Israel Mahay reads Alaska’s glacial rivers like other folks read books. He regularly powers a 19-ton jet boat through 16 inches of water, exploring remote gorges and Class V rapids. That takes nerve, and a rare skill for observing subtle shifts in ever-changing wild rivers.
Israel has been on the water since at least age three. His dad brought home a new boat for the family business and Israel was convinced it was his birthday present. Now he owns the whole company.
Any day out on the river is a gift for Israel, one full of promise and surprises.
Q. What makes Alaska special for you?
I feel extraordinarily connected to Alaska. Driving up the river is my happy place. That’s my element. I can feel it in my heart. It brings a very deep emotion out of me.
Q. What are your favorite places and/or experiences in Alaska? What do you remember most about them? What have you learned from them?
My favorite place is Devil’s Canyon Gorge. It’s an incredibly powerful, raw, untamed spot. It feels like you shouldn’t even be able to go there, but you can. It gets me every single time.
Another place would be the glaciers up in the Sheldon Amphitheatre. When you’re there, it’s almost spiritual. It just feels mind-blowing.
Q. Tell us a favorite story from an Alaska trip.
I was going up the Chulitna Gorge with about 45 people in the boat. On the way, everyone helps look for wildlife along the shoreline, like moose or bear.
We were in a section with steep cliffs on either side, when someone yelled, “Wolf!”
It would be pretty rare to see a wolf, especially along the cliffs. I came off the throttle and backed up. There he was, about 10 or 15 feet up, stuck on a little ledge.
But he had a collar.
It wasn’t a wolf. It was a dog, and he was in trouble. I could tell he was lost and needed our help. I saw it as a team effort, so got on the mic and asked the passengers for ideas on what we should do.
As soon as the dog saw we were human, his tail started wagging wildly. We offered him snacks and he jumped down into the boat and right into someone’s lap.
We all felt like heroes when we saw on his tag that he was deaf. His owner was overjoyed. He’d gone missing two weeks earlier about five miles from that spot.
I can’t express how awesome that experience was, with the entire boat working together. It was a really special moment.
Q. How does the Alaskan wilderness make you feel?
I love all wilderness. But in Alaska, it’s so vast and wild and undeveloped. It’s really one of the last places on the planet like this. I often ask passengers how many have been 30 miles from the closest road system. Very few have.
The river we run has never been dammed. The area has never been logged or mined. It’s like it was 500 years ago, when the Dena’ina came down in their birch bark canoes.
It’s not just the wild, but the emptiness. That’s what’s amazing about our state. When you get out there sometimes, you wonder, “How many people have actually ever walked back here?” It’s an extraordinary feeling.
Q. What inspired you to go into the Alaska tourism industry? What feeling or memory or change would you like your visitors to leave with?
My mom and dad moved up here in the 70s in a VW bug. They lived in a cabin off the road system seven miles from Talkeetna. Dad bought a 17-foot jon boat to make it easier to bring in supplies, and then realized he could make a business out of taking people up and down the river. Whenever anyone needed a ride, the old 76 gas station would radio phone my dad up in the cabin and he’d come to town with his boat.
That’s how I grew up in the business. I cleaned boats, and worked in the office and the maintenance shop. Then I got my captain’s license. This is embarrassing, but when I was young, I was convinced my full name was Israel Mahay’s Riverboat Service.
I feel so blessed that I get to do something I love to do for work. When I get on the boat in the morning, I know we are going to rock it. I think, “Every trip is the best trip ever.” You never know what you are going to see or learn.
I want to inspire our guests and give them a connection to Alaska. Through stories about our lifestyle and actually seeing the mountains and rivers, they can understand nature, the people and culture. They can understand what it’s like to live here and why we love it.
Q. What’s it like running a powerful jet boat on an Alaska river?
When I was really young, I would get nervous in certain technical spots on the river. Now I get this heightened level of concentration – focused to an insane level. I feel totally calm, but aware of everything. My heart rate is super low.
These large glacially-fed rivers are swift and shallow. It requires a very unique skillset. You can teach anyone steering and throttle. But you have to read this water. And it’s dirty water. You have to tell how deep it is by looking at the top of the water, and there aren’t many rivers like that in the world.
You have to learn the dynamics of the river, kind of like reading a book or learning a language. Some things don’t always hold true. Usually a cut bank is deeper water. But not always. Usually little riffles mean shallow water, but sometimes tiny ripples are the deepest water. It takes years to learn the differences.
After doing something for so long, you get to a point where you feel like you’ve mastered your craft. But I never want to feel that. I don’t want to get complacent.
Q. Alaska.org’s mission is to show visitors a more authentic Alaska experience. What are those qualities? How does it change an Alaska vacation?
The perception of authenticity really is different for all of us. For some, even just flying into Anchorage looking at the Chugach mountains, or seeing a moose walking down the street is the real deal. Others want to get dropped off in the bush and pack-raft down a 100-mile river.
I do think you’ll understand Alaska better when you spend time with Alaskans. Hanging out in small towns helps you get to know the culture of the people. That holds true wherever you travel, but living here is different, and it’s a little harder.
Alaska attracts people that have an adventurous spirit, and we share that bond whether you live in Anchorage, Talkeetna, Homer or Bethel. I love the culture of the people here. We go get our salmon, we get our moose, we can our salmon. When it’s pouring down rain, we put on our rain jackets and go for a walk.
That’s the genuine Alaska.
Q. What are 3 words that sum up what Alaska means to you?
Wild. Free. Untamed.