Richard Blakeslee Sr., 06-20-04

Feel like a float?
Inexpensive, portable catarafts open up much of the Kenai

Anchorage Daily News

(Published: July 4, 2004)

JIM'S LANDING -- On the rolling wave trains of the Kenai River, Roger Elkins bobbed along happy as a man in an inflatable rocking chair.

Feet up on the foot pegs of his 8-foot cataraft, rump nestled in a comfortable sling seat, he only occasionally pulled on an oar to keep the one-man craft floating straight downstream.

On a sunny, Hawaii-hot day in June, the fishing had proven poor, said the recent immigrant from Stowe, Vt. But the float was great.

Welcome to the rapidly growing and evolving world of one-person cata- rafts, where white-water rafting meets float-tube fishing. These muscle-powered, personal watercraft offer access to a variety of Alaska recreational opportunities at costs that range from a few hundred dollars to more than $1,000.

On the high end are white-water cats intended as one-person craft for turbulent Class IV or V rapids. On the low end are one-person lake boats that are barely an improvement on the float tube, which has itself evolved over the years from a simple inner tube to a pair of interconnected, inflatable pontoons.

The lower-priced catarafts took that development to its logical next step, separating the pontoons and lashing a metal frame between them. The metal frame provides a surface on which to mount a seat that gets the float-tube angler out of numbingly cold water.

Between this style that is little more than a glorified float tube and the serious white-water boat is a wide range of options fueling what has become a minor boom in catarafts. The change is readily visible on the Kenai.

"There's a lot more of both those single- and two-person cats,'' said Rob Barto, a special agent for the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.

"They're so inexpensive to buy,'' said Keith Hawkings of Knik Canoers and Kayakers.

"Everybody's got one of those now,'' said Doug Palmer, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist studying the increasing use of the Kenai.


Well, maybe not everybody. But certainly many serious anglers, plus an increasing number of recreational floaters interested in sightseeing, are using the little cats.

Dozens flock to the Kenai every weekend these days, making the river an ever-more-popular destination for floaters.

Drift boats have long been common on the fish-rich upper river between Kenai and Skilak lakes, and white-water catarafts started appearing there regularly in the 1990s. But the boom in personal cats is new.

Just four or five years ago, a Kenai floater in a cataraft was likely to be asked a barrage of questions by other floaters, including where the boat came from and whether it was safe.

Aire, one of today's top manufactures of white-water catarafts, didn't start making big cats, let alone small cats, until 1989. It spun off a subsidiary, Outcast, to produce one-person catarafts for anglers a few years later.

For years, Outcast pretty much had the market for fishing cats to itself.

No more.

Today more than a half-dozen companies, including Sotar, Water Skeeter, Orvis, The Creek Co., Trout Unlimited, Jack's Plastic Welding and Steelheader, sell one-person catarafts ranging from 5 to 13 feet and rated to carry up to 600 pounds.

Almost any of these cats can be seen on the Kenai, though some experienced paddlers question the safety of the smallest boat on the river's splashy Class II waters.

Jack Mosby, author of an Alaska paddling guide and a rowing expert, said he sees too many overloaded little cats -- either the rower is too heavy or the gear is excessive.

Overloaded cats, like all overloaded boats, become harder to maneuver, making it more difficult to avoid the Kenai's greatest danger, the overhanging trees known as sweepers. Sweepers have led to the deaths of several paddlers on the Kenai in recent years.

Well-known Kenai angler Don Skidmore died in 1997 after being knocked out of his raft by a sweeper, and a 64-year-old Kasilof man, Richard Blakeslee Sr., perished on Father's Day this year after a sweeper knocked him out of his drift boat.

"That's the third (accident) we've had this year,'' Barto said, but the first with a fatality. An angler swept off his feet and under his raft survived an earlier scare, he said, as did a family in an inflatable that ended up wrapped around a bridge footing.

So far, there have been few accidents involving personal catarafts and no fatalities, but Barto and others worry that could change as more inexperienced people venture onto the river.

"It's a big, fast river,'' he said.


Paddlers need to wear personal flotation devices, be aware of the current's speed and row away from dangers before getting close.

Mosby and Hawkings emphasized the former and added that it isn't a bad idea to put on a wetsuit or drysuit, strap on that PFD and jump in for a swim some day to sample the extremes of Alaska rivers.

It's hard to appreciate how cold these waters are and how fast they move until you're actually in the water. When you're in the water riding the current of the Kenai, the riverbanks seem to fly past. And even when wearing a drysuit or wetsuit, the water is cold.

It can be shockingly cold if you're not so dressed, possibly causing an involuntary gasping reflex that can lead to the sudden inhalation of water and drowning. Cold water can also cause an increased heart rate and blood pressure leading to cardiac arrest, or the immediate loss of consciousness.

Cold water immersion has been blamed for the death of a tourist who fell out of a raft in a Class IV rapid on the Kenai Peninsula's Sixmile Creek last week. The big water of Sixmile makes it off limits to all but the most experienced rowers, but the cold-water risk is something it shares with the Kenai, which is dangerous in its own ways.

Along with the ever-present sweepers, the Kenai has a couple of Class II-III rapids between Kenai Lake and Sportsman's Landing and some Class III hydraulics in the Kenai Canyon between Sportsman's Landing and Skilak Lake.

The easiest stretch of river, fortunately, is also that with the most convenient access and some of the best fishing. This is the five or six miles from Sportsman's Landing near the confluence with the Russian River to Jim's Landing near the junction of the Sterling Highway and Skilak Loop Road.

That's where Elkins found himself floating on that hot and sunny day last week when white, fluffy seeds from the riverbank cottonwood trees flew like snow. Even without fish, the float was an experience that made Elkins glad he'd decided to become an Alaskan.

"I sort of moved here,'' he said. "I've got everything I own with me.''


It obviously didn't take him long to discover how accessible the Kenai is to a man in a $300 personal cataraft, either. The low cost and the easy portability (no trailers required) seem to be one of the main selling points, said Billy Hennon at Sportsman's Warehouse in Anchorage.

Compared with $20,000 for a jet boat or $5,000 for a drift boat, he said, even the more expensive personal catarafts would have to be considered cheap.

"If you want to float the Kenai by yourself, it's relatively easy,'' he said. "It does open up a lot of water for fishing.''

The Warehouse has dedicated a sizable chunk of floor space to displaying catarafts. The most popular boats, Hennon said, seem to be "The Sportsman's Warehouse 8,'' a round-tube boat produced by Outcast, and the "Fish Cat Cougar,'' a flat-tubed boat from another subsidiary of Outcast.

On the Cougar, the aluminum frame that provides the base for the seat is lashed between two 8-foot-long, 10-inch-wide inflatable tubes. Unlike most cataraft tubes, which are round, these are wider than they are thick. The advantage of what Fish Cat calls its "quad-tube design" is that a rower sits lower to the water. The disadvantage is also that the rower sits lower to the water.

The lower the raft, the less an angler will be blown around while fishing on windy lakes. Low rafts are also easier to power with swim fins if an angler is trying work the boat along a shoreline while fly casting.

These lakeside advantages, however, can become disadvantages on moving water. A lower seat means more water slopping onto the rower. And in Class IV water, a low seating position can put a rower in danger. Catarafts are harder to maneuver when the rower and part of the frame are in the water instead of floating above it.

Boats that seem to dart about like water spiders under normal circumstances can feel like behemoths when they go awash in a big hole.

The problem is compounded if the cataraft is overloaded. With a rated capacity of 350 pounds, the Cougar might seem difficult to overload, but a big man in heavy clothing with a couple days' worth of gear for an overnight on the Kenai can push the boat to its limit.

Anglers planning multiday trips or expecting to use boats anywhere they might encounter serious Class III or even a Class IV rapid or two, as on Lake Creek or the Talachulitna River in the Susitna Valley, should consider bigger boats.

Outcast, for instance, suggests its 10-footer, the Pac 1000, for bigger water and longer trips. The Pac 1000 is rated for a load of 500 pounds.

A rower will find the boat sluggish and a little scary in Class IV water if pushed near that load, but it's a good boat for multiday trips with 350 to 400 pounds on board.

The downside of the bigger boats is that they cost more, and in general, the more the boat can carry and the more durable its pontoons, the more the boat will weigh.


The 10-foot Pac 1000 is, for instance, more than 25 pounds heavier than the 8-foot Jet Pac from The Creek Company. Creek billed the Jet Pac as a Class II cataraft that folds into a sub-40-pound backpack made from the same parts used for the frame.

It "sports adjustable foot bars, a rigid cargo deck and pinnable oarlocks for easier use of the included 6-foot, two-piece oars,'' according to "The pack has a full harness and waist belt for comfortable carry, sleeve pockets for rod tubs and oars and cinch-down cargo straps for extra gear.''

The light weight and packability would make the boat ideal for Matanuska Valley lakes, and with an expert at the oars it could be taken through the Kenai Canyon at low to moderate flows, then packed out to the Skilak Loop Road via the Hidden Creek Trail.

This would allow a rafter to avoid the eight-mile row across Skilak Lake to the boat landing, a row that is tedious at best and dangerous if the wind is blowing.

But anyone planning to row the Kenai Canyon when the water is high needs something more substantial than a Class II boat. And the same applies for all Class III and bigger streams around the state.

A 12-foot Aire Wildcat, available from Alaska Raft and Kayak in Anchorage, weighs twice as much as Jet Pac, but with a heavy-duty rowing frame and 9-foot oars, it can tackle big water, even when loaded with a week's worth of food and camping gear.

As with so much outdoor recreation in Alaska, what you need really depends on what you plan to do.

Daily News Outdoor editor Craig Medred can be reached at