The water hits my back and shoulder with such force that I am pushed from my seat, and if I had not been holding on to the rope that ran behind my calves, I would have been catapulted out of the raft. After an initial “Aaarrrrr!” as the water cascades over me, I laugh for joy. That was the best one yet. I find my self half sitting, half squatting, with my arms between my legs, and one foot braced against the opposite side of the raft. No way to get back on the seat; we’re not out of the rapids yet, and the water keeps coming. It’s just another day on the Chilco, Chilcotin and Fraser Rivers. I’m not even sure which rapids these are because, aside from the unforgettable names of White Mile and Hell’s Gate, they are all part of a succession of drenching episodes.
The trip is called “Best of BC,” and thanks to Neil Hartling, owner of Canadian River Expeditions (CRE)–Nahanni River Adventures, it ran this September after a hiatus of several years. Chilko Lake to Yale, BC is one heck of a lot of river to travel, and you can’t do it all in the same raft. The small, oared rafts that CRE uses elsewhere can’t cope with the monster rapids of the Fraser, so we had to switch halfway to large powered rafts. Three companies came together to provide the trip (CRE, Fraser River Raft Expeditions and Big Canyon Rafting), and two sets of guides took us on an eleven-day journey where thrills flowed hand in hand with fascinating history, cultural contact and beautiful scenery.
In addition to the working guides, plus Neil and his partner Ester, there were four guests and four extra guides who were simply enjoying a chance to do part of the trip. In all, we had four rafts and two tiny kayaks, which in my innocence, I assumed would be used only in calm water. In fact, the only reason a kayaker would ride a raft is a prolonged lack of white water; these two headed into every turbulence they could find. One kayaker was a professional photographer who would race ahead, go on shore and clamber up to a convenient perch to capture our little rafts being tossed about in the rapids.
A day-to-day account would make this post into a book. I can give only a sampling of what we saw, did and experienced.
(Some photos were supplied by Neil Hartling and are marked NH)
THE NITTY GRITTY: RAPIDS IN A SMALL RAFT
THE CALMER SIDE OF RAFTING
Although it did seem at times as if our world consisted entirely of rapids, that certainly was not the case. Quiet water, friendly weather and beautiful scenery predominated.
SCENERY ON THE CHILCO AND CHILCOTIN
It would be hard to match the variety of scenery we passed through, from the narrow confines of the Chilco to the majesty of the Fraser. Blessed with mostly sunny skies, we discovered aspects of British Columbia that we never knew existed, all of it interesting, much of it beautiful.
We were witness to the damage wrought by the pine bark beetle and wildfires throughout out trip, but many trees still survive, and despite the sadness we felt on seeing the dead and blackened snags, infestations and fires are part of a self-correcting natural process, at least in the long term.
Pity the poor Chilco. It’s a big, crystal-clear river that turns all grey and loses its name when invaded by the smaller Chilcotin.
In contrast to the northern rivers I have rafted, these rivers pass through inhabited lands, so we sometimes saw bridges, buildings and roads, although we remained in the wilderness.
We passed through a number of lands belonging to First Nations people and were able to watch men and women using nets to catch fish from platforms that were often suspended in perilous places.
On the first days of the trip we saw bald eagles and other raptors at almost every turn. Since they were either soaring overhead or perched high in a tree, they resisted efforts to photograph them from a moving raft, but because it was September, other birds were gathering in flocks prior to migrating. We were treated to two groups of American white pelicans, enormous birds with a nine-foot wing span.
The sheer variety of scenery was amazing. We went from forests to deserts to deep, rocky canyons, constantly told by the guides to take a good look at what we’re passing through because we wouldn’t see it again.
And some things just too weird to explain.
LIFE ON LAND
I like to say that I sleep as well in a tent as in a five-star hotel, maybe better. CRE provides tents, but I prefer to bring my own.
When we ran the White Mile, everything got wet. I also learned that a wet suit is great when you are in the water, but not remotely warm when you’re sitting in a raft, in the wind, after being dumped on.
Neil has a thing about food: it has to be good. The weather may be foul, the river may not cooperate, you may hate your fellow travellers, but YOU WILL EAT WELL!
On many of the northern rivers, campfires are not possible, but BC has an ample supply of wood.
Some of the best river views came from the shore.
The weather was generally very good, but we did have one layover day in the rain.
And then, at last, we reach the mighty Fraser and change rafts and guides. Part Two will cover our trip down the Fraser.