A magazine article from 2003, about paddling in the central Rocky Mountains of Alberta and British Columbia, Canada.
Smarter than the Average Bear
I’m plodding along a hot remote forest track somewhere in the ‘Bugaboo Wilderness’ of western Canada’s Rocky Mountains. I hear it a long way off; a vehicle coming, the first I’ve encountered. Eventually, a trail bike chugs into view up the valley, ridden by a young local couple.
“Hi there, are you lost? We don’t meet many folk up this way.”
“I’m a kayaker, I’ve just come off the river. I’m searching for our shuttle driver; she didn’t show up at the takeout. Have you seen a black Chevy Jeep along the way?”
“Sorry, you’re the first person we’ve seen all day. We’ll keep an eye out for her.”
“Cheers, have a good ride”.
“Hey bud, just one question before we go.”
“Sure, what is it?”
“Why aren’t you wearing any clothes?”
Time-shift, forty-eight hours earlier. Five of us (four blokes and one infinitely patient girlie) converged on Calgary Airport from random directions and locations. We picked up hire cars, strapped on creek boats and headed west in search of the Rocky Mountains. These weren’t hard to find; they were just outside town, rather large and, well, rocky. With our standard degree of mission co-ordination, our two cars were separated within minutes of setting off. By a subtle combination of blatant luck and feng shui, we all met up again at the same campsite. This was in Banff, a garish souvenir mall masquerading as a real town. A miserably arctic night later (camping, what IS that all about?), we hit an outdoor store. We shelled out on their most expensive sleeping bags, constructed from the soft fluffy down of kittens and seal pups. Not for the last time, we had to reassure ourselves that despite having the Queen’s head on it, Canadian dollars aren’t real money.
A river was now needed in order to justify our bankruptcy. We crossed the Continental Divide into British Columbia and wound up at the Kicking Horse River. This river has numerous sections rated at Grade 1(6) or Grade 6(1). I exaggerate, but not much. We ooh-ed and aah-ed at various evil things lurking under bridges…but eventually wussed onto the ‘rubber numpty’ section, i.e. the bit that rafts do. This was rather decent grade 3-4, lumpy and continuous in a deep canyon with a busy railroad track clinging to the walls. We didn’t inspect or portage anything, good job really – anybody seen the film, ‘Stand by Me?’
The next day saw us in full-on faffing mode. We bottled the harder Kicking Horse sections, and the much recommended Yoho River was way too high. A rethink saw us resurface in the upper Columbia River valley. This was a bit weird, as four months earlier we’d been boating in the lower Columbia River
valley – 1900 kilometres downstream in the USA. This area – the East Kootenays – proved to be a good call, as river levels thereabouts were perfect in mid-August. First up was the Bobbie Burns River. Getting there was half the fun. A seriously ill-advised ‘shortcut’subjected our jeep to the beating of its short pampered life. Luckily Kevin proved to possess superhero 4WD powers, but don’t tell Alamo. Three hours and a mere twenty kilometres later, we reached the put-in.
For weeks prior to the trip, Kevin had amused all with his rampant Ursaphobia. He had avidly researched all sorts of Really Useful Bear Facts. Nervous emails informed us that there are 180 000 bears in BC, and that they are capable of 0-30 mph in the time it takes to say; “I didn’t touch your porridge!” He’d briefed us fully on bear contact protocol (the National Parks note that if the bear is still mauling you after you’ve played dead for five minutes, you probably are being attacked). Ever since landing, Kevin had been glancing over his shoulder and when he bought bear repellent pepper spray, we fell about laughing. And now, paranoid Kevin had the last laugh. Big time. Lumbering along near the put-in of our creek, was his arch nemesis – Yogi himself. This bear happily sauntered off out of sight, but Kevin’s credibility was reinstated; henceforth we all listened to him more closely! We launched super-quick-fast and fled the spot.
Bobbie Burns Creek proved much easier on the water than off. The rapids were undemanding but there was a spectacular waterfall to portage and the sense of wilderness was huge…there was more wildlife than a Disney cartoon.
“What the hell is that?”
“Well Chris, what does it look like?”
“An ugly horse”
To be fair to Chris, moose are an uncommon sight back home at Hurley Weir. Arriving at the takeout, there was no sign of Heather. We were a bit worried as we’d rather rapidly abandoned her with the jeep in Bearville. I trekked up the road to find her, but found that my wetsuit shorts chafed in all the wrong places. I whipped them off, and you know the rest…thankfully Mrs R hove into sight shortly after, alive and well. She had wisely chosen the better, longer road to the takeout, but she got wildly lost on featureless forest tracks (and encountered more bears) – all in a day’s work for the Shuttlemeister.
The next morning, we were up for something with a bit more oompf. Some local heroes at Toby Creek told us that the creek’s tough ‘Seven Canyons’ run had only just dropped low enough to paddle. They also said that we’d need seven hours for a first run down. This was red rag to a bull for Chris, who flogged us through the run in about three hours. All I clearly recall is desperately trying to match the human Duracell Bunny’s merciless pace…that and a dire cliff-hanger portage. I lost count at twenty, but the others assure me that there were just seven canyons, each with their own character and kick-ass boating (in local parlance). A fantastic run, imagine knocking off seven different classic rivers before lunchtime.
All of our river info was coming from a pair of hefty guidebooks to the Rockies. Interpreting them was a bit of a learning curve. Although they are accurate enough, the author has a bit of a macho problem. Time after time, a river is described as ‘Grade 4’…only to say below, ‘Be prepared to paddle grade 5+ on sight or execute desperate portages.’ I kid you not. We didn’t notice this in the small print on the guide to Findlay Creek. Or didn’t take it seriously. Or whatever. Either way, we had a decent enough bimble on the Findlay’s middle canyon. Poor Andy took a big tumble whilst portaging a tree jam; no harm was done, but this was the shape of things to come. Three of us carried on into the lower canyon. Good heavens, it was unpleasant. This section saw us spending about as much time on the bank as we did paddling; the Findlay excelled at siphons, sharp rocks and all manner of gnarliness. Our legs were cut to pieces and our nerves were in tatters. My nadir came when I slipped and dropped my boat into the river whilst climbing. It ran the portage perfectly. Chris gets a real buzz out of chase-boating Grade 5 (no, really), so somebody at least was happy.
Bugaboo Creek (we’re not making these names up) flows downhill. Very much so. A steep boulder ditch, we were in familiar territory from years of crashbangwallop UK boating. Kevin had the comedy moment of the day, becoming inexplicably convinced that he had been left far behind by the group. He shot off and frenetically straight-lined a mile of super-steep grade 4-5 to ‘catch up’. As it happens he was actually at the front, and we followed in bewilderment, some distance behind.
Bears had become a common enough sight and we’d begun to be less hung up about them. Our fears were however firmly re-established on the drive north from the Bugaboo. A bear tumbled across the main highway in our path – in the midst of a residential area. Henceforth we all had surreal nightmares
about Baloo chasing us through shopping malls or ambushing us at cash machines, and suchlike…
That evening we found ourselves in breathtaking Yoho National Park. Dwarfed overhead on all sides by soaring peaks, vast ice fields and stupendous waterfalls, we were actually peering down. Below our feet the planet dropped away into a frightening deep and dark canyon. Somewhere down there was the Yoho River, although we could only glimpse it by leaning out into the void supported by unconvincing tree roots. One thing was obvious enough; there was still too much water churning around in there. The put-in beats all; it’s directly underneath the awe-inspiring Takakkaw Falls. These plunge 800 metres! We built a makeshift gauge…a line of rocks heading out into the main flow. After dark, stealth camping; we snuck our gear into the bushes when the Park Rangers had their backs turned.
Six a.m. up at 5000 feet was cold. But the river was colder, carrying its own shroud of Hammer Horror movie mist. The glacier forming the Yoho was directly upstream, and we were gambling on less melt water to make our trip viable. Rubbing our eyes, we wandered down to the ‘gauge’. None of us were really convinced. To our disbelief, a few short hours had seen the river level plummet, leaving our gauge rocks high and dry. Game on. I’m not a morning person, but a few splashes of frigid glacial gloop woke me pretty sharply. We paddled through the portals of the canyon into ominous gloom. Sheer rock rose on either side. Total commitment.
“Am I too late to change my mind?”
I had a bad feeling about this. Just this once I wasn’t the team cannon fodder, my worries concerned the group. Chris and I had been in comparable canyons in the past. Kevin and Andy however, had never stuck their necks out this far, and Andy was happy to admit that the paddling was a long way past his comfort zone. I am sure I spotted a vulture wheeling expectantly above his boat…
We soon forgot our numb fingers as, right from square one, the paddling was pushy and continuous. The Yoho slid visibly downhill, not reassuring for a boxed-in river of sizeable volume. Amazingly it always proved to be paddleable, but the Germans who first paddled the gorge back in the ‘80s couldn’t have known this – they must have had balls the size of Bavaria! The crux came. All we saw ahead was a smooth rock face, time to find an eddy! We fumbled along a cliff ledge to peer around the sudden corner. Over our heads a fixed paddle shaft commemorated a paddler who died here. I’m not superstitious, but I forced myself not to look at it. The line seemed obvious…dodge the holes around the bend and break out before the easy bit below. What could go wrong? I followed Chris and Andy around the bend. Chris found a micro eddy, Andy missed it…and the following rapid had magically morphed into a muntering maelstrom. Why does it always look tiny from above? Andy was dragged from sight; a rescue would be needed imminently. I followed Andy’s line over the lip in heroic Baywatch mode. Some dodging and weaving, a toilet flush through offset holes and a desperate claw past a massive rock. I was scanning the water for a swimming Andy, but shouldn’t have worried. I found him grinning in the bottom eddy; his line had been better than mine and he didn’t seem to have gotten his hair wet. It just goes to show. Something.
How do you top surviving one of the world’s finest grade 5 canyons before breakfast? Well, we had a fair crack at it. The road north was the famous ‘Icefields Parkway’. This incredible highway runs past innumerable glaciers and freakishly blue lakes in the 230 kilometres north to Jasper. At every lay-by along the route, we shamelessly joined a billion gawping and clicking Japanese tourists. Well worth an afternoon off paddling to see. But only if you’ve paddled the Yoho first.
Around Jasper, Kevin dragged us to a Rodeo. Not the whitewater kind where you float around in circles wearing a bib, but a real rodeo. Cowboys, bucking horses, seriously peeved bulls with sharp horns. The body count was epic but Rodeo etiquette dictated that nobody would let themselves be stretchered off. Rider after rider crawled in agony to the side. We sat transfixed throughout, swearing in awe. We’ll never think of kayaking as an extreme sport again!
We had time for one last river in the Rockies. Jasper’s horizon is filled by Mount Edith Cavell, and we headed out to find the river which drains it. The Astoria is famed for super-steep boulder paddling (“who tilted the earth’s crust over?”) but the real fun was finding it in the first place. We stumbled down a dry river bed into the valley, then bushwhacked cross-country through dense forest for an hour or two. This was never dull because well, we never felt alone. The bear paranoia was back with a vengeance! Kevin was suddenly popular again as we literally waded through bear pooh (provided presumably by Pooh Bear). We reached open ground and there ahead, was the Astoria River. We sat beside an eddy, exhausted.
“Thank goodness for that, we’re safe at last”
“Are you sure? Check out the sand, here”
“It’s a bear print. A grizzly bear’s, to be precise”
“Aren’t they the big stroppy ones?”
“It looks fresh. Very fresh indeed”
“Well, Gents…I think we’re back on the menu”.
Mark Rainsley moved down the food chain with Kevin Francis, Andy Levick, Heather Rainsley and Chris Wheeler.