A man named Steve Mahay trekked up to Alaska many years ago. In those days homesteading land was still a viable option for an escape from the typical. Back in the 70s Steve realized that that was the way to go. Like many of the Alaskans we encountered in the north, Steve is a true legend with his jet boat operation in Talkeetna. Back when he started the company he was armed with only a 16 foot, 20 hp boat living in a hand built cabin in the wilderness. As he continued to explore the rivers and their rapids, it became clear he needed some upgrades.
As time went on, he took one of his boats over 100 miles upriver from Talkeetna to a violent stretch of rapids in Devil’s Canyon. All alone, he courageously navigated up this class 5 section of whitewater, just for the pure pleasure of it. Later he took family and friends and eventually started a company to take others to this special place. As Mahay’s operation grew over the years, the fleet of boats could hold as many as 65 people per run, custom designed to give everyone the same experience he pioneered decades ago. We took the entire crew out on the Devil’s canyon adventure, filming the whole way. Since we were filming, and accompanied by a Travel Channel crew filming the same story, Steve and his son Israel, personally piloted our two boats up the river. One was their top of the line turbocharged 1000 horsepower flagship boat, and the other was the original small boat that Steve used when he first pioneered the rapids.
They granted me the frightening privilege of riding on both. The first run we filmed inside the big boat. For the second run, I jumped out of the big boat to the smaller one in an attempt to ram the smaller aluminum boat into the side of a cliff with class five rapids raging at the base, so that myself and the Travel Channel cameraman could hurl ourselves out, scramble up the cliffs and get some shots from the shore. I would like to sound like a tough adventurer, but the fearful look on Steve Mahay’s face did not exactly inspire confidence, and his quick instruction of, “We will only have a second or two for you to jump onto the rocks or it will get extremely dangerous.”
Great, the big boat was violent and intense enough. Then to make matters worse, before boarding the little guy, I was informed that Steve had never taken the small boat this far up river with this many people and this much weight. Perfect, let’s go pioneer some new boating techniques on this nice cold, wet and rainy day deep in the wilderness of Alaska far from any resemblance of civilization. Upon boarding the small boat, we braced ourselves and our equipment while Steve Mahay stood behind the helm. He jammed the throttle full ahead and we were off…sort of. Without the 1000 HP turbocharged engines and so much weight, a bit of a struggle ensued to get the little guy up to the big rapids. Each rapid that we hit sounded like it would break the hull. The aluminum boat creaked and cracked all the way up to the cliffs. “Hold on!” yelled Steve. What seemed like a full speed approach had us heading straight for the cliffs. Bang! The boat hit the wall and it was time.
We jumped out of the boat, Steve’s wife was passing equipment too us while warning of the slippery rocks that dropped off quite abruptly to the raging river below. Filled with freezing glacial runoff, the churning rapids were the least of our worries. Thirty seconds to a minute of submersion and freezing to death would be the likely cause of death before drowning would get us. As we were still scrambling on the rocks, off in the distance Israel had already taken off in the big boat. Now, maybe thirty seconds and we would miss the shot. As we climbed up the rocks I was using my hands to turn on the camera and get it set for the shot instead of holding on to the rocks, not exactly up to OSHA standards. We managed to get to the right spot and capture the shot only moments later to hear Steve yelling from the boat ramming the rocks below, “We have to go, I cannot hold the boat here for much longer!”
The only thought that ran through my head as we raced back downriver to catch up with the other boat was, “That man up there, he is a living legend, and I am riding on his boat! The very boat that started this whole idea in the first place…cool.” It is hard to believe sometimes, the people we have met. It is truly hard to believe how one gathers the courage to challenge that river, hundreds of miles from anywhere, by themselves in a little boat . This day, in the same legendary boat, I ran the rapids, and had my own adventure with a legend.
The rest of the day consisted of a delicious lunch, followed by a walk in the beautiful wilderness to a reconstructed trappers cabin and Native Alaskan village replica. Our guides explained what life was life in the early Alaskan days, which gave everyone’s heart a chance to stop racing from the excitement of the rapids above. Yet another day in the wild of Alaska, with another wild Alaskan family. The excitement up north never seems to end, and it is fueled by the people who took that step to leave the normal and start new in Alaska.
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