White Water Dreams, Kootenay Rockies, British Columbia
In my last column, I talked about facing my fears, especially my life-long fear of heights. I ended that essay with a bit of bravado: “But can’t wait to face – and conquer – my next fear.” Well, friends, be careful what you ask for…
Not two weeks later I stood on the banks of the Kicking Horse River in the Canadian Rockies of British Columbia. To say the water was high is an understatement. It was a monster, a boiling caldron of muddy glacial run-off that carried 80 foot Douglas fir trees like they were twigs. And the water was cold, a bone-chilling 37 degrees F. Falling into water that cold without protection would result in death quickly, really quickly.
The folks at Glacier Raft Company in Golden know this and provided neoprene wet suits. At their headquarters in town, they issued us neck-to-toe neoprene suits, fleece jackets, wet socks, neoprene booties, helmets, and waterproof pull-overs with special Velcro neck fasteners to keep water out. They told us to put all this on over our bathing suits or that we could “go commando” (naked). Later, they offered neoprene mittens that made us look even more like Gumby.
Dressed in our neo-garb, we sat on handmade benches around a smoky fire for the safety talk. It had been a wet spring and early summer in this part of the Kootenay Rockies with record snowfalls and plenty of rain. “The Kicking Horse is running at a 30-year high, almost too high for us to run,” the young guide said. “You don’t want to fall into that water.”
He told us the usual scary, white water cautions: if you fall out, try to get back to the boat immediately; don’t put your feet down; get out of the water if you’re near shore; don’t get stuck under the many log jams. We laughed nervously as he talked about rescuing people from the icy water. My friend, Deb, leaned over and said, “I don’t want to fall in.”
Neither did I.
We boarded an old school bus and hauled east up the Trans-Canada Highway. Way down below, we could see the ribbon of chocolate brown water that was the Kicking Horse River. According to legend, the river got its name when an early Canadian pioneer was kicked so hard by his horse that his friends thought he was dead and they dug a hole in which to bury him. Fortunately for him, just before they laid him to rest, he woke up and they named the water after his kicking horse. Another story says a miner was traversing a narrow trail and one of his pack horses fell down the cliff. He tumbled down and down until a tree caught the horse and he kicked wildly until his owner rescued him.
We pulled up to the river and saw first-hand that the river was aptly named. The water was huge and fast. It was a torrent of mud, debris, and white capped waves all swirling and racing down the canyon. As our lead guide assigned us to one of four rafts, we surveyed the brown mayhem before us and our previous laughter became stone cold silence. Our yellow rafts looked tiny. Were they really up to the task of traversing this wild water? And who in their right mind would want to raft this freezing cold flood?
Isaac was our raft guide. Lean with deep-set green eyes and a calm demeanor, he told us he’d been rafting the Kicking Horse for more than 10 years. And yes, this was the highest and wildest he’d ever seen it.
Six of us piled into the raft with Isaac sitting at the back with two big oars for steering. I chose the second seat and Isaac instructed us to sit on the raft’s edge, not in the middle. “You actually have more stability sitting out there,” he said. “You have better balance.”
Sitting semi-sideways on the raft’s bulbous body certainly didn’t feel balanced. I crammed both feet under the rubber pontoon in front of me until I couldn’t feel my toes. On the outer edge there was a safety rope (the one we were supposed to grab when we fell out). Another rope ran down the middle of the raft. Isaac instructed us how to grasp both ropes when he hollered, “Hold on.”
The first half of the trip, he informed us, would be relatively easy with only class two and three rapids. White water waves are classified one through six. One is simply moving water. Two is a bit more exciting; three is really exciting; and four is hold-onto-your-butt because it’s going to be a bumpy ride. In Canada, classes five and six are considered un-raftable. There are class five rapids further down on the Kicking Horse and, by law, rafting companies have to portage around these torrents, though skilled white water kayakers sometimes negotiate these wild waters.
After a bit of practice paddling forward, then backward, then alternating sides forward and backwards to spin the boat, we headed off down river. The front paddlers set the pace and the guy in front of me, a young man from Australia, paddled super fast, while the opposite side paddled at a more leisurely rate. Okay, our crew needed some practice in teamwork. Also, when Isaac yelled, “Relax,” Mr. Australia kept paddling. I was unsure if he couldn’t hear the guide or if he just assumed he was helping with his extra efforts.
Our first set of rapids was gentle, class twos that gave us butterflies and let us get used to listening and responding to Isaac’s commands. After four or five sets of rapids, just when we were getting the hang of all this paddling together, the lead raft pulled to the side of the river and we followed suit. “We’re going to climb a waterfall,” Isaac told us.
Climb a waterfall?
We scrambled out of the boat onto a muddy narrow shelf of shore littered with rocks and followed the line of rafters to a large crack in the bank. Climbing over boulders the size of couches, we came around the corner to see a cascade of water gushing from high up the mountain side of the river. This was one of the many creeks that feed into the Kicking Horse.
Like little ducklings, we followed our guides, climbing over rocks, scrambling over scree, plunging into the icy cold water. The first time I stepped into the creek’s torrent, my breath caught. This was cold. So much for wet suits keeping us dry. Amazingly, the cold water was tolerable, though chilly, thanks to our neoprene.
The canyon became narrower and the water’s force stronger as we climbed up and up. I wondered about the older people on the trip, but no one complained. After 10 or 15 minutes, we stood at the top on a small ledge where the canyon’s narrowness and the strength of the water would let us go no farther and we watched the water tumble down into the river.
It took just a few moments for us to navigate our way back down our rocky track to the rafts. Once back in the boats, we paddled like pros. Perhaps climbing that waterfall had done something for our team’s cohesiveness.
After several more rapids, we pulled up to a spot where Glacier Raft Company has created a little camp, complete with picnic tables, BBQ, and porta-potty. Several of the guides have professional cooking experience. One even completed culinary school. So lunch – choice of steaks, chicken, fish, or veggie burgers and plenty of veggies, dips, and salads – was hearty and delicious.
Facing the Monster
Fueled up and rested, it was time to face the real Kicking Horse. This section of the river is composed of mostly class three and four rapids with names like Man Eater and The Last Waltz. With the high water, no one was quite sure how much debris was in the river and whether floating or jammed logs would cause problems.
Our first class three, followed quickly by a class four, was a thrill. We plunged into the rapidly swirling water as Isaac yelled, “Paddle forward. Keep paddling.”
As we rode into the maelstrom, he screamed, “Hold on, hold on” and we grasped the center and outer ropes to keep from tumbling out of the boat. There was no time to feel afraid or to think about what we’d do if we fell into the boiling caldron of icy water. It was rapids and waves, paddle, paddle, hold on, take a deep breath, and repeat.
After several especially wild rapids, Isaac called for the rafters’ high five and we raised our paddles and touched them in the air.
At Portage Point, the guides drew the rafts next to shore and hiked over the rocks to scout out the lay of the river and to check for dangerous debris. As we waited, we saw a huge log roiling down river and we yelled at the guides to watch for it.
Once they’d determined it was relatively safe, we headed off, our raft taking the lead. These rapids were much larger than the others, brown thrashing monsters threatening to swallow us whole. By now, we were a well-tuned machine and when Isaac shouted, “Paddle forward, forward, dig in,” we put our backs into it in tandem. Our raft slipped by a huge log jam and around a car-sized boulder. “Left paddle forward, right paddle back.”
We paddled hard and neatly spun the boat, popping our little craft out below the maelstrom. This time Isaac didn’t have to tell us to high-five; we automatically tapped paddles, grinning like a bunch of proud kids.
Dare I ask, what’s my next adventure? Keep watching and reading. – Bobbie Hasselbring, Editor RFT
Author’s Note: Just four days after we ran this river, a woman from Calgary, Mary Cretney-Thibeault, was white water rafting the Kicking Horse with the same outfitter company. Her raft flipped, dumping everyone into the river. She did not survive. Our hearts and prayers go out to her family.