LIFE BEYOND THE GUIDEBOOK 'COMFORT ZONE'
Chris Wheeler looks back at good and bad times in Southwest British Columbia, Canada.
First published (in a mercifully abbreviated form) in Canoe Kayak UK
The splendid upper Checkamus.
Kayak hell. Hauling 25 kgs of boat and kit up a near vertical cliff of impenetrable 'jungle', wearing a hot, rotting dry top and thermals in a humid 30 degs C. I couldn't see my boating buddies or where to go next, other than uphill, if I could find uphill. What on earth did we think we were doing? I'd come here to go boating, not undergo S.A.S. training ('are you tough enough?').
OK, I'll explain. The Ashlu River near Whistler in south west B.C. Canada had drawn us, like moths to a light bulb. Patch Bennett, Calgary based ex-pat, Dagger rep and old paddling buddy from way back, had recommended various rivers but his comments on one river graphically stood out. "Ashlu - if you want hard and gnarly then the Ashlu has sections that will have your sphincter out on a stick" (this is a family magazine - I'll leave it to your imagination what that actually means). The local boaters talked of the Ashlu in hushed reverential tones, like bit player locals in a horror movie. They gave us the low down on where the best sections were and the gauges and water levels. There were however, warning signs. Advice was sketchy and inconsistent and when pushed, few of them had actually seen it, let alone paddled it. The folks at the local shop advised us to accompany local boaters but then they thought visiting boaters should be guided down every river with Grade 4 on it - at an hourly rate.
Undeterred, we ventured up the Ashlu valley, eventually finding the gauge under the bridge where the road crossed the river. Immediately downstream we could see the river disappear into a narrow walled in gorge; this had to be the section called 'Commitment (or Box) Canyon'. A fair description- it sure looked committing - and boxy. Straight off over '50/50' drop- you may recognise it from photos of Tao Berman in the magazines. Were we going to follow in Tao's footsteps? No chance- we were heading for the next section upstream, the 'Mine' run, supposedly a good challenging but "non-pushy" Grade 4/ 5 run where everything, we were told, could be inspected and portaged if we didn't like what we saw. The gauge was at 78 - well below the recommended maximum for the Mine run of around 90- 100. Game on!
To our surprise, 4-5 kms upstream, as planned, we encountered an obvious path to the left, marked with tape, without the usual long and fruitless search. The directions we had were clearly correct. The team kicked into action and after a finely tuned routine of faffing we eventually made it onto the water an hour later, mid afternoon. Open plan boulder gardens, sunshine and a perfect water level, or so it seemed. "I think this is going to be a good one" I confidently told the far from convinced team.
Stuck between a rock and a hard place on the Ashlu.
The first 300 yards were good. The action built up nicely, from easy boulder gardens to ledges with holes, good warm up 'read and run'. Then the river veered to the left and hard right. I woke up just in time and made the last break out from hell. The team ground to a halt. We were confronted with a narrow walled in gorge in the middle of which was a blind drop either side of a boulder, with, either side, impenetrable steep 'jungle'. We could see that the stopper tow back from the drop was loooong. Not what we were expecting. Chris 'mountain goat' Wheeler edged his way along the cliff to close above the drop. Still the view was inconclusive- I wasn't probing it first, someone else was. No volunteers! Andy wisely opted to walk out there and then, leaving three of us to begin our first portage from hell, up over and down, through thick undergrowth, shredding our legs, sweating profusely, only to be confronted by a cliff. Much rope work and swearing and we were back at water level. I put my spray deck on, but just as I was about to paddle off, Mark suggested I take another look downstream. Good job I looked! This wasn't a read and run eddy hop- this was a messy gnarly jumble of boulders that had been dropped into the river at random, leading round another blind bend as far as we could see. It was committing grade 5+ -and boxy. It had far, far too much water for our taste. We gawped nervously at the rivernothing we had been told was adding up. The penny dropped. We must have ended up on the wrong section by mistake.Commitment Canyon.
Kevin inspects the Ashlu...if you're not convinced that the bit downstream is hard, well...it features in one of the 'Twitch' videos!
We looked at the cliff. Should we re-trace our steps and go back up the cliff and head upstream back up the river? Or head straight up and away from the river? Which one was the bad option and which was the really bad option? It was a tough call. We opted for the latter, which is where this story started, deep in the 'jungle'. We eventually staggered out onto the road, blinking our way back into the sunlight, the team a dishevelled mess of cuts, bruises, sweat and expletives.
Onto the 'post mortem'. To our disgust we soon established that we had been on the correct section of river after all. To add insult to injury, Stuart Smith, noted B.C. guidebook writer, hair boater, and bear wrestler, (OK, I made the last bit up) apparently paddled the very same stretch of river a couple of hours after us. To use local parlance, It seems the problem wasn't the river - it's that we 'suck'. Against Mark's better judgement, he and I headed up the Ashlu Valley again a couple of days later, earlier in the day, for a re-match. We were confronted with a road barrier- the valley had been closed off because of the growing risk of forest fires. We had been saved from ourselves and our disappointment was mixed with concealed relief.
So, the Ashlu remains unconquered and undefeated, by us at least. Never mind, we thoroughly enjoyed our trip to B.C., doing the classic road trip from Calgary to Vancouver. We paddled several classics in the Rockies such as the Yoho, Toby and Upper Fraser and then headed westwards towards the coastal mountains of the Whistler area, in south west B.C., via the Clearwater, but skipping the Nahatlatch and Thompson because we were eager to get to Whistler. At which point we were confronted with two problems. Firstly, it was August and some of the rivers were getting too low but more importantly, we had left the comfort zone of Stuart Smith's two guidebooks to the Rockies. We'd driven off the edge of the guidebook map. Undeterred, following sketchy information from other UK boaters, we enjoyed excellent paddling on the Cayoosh, Soo and Upper Cheakamus, the latter a classic continuous Grade 4 blast. We also discovered that there is a guidebook to south west B.C. covering some of the easy rivers.
Fantastic Cayoosh Creek.
Even so, the Ashlu wasn't the only challenge we faced. Two classics, the Callaghan and Rutherford, were too low. We couldn't work out how to get to the Ryan and once we had, we returned to find the valley closed off due to the risk of forest fires. As for Rogers Creek, and its highly photogenic triple falls (see the ''Liquid Thunder' calendar), we were warned by local boaters, just in time, that the local landowner's hatred of kayakers had led to him to start setting fire to boaters' cars. The landowner was Indian but I wondered whether he had some Welsh blood in him. The magazine account of the local Skookumchuck Creek, complete with epic rope climbs and accidental running of a 60 footer, convinced us that it was an altogether tougher proposition than the Kootenays/ Southern Rockies Skook Creek.
As the trip neared its end, running out of rivers, we aborted the two rivers a day creek boat mission and evolved into chilled out play boating 'dudes'. We took the ferry to the Skookumchuck Wave. Taking to the wave in our creek boats, we gave the local boaters something to laugh at, at least until we started flat spinning and bouncing. They ran to their boats- the wave had clearly started to work and they were missing out. Someone from the shop in Vancouver took pity on me and lent me an I3. The Skookumchuck Wave really is very good indeed - one of the Almighty's better designs. Whilst at its biggest and best when the tide is running at 13-14 knots, it was still more than big enough at 11.6 knots, producing a big, big pile with clean green shoulders either side that is good for all the new school wave moves. Combine this with good eddy service and a convenient natural rock platform for spectators and you have play boating heaven.
Chris soul surfing on Skook.
We continued the wind down with repeats runs down the Soo and Upper Cheakamus. Timed runs down the latter ('boating on speed') were very entertaining but you have to stay awake. After 15 minutes of flat out paddling, I landed in a pour over, cranking enough ends in my H3 to win the Worlds. My racing partner, Mark, seized upon my extended beating as a useful opportunity to break out, clutch his chest and get his breath back. Safety first, and all that.
The Soo River.
On the last day, eating yet another over sized breakfast in the Squamish 'White Spot' diner, we reflected on our trip. The Calgary to Vancouver road trip was a classic but one thing was clear- creek boating in the Whistler area, we really had only scratched the surface. The area deserves a full two weeks in its own right. It has it all- a variety of creeks from Grade 3 to 5+, play boating at the Skook Wave, sea kayaking and whale watching, not to mention mountain biking and year-round skiing, all within 1-2 hours of Vancouver Airport. The down side? Sketchy information on the creeks, Stuart Smith's detailed guidebook to south west B.C. has been 'coming soon' for some years now. In the meantime, I hope this article will help and encourage some of you to follow in our footsteps, but hopefully not the exact same steps on the Ashlu!
Chris Wheeler went through 'portage hell' with Kevin Francis, Andy Levick and Mark Rainsley. Heather Rainsley drove the rescue vehicle and didn't get lost during the shuttles as often as you might imagine. Mark was lugging his much loved but heavy Perception Java and sweating away in a Nookie dry top, but he'd like to thank them for their support anyway.