Sixmile Creek: A Rafter's Guide
by Jim Strutz
Sixmile Creek is a beautiful stream in the northern Kenai Peninsula. Heading South from Anchorage, you first encounter its tributary, Granite Creek, draining the southern slopes of Turnagain Pass. The lower parts of Granite Creek are class II white water, and are regularly floated by kayaks, rafts, and canoes. Very little of Sixmile's tributaries are glacial in origin, so the color of the water is mostly blue, but with a little silt. This is an uncommon treat for Alaskan floaters.
However, while Sixmile is not glacially fed, it is largely supported by snowmelt in the mountains around its tributaries. This creates high flows whenever the sun shines sufficiently to melt the snow in the upper elevations. The water usually runs highest from mid-June to mid-July, while there is still plenty of snow and sunshine, and it will rise dramatically with heavy rainfall. At high flows (2800+ CFS. - over 11' on the USGS gauge) this river is very dangerous and is a known killer, although usually to unsuspecting boaters who don't know about the dangers that they can't see from the road. It can be rafted safely anywhere from low (8.8') to moderately high flows (11'), which is most of the time from early May to late September. High flows create more danger and the resulting thrills, but fewer eddies, while low flows create more demand for technical rowing in what becomes a pool and drop stream. A thrill in its own right.
The Alaska River Forecast Center and the USGS have a gauge at the bottom of the third canyon that is broadcast on the internet. Check out: http://www.alaska.net/~akrfc/, or http://www-water-ak.usgs.gov/rts-cgi/gen_tbl_pg
It can be run in rafts a bit below the 9' level (600 CFS). Mid-levels are 9.5 (1000 CFS) to 10.5 feet (2000 CFS), 10.6 or more is high, 11 feet (2800 CFS) is too much for me.
Sixmile is an ideal kayaker's float, narrow and technical, with gradually increasing difficulty. Rafters started running it in the 1990s on a regular basis since raft material finally improved to the point of withstanding the punishment the sharp rocks often inflict. Outfitters like Nova, Chugach Outdoor Center, and Class V run it commercially as well. A smart way to learn this stream is to pay one of them for a ride one day and then ask if they would mind if you tagged along the week. They are usually pretty good about this. I paid them the first time and then didn't run it again until the next year. By this time I had forgotten most of it. If you're concerned about the cost of this education, you shouldn't play in this stream. Sixmile is expensive to raft. Almost every time I went there for the first few years I lost or broke things. I don't have much money, but I know how to keep my priorities straight so I kept boating.
If you are floating this creek very early in the year or right after other high flows, it is best to scout it for log jams and sweepers, or simply dare a brave kayaker to try it first, and then see if he comes out the other end. Other precautions to take while running Sixmile are to always wear a wet or dry suit with appropriate footwear. The chances of swimming are high, and the water is cold. Also wear a helmet. This is not an option. Twice I've hit my head hard while coming out of my boat. The helmet turned a possible disaster into a non-event, or at least a near non-event The last piece to put on is a high flotation Personal Flotation Device (PFD). Kayakers may have reasons to use those skimpy little jobs, but in my opinion, rafters should buy the biggest balloons available. If you get recirculated in Suck Hole, you'll appreciate the ability to bob like a cork. Also make sure it fits snugly. If you take passengers (their screams are what make this sport so much fun) don't listen when they say "I don't need all that stuff 'cause I'm a good swimmer." They have absolutely no idea what they're talking about. One other piece of standard advice, have at least one other boat with your party. ...to retrieve bodies and such.
There are three canyons on this creek, each one more difficult than the previous. Going from class IV to IV+ to V. If you experience much trouble with the easier upper sections you may not want to do the lower canyon. These canyons offer some of the most beautiful scenery and exciting white water in Alaska. The put-in is at a large paved parking lot on the north side of the road, at mile 59 of the Seward Hwy. (approx. 2.6 miles before the Hope Rd.) The first take-out is at mile .9 on the Hope road, a little below the first canyon. This is a narrow driveway on the right and is easy to miss. The second take-out is at mile 4.5 on the Hope road. It is a narrow driveway going up the hill on the right and is just below the second canyon. The third take-out is at mile 7.1 of the Hope Rd. If you see a mailbox, you’ve gone too far. Go 1/4 mile down the narrow driveway on the right.
Scouting Sixmile Creek is a difficult proposition but is doable at some of the most important places. About a mile below the first canyon put-in, you can see from the highway, a narrow gulch between two mountains on river right that Gulch Creek flows through to where it joins East Fork of Sixmile Creek. Right here on the north side of the road there is a small drive that starts and goes nowhere. It's a good place to pull into and park to scout the first canyon. If you see the metal gate to the miner's cabin you have gone 200 yards too far West. There is a new footbridge here, built in 2001 or 2002, that passes over the gorge. This, and all land surrounding Sixmile Creek is owned by the National Forest Service so it is public property. You need to cross this bridge in order to see much of the canyon. You can see Seventeen Ender from the bank just upstream from the bridge on river left, but Predator, Waterfall, The Slot, and the entrance to Sheetmetal are best seen from the bridge or the bank on river right. This area really does need to be scouted because logs are often found lodged in the gorge or The Slot that may be blocking the best or even the only line.
The entrance to the second canyon can be scouted from Boston Bar, a large pull-out, and a good unimproved camping area at mile 3.3 on the Hope Road. From here you can walk downstream to view Pearly Gates and, with difficulty, The Nozzle. Both of these are better scouted from river right, but to get there you need to pull into the eddy just before you drop over the edge of Pearly Gates. At a pull-out at mile 3.6 of the Hope Rd. you can walk down a good trail and view both the exit of The Nozzle and entrance to The Anvil. This is a pretty place for a picnic and to watch the boats go by. With some difficulty you can also walk down and view Beaver Drop.
The Third Canyon is the hardest to get a good viewing of, however, the most dangerous, first two drops can be scouted. There is a small pull-out where the mile 5 marker is missing, but the last I looked, 4, 6, and 7 were still standing, so you can judge from these. At mile 5.8 there is a medium-sized dirt pull-out with a trail heading down to the top of a long rope that aids in the plunge over the cliff to get a great view of Suck Hole. You can also walk back up the road from this pull-out to mile 5.5 to find a less used trail heading, first uphill then down an even longer, steeper cliff to get to Staircase. However, it is much easier to scout Staircase by pulling your boat into the eddy on the left just above it and walking down on river left. You can decide if you want to run it or portage then. But it is very difficult to scout Suck Hole from the river, and if you don't have an experienced guide with you to point it out, you would be well advised to expend the effort and time to climb down there and look at it first.
I use an Aire 17.5' by 7', cataraft with 18" tubes, which, although rigged light, is a little large for several of the tight spots, especially at low water levels. Catarafts are faster, more stable and can punch holes better than conventional rafts, but are harder to stay on, turn slower, and give a wetter ride. A better boat for Sixmile would probably be a 14' self-bailing raft, or a smaller cat.
The first put-in is actually on the East Fork of the Sixmile. It doesn't become Sixmile proper until it merges with Canyon Creek, 2.5 miles downstream. From the first put-in the river meanders a mile or so with occasional class II sections until Gulch Creek merges on the right.
At this point the stream makes a hard left and falls into Seventeen Ender Hole named after a kayaker who had to swim after so many recirculations. It is also called Thirteen Ender, but I doubt anyone was actually counting. The first time I ran this section I went right through the thing at high water. I did not come back for a long time! Stay away from this hole, rafters. As soon as you see the creek on the right, back ferry into the left bank to avoid the right side. It's the meanest stopper in the upper canyon, which fortunately only plugs the right two-thirds of the river. Keep pulling back with your back end pointed to the left as you round the corner directly above it. At low flows rocks appear on the extreme left just above the drop which will force you to go farther to river right than you would otherwise like. Continue to stay as far left as possible without getting stuck. As you approach the drop, turn your bow downstream and push hard to quickly get away from the left bank. Paddle assist would be nice at this time. At low flows avoid the shallow rocks on the far left at the bottom of this drop.
At mid to high water there is an additional couple of large waves before the start of the gorge. It is best navigated by doing a back ferry towards river right as soon as you get past Seventeen Ender.
You will now find yourself in the middle of the stream as it is making a right turn, and heading into the narrow section of this canyon. I have more difficulty here at low water levels as it gets very tight in spots. If you can tear your eyes away from the water long enough, look up, and see the footbridge you should have used to scout this section. Enough dreaming of what should have been. You don't have time for sightseeing. Egos are at stake. Mostly your own. Try to stay away from the canyon walls, the rocks are sharp. To do this it's best to start with your stern towards river right just as you enter the gorge. Not completely right, it's not wide enough, just so that when you pull back you move toward the right wall and when you push forward you move to the left. It's sections like this that give big oar rafts a bad rap.
Get ready to straighten out as you round the corner and ship your oars or let them swing back, there is not enough room for them to stay out. At high water levels another reversal appears in the middle of this canyon called Predator. Get your paddle assisters pulling forward to bust through this. Also make sure any passengers in front of you are far enough forward that the handle of the oar won't sweep them out of the boat as it comes forward. I have a very interesting video of a partially shipped oar blade hitting this wall. The handle whacked some poor guy's head. He's OK, but you did remember your helmet, right? There is a big eddy on the left as you come out of this narrow section. Take it and look at the next drop. Yes, you do have to run it.
This one is called Waterfall, and I have been far too intimate with the cliff on the left. Also at low water there is a rock that emerges on the right at the bottom so don't get too close here either. It's probably best to start near the right and charge towards the middle as you approach the top. As your boat resurfaces you can take either the left or right eddy. Now would be a good time to apologize to any passengers you invited.
The next drop is a piece of cake. As long as you place your boat perfectly. The Slot is really a minor drop a hundred feet below the one you just did, but it's very narrow and gets narrower as the water level drops. At water levels below 9.8' there is a rock that appears just off the left bank forcing the channel width to no more than eight feet. Your boat's not wider than this is it? At these lower flows you must run it extreme river right and ship your right oar as you slide by the wall. The easiest approach is to keep your boat partly sideways, bow pointed river left to enable proper alignment. Just before you plunge down the drop, straighten out and slip between the rocks. Easy.
Once at extremely low water (8.7') the shallow rocks above the drop twisted me around and I couldn't get straightened out in time to slip through. But I did discover that this is a good place to practice river swimming and raft extraction techniques.
You will rapidly approach a rock in the middle of the stream just ahead of a wall on the right jutting out into the current. It can be run either way but is easiest on the left at mid to high water and on the right at low water. Then you will encounter another, bigger rock, blocking the river and forcing it hard right over Sheet Metal Drop. Turn your rear end to the right and start pulling back just before you hit the rock, then quickly swing your bow downstream and power forward over the drop. The river jogs left and there is the small Hole-in-the-Wall Drop just below. Easy to run. Just avoid the shallow rocks. What? You can't see them? I didn't either. Stay left.
There is a short break in the action before Screaming Right Hand Turn. Some passengers do tend to get overly excited here. At low water you have to stay right as you approach this drop because of a hidden rock in the middle of the stream, but at higher levels (10') you can hang a bit left. Just get ready to pull back to stay off the left wall as it approaches directly ahead.
That's the end of the first canyon. It's about a mile more to the take-out on the left. Total time about forty minutes to an hour, depending on the water level. Or if you are in a kayak, it will take you twice as long with all the hole playing. The only thing slower than a river kayak is two river kayaks. They each have to stop and watch the other guy play before they move on. But don't take all day, the good stuff starts just below.
Canyon Creek meets with East Fork just below the first canyon and adds at least fifty percent more water to the flow. This, combined with the sudden nature of the class IV+, second canyon creates markedly more difficult rapids than you encountered in the class IV, first canyon. It may not seem that half a class rating would be much increase in difficulty, but you may be surprised. About halfway between the first two canyons there is a river level gauge stuck to a rock wall on the left. It will tell you how high the water level is, but from my experience it shows about an inch more water than the official gauge. From the first take-out (second put-in?) it is about thirty to forty-five minutes to the start of the second canyon, which is introduced by Boston Bar. You can recognize this area by the 70-foot high bank of gravel on the left just before the river sweeps to the left and starts dropping rapidly. Just around that corner there is a small eddy on the left that you can pull into as you screw up your courage for the first two drops. There is a trail heading up from here to an unofficial camping area. From this eddy you can just see the entrance to the canyon but you can get a much better view of drops one & two by walking down from an eddy on the right about 30 yards above the first drop. You can also scout this from river left by hiking down from Boston Bar, but the view is better from river right.
As you pull back into the river it picks up speed as it loses elevation rapidly. Then plunges over a river wide ledge drop called Pearly Gates. I often run this to the right of center at low water but on the left there is a safer tongue, especially for high water. Just make sure you are powering forward fast and your boat is running straight ahead. My cataraft completely submerges in here if I run to the right at higher flows. I have no idea what will happen to you, but I would like to watch. Quickly now. Get back in your seat. You don't have any control when you're laying down there, and...
The Nozzle comes quick and with only a very short break that I use to move river right, although I have seen others stay to the left for the entrance. This section is also called C Drop. As Sixmile drops go it's pretty straight forward for a raft but it is enlivened by large holes and the narrowing chute it runs through. It is much more difficult in a kayak because of the side waves and conflicting currents. From whatever side you enter this, you will probably be ejected toward the left wall as you exit, so be prepared to hit the brakes and move right. several of my passengers have been overcome by a sudden urge to swim this section. I've even done it myself. While I would never recommend this, there is a nice eddy on the left at the bottom to haul people back aboard, and it does provide a convenient place to demonstrate the necessity of hanging on when riding atop a cataraft.
You can access this eddy via a trail from mile 3.3 on the Hope Road. You can find the trail-head at the first gravel pull-out past the large paved pull-out for Boston Bar. It's an easy walk to the creek and the scenery is awesome.
I have successfully swum everything in the second canyon except the next part for which I definitely want to keep my boat underneath me. This is called The Anvil for a good reason. From the above-mentioned pool, you can get out and scout this section on river left. Not a bad idea. You can see the entrance while sitting in this eddy, but not the main drop, and when the river rises it gets real pushy in here, so it's best to look first. The river has a couple of minor drops to limber you up and then as the river turns sharply left a large rock in the middle of the river forces you to enter the gorge on river left.
At low water a left entry is easy, it's the only place the water runs, but at mid-high flows you have to work a little. Just out of sight from the above-mentioned eddy, there is a small drop and a sharp left turn as you plunge into a narrow canyon. If you had trouble staying off the walls in the upper canyon, you'll be playing pinball in here. It's about the same width, but more maneuvering is required, in more convoluted water.
Stay to river left as you approach this and then try the same trick as in the first canyon, swing your boat partly sideways with your rear end to the right. Just as you get past the large rock on the right, back ferry to the right into the small reversal it creates below it. Without a lot of deft maneuvering on your part the raft will want to slam into the wall on the left, roll on it's back, and then jettison you across for a quick pin on the right. Match over! Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to do a back ferry to the right just before the roll and then quickly reverse directions and back ferry to the left to avoid the pin. With this method, if you hit the wall on the left it will be with your bow and you can just let the raft spin around the left wall. The danger is going too far to the right and getting your boat sideways on the right wall. If this happens, jump to the rock side quickly and try to work your way around the cliff.
As an alternate plan, and one that works best at low flows and with a paddle power craft instead of an oar boat, enter with your rear end to the left. This will allow you to easily keep your boat left for the entry and to maintain directional control. Just as you slide by the rock on the right, push forward hard to get into the reversal below the rock. you have to do this really fast to avoid the wall on the left (the anvil part). Use your paddle assistants. You did haul them back aboard, didn't you? A good paddle crew is more useful than oars in here. Don't let them stop paddling, and reverse directions as soon as you get past the left wall. Also warn the paddlers they may have to jump to the rock side, which could be on their left or right.
At higher levels (10.4' or more) the rock in the middle is covered sufficiently to run directly over the top of. Just pull into the eddy on the right just at the turn, then power over the rock or just to the right of it. This rock can create an absolutely huge wave, but this is easier than trying to stay off the wall on the left. At low to mid-levels the chances of climbing a wall and dumping everyone are high, although I've not personally done it yet. There are no big drops in here and kayaks have an easy time in this section since they fit the tighter dimensions of the gorge. Fortunately this is a short section, and then there's a large eddy on the left.
Right below the eddy is a right turn and the big river wide Beaver Drop (or Beaver Tail, as it will slap you real good if you're not paying attention). At high water it is advisable to scout this drop to determine exactly where you want your boat and which direction it needs to be pointed to hit the side curling waves that develop at the bottom. I think it's easiest to run starting center-right where there is a tongue of water leading to the froth at the bottom. As you go over the edge, point the bow of your boat 30 degrees to river left to more directly face the wave at the bottom. If you point your bow to the right at high flows you will swim, guaranteed. Whatever you do, maintain forward speed here, as you did on Pearly Gates. You did do this didn't you? Well, I hope you read the part about the high float PFD'S. Any flipping here will be followed by a long slow turn in the very large eddy on river right about 50 yards downstream. This is a great way to enliven the trip if you plan on getting out before canyon three.
So much for canyon two. Short and sweet. Unless you hammered The Anvil, then it's a long, bitter swim to the bottom. Recent events have proven, this can be detrimental to your health. The take-out is about a half-mile below. Just after a turn to the right, you will see a rock wall on the left with a wave train up close to it, then a very large eddy on the left. As you pull into this you will see a well-worn trail on the upstream end of the eddy, heading up the hill to the short road off the highway at mile 4.4.
From this trail you can walk a few feet to the top of a small cliff just above the take-out eddy. This is a great place to practice low cliff diving and river swimming. The water is deep and the currents lead you right into the eddy. You don’t even have to work to get to the bank.
A few years ago there was a boat skid/ramp to assist in taking rafts out here. You needed about 125' of rope tied between your boat at the bottom and a vehicle at the top. You threaded your rope through a pulley or carabiner tied to a tree at the top and then aligned your raft for a direct pull up the ramp. Pulling up here was easier than it looks to be but the ramp was built with nails that have come loose. I’ll make my request now for it to be rebuilt with screws and better planking. I liked it although it would be better if it was a little wider for catarafts.
If you had any trouble in the second canyon, go back and practice in it. You will not be able to get out once you begin the third canyon, which starts about a mile below the second. If the water is very high, this is probably not a safe section to raft. The commercial rafters have a cutoff of just over 11 feet for this section. I usually quit before then. High levels stimulates the production of adrenaline, but it's hard to breathe the stuff.
The first major drop, Staircase, is recognizable by a very large rock in the middle of the river (usually with a log on top) that forces most of the current to the right. (This section sometimes formerly went by the name Big Rock Drop) At low flows there is only a little water going down the left side, although at high water (10.3') this side is actually runnable. I did this backward once. Not a pretty picture. There is a small eddy on the left just preceding it, where you can take out and scout this section. Do it!
The more traditional entry is just to the right of the big rock. There are two meaningful steps here. The first one is in a narrow chute just to the right of the big rock, where you'll have to ship your left oar to get by. Do not hug the left side too closely however as you round the big rock because, just out of sight, it has a sharp edge protruding a few feet out from it. The best move is to get as close to the right side of this narrow channel as possible. This will set you up well for the currents below. Above the 10' level the far right side may also be runnable in small kayaks.
The second step is perhaps the most violent descent on the creek, flushing into a really scary piece of foam at the bottom. Rafts should run this left of center, while still charging the rocks on the left side. Hit the bottom with your bow pointed left for the same reason as at Beaver Drop; to more directly hit the side curling wave at the bottom. Don't line your boat up with the direction of the current, point it 90 degrees to the wave. The right side of this hole eats boats, and the currents at the top and the bottom of the drop both tend to push your bow to the right so work to keep it left. In big drops like this you often need speed, so start powering forward as soon as you clear the narrow chute above, and don't let your paddle assistants stop stroking until their faces are in the foam, and then get them moving again to pull you out of this stuff, ASAP. This is a fairly narrow drop and you will have to ship your left oar again if you are on the left side of the creek, where you are supposed to be. Try to swing the blade forward so it will be in a position to power you out of this mess.
At lower water levels it is strongly advisable to have someone from the second boat walk down to the bottom of this drop and stand there with a throw bag, just in case. After the first boat makes it through he can get back into his boat and run the drop while the first boat waits with another throw bag in an eddy on the left just below the big drop. At higher flows this is a really scary drop but is actually quite easy to do and there is no way to get stuck in here.
At low flows (about 9.7' or less) the narrow chute at the top, just to the right of the big rock, becomes too narrow for some larger rafts to fit through, forcing you to portage on the left side of the big rock. This is difficult but doable. You can put back in just below the big rock, which is just above the big drop at the bottom. From here launch out and fight to keep the bow downstream as you ferry close to the middle of the river. Then quickly start pushing downstream while aiming river left. At low river flows the currents at the top and bottom of this drop will push the bow of your boat to the right really hard, so make sure you are charging sharply towards the left side. The lower water level makes the drop smaller, but the hole at the bottom has a lot more keeping power. Kayakers have greater worry about getting trapped in this reversal. Rafts, being larger, aren't quite as susceptible to this, but I have seen them get stuck here at low flows, so run it quickly.
If you are traveling without a second boat, you should not run this section, especially at lower than normal flows. It is not difficult to line your boat through the big drop and jump on below. This is preferable to death.
The first time I ran Staircase, I was not charging the left and got jerked to the right as I hit the bottom. I was knocked out of my seat, and landed on the left pontoon. This was a fortunate position as my weight kept the boat from rolling in the reversal that sucked us back in. I have it on video. Another time, I was paddle assist in the front, while trying to shout directions to a newbie on the big sticks behind me. We went over the edge too far to the right and the boat headed for the bottom of the hole. I don't know how far I went down, but I felt my ears were being squeezed as I floated away. Everyone else was flushed off the boat while only the newbie, oarsman stayed in his seat. The guy standing with the throw bag snapped a picture with the oarsman's head floating in water. No sign of anyone else or even the raft he was sitting on. You need to respect this section.
I did swim this section once as well. But I really don't recommend it. I was in an inflatable kayak at very low water (8.8') and was planning on running just the top drop through the narrow slot. I wasn’t paying attention as I was pushed up against the big rock on the left and flipped before I even got there. I swam out just above the big drop at the bottom. But then I reached for my kayak as it was going by and it pulled me back in. Boy was that stupid! As this was extremely low water the hole at the bottom was recirculating violently. The guys on the bank said my hand came up twice. I do remember bumping the kayak once as well. I was finally spit out after what seemed like an eternity without air. Probably only about 20 seconds in reality. I will not play around above this drop again.
Just below Staircase and around the left wall is a sharp left, a small drop, and then a sharp right. Usually fairly easy if you've made it this far. Right about now you need to be looking for Suck Hole. You don’t want to miss it.
There is then another blind turn to the left that isn’t very sharp, and about forty yards below this is Suck Hole. It is often not seen until it is too late, so pay attention. Just above are two other drops. The first one is really just a mid-sized hole on the right side of the river. Then there is a larger, river wide ledge that is steeper on the left side but reaches all the way across. This would probably be named if it were on the upper canyon. Here it’s just spice to slow your descent. But Suck Hole is more than mere spice. It is generally considered to be a class V drop and at higher flows you may not be able to keep your image intact. At low water it is a narrow chute with a moderate drop, that must be hit straight as you charge at it from river right. If you do it right you will wonder what all the fuss is about. Some rafters approach this section backwards with there stern against the right bank and let the small eddy just above it on river right spin them around. This puts them in line for a direct shot at the narrow chute. This maneuver might not be easy on a paddle-powered raft.
However you do this, you must approach this drop from the far right side, right up against the right wall. Just before the Suck Hole drop there is quite a lot of water being directed to the left side of the large rock. This left moving current will pull your boat sharply to the left just before dropping over the edge. Most new people miss this hydrological fact and end up doing a last-ditch effort to align themselves with the chute. They rarely make it, and often go over the edge sideways and get stuck in the reversal, or the left side of their boat climbs the rock as they slide through the chute for a quick flip.
At mid-water levels Suck Hole has a slightly wider chute and a big drop. You must run it with speed keeping toward the right side or it will charge you money. Three hundred bucks the last time I tried it. Right there, I paid the river; oars with clips, pins, and mounts, as well as paddles, seats, and assorted other parts, as a toll for being stupid on the water. Still, this has to be considered cheap when bargaining for your life. I have this on video as well. Great roll footage. It was almost worth it.
If the water is high enough (about 10.4') you should run this on the extreme right, but only if you won't get hung up on the partially submerged rock to the right of the chute. Somebody, that shall go nameless, did get hung there and that's why I had to swing left and do the aforementioned roll as entertainment for all. Another safe route at high water might be the extreme left, but this would be difficult to get into and if you missed, you would roll for sure. If you choose to run it straight ahead at mid to high water, keep your speed up as you go over this thing, and stay to the right side. This drop sucks more at high water than Staircase does at low water. Catarafts, with their superior hole punching abilities, should be better equipped for this than conventional rafts, but it didn't seem to help me any.
Kayaks have a cheat route on the extreme river right that should be used unless the river is running below 9.5'. Of course, if you think you know what you're doing...
Suck Hole can be accessed for viewing via a steep trail coming down from mile 5.8 on the Hope Road. It's hard to find the starting point in a small gravel pull-out and the trail deteriorates into a scramble down a cliff near the end. There is a rope dangling over the edge to assist in your climb near the bottom, but it's still a hard walk. Also, from this same area you can walk/climb down to Staircase for a look at it if so desired. To find the Staircase trail walk back up the road (head south) about ¼ mile and look into the woods for the trail. The trail winds up a small hill and then over the edge and down a rope to the bottom.
Just below Suck Hole are several large steps that go by the name of Zig-Zag. On the right, at mid to high water, is probably the biggest, nastiest hole on the river. Enter on the left and move right and then repeat the maneuver to avoid the worst of it. You should be able to enjoy the view of what might have been.
Shortly thereafter you will encounter Merry-Go-Round. Recognizable at lower levels by the large, wide, rock face glaring at you from the middle-left of the river. At water levels over 10.2' the top of the rock starts to disappear. Approach this head-on from a little left of center of the stream. Turn left, and follow the main flow of the water. Ship your oars and have your paddlers hang on, 'cause there is nothing you can do now, the current owns your boat. It'll swing you over the left bank and then back to the right and into the bottom of this blind drop, just behind the flat rock. This is a hoot for unsuspecting passengers. At high flows with a raft you can run Merry-Go-Round straight over the top to the right of the flat rock, but it's not as much fun. Kayakers should not try this direct approach for fear of pinning on an undercut rock. Merry-Go-Round is one of the few major drops here that is actually more fun at low flows than at high. This was where I scraped off my oar mounts after flipping in Suck Hole. Awesome power.
At very low flows (9' or less) you might do better by portaging Merry-Go-Round. I hit the left wall once and broke my raft frame and proceeded to drive the broken pipe through my raft tube. It was the first time I had ever put a hole in my cataraft. Went flat fast too.
The next major drop is Jaws, named for the sharp teeth like rocks poking up all over the descent at low water levels. You will be able to see this drop coming as the horizon line approaches. On river right there are two nice eddies to pull into to scout this. You need to do this if you are new to Sixmile. Above about 9.8' most of the rocks disappear and you can run several different lines through it. At low flows you must pick a route through this by studying the rocks and currents. I have seen other rafts enter from both river right and from the center and have successful runs here, but at low flows, I have to start left of center and then do a back ferry to river right, just below a big molar, and then drop down and back ferry towards the left until clear of the large bicuspid in the center. I hope you don't get chewed. Ron Clauson has a picture that shows two rafts wrapped around the aforementioned bicuspid at the same time, so be careful.
The second part of this drop is pretty straight forward. Just run down the middle. At low water there are some rocks at the bottom but they're slippery when wet.
Shortly thereafter is Junk Yard Dog, which kind of sneaks up you at the end of a nice calm spot. This is an easy one for rafts. Enter on the right and stay there. At low water levels this has a lot of exposed rocks, and you'll have to ship your oars, but it's the only way down. At mid to high levels there is an easier route just left of the right chute and the far left is also runnable with some deft maneuvering. At extremely low water, you just poke your boat in at the top right and ride it like a slot car, as you'll have no control. This last drop is so simple that it hardly seems worth mentioning after running the others, but if you don't do it correctly, you'll look very silly.
Just below this there is a small ledge drop on the left that can be fun for rafts to play in at mid to high water. Go over it slowly, then pull into the eddy on river left. Load everybody into the bow and charge back up into the drop. If everything goes well the cascading water will sink the front end, bury the passengers and up-end the whole boat. If you don't flip you will do a quick surf across the river. Unlike most other spots, this is a good place to swim.
That's the end. The pull-out is on the left a couple of hundred yards down, at the end of a long pool. It's easy to spot, and hopefully, your car will be parked here. If you miss it, Cook Inlet is the next stop.
Jim Strutz is an experienced whitewater rafter and local Alaskan who has floated dozens of rivers in Alaska. In addition to his river skills, he is a fine riverbank chef who has prepared many meals for groups large and small.