Everest of expedition kayaking. The Grand Canyon of the Stikine may not
be the hardest river on earth, but it's the most well known and
respected big water multi-day. Like a high altitude climb, it's also
in Northern British Columbia the Stikine flows from a high
plateau, cuts through the thousand foot deep Grand Canyon and continues
into Alaska before reaching the Pacific Ocean.
As the first attempt on the river was happening in 1981, I
being born. The expedition reached a modest success, navigating sixty
percent of the river and utilizing helicopter support to avoid the
lower narrows. Four years later, 1981 expedition leader Rob Lesser
brought a team to the Stikine and completed the river through the lower
narrows. Over the next twenty years, only half the groups attempting
the Stikine would descend successfully. Twenty nine years after the
first descent, the Stikine has become a
benchmark for class V paddlers. Finding the right water level (low) on
the river has always been a
problem. With the gauge lying a hundred kilometers downstream, flows
were an educated guess at best. In 2009 an older
Telegraph Creek (take out) went online making flow reading easy.
Of course because it's easy to the flow doesn't mean it's
easy to get
the correct flow. Done in the fall, the Stikine season is rainy season.
More than one group has made the trek to find the river bursting. The
trek. A forty hour drive from Sacramento, California to the
. Just under two thousand
miles. Only ten years ago, the last four hours of driving was on dirt
road. Now just the shuttle is unpaved. We'd broken up our drive with a
trip on the Homathko
. This was also a roll of
the dice on the weather. We were mildly relieved when we checked the
weather. It was good, so the Stikine was on for sure and it was time to
be a little nervous again.
Good is such a relative term.
A dry but cold spell.
freezing and daytime highs in the upper forties.
There is something very comforting about doing a first
no one has done the river before, it's easy to drop in with blind
optimism. The Stikine is the opposite. Because of it's rich history,
the horror stories abound: Lost kayaks, near death swims, thousand foot
vertical climbs, and a few helicopter rescues.
howl across the
metal lanes on the Highway 37 bridge, adding to
the eerie sense. This is the most nervous I think I've ever been before
putting on. Had we not just spent four days driving here I might be
tempted to sit it out.
Water levels are lower than any in our group have seen it
some ways this will be good, because it wont be as pushy. But we all
known that in rivers like this, low water means ledge holes too, and
what was an easy line at higher flows might not be so nice. We
leisurely pack our boats. Why wont it warm up just a little? Boats
packed with extra gear for the cold weather we are ready to go and have
to get the cliche sign photo.
left to right: Corey Boux, Jonas
Grunwald, Rush Sturges, Charlie
Center and myself.
but still big...the Stikine.
We launched into the glacial waters and made quick
progress through six
flat miles. It was cold enough that paddling felt good. Boat
adjustments were made as necessary above Entrance Falls. Standing on
the rocky beach we talk over the line decide not to scout.
into the current
I wonder how hard will this be compared to the
big water in India and Pakistan. Dropping into the gorge we stay left,
skirting around some big holes and then use a pillow to help us move
right and are through Entrance Falls. Whew that felt good, big water is
A few read and run
rapids separate us from Wicked Wanda, where we get
out for a quick scout and take some pictures.
Grunwald: classic big water hole
dodging in Wicked Wanda.
Sturges and Jonas Grunwald in the
run out of Wicked Wanda.
Only a short ways downstream we were out for another quick
Goats. Power through the entrance hole, than go right or left of the
bottom pour over.
Jonas Grunwald and Charlie Center go right.
Several miles quickly passed as we cruised through
rapids and boat
scouted a few, before arriving at the crux of day one. The entrance to
pass/fail is long, complicated and near mandatory. Portaging would be
more dangerous. The line varies with flow and we scouted all the way
around the corner. At medium to lower flows a hole forms on the left
wall. We split into two teams to get footage.
Sturges making the first move
down the center.
Charlie Center, Jonas Grunwald and Rush Sturges in the middle of the
same trio again. What at high
water was a breaking wave might have
been more on just the breaking side of things, with a narrow window on
The eddy above pass/fail is highly sought after.
At higher flows pass/fail is one of the toughest
The move is as classic as can be for big water: a left to right ferry.
Failing puts the paddler left of the rock and into a big hole. Passing
on the right of the rock is good to go. The good news is that there is
a portage down the right, and at lower flows the move isn't too bad.
Sturges enters pass/fail.
Charlie Center and Rush Sturges.
With pass/fail behind us, we had one more named
Perhaps the most feared on the river. Wasson's Hole. Notorious for
nearly drowning John Wasson is a large hole sandwiched between two
vertical walls. Coming into Wasson's we decided to catch the eddy on
the right. Corey was in the lead and was suddenly sucked down in the
eddy line. Out of sight. Then he resurfaced upside down and tried to
roll in the tumultuous eddy line. I tried to catch up with him in case
he came part way up. A t-rescue on the Grand Canyon of the Stikine? Why
not. Corey rolled all the way up once I got close and we worked hard to
catch the eddy, just making it. We decided not to scout due to how
tenuous it would be to get on shore. We'd just run the standard medium
or lower line, down the right punching a hole moving slightly left,
then being sure to stay right of the big hole.
Through Wasson's Hole we made quick work of the
down to the
first camp, Site Zed. It's an unusual sight on the Stikine: flat
ground. Site Zed was the site of a proposed dam in the '70's. Well more
than proposed, BC Hydro had put in gauges, and flown bulldozers into
Site Zed, leveled some platforms and even had temporary buildings put
up. Locals violently opposed the dam, and went as far as burning a fuel
depot before the project was called off.
is quickly reclaiming Site Zed,
but there is still some open
space and nice camping.
and Charlie laugh about the fire
starters that Charlie picked up
at Wal-Mart. They worked better than expected considering they didn't
even get put in a drybag.
Site Zed is an interesting place to just hike around and soak in the
beauty of the gorge. Fall colors were a nice bonus too.
of the past, and a
reminder of how fortunate we are to be
paddling a river not a lake.
Clear and cold weather makes for nice lighting.
Pulling into camp only four hours after putting
on, I felt
a lot of
relief. Most of the notorious rapids were behind us and the river was
big and tough but manageable. It felt good to take a deep breath and
just enjoy the experience of being out in the elements, challenged but
not overwhelmed. Tomorrow is going to be a good day.
moon lights the entrace to Site