved. One of the expedition boats returned to assist, eventually a rope was wound around the sportjet motor flywheel several times and secured to a Hamilton Expedition boat bollard; the order was given and the jet boated powered away, “pull starting” the stranded sportjet motor bursting it into life! When you are stuck in the wilderness there is nothing like Kiwi ingenuity to get you out of trouble.

It was time to head farther north and the group trailered to the Talkeetna area where the rivers are much bigger and often a kilometre wide of shallow braided channels as they head into the higher country of gorges and white water. The Talkeentna and Chulitna rivers are boated as day trips, the midnight sun affording almost unlimited time on the river; as it happened allowing time for repairs including the fitting of a new jet intake grill, destroyed when a large rock was struck. The ‘Gorge’ and the huge white water that tempered it was regaled by locals as only been boated once in the 1980’s in boats twice the size of the small expedition jets with twin engines and jets.

So it was no surprise that when the expedition boats ventured into the legendary Gorge one boat was nearly lost. On the downstream run it struck a large boulder and then launched into the air finally becoming wedged on rocks taking on huge amounts of water. The crew quickly recovered the boat and continued on with a new respect for the big dirty water. The smaller rivers of the Iron and Sheep provided some spectacular boating through tight steep country with challenging sections of braided streams, running over gravel bars and log jams.

Base Camp

With the intention of boating the remote areas of the Yenta, Skwentna and Hayes Rivers the group launched into the Sustina River with the boats heavily loaded with fuel and supplies for four days. The Sustina River leads to the confluence with the Yentna River and finally to the expeditions base camp, a hunting cabin, at Lake Creek a couple of hours upstream. A large deposit of fuel and food had been boated and helicoptered in for the days ahead.

The group with 10 jerry cans of fuel in each boat and a local in his 21 foot jet boat set off for what would become an epic day. We are guided for around 2 hours before we reach the Skwentna river which suddenly becomes more braided and shallow, typically the point of no return for the local boats. However our local in his two tonne jet buoyed by the experience and likely the extra man power available, decides to continue on, he takes the big boat where no other similar boat has been before, finally tying it up to continue in one of the expedition boats. You see, out here there is no help, no roads, no towns and helicopter support is many hours away. So getting a large boat stuck, run aground or damaged is akin to simply leaving it there for good!

After another 5 hours and eventually making the journey up the Hayes River in freezing conditions it is decided to leave one of the expedition boats behind with some support crew, to save fuel and as a safety precaution. With the large loads on board the powerful V8’s are burning up to 45 litres of fuel per hour per boat. Up to now it has been around 7 engine hours of tough navigating in very shallow braided water with plenty of boats being stuck along the way. Eventually the 3 remaining expedition boats return down the Hayes to find a welcome bonfire lit by the safety boat crew.

A plan is hatched to regroup and collect the large local 2 tonne boat tied up downstream. The river is a mile wide, with dozens of shallow braided streams which match the colour of the cold grey skies, all boats must stay together for safety. That plan soon falls apart as the river conditions are tough and the boats are soon separated, our local in the 2 tonne boat is channelled to the far side of the river and eventually runs out of water and is lost in the trees as the water disappears into a dead end. Many hours of tough river navigation from the relative safety of the basecamp cabin, the large boat is stranded on the gravel river bottom with no prospect of being man handled back to water deep enough to get on the plane.

A fire of green branches and fuel is quickly made to attract attention and finally by luck alone, four expedition boats arrive to assist, with all rescue boats then promptly getting stuck. With many hands the large boat is manoeuvred to part of the river which is just knee deep and is able to get on the plane back to relative safety. After a few hours all the boats one by one have successfully got out of the wooded dead end. The bracing glacial water had the entire group feeling cold and tired and the threat of hypothermia was well managed, ensuring the whole group made it back to the cabin after a few more challenging hours navigating the shallows.

Closer to The Artic Circle

The push to Arctic Circle takes the group through the heart of Alaska via Fairbanks and the Denali National Park on the way to Central, a remote town with just a handful of residents and a trading post. From there the expedition is just 35 miles from the mighty Yukon River and the passage to reach the Arctic Circle by jet boat. By now the group is enjoying 24 hours of daylight in which to make the push downstream to the Arctic Circle so a decision is made to explore upstream first towards Canada and the Charley National Park. The plan is boating up to 11 hours on the engine clocks so a good deal of supplies and fuel is loaded and the group sets off on the huge Yukon River. The Yukon is 3190 miles long and empties in the Bering Sea, so the boats stay together and using GPS, and find the confluences with the Charley and Kandik Rivers. Refreshingly these two rivers run clear and low, something the Kiwi and Aussie boaters revel in as the upper reaches are explored in some of the most spectacular scenery to date.

Many of the eroded banks expose the melting permafrost, large overhangs and slips result. Descending the rocky Kandik River, one boat whilst running down a shallow gravel bar, suffered jammed steering with stones careering into a bank separating the deck from the hull and causing moderate injury to most on board. Once patched up by our expedition member and doctor, the boat was repaired and the group set off for the 6 hour downstream trip back to the launch site.

Now well experienced and having some knowledge on how to navigate the huge Yukon River the expedition set off downstream to cross the Arctic Circle, river conditions are relatively easy in this direction due to a change in terrain and the Arctic Circle is reached without incident. A celebratory barbeque is enjoyed by all whilst a few members keep ‘bear watch’. A relaxing day on the river, Alaskas “great river” is enjoyed with a great sense of achievement.

Heading Home

With somewhat of a road trip required to cover the large distance back to Anchorage the expedition jet boats the Tanana River beneath the Alaskan Pipeline and the Goodpaster River near Fairbanks during the return road journey. The Nenana River was going to be jet boated earlier however due to the grade 5 rapids and its rocky nature it was decided to boat it on the return leg lest a boat is lost or badly damaged. All four boats launched in to the river in damp cold conditions with many striking large hidden rocks in the rapids, whilst all boats returned to the trailers some did in better condition than others.

The final run in the jet boats before returning to Anchorage was a trip up river to the spectacular Placer Glacier, a picture postcard glacier only accessible by jet boat or helicopter. The river up to the glacial lake presented large ice bergs and views right up the glacier to its source, all on a pristine day with bright blue warm skies. The group enjoyed the day as the expedition started, under superb weather conditions, great scenery and legendary Alaskan local hospitality.

Boating in general is a magnificent way to see the world, but a jet boat allows access to rivers and remote parts of the country only seen by the very few.

For more information on this and past expeditions

Information on jet boating in Australia and New Zealand

The Expedition members would like to thank the following companies and individuals who made this great adventure possible. Hamilton Jet Hamburg Sud David Leckie Motor Company Independent Fisheries and the following Alaskans John and Rob Ekelmann, Dick and Jenny Weldin, Rob Miller, Chris Osowski, Craig and Doris Compeau, Carlile Transport Curtis Spencer, Jacob Wilson.


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