October 14, 2011

Video: Susitna River First Descent (aka, Kayaking Masters of the Universe)


This is the most incredible video, taken in the 1970's, of the first descent of the Susitna River in Alaska.  I am totally awed by the massive water these guys go through in old school boats and gear of that time - no Gore-Tex, no foam core paddles, no big-water hull shapes.  This video has no sound, it's just plain awesome on its own.  (Check out the sequence at 3:38 - amazing.)

According to the YouTube comments on the poster's channel and also a Canoe and Kayak article, the paddlers included Walt Blackadar, Darwon Stoneman, and Mike Huges, and the film was made by Barney Griffith.

Apparently this run was in part a response to a proposed dam project on the Susitna, which was abandoned in the 1980's.  Ironically, in checking around for this post I saw that there's now a new proposal for a Susitnu dam, which the Coalition for Susitna Dam Alternatives says has the potential to be "destructive on a massive scale" to salmon runs and caribou habitat - no big surprise.  But Governor Parnell appears to be gung-ho, and according to the papers plans are moving forward fast.  This would be the 8th tallest dam on earth, but according to that article, would generate only 280 to 300 megawatts of electricity per year.

I also saw that there's a biography of Walt Blackadar's life called "Never Turn Back" which is supposed to be really good, I'm going to check it out.

Update: Since then I've read it, and it is for sure worth a read. Amazingly, it appears he struggled with his roll most of his life. Imagine running the kind of water he did in this video if you knew you didn't have a reliable roll - talk about courage!


Alaska, Barney Griffith, Darwon Stoneman, Mike Huges, Susitna River, Walt Blackadar

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  • The proposed 700′ tall dam would be the 30th tallest on earth. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_tallest_dams_in_the_world)

    There are no known salmon spawning areas up-stream of Devil’s canyon.
    The salmon can’t make it through the rapids shown in the video.
    The proposed dam is upstream of the canyon.

    You have power and energy confused. (It’s similar to confusing miles and miles-per-hour)
    The proposed dam is rated at 600MW (note units of power: megawatts)
    It will generate 2600 GWh power year (note units of energy: gigawatt-hours).

    The energy from the dam would avoid burning large quantities of oil, natural gas and perhaps some coal. It also greatly reduce carbon emissions into the environment.

    An accurate description of the project can be found at: http://www.susitna-watanahydro.org/Docs/SusitnaWatanaLicensingPlanFINAL%2008_26_11.pdf

  • Steve, thanks for your comment, I saw that you made the same points on 10/3/11 on an American Rivers page – http://www.americanrivers.org/newsroom/blog/akober-20111003-massive-dam-threatens-wild.html – in a response to one of their articles. They updated that article on 10/6/11 with responses to the points that you had made, for example:

    In regards to the height, they respond that “According to the Alaska Energy Authority, one of the design options currently being considered for the dam on the Susitna would allow it to be “expandable” to 885 feet in height, or 269.7 meters (see p. 10 of PDF).”

    In regards to salmon spawning, they respond that “at least two species of salmon, king and sockeye, are known to spawn far above Devil’s Canyon, a tribute to the marvel of the wild salmon. State fisheries biologists, in their off-time, anecdotally report sightings of hundreds of sockeye in the Susitna drainage waters above Devil’s Canyon.”

    And also: “The dam will not be on a tributary, but on the Susitna River itself. And a dam’s impacts on fisheries are not limited to the blocking of spawning grounds. According to studies done by the State of Alaska, the natural mineral toxicity of the Susitna River is sufficiently high to be at a threshold for salmon viability. Blasting apart the rock from which those elemental magnesium, aluminum, iron, and other salmon toxins come could impact salmon runs all the way to the mouth of the river.” And there is more regarding water temperature ramifications.

    In regards to the amount of energy that will be produced, they respond that ” “installed capacity” is a very misleading number, and it isn’t the same thing as actual generation. Instead it’s the maximum generation that’s possible when the dam is running full throttle, a bit like 120mph on my car’s speedometer…. According to The Alaska Energy Authority, the dam’s average annual output would be 2,600 GW hours, or 296.8 average MW, a little less than half of its installed capacity. By way of comparison, the Grand Coulee Dam’s average annual output [PDF] is 22,600 GW hours, or 2,580 average MW.”

    I didn’t see any posts from you on that page after they responded to your comments, if there are good responses to the points that they made I think they would be worth adding to that discussion.

  • I’m responding to Steve’s second comment, quoted below, which my blog anti-spam program didn’t allow him to post. Here’s what he said:


    Indeed, On October 10 I responded to the American Rivers rebuttal that you quote.They did not post all of my comments, so I will repeat the missing ones here. However, your article did not address the wind projects issue I have with the americanrivers.org article.: “While the reference you site indeed examines the option of a 885′ dam. There are other, more relevant and more recent documents which describes the dam as a 700′ non-expandable dam.1) Governor Sean Parnells press release: http://gov.alaska.gov/parnell/press-room/full-press-release.html?pr=58532) The official web site: http://susitna-watanahydro.org/Home/About3)The Decision Document: http://www.susitna-watanahydro.org/Docs/AEA%202010_PrelimDecDoc.pdf4) FERC PROJECT NO. 14241: http://www.susitna-watanahydro.org/Docs/SusitnaWatanaLicensingPlanFINAL%2008_26_11.pdf” “Mr. Leo claims the two wind projects “have the capacity for a quarter of the Susitna Dam’s output”.He is wrong.The two wind projects are the Fire Island and Eva Creek.They plan to produce “48,500 megawatt-hours” and “76,686,000 kilowatt-hours” per year.Together 125,186 megawatt-hours or 125GW hours, per year.The Sustitna Dam 2,600 GW hours (see your article above) 2,600/125 = 20.8 Susitna produces over twenty times the energy of the two wind farms combined. Wind also has a energy storage problem that a dam would solve. Eva Creek ref: http://www.gvea.com/energy/evacreekFire Island ref: http://www.chugachelectric.com/news/pr2011-06-16.html


    This is my response:

    Steve, I appreciate your comments, and it would take hours of research for me to determine exactly who, between you and groups like American Rivers, have the facts most correct. I’m not going to do it primarily because in the end I don’t think the relative merits of wind energy should have much say in the final determination of the Susitna dam project.

    This may sound naive, but I truly don’t believe that economic factors need to have the final say in all decisions. Some things, whether they be moral principles or actual tangible features like a free-flowing river and all of the associated wildlife that would be severely impacted by a dam that (I strongly suspect) is probably not drastically rationalizable even by economic standards, need to be preserved regardless of economic benefits or drawbacks.

    When I hear people use the money argument when they propose sacrificing something that I think stands on its own as deserving to be protected, I’m always struck by the fact that based on that argument it makes just as much sense to push for legalization of child labor – not to mention other things that would generate even more money. There is a line in the sand at which point you have to ask yourself, does the money argument always hold true, or at some point do we stop and say “no amount of money is worth this” – and then, if we do say that, it’s just a question of what we think is worth protecting.

    You appear to believe that the dam would not greatly impact the environment, whereas all of my 40-plus years of experience walking around Planet Earth tell me otherwise. I also know that people will always find a “good economic reason” for doings things like damming a river, and the world’s population is growing whereas we have pretty much all the rivers and land we’re going to get. That math is depressing, but not hard to figure out. If we continue with the “let’s do this based on economic factors” as a primary decision-maker this world is hardly going to be worth living in in 100 years, in my opinion.

    I realize that may sound idealistic, but history has also shown that when people are put to the test and not given the easy way out they tend to come up with ingenious solutions to problems. The “no-brainer” solution to this issue is supposedly the dam, whereas I have a hard time believing that nobody on the planet could come up with something more efficient and less destructive. Unfortunately that question will probably not be put to the test.

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