Featured September 2010 on the Jackson Kayak Blog, the Kokatat Blog and Paddling Life Magazine.
Story describes the amazing honor of paddling the Grand Canyon of the Stikine River in BC.
Link to Kokatat Blog: http://www.kokatat.com/blog/2010/10/stikine-in-a-day
Before Sunrise, Stikine in a day:
“Bear”, I yelled and frantically set up in my mummified sleeping bag. It was still dark and I turned my flashlight on expecting a Grizzly. Laughter came from a few feet away. Boomer and Todd are already in their dry suits, packing their kayaks. It is 5:13 a.m. and I overslept by 13 minutes. I climb out of my sleeping bag and slide into my carefully folded dry suit. I pull my river shoes on. I had laid my gear out the night before so I could step into it much like a fireman would jump into his suit if the alarm sounded. We are camped at the put in for the Grand Canyon of the Stikine. We are going to try to paddle the entire 50 some odd miles of this class V+ beast in one day.
The nervousness of starting our first trip was almost overwhelming for me. I had trained for a year to do this, but I really had no idea what to expect. The car ride from Tennessee had been a roller coaster of emotions. It took the first three major rapids, Entry Falls, Wicked Wanda and Three Goats to build my confidence. I had never seen anything like this type of whitewater. Stacked, huge, complex rapids with monster holes, crushing diagonal waves, 3 foot tall surging eddy walls all surrounded by 1,000 foot cliffs. The Stikine makes other rivers seem two dimensional. I had always thought of water flowing downstream, side to side and sometimes upstream. Additionally, on this river the water is constantly exploding upward and sucking down. It felt like a giant roller coaster and monster trampoline combined. Waves would throw you into the air. Seams would pull you into deep mystery moves. The crashing diagonals were the painful part. These waves are so massive that when you hit them it knocks the breath out of you. Imagine the ghost of Paul Bunyan standing next to the rapid. Instead of swinging an axe he has a giant 30 foot long wiffle ball bat. As you charge your way through the rapid he squares up and knocks you into tomorrow. I have never been hit so hard by water. I can see how big water paddlers can have good lines, stay upright and still break their ribs. And when you flip, you better hold on to your paddle like never before. The current wants to wrench the paddle from you. Dropping a paddle on this river could easily kill you.
The beauty of this canyon is without a doubt the greatest my eyes have ever seen. The whitewater offers the most amazing, fun and consequential puzzle imaginable. The canyon is colored in every shade of gray and green. However, the end result of a Stikine trip is usually black or white. You either succeed or you are lucky to survive. Swimming here will be the worst mistake you will ever make. Surviving more than a rapid or two out of your boat is unlikely. Actually being able to swim into an eddy is highly unlikely (the eddy lines are surging walls of water you can barely paddle through). If you survive a swim and make it to shore you are then confronted with a 1,000 foot cliff. If you survive the climb to the rim, my personal greatest fear is possible, becoming dinner for a Grizzly. The epic stories of paddlers climbing out of this canyon sound terrifying. Some groups have tried to quit and climb out only to find themselves trapped. They have to abandon their escape, return to the river and continue downstream. There seems to be two very different types of Stikine trips. You either have the trip of a lifetime or you are terrified and barely survive. A black or white outcome through a canyon painted in every shade of gray.
First Trip Goes Well:
The predicted rains, which rushed our first trip, never came. The second day, like the first, was amazing. We portaged Scissors and The Hole that Ate Chicago. My only bad line on the first trip was the ABC line at Site Zed. Of course, this is the only rapid where we took photos. There is a great photo of me dropping the main drop backwards. It felt how I imagine running Gorilla backwards at 13,000 cfs might feel. It worked out. Paddling through the Tanzilla Slot that first time was incredible.
There is still plenty of class IV whitewater below the Tanzilla. The Mountain Goats are there to welcome you. Finally, you have a chance to enjoy the amazing scenery and wildlife.
Levels and Gear:
Our first trip was at 13,500 cfs. The one day express was at 12,000 cfs. I was in a Jackson Villain. It handled the massive water well. The bow floats over most anything. The boat stayed dry and the removable bulkhead made packing gear a breeze. I wore a Kokatat dry suit and rescue vest. When it really matters, Kokatat is the best. For footwear, I wore Five Ten Canyoneer boots. The grippy soles and ankle support kept the portaging and scouting safe.
One Day Express Goes Well:
There is so much great whitewater in there. Countless and constant un-named rapids go on for miles. Garden of the Gods I and II, The Wall I and II, Wassons, AFP, The Hole that Ate the Hole. V-Drive is the craziest rapid I have ever kayaked. Imagine falling 30 feet with 13,000 cfs under you. There is nothing like it! We rolled into it all, but portaged Scissors and the Hole that Ate Chicago again. Running V-Drive for the second time was even better than the first. We ran Entry Falls at 7:00 am. At 12:30 we arrived at the Tanzilla Slot. Six and a half hours after leaving the put in. We stopped and hiked for a bit and floated the next 12 or so miles to the takeout. We finished around 4:00.
The emotions swirling around in your head as you commit to each rapid are mind blowing. You realize that you are far more dependent upon your paddle not to break, your skirt not to implode and your kayak to perform than anything else. Your buddies are there, but they have their hands full and really could not do much if you crash. It is just you and your gear. You obviously need the skills, preparation and training for this type of stuff, but what made all the difference was sheer determination. Jason Hale emailed me before I put on and said, “Do not ever quit”. If the rapid is not working out as planned you simply have to paddle your ass off and make it work. Before each rapid I imagined having such a burning fire in my heart that when I blew the snot out of my nose flames shot out. It is funny to think about now, but I would growl before I hit the big waves.
We were not the first or the fastest to one day it, but that was definitely the best six and a half hours of kayaking I have ever done. The Stikine is everything I had dreamed it would be. A brutally consequential puzzle immersed in perfect beauty.
Boomer, me and Todd, Just finished 50 miles of Class V in a day