Photo: Daniel Bullock
Tom Wells is a professional whitewater rafting guide. Here, he shares a story of a recent rafting trip on the Chilko River in British Columbia (this is part one of three).
Frosty oars of Douglas fir stand ready in the autumn sun. The Chilko River slides downstream.
My drysuit crinkles in the bluebird air. I row the kitchen-raft solo, grateful for the silence. No one to ask, "How deep is the water here? What grade of rapid is this? How many times have you done this?" Just the river gurgling, the wind nipping at my ears. Last run for the season.
Three months earlier, I was rigging expedition rafts in the early days of summer. Up on the alpine lake, where the float planes buzzed overhead and with a few last-second adjustments came skidding in like ducks still learning to land. A mosaic of last year’s salmon run, skeletal but not quite fleshless, lay preserved in the coldwater shallows. Two adolescent grizzlies swam out to the rafts I’d just loaded with coolers. Pawing at inflated tubes, snorting food-fumes through insulating plastic and vacuum-sealed wrapping. Although it was raining rocks, they were reluctant to leave. Chuck came running and paddle-slapped the water, bending it out of shape. Those new paddles were putty anyway…
The familiar constriction sweeps toward me, the walls of Lava Canyon rise on either side, and I back-row the corner into Bidwell. The current thrusts me toward the jagged rocks on river left. Oars flexing, I cling to a wave-train that shoots me downstream. A low-water boulder garden looms, the usual line closed. The only passage for my 18-foot rig is a narrow chute between two boulders. I ferry over, ship my oars and ride the green tongue to freedom. To my left, a familiar feature: a flat-faced boulder with a tree pinned against its base. An early-summer memory flits through my mind…
It was the third expedition for the season. The lead raft drifted sideways, paddle crew flailing. Chuck, a trip leader of two decades’ Chilko experience, was unable to redirect the 3000-pound rig’s momentum. The raft contacted the boulder, leapt onto its upstream tube like a bath toy flung by a spoilt toddler, and wrapped there instantly. I was guiding the second raft, the only other craft present, and I looked on as five souls came tumbling into the river. The moment had a distinct texture of unreality about it, a slow-motion crossroads in the time-space continuum. Then an acceleration of cause-and-effect down unknowable destinies. The swimmers began to scatter, and I gave chase. Chuck and two of his crew swum toward an eddy on river left, while the remaining two were swept downstream.
Lava Canyon on the Chilko River is one of the longest, most continuous stretches of commercially navigable whitewater in North America. Bidwell is the first significant rapid, and marks the entry into approximately 12 miles of wood-ridden, canyoned, drop-studded river.
‘Okay, we’re going to pick up some swimmers here, folks,’ I heard myself say. I rowed past the three swimming for shore, and went after the two bobbing helplessly downstream. Time was river-bent, seconds stretching in the mind as we closed the distance to the victims. With my oars and all four paddlers at work, we chased them down. The raft nudged them into the awareness that they were being rescued. My crew took them by the life jackets and dragged them into the raft, limp and wetsuit-slick, like overgrown seal-babies snatched from the womb.
I derailed the raft from the current, and tied off in a luck-eddy on river left. Unbuckling a couple of throw-ropes, I squinted upstream. Something big and yellow came bobbing our way...
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Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures. Be aware of local regulations and don't damage these amazing places for the sake of a photograph.