Frog wave got the munchies, and we served ourselves as snacks. Catch the green tongue, fall backward into the churning foam pile, buzz around for a few seconds and be swallowed. Hope to be spat out before you’re digested. Such is the novice playboater’s experience. Watch the freestylers drop in, spin and bounce, sit armchaired amid the chaos, and leave the wave at their leisure. The Frog was once again the nexus of the universe, with a dual cast of kayakers (Lytton and Lillooet ‘Guaranteed Rugged’ crews) on the wave circuit, plus the highway paparazzi in full buzz. A Rocky Mountaineer passenger train stopped in its tracks across the river to watch the proceedings from on high. Every commercial and private rafting outfit seemed to be floating by, running terrible lines. Backward down the whirlpoolicious chute right of Frog Rock, or ploughing directly into Frog Rock, crew paddling in opposite directions.
After my last session of unintentional freestlye and inverted surfing (feels like riding a torpedo), I was finally getting it together on that wave. Longer seconds of control and uprighthood. Satisfied, Nat and I turned downstream for our final kayaking mission down the Gorge.
The following day is blank in my memory, which tends to indicate either a period of ordinary existence, or something so extreme that the neurons connecting to its memory are too blown away to function. Probably the former. Then I was safety-rafting for Steve and his guests, oaring solo in a 16-footer. I was thrown by the complete lack of momentum afforded by an empty raft (all the waves seem to stick like flytraps) but appreciated the solitude for my last day of professional river-running for the final year of mankind, 2012 AD. Andrew said he got a photo of me looking like an ape.
The time of separate ways had come again. What had we learned by our experiences, what had been the destination of all these journeys? Some winter night we may be at leisure to consider that, but it was time to go paddling again. Under the amber workshop lights, the remaining staff strapped down their boats and gear and dogs. We piled into two trucks and drove north through the night to the Chilko River. Passed a sign that said ‘road closed’, and knew we were on the right track.
Staggered out of the truck at 3:30 am beneath the upside-down constellations, and woke up to the greenhouse effect of the sun hitting my tent, which I’d apparently assembled and found my way into. ‘I’m never drinking again,’ I declared, vaguely aware that I hadn’t. But how much worse it would have been. We cooked a heart-clogging bacon and bacon-fat perogie deep-fry brunch on the camp fire, then loaded all our river gear and 9 selves into a single truck. Bumped along the track leading upstream through the surprising September heat and the Chilko firescape of fine dust and blackened trees.
Andrew stopped the truck at the unmarked put-in. We peered down into the base of the scorched canyon, where the river slid shallow like a ribbon over its rocky bed. It was already 3:30 pm and the sun was tinged with evening orange; time to move if we were to make camp before dark. We scooted down the loose dirt and rock to the riverside, pushed out and paddled with the swift current.
The fabled Red Raft featured Braden, girlfriend Sam, photographer Timshel, and adventure wingman / bus driver, Charles. Three creekboats were piloted by Steve, Mary, and I. Andrew and Elise sacrificed themselves for doggy daycare and shuttle. Five minutes into the run, we encountered our first rapids, short class III drops to cool our drysuits and warm our nerves. Chilko wildlife conjugated along the river, taking sanctuary from the charcoal forest. Our appearance on each bend triggered another eagle’s low flight overhead. A mumma black bear twitched her snout over our helmets while their cubs scrambled out of sight.
The first major drop was the infamous Bidwell rapid, whose entry Steve recognised by the narrowing, steepening walls. We took an eddy and scrambled halfway up the canyon to gain vantage on the rapid. Bidwell is a long class IV (depending on who you talk to) with a simple but consequential line. The rapid had taken a piece of Steve’s ear several years previous, and I have a touch of scar tissue on my left cheek owing to ‘Little Bidwell’, another noteworthy drop that lies just downstream, out of sight and out of mind while sizing up its big brother. This year the water was lower, the waves stickier and more concentrated, the rocks closer to the surface, but the current not as fast or commanding. Still, with two enormous holes and a rock sieve dominating the left side, there remained little room for error.
As we climbed back into our boats, I noticed the black bear family we’d passed earlier, meandering downstream along the opposite riverbank. I was too strung about Bidwell to reach for my camera at that moment, but I did consider that if anyone were forced to swim ashore, it would be to the bears’ side, and mumma would be none too impressed about our proximity to her cubs.
Steve led the way. We all stuck our lines, emerging into the slow water with hoots and yips and strange bird squarks. With premature relief we slid round the bend into Little Bidwell, but it was all read-and-run with the lower water. We took a wide berth around the dead trees puncturing the left side, where I’d flipped and hung my face on something the year before, and all was grease and butter.
The sunset shadow was creeping up the canyon, and we were anxious to beat the dark. Picked our way down some pool-droppy III before entering the White Mile. At last year’s high water, this rapid was a hysterical, airborne crowd-surf from crest to crest for one continuous mile, scouting from the tops of waves and breathing around our hearts. This time, it was a maze of smaller crashing waves, holes and pour-overs. Less nuts, more technical.
Squark. Andrew was perched above the canyon, looking down on us with Elise and the scattering four-legged children. ‘Eagle’s Claw,’ he said, pointing at the horizon line just downstream. I eddied out with Steve, with the intention of scouting. The raft blew past with a hoot, Mary tailgating in her kayak as usual. Steve and I looked at each other, then dropped into the rapid after our friends. If there were one situation to epitomise the Kumsheen after hours experience, this is it: paddling over an unscouted horizon line after one Fandrich or the other, trading hesitation for faith and dealing with situations as they arise. Some call it gung-ho, I call it gung-know. Braden knows the drop, can see better as he’s sitting high in the raft, knows what he’s doing and knows that we’ll probably make it, that we’ll probably be fine, and is too lazy to catch an eddy anyway. I know that I can probably trust Braden’s judgement, and that we’ve got to stick together like raccoon bandits if we’re to escape with the goods. Overall there’s a high probability that it will all turn out alright. And even if it doesn’t, it will in the end.
The result of all this bullshit is that I got trapped behind a pourover at the bottom of Eagles’s Claw, which of course I never knew was there until the microsecond before I was in it. Managed to drive my bow into the current, which spun my boat downstream, allowing me to escape the hydraulics with a half-dozen frenzied paddle strokes. I could sense Braden’s grin as the raft drifted round the bend.
We drifted between the vertical walls of Lava Canyon, where the river is shaded, narrow and placid. The meandering flatwater plunges into the tallest, broadest, massivest river-wide wave on the Chilko, after which the river mellows into a lazy float down to the confluence with the chalky turquoise of the Taseko.
‘Kakaaah’, Andrew announced from above. Seconds later we were draining our boats and sipping carbohydrate-rich beverages by the rivers.
As dusk fell, we strung up our gear, stoked the fire and slow-cooked spaghetti bolognaise on the cast iron. Cooking is both more enjoyable, and more honourable, than washing the infinite dishes at the end of the feasting. We talked about ‘real life’, which we’ve heard so much about, and entertained the differing schools of though pertaining to the cooking of S’mores. The dogs went collectively nuts whenever a crew member left the aura of the campfire and returned from the darkness, a stranger from the night.
Next day we followed our strict regimen of breakfast at lunchtime, followed by an afternoon Chilko run, this time with Andrew aboard the Red Raft in place of Charles. ‘I’d be shaking in my boots if I were about to go through that again,’ said Charles before driving off down the track. We scouting nothing.
Back at camp, I played what I suppose to be Braden’s version of catch, which involves throwing a hand-made spear directly at each other, back and forth, evading when necessary. Braden then suggested that I fashion a sword to fight him with, but I instead fashioned a beer out of the cooler and sat by the fire.
Wondered down to the river to pluck firewood from a log-jam deposited by high water. A giant log, nay a tree trunk, caught my eye, and I tried its weight. Didn’t budge. At that moment, old man Charles pounced on the other end, and lifted it to his hip. I had little choice at that point but to lift the thing and struggle up the riverbank with the man.
After dark, Mary busted out the glowing orbs on strings and twirled them about. I’d have clocked myself in the face and groin in four seconds, and so was happy to spectate. Andrew was about with his tripod, taking long exposures of the starlit confluence. Braden was super-heating some volcanic rock in the fire in preparation for his river sauna – an old tent with the floor cut away. I went to my tent to crash, and listened to the sauna children frolicking down to the cold river.
A final fireside brunch, and we loaded the gear and boats in silence. It was the last day of summer. I stole one last dip in the Chilko before we rolled out. Down the long road to that Lyttle place that everyone but me calls home. That night I spent alone in the Kumsheen staff house. Of the foreigners, I was first to arrive, last to leave.
In the morning, I tied my kayaks to the Jeep and bade the workshop crew farewell. I paused before the highway to ask myself if I had packed everything. The only list that came to mind was: boat, paddle, sprayskirt, helmet, life jacket. I rolled onto the Trans-Canada. It was the Fall equinox, and felt like a symmetrical time to be gone.
The Kumsheen crew’s story will continue. Whether I’ll be there to witness and record is yet unknown. In the mean time, I suggest you wisen to the rest of the Kronicles, and its prequel The Paper Trail.
Paper T Tramp