By Kanako Iwata-Eng
This is our fearless leader Bill Petty’s 40th year of paddling. He has been leading annual whitewater road trips to British Columbia almost every year for the past 28 years, and BC continues offering endless rivers he has never run. To paddle unknown rivers again this year, the Team headed to the northern capital of Prince George this time.
Dave and I had a head start and enjoyed the Thompson over Labor Day weekend. It was sunny and hot – about 105 F – and smoky due to the wildfires nearby. On the first day, the water was nice 17,000 CFS. The biggest wave in the Witch’s Cauldron rapid was over 30 feet tall. Some guys caught the Green Wall surf wave.
After the holiday, Bill, Doug, and Larry joined us, and we headed east before going on to Prince George. First, we went to the Shuswap. This river was low. From the road, it looked depressingly flat, but it turned out to have a canyon with several Class 3+ drops. It could have been interesting with more water.
The next day, we went to the Adams and ran the Between Lakes section. We put in right above the weir. Bill had run it before and remembered this weir as a 3-feet drop, but it was hardly anything with low water. When we reached the gorge and saw an intimidating entrance wave, I got excited, but it was the only wave, as the rest was flat. We drove north to run another section of the Adams only to find the road was closed, so we camped in a recreational site (free campsite often with a rest room) in the mountains. The pass from the main dirt road to the rec site was so bad Doug’s canopy slid as his truck went down in a pot hole. Doug’s automatic window at the back of the cab broke, but he made a temporary fix with duct tape.
The Clearwater is a high-volume river. Even at the low water, it was pretty exciting. A young Australian, Chris, joined us. Chris ran the Three Fingers rapid below the Class 5 Kettle. The Three Fingers is a Class 4 rapid with 3 channels. The easiest channel didn’t seem entirely beyond my ability, but I didn’t want to hike up with my boat and put in below it with the rest of the group. Shortly after we reached the big drop with an island. Based on the guidebook, everyone except Doug went left. The biggest drop was about 6 feet high, but it was quite simple. The entry of the left channel was inviting with Class 2+ riffles, and Doug fell into it. He soon found the ledges there were steeper and harder, and he ended up making a short portage. The rest of the run was straightforward. The hole called Pink Mountain wasn’t standing out at that level. After that run, Chris went on with his wife and baby, and Dave went home for another river trip down south.
We drove west for a few hours. Bill had planned to run the Castle Creek, but we weren’t sure about the takeout. We were supposed to run the Creek and take out on the Fraser River, but it seemed the takeout described in the guidebook was above the confluence. We gave up that run and drove up along the Creek. After the fresh rain, the Creek had a raging flow of gray silty water. With that much water pouring into a narrow canyon we could not scout from the road, and we decided it was not wise to run it. We camped next to the river intending to run the section above it, but the next morning we found the road above was washed out and so we moved onto the Holmes. We drove along the river trying to avoid anything overly dangerous. The section of the Holmes we ran was an OK Class 2+.
We stayed near the town of McBride and went to the Dore River, a short drive from the Holmes. This was super fun Creeking 101. Bill let me lead the group. I boat-scouted the entire run except twice getting on the shore. It was exciting and challenging but not threatening – definitely one of the best runs during this trip.
There were more rivers in the area to explore. The next day, we first looked for access to the Milk River but gave up and moved to the Morkill. We drove the narrow road with overgrown plants scratching both sides of our cars to get to the put-in. After scrambling down the hill, we put in at the middle of a rapid below some waterfalls. The guidebook said it was a Class 3 section with the “Chute” drop that most people portaged. The Chute had a curler wave with quiet water long enough to roll behind it. The only concern was that it might be too shallow to roll if I flipped. We couldn’t see under the silty water. As the guys all chose the sneak route on the left, I followed them, thinking the rest of the run may be flat and boring. It was NOT!
Soon we reached a long rapid with whale-size boulders on the river right. At this low water level, the first ledge was bony, and there was no way to avoid the Class 4+ or 5 ugly drop. Doug walked all the way down with his boat first, came back and told us that seeing from the bottom, it was runnable, though he didn’t want to walk back with his boat to run it. Bill and Larry chose to walk as well. I put in below the hardest drop and ran the rest of the drop, which was similar to the Airplane Turn of the Skykomish. Another Class 4 rapid followed. The first ledge was easy on the right side, but the rest of the right side was rocky. I portaged the first ledge and ran the left side. The guys didn’t like this river, because it was flat or required portages. I was glad I ran parts of the hard drops. We camped next to a spectacular 60-feet waterfall and headed to Prince George next day.
The Willows River near Prince George was too low, so we headed south. It was a clear night, and in the morning, the temperature went down to 23F. Bill woke me up at 5 a.m. saying we would start driving instead of messing around with fire and breakfast. As it was 105F at the Thompson, I wasn’t ready for the freezing temperatures. Bill, Doug, and I ran the Blackwater River later that day. With brown water and dark-colored bottom rocks, this river was well named. It was flat except one drop with a short, narrow canyon. After camping there, we headed to Likely where the Unlikely Whitewater Festival was going to take place.
We took the backroads from Quesnel to Likely, only to find the road was closed. After wasting two hours, we finally got to Likely about 4 p.m. Larry who skipped the Blackwater and got to Likely earlier couldn’t wait for us and had gone home. We were welcome by the festival organizers and told to camp in downtown Likely that consisted of a general store, a restaurant/lodge, and a laundromat. The following morning, the festival camp had grown with more people who arrived after work on Friday. The main group, which had beginners and children, went to the Class 2 Cariboo, while playboaters spent time in town where play waves formed below the bridge.
Bill, Doug, and I ran the Class 3+ Quesnel with three Canadian boaters. Two of them, Ben and Louise, were advanced boaters, though only Louise had run this section once. The third boater, Kagin, was a 2-month beginner. I had run this section two years before at higher water, but it felt like a new river – much more interesting and fun at lower water.
The most challenging rapid was the Devil’s Eyebrow, a constricted short canyon with wild boils and huge offset holes. Last time, we got out onto the river left shore to scout, but Bill, who had run this many times, said he wouldn’t. He thought it would be easier to stay right at the current level, and if we get out to the left shore, we wouldn’t be able to go back to the right. Bill led and, to his disappointment, he went into the Deep Throat, the big hole at the entrance, and swam. Doug immediately followed him avoiding the Deep Throat, and then Ben, who passed me while I was struggling in a boil, and me. I saw Doug chasing Bill’s boat for a while and disappeared. When I was through the canyon, Bill had his boat and paddle with Ben’s help. Ben ferried to river left to set up a safety for Kagin coming down with Louise’s lead.
“Where is Doug?,” we wondered. Bill and I looked each other puzzled. Shortly after, Doug reappeared and said he chased Bill’s boat into a small hole sideways, flipped, swam, and then self-rescued his boat and himself. He managed to put back on in the boiling eddy. Kagin, on the other hand, stayed up through the challenging rapid and surprised us, though he flipped trying to surf on a small wave right before the takeout and, he too, joined the Quesnel Swim Team. Later that day, I ran the section again with the Festival crew, 20+ people. Though we tried to keep a certain distance from each other, it was chaos to get through the Devil’s Eyebrow, as if marbles were going through an U pipe shaken by a 4-year-old, but no swims there.
On the last day, Bill, Doug, and I ran the Class 2 section, Lower Cariboo, and headed south. I added seven more new runs and went home happy.