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The one that didn’t get away

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Ryan Judd consoles himself with the thought that it’s a dry cold, as he patiently waits for a bite.

Brad Knowles doesn’t care much for bananas. Not when he’s fishing, at least.

“Did you bring bananas?” he asks from the driver’s seat.

I check with my son Ryan, sitting across from me in the back of Brad’s truck. No, we didn’t bring bananas. We check our packed lunch. No bananas, although the hot chocolate seems to have spilled.

Bananas will jinx fishing every time,” says Brad, who double checks that his assistant guide, Matt, has not brought bananas. Matt, a bass fisherman from Mississauga – where he’s known to some as “The Bassassassin” – knows better than to bring bananas.

We’re on our way to Blackwater Lake, about an hour out of Whistler, east of Pemberton. From mid-November to late-March, give or take, the 6.5-kilometre lake near D’Arcy is ice fishing country.

6.5-kilometre Blackwater Lake, about an hour out of Whistler, east of Pemberton.

At this time of year, Brad’s company, Pemberton Fish Finder, runs ice fishing tours. “It’s for people who want to escape the Whistler bubble and experience the lakes, wildlife, catch some fish and listen to some stories,” says Brad.

Brad has lots of stories. He grew up in Pemberton and is something of a local celebrity, starring in his own fishing show on Whistler Cable for a while. Together with running a fishing store, Pemberton Fish Finder keeps him busy year round.

My only adult fishing story involves a crab trap and a capsized canoe. I had always assumed ice fishing would involve a flight to Prince George or Edmonton.

Brad Knowles, owner-operator of Pemberton Fish Finder.

Blackwater Lake is idyllic. Serrated peaks loom all around us and under blue sky, the ice is blinding. The air temperature is just below freezing, there’s no wind, and the sun is flirting with the clouds. But for a creek in the distance, the only thing I can hear is my heart beating.

“Australians lose their marbles when they see this,” says Brad. “They ask me, ‘You’re sure we can stand on this?’ I’m like, ‘Dude, I’m 300 pounds, you can stand on this.’”

Brad sets about cutting holes in the ice with a gas-powered auger. He and Matt set us up with rods and we bait the hooks with freshwater shrimp, which are native to the lake. Everyone gets an upturned bright orange bucket and a thermal pad to sit on.

And that’s it, we’re ice fishing.

We immediately get bites. Brad and Matt coach us on setting the hook, otherwise known as the hook-set – a quick upward thrust of the rod before reeling in. One by one though, we lose the bites and rue our bad luck.

“Well there’s a reason it’s called fishing and not catching,” says Brad.

After about an hour, Brad carves out new holes and we spread out. Under his guidance, I switch bait from shrimp to trout roe. Ryan and Matt are several hundred yards away but the air is so still, it’s easy to talk without raising our voices.

A lone whisky jack keeps us company, occasionally stealing a shrimp from the bait bucket, and otherwise mocking us.

A lone whisky jack steals bait and taunts us.

Brad’s been fishing in this region for about 35 years, chasing all five salmon species, plus pike minnows, steelhead, cutthroat, bull, brook, lake and rainbow trout. Together with his dad, Ivan, and his brother, Sheridan, Brad has carved out a living here and now employs his wife in the guiding business while raising three kids.

“There’s not a day I don’t wake up and look at the mountains, excited to go to work,” he says. I can see why. Fish or no fish, Blackwater Lake is quite an office. There’s a small forestry campground nearby with a dozen sites and in summer, lily pads and extensive weed beds flourish here. And somewhere beneath our boots and buckets today are rainbow trout ranging from 10 to 25 inches and weighing as much as six pounds.

Just as I’m beginning to think the shrimp bait looks tasty we decide that it’s lunchtime.

Brad carves pairs of holes a few inches apart and sets up a shelter in seconds. We’re not cold but from inside the shelter the water appears even clearer through holes that take on a luminous quality. “Sometimes you can see the fish before you catch them,” says Brad. For now, we watch our bait descend beyond sight and remain ever hopeful.

No bites but the sandwiches help.

As 2 o’clock nears, Brad suggests we concentrate on a shaded corner of the lake. We exit the shelter and set up one last time, trying to ignore the creeping cold. I start to wonder whether one of us is actually carrying a concealed banana. Then I think back to growing up in the UK. As a schoolboy, I used to accompany friends on night-fishing trips in the Kent countryside. In two years of those fishing trips, I never caught anything but a cider hangover. It occurs to me that not only have I never caught a fish, I’ve never actually seen anyone else catch a fish.

Perhaps I’m cursed?

One rainbow trout, about 10 inches long and just in time for dinner!

I decide not to share this thought with Ryan, and instead concentrate on the hole, which I realize is freezing before my very eyes. Then I’m shaken from my thoughts.

“YEAH!” shouts Brad. I turn just in time to see the rod bend for a moment and a plump rainbow trout flop into Brad’s palm. “No way we were going before we got one,” says Brad as we celebrate the catch. It’s closer to the 10-inch end of the scale and a beautiful looking fish.

Hopeful of more to come we continue fishing for another half an hour, but to no avail. “That’s fishing,” says Brad philosophically as he drops us back in Whistler. Ryan and I both warm up while a friend cooks our catch. It’s more than worth the wait: fresh, flavorful and not even a hint of banana.

nevjudd.com

If you go

For more information about guided ice fishing trips with Pemberton Fish Finder, visit pembertonfishfinder.com.

Do not bring bananas.

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The Missing Link: Connecting the Coast to Squamish

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Yellow sections on this Google Earth map indicate about 10 kilometres of work needed to complete a trail connecting Sechelt with Squamish.

Yellow sections on this Google Earth map indicate about 10 kilometres of work needed to complete a trail connecting Sechelt with Squamish.

The map looks straightforward at first. As the crow flies, little more than 50 kilometres separate Sechelt and Squamish. Then you notice contour lines, crammed together like intense low-pressure systems, numerous splashes of white, indicating icy peaks, and deep blue streaks showing alpine lakes and ocean inlets. In between are green valleys that never seem to quite connect. Old logging roads, new hydroelectric projects, powerlines and pipelines present an extra layer of complexity revealed by Google Earth.

A cursory Internet search turns up more than 100 years of failed attempts to build a road system between the Sunshine Coast and “the mainland”.

So when Geoff Breckner tells me he’s about 10 kilometres away from completing a 75-kilometre trail connector, I’m interested.

If successful, the trail would reveal a side of the Sunshine Coast unfamiliar to most residents, including a series of spectacular waterfalls between Pokosha Pass and Clowhom Valley.

If successful, the trail would reveal a side of the Sunshine Coast unfamiliar to most residents, including a series of spectacular waterfalls between Pokosha Pass and Clowhom Valley. All photos courtesy Geoff Breckner

“With 10 capable guys and permission it could be finished in a week or two,” Breckner tells me by phone from Squamish. “But there are channels to go through, rules to be followed … funding.”

Breckner is recovering from major back surgery. When his doctor advised him to exercise he began hiking into the backcountry near his home in Squamish. The 53-year-old estimates he spent 200 hours during the last two summers working on the Squamish end of the trail.

A self-described “mountainbiking nut,” and “bush rat,” Breckner grew up in Deep Cove when the sport was still a novelty. He opened Pemberton’s first bike store, High Line Cycles, in 1994. A trail connecting Squamish with the Sunshine Coast makes a lot of sense, he says.

“I thought this was a great place for a bike trail. I knew there were logging roads up there and I researched as much as I could, checking out the feasibility of a route to Sechelt.”

Geoff Breckner’s tent at the south side of Pokosha Pass, near Mount Jimmy Jimmy.

Geoff Breckner’s tent at the south side of Pokosha Pass, near Mount Jimmy Jimmy.

Visit Breckner’s Facebook site ‘Squamish to Sechelt Trail’ and you’ll see a Google Earth image of the proposed route. From Upper Squamish and the Ashlu River Road, the route first heads north over existing trail through 4,000-foot Pokosha Pass before heading south, then due west following Clowhom Lake to Salmon Inlet, skirting the Tetrahedron Provincial Park, and on towards Sechelt via the Coast Gravity Bike Park.

About 55 kilometres of double track roads, and 20 kilometres of single track trails make up the route, says Breckner. The 10 kilometres still to be cleared comprise three sections of one kilometer, four kilometres and five kilometres.

“Once complete, it would be a long ride – two days for most people, but I hope to have a hut or shelter so people don’t need a tent and can travel light,” says Breckner. “The main problem would be lack of use, rather than overuse. The more use the better, to keep trail maintained and established.”

Breckner has received numerous offers of help from this side of the divide. Doug Feniak of Tillicum Bay is among those pledging assistance.

A self-described mountainbiking nut, Geoff Breckner rarely goes anywhere without his ride.

A self-described mountainbiking nut, Geoff Breckner rarely goes anywhere without his ride.

Feniak grew up riding with Breckner in Deep Cove. “It was a dream of ours when we were young, to be able to ride from Squamish to the Coast,” says Feniak. “We hiked into the Tetrahedron in August, looking for the best way. It’s super steep into Thornhill Creek but it shouldn’t be too bad after that because it’s old roads covered with Alders.”

Trails are in the Feniak family’s blood. Wife Jessica Huntington and son Linden both build trails, the latter professionally. Daughter, Holly, was 2012 downhill mountainbike Junior World Champion.

Doug says he expects to have a group working on this end of the trail in the fall.

“It would certainly be good for tourism here and I could see the B.C. Bike Race using it,” says Feniak.

Long-time local trailbuilder, Richard Culbert, says a trail to Squamish is “common sense”.

Culbert built the trail to the summit of Mt. Elphinstone, opening it on his 70th birthday. Now at 75, he’s busy clearing a trail up 4,700-foot Polytope Peak, which connects with Rainy River Road and Port Mellon due south. He believes that a trail from Squamish stands a better chance of completion if it veers south to Port Mellon, rather than to Sechelt.

Salmon Inlet from the top of Gray Creek Forest Service Road, looking north across Thornhill towards Clowhom valley. It's about 60km from here to upper Squamish.

Salmon Inlet from the top of Gray Creek Forest Service Road, looking north across Thornhill towards Clowhom valley. It’s about 60km from here to upper Squamish.

“The trail I’m working on is about a kilometer from a logging road, which appears to connect with this route,” says Culbert pointing at a printed version of Breckner’s route. “It also avoids Thornhill Creek [near Salmon Inlet] where the road is covered in alders.”

Warren Hansen concurs. “That gap after Salmon Inlet is some of the most rugged terrain I’ve ever walked in,” says Hansen, forester/area manager for Chartwell Consultants and an avid trailbuilder. “A lot of that area was logged in the 60s and 70s, so we’re talking about logging roads half a century old – many of which have been heavily deactivated and are covered in alder.

“I admire following an idea, but I worry about the sustainability of it,” adds Hansen. “The skeptical side of me thinks that there won’t be enough people using it. It will need to be on a lot of people’s bucket lists to make it sustainable.”

Hansen identifies with Breckner on one level.

“I believe in unfettered access to crown land. You live in the city, you can’t do this and that, but you have spoon-fed amenities. In a rural environment you don’t have those amenities, but you do have unfettered access to crown land. You can hike it, bike it, pick mushrooms in it, build trails. So you use it as you see fit, knowing that one day, it might be logged.”

Perhaps the person most excited about a possible connection is Bjorn Enga. The Granthams Landing-based filmmaker is the founder of Kranked, an online store for electric-assisted mountainbikes. They may upset purists, but bikes capable of climbing mountains in minutes, as opposed to hours, are catching on, says Enga.

“I’ve been riding on the Coast since 2000, and it’s an amazing coastline,” he says. “Suddenly, I’m thinking how much more I can see up there riding an e-bike. Imagine how phenomenal it would be to offer overnight tours with a fully charged battery for the next day.

“The Sea-to-Sky Corridor could become the e-bike capital of the world.”

Enga is helping Breckner with route planning and believes that trail completion is a matter of when, not if.

“Geoff goes way back to the start of mountainbike culture, before the glamour of the parks,” says Enga. “He’s done the hard part and one way or another, the trail will happen.”

In the meantime, some adventurers will continue to blaze their own trails. It seems as though everyone on the Sunshine Coast knows “a guy” who knows a route to Squamish. But their identity can be as elusive as the route.

More falls in the backcountry between Squamish and the Sunshine Coast.

More falls in the backcountry between Squamish and the Sunshine Coast.

Not so, Todd Lawson and friends, whose epic three-day trek from Lake Lovely Water, Squamish, to Sechelt via Clowhom Lake and Salmon Inlet, was featured in a 2014 issue of Mountain Life magazine. The trio packed inflatable stand-up paddleboards for the trip, which featured untold hours of bushwhacking through endless alder roots and Devil’s Club – an experience Lawson described in the story as “torture”. (He also wrote of the route, “It looked good on a laptop.”)

A different hazard awaited Denis Rogers of Sechelt, and fellow Coasters Mark Guignard and Al Jenkins, who hiked to Squamish in 2004 after being dropped by boat at the head of Narrows Inlet.

“It took us five days,” says Rogers, whose group followed a route from the head of Tzoonie Valley to a 4,800-foot pass, and then down to Falk Creek and a logging road leading to the Ashlu River and Squamish beyond.

“The third day was an interesting one,” recalls Rogers. “I fell in a lake and broke my watch, and Mark, the only one of us who didn’t bring bear spray, had an encounter with a black bear. Mark was about 20 yards ahead of us, picking his way through the boulders, when we shouted to him that a bear was taking an interest in him.

“The bear started down towards him, but then turned back. We suggested that perhaps the bear had been deterred by an offensive smell.”

Some hazards you won’t find on any map.

The Trail Collector

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Creator of sunshine-coast-trails.com Becky Wayte is probably the Sunshine Coast's most avid nature bather.

Creator of sunshine-coast-trails.com Becky Wayte is probably the Sunshine Coast’s most avid nature bather.

You might call Becky Wayte a wanderer. Almost every day for the last 20 years, Becky has hiked or biked a trail somewhere on the Sunshine Coast. It wasn’t until a couple of years ago though, that she became a collector.

Some people collect stamps; others baseball cards. Becky collects trails, maps them with a GPS, and documents them on sunshine-coast-trails.com, a website she created for outdoor enthusiasts. The site lists hundreds of trails, from Langdale to Earl’s Cove, with descriptions, maps, difficulty ratings and useful links. She has her favourites – three of which she describes in her own words in a sidebar to this story.

In 2011, hiking three to four hours a day, almost every day, Becky managed to map almost all of the Sunshine Coast’s trails in six months. She’s been updating her collection ever since. The Coast is home to some prolific trail builders, it seems.

“I actually thought it would take me a couple of years,” she tells me. “But I quickly realized that I’m a little obsessive. When I start something, I need to see it through to the end.”

But the truth is, collecting trails never ends. New trails are always springing up and some remain well-guarded secrets. In a recent interview with pinkbike.com, local mountain-bike phenom, Holly Feniak, describes the Coast’s trails as: “Dreamy. Loamy, mossy, bouncy, incredibly green, and in the secret spots … all that and steep.”

Cliff Gilker Park, Roberts Creek.

Cliff Gilker Park, Roberts Creek.

She might have added ‘never-ending’!

“For heaven’s sake, stop building trails,” Becky laughs, when I ask her about the Coast’s trail builders. “I actually love finding new trails and I admit, there might be the odd one I don’t know about. I’m always trying to keep up!”

For a moment, we think we may have found a new one. It’s an unusually hot day in May and we’re walking through a dusty trail off Field Road in Wilson Creek. We’re accompanied by Cody, a large, lovable dog from the nearby SPCA where Becky volunteers each week as a dog-walker. The path veers past someone’s back yard and into the forest.

“Let’s take a look,” says Becky, in her element. A few minutes later we come to a dead-end. Cody looks at us expectantly and we return the way we came. So what inspired Becky to take on this labour of love?

“I have three dogs and one has issues with other dogs, so I wanted to find new trails to hike where there weren’t so many people,” she says. “There were few websites, but they only featured the most popular hikes, places like Mount Daniel, so I decided I’d do it myself.”

Becky’s well qualified. Not only does she love the outdoors, but she learned to build websites through her work teaching computer courses in the Adult Basic Education Program at Capilano University in Sechelt. With the website established, Ryan Robertson, a Squamish-based app developer, who specializes in creating trail applications for iPhones and Androids, contacted Becky. Becky provided the GPS (Global Positioning System – the satellite navigation application) data and Ryan created the app. Trailmapps: Sunshine Coast costs $10 and is available at the Apple Store and Google Play.

For old-school trail lovers, she’s also created waterproof trail maps that are available in Gibsons at Spin Cycles, and in Sechelt at Source for Sports, the Sechelt Visitors’ Centre, and Off The Edge Adventure Sports.

Outdoors, technology couldn’t be further from Becky’s mind. While she’s always hiked to combat weight gain, she’s also convinced of nature’s therapeutic benefits. The Japanese have a name for it: shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing. Becky cites Japanese research, which points to the many benefits of simply being in nature – lower blood pressure, higher creative aptitude and boosted immune systems.

“I prefer the term ‘nature-bathing’ because I find just being out in nature makes me feel better. I always come home feeling better than when I left.”

Well, almost always.

Becky sheepishly recalls one particular hike that went awry, much to her husband’s despair. “I was hiking up Elphinstone and I’d let people know where I was going and what time I’d return. It took a lot longer than I’d expected though and my phone died.

“I got back around 7:45 p.m. – not the 5 p.m. I’d told my husband. He was pretty mad.”

The experience didn’t sour Becky’s love of Mount Elphinstone. In fact, the Mount Elphinstone Summit Trail ranks in her three favourite hikes and bikes. (See below.)

 

Kinnikinnick Park, West Sechelt.

Kinnikinnick Park, West Sechelt.

Sidebar

My Three Favourite Hikes & Bikes, by Becky Wayte

Mount Elphinstone Summit Trail (hike only)

This is a long, fairly difficult climb, but the view at the very top is worth it. The trail to the top can be accessed from the top of Sprockids or via some feeder trails off B & K logging road in Roberts Creek. If you take your time and enjoy a picnic and rest at the top, this hike will likely take you five or six hours.  Make lots of noise or wear a bell so the bears hear you coming.

Ruby Klein Traverse – Suncoaster Trail (hike or bike)

Beautiful views of Ruby Lake and a hand carved bench greet you at the highest point along the trail.  Easy to make a whole day trip out of this even though the hike itself will probably only take you a couple of hours. You can visit the Iris Griffiths Centre, take a swim in Klein Lake and there is even a feeder trail down to the Ruby Lake restaurant (Trattoria Italiano).

McNeill Lake Circle Route (hike or bike)

This is one of my favourite destinations in the summer months because I always combine a bike ride with a swim. The lake itself is not that well known so often no one else is there, especially on weekdays.  There are several trails that connect to create a loop around the lake, with access to the lake from a couple of spots. I park on Middlepoint Forest Service Road and take Copper Head, Dry Feet, a logging road, Old Pole Road and back to Copper Head. There is a short trail off the logging road just north of Dry Feet that takes you into the lake. This is an excellent place to ride your mountain bike if you have pre-teen kids or you just want a fairly flat ride (we don’t have many flat rides on the Coast). Hiking it probably takes about 1.5 hours and by bike about an hour, unless you stop to enjoy a swim.

For the definitive web guide to the Sunshine Coast’s trails, visit http://www.sunshine-coast-trails.com.

Whistler celebrates readers and writers

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Sunshine Coast filmmaker Nicolas Teichrob appears at the Whistler Readers and Writers Festival, Oct. 12-14.

A comfy bed and a good book sound like the perfect antidote to the chilly onset of fall, but organizers of the Whistler Readers and Writers Festival have something less solitary in mind.

From Oct. 12-14, the resort will showcase the art of storytelling with a celebrated lineup of Canadian and international authors. Panel discussions, workshops, and speaking events make up the festival, which also pairs authors with wine and jazz at a Saturday-night gala to be held at the Chateau Fairmont Whistler. The Squamish Lil’Wat Cultural Centre will host the festival’s opening night reception.

Whistler’s festival events have an intimate feel, say organizers, who add that booklovers can interact and connect with top authors from all over North America.

Festival headliner, Alistair MacLeod.

Headlining is Canadian author, Alistair MacLeod, best known for his critically acclaimed collection of short-stories Island as well as his multiple award-winning novel No Great Mischief. Lawrence Hill, author of the international best-seller and prize winning The Book of Negroes will be there, along with short-story author and journalist Zsuzsi Gartner (Better Living Through Plastic Explosives). Also speaking will be young adult writer Susan Juby (Alice, I Think, The Woefield Poultry Collective); non-fiction and fiction writer Margaret Macpherson (Nellie McClung: Voice for the Voiceless, Body Trade); historical fiction novelist, Jack Whyte (A Dream of Eagles, The Templar Trilogy); fiction and poetry writer Miranda Hill (Sleeping Funny) and celebrated poet John Burnside(Black Cat Bone). Local author and festival director Stella Harvey will be releasing her new book, Nicolai’s Daughters.

In 2001, Harvey founded the Whistler Writers Group, otherwise known as The Vicious Circle.

“Our first festival was 20 people in my living room,” laughs Harvey. “We had a guest author – Andreas Schroeder – and a workshop the following day. We were finished by 4:30!”

Harvey invited the poet, novelist and Roberts Creek resident, Schroeder, back for the festival’s 10th anniversary. Another Sunshine Coast resident, Nicolas Teichrob, will appear at this year’s festival. The filmmaker will be part of a panel discussion on writing and film on Oct. 14.

Festival founder, Stella Harvey.

The Whistler Writers Group now has about 150 members and has seen its annual festival grow to a three-day event, attracting internationally acclaimed writers and about 300 participants last year.

But, says Harvey, the festival has lost none of its intimacy.

“One of the things we hear most in evaluations by guests and authors is that intimacy is a great strength of the festival. The fact that you can share lunch or a coffee with the authors and hear about the books they like, or what their motivations are, is definitely appreciated.”

Saturday night’s “Wine, Books and Jazz” event at the Fairmont Chateau Whistler is a first for the festival, says Harvey, who hopes it will be another way to cultivate that intimacy. “It will be a pub-like setting and a chance to share a drink with authors while listening to good music.”

The New Orleans Ale Stars take the stage with swing-era jazz from 7:30 p.m.

In partnership with the Fairmont Chateau Whistler, the Whistler Readers and Writers Festival is offering “Book and Bed” packages. The full “Book and Bed” package starts at $658 and includes two full event passes (entry to 14 events over the festival weekend) for the festival plus accommodation for two nights, based on two sharing.

For more information, visit www.theviciouscircle.ca and http://www.fairmont.com/whistler/special-offers/other-offers/readers-writers-festival/, or call 1 800 606-8244.

The Fairmont Chateau Whistler hosts the Whistler Readers and Writers Festival, Oct. 12-14.

Taking the plunge

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Expert kayaker, Bernardo Barajas, helps guide the Sunwolf raft down the Elaho. Eric Beckstead photos

There was a time when bonding with my son Ryan meant getting on the floor and building a train track. He’s almost 15 and not really into that any more.

Chances are he’s also not into having his dad land on top of him, soaking wet, in a 16-foot inflatable raft. But there we were, a chaotic display of arms, legs, neoprene wetsuits and lifejackets – a triumph of survival over style.

The Elaho River has a way of breaking the ice like that.

The night before we’d come to the Sunwolf Centre at Alice Lake near Squamish. In a cozy little cabin, we’d fallen asleep listening to the rain and the swollen Cheakamus River roaring by. It was still raining the next morning as we ate a huge breakfast at Fergie’s Café.

At the stern, guide Bob Vranich and his five-man crew navigate Class 4 rapids on the Elaho.

“The water level’s up 40 per cent over yesterday,” says our guide Bob Vranich with a big smile. “It could get a little spicy out there today,” he adds. For a moment I wish Ryan and I were building train tracks again.

During the hour’s school-bus drive north to the “put-in,” we glimpse the Elaho from the logging road. It looks angry, all foam and froth with some mist thrown in. It feels a bit like driving into a Lord of the Rings movie.

The 18-kilometre stretch of the Elaho we’re to raft features several stretches of Class 4 rapids, Bob tells us. They have names like Cheeseball, Devil’s Elbow, 50-50, and Steamroller. The International Scale of River Difficulty spans Class 1 (easy) to Class 6 (impassable unless you’re Chuck Norris). It defines Class 4 as follows:

Long rapids; waves high, irregular; dangerous rocks; boiling eddies; best passages difficult to scout; scouting mandatory first time; powerful and precise maneuvering required. Demands expert boatman and excellent boat and good quality equipment.

“It’s OK,” I reassure Ryan. “I grew a beard for this.”

There are few more effective ways to wake up than leaping off a 40-foot cliff into the 4-degree waters of the Elaho River.

More reassuring to both of us is Bob’s track record, and the fact that expert kayaker Bernardo Barajas happens to be a doctor and will be scouting and, if necessary, rescuing. Bob’s in his 10th year of endless summers – raft guiding in New Zealand and Chile during our winters, with spells in Switzerland, Guatemala, India and Nepal thrown in. He’s rafted the Zambezi in Africa, and last month was leading a tour through the Grand Canyon. He has also appeared in National Geographic movies and on Outdoor Life Network TV.

After a lengthy safety talk on land and a quick paddling tutorial in an eddy, we’re finally in the thick of the waves, leaning as far out as we dare and paddling hard. Conditions on the Elaho change daily, and Bernardo is a little way ahead, scouting for debris and signalling to Bob the best passage. Five of us respond to Bob’s steady stream of commands and we paddle our way through Reflection Waves – a knockout combination of waves where the river pummels a vertical wall of rock and rebounds on itself. Then it’s on to Devil’s Elbow, where the river takes a jarring 120-degree turn to the right. I don’t think any of us expected conditions so intense, so soon, but Bob coaches us through the worst of it and into calmer waters.

“This is awesome,” says Ryan quietly with a grin.

Bob wields two massive oars from the stern and steers us towards a large eddy and a cliff face where natural steps lead to a ledge about 40 feet up. Bob invites us to climb up and leap off the ledge. When I realize he’s not kidding, I follow Ryan and the others out of the boat and up to the ledge. I’m sure there’s a lesson about peer pressure here, but Ryan jumps before I can tell him. Legs shaking, I have no choice but to jump, too.

Me and the boy – in our element.

It’s breathtaking, charging all my senses and actually warming me to the core. I’m laughing as Ryan helps pull me into the boat and I fall on top of him. We’ve all taken the plunge and camaraderie replaces any lingering paranoia about falling in.

It’s just as well because more challenging rapids are ahead. But first there’s time for lunch – barbecued wild B.C. salmon with salad, hot chocolate and a fire. On a sandy beach, Bernardo has everything set up for our arrival and we’re glad of the shelter as rain intensifies. The food is every bit as good as breakfast at Fergie’s and welcome fuel for the exertions ahead.

On the second leg of our journey I begin to appreciate our surroundings. Above the cliff faces of the Elaho Canyon and far above the gnarled ranks of fir, hemlock and cedar are numerous silver streaks lining the Tantalus Mountains – waterfalls created by the incessant rain and snow melt. Bob points out Butterfly Falls, a cluster of waterfalls that on windy days evaporate before reaching the canyon floor.

As the mist clears we glimpse the peaks of Mount Caley and Mount Fee. Later we glide past a wall of dirty snow two storeys high, the legacy of an avalanche that carried trees and boulders to briefly dam the river earlier this spring. This trip is equal parts education and adventure.

The adventure returns and mounts steadily through House Rock, Playground, Cheeky Monkey and Little Steamroller – whitewater sections that climax in the main event, Steamroller. It’s the biggest rapid of the trip; a wall of water that Bob had earlier warned us would be as big as the boat is long. It doesn’t disappoint. After skirting an ominous watery hole atop Freight Train rapid, we manoeuvre left, and then right to hit an immense wave called Wu-Tang, head-on.

Behold the Steamroller! Resistance is futile!

As the boat crests we all seem to be paddling thin air before descending like a rollercoaster into a curtain of spray that drenches us all. We might have high-fived but for gripping our paddles so tightly. We’re soon back into rapids named 50-50, (“You don’t need me to explain why it’s called 50-50, right?” shouts Bob, laughing) Tombstone, and Aiden’s Alley. Somewhere in the mix, a wave catches us sideways and dislodges Ryan and me from our seats. Thankfully, we’re sent sprawling into and not out of the boat.

Our final minutes of the trip are spent quietly floating through “the Braids,” a gentle stretch of the river punctuated by fallen trees and gravel bars. It’s a welcome rest.

Back at the Sunwolf Centre, Ryan and I snack on goodies at Fergie’s Café and relive a day neither of us will ever forget. “We should do this again next year,” I say.

“Let’s do it again next week!” says Ryan.

If you go:

A full-day Elaho River expedition costs $155 per person and includes lunch, post-trip snacks, full wetsuit and related gear, plus a professional guide. Participants must be at least 12 years old and weigh more than 90 pounds.

For more information about the Sunwolf Centre and its other trips, services and accommodation, visit www.sunwolf.net or call 1-877-806-8046.

More Eric Beckstead photos, click here.

 

Written by nevjudd

June 23, 2012 at 2:03 pm