Steve Mahay asked me to produce a movie and video of his attempted run up Devil’s Canyon on the Big Susitna River. A few kayakers had successfully navigated down the canyon during a low-water time. A rafter tried the canyon, but was thrown out of his boat and floated the river in his life jacket, barely escaping with his life. Other attempts to go down Devil’s Canyon have been frustrated, and some adventurers have paid the ultimate price for their try at the canyon — they were killed.
One brave, but foolish, boat manufacturer tried to take his product up the canyon and was turned back when the canyon’s hydraulics sucked his boat under the water, never to be found. He and his crew were plucked from the river by a passing helicopter and saved from their folly.
Then came Steve Mahay, master riverboat operator. Steve watched the canyon and its surging water, decided he would attempt, and asked Alaska Outdoors to film the results. We agreed on the condition we could record the results, whether fame or failure.
Steve spent the better part of September modifying his craft, overhauling its powerplant, and contemplating his run at Devil’s Canyon. Although September had been a rainy month, a few days before Steve’s window of opportunity for the attempt weather cleared, and water levels in the Big Su decreased to such a level that Steve felt his boat would have a chance of making the run.
On the day of the attempt, Steve was prepared. He wore a wet suit and crash helmet, hired a helicopter occupied with an experienced rescue worker to fly cover, and filled his boat with flotation material.
Our film crew was also ready for whatever happened. We agreed that our job was to film the event, not assist Steve on his run or participate in a rescue if the attempt turned sour and Steve needed help. We would record the outcome no matter if Steve succeeded or even lost his life in the attempt.
Filming from strategic points along the route, being placed there by helicopter, we shot the scene as Steve was pounded by waves of rushing water into a solid rock wall, puncturing his boat, but not doing enough damage to stop the run. Cameras rolled film as Steve picked his way through class six rapids where his 50-mile-an-hour boat barely moved, his speed almost matched by the descending river cascading over boulders bigger than Steve’s boat. We recorded the run around Hotel Rock, up over Heaven’s Gate, and finally into the calm water above the canyon.
I met Steve at the end of his run, and we shook hands and hugged, grateful that he’d succeeded, and relieved that he’d not been hurt or killed. Barrels of fuel were flown in, and Steve continued up the Susitna to the Denali Highway, where he could get his boat out of the water and return to Talkeetna.
The following spring, Steve’s film was shown at the Great Alaska Sportsman Show, and his video was released for purchase. I suspect that if you visit Steve Mahay’s Riverboat Service in Talkeetna today, you can meet the only man to take a boat up Devil’s Canyon, and he’ll probably sell you a copy of his video. It’s an exciting video, and although I was there, and filmed the climbing of the canyon, and know Steve made it to the top, there are times shown in the video that were so very close, when it could have gone either way, I almost expect a Twilight Zone ending and see Steve and his boat sucked under the Su. But, that’s how close Steve came to meeting his Maker — in Devil’s Canyon on the Big Susitna River at the foot of Denali.