Colour of the Water

Photo Credit: Facundo Gastiazoro

Colour of the Water

👤Paul Glover 🕔Sep 10, 2018

I kept my eyes open as the river’s powerful current dragged me under. In the subdued light beneath the surface I could make out the bulk of a house-sized boulder as I swept past it. It was menacingly dark and its edges were still sharp; it must have only recently tumbled into the river from the canyon walls above.

I had no idea where Rob was. His mother, at her home a thousand kilometres away, had awakened the night before from a dream that he was submerged in deep, green water. She took only small comfort that, in the dream, he was at least swimming.

In my cabin, by the flickering yellow light of a kerosene lamp, we traced the route on a map with our fingers. An undulating blue line, the Nass River extended from BC’s northern interior to the coast. We would float for several days down the grey-green river, emerging gradually into the darker, deeper estuary and finally to the choppy and foam-flecked waters of the coastal inlets. We would ultimately paddle our way up the Portland Canal to Stewart.

It was a grand idea; our boldest adventure yet. It was fortunate that all our previous exploits had ended well, although if they hadn’t we might have been more cautious in embarking on this one.

Rob’s old green van bounced and slithered its way up the muddy brown track that was Highway 37, then still unpaved. It was September; arches of golden leaves crowded the roadway. We didn’t know where we would put in so we just kept driving north—endlessly, it seemed—until we caught sight of the river to our left. By the last of the daylight we made camp on the shore.

In the slanting rays of an autumn morning the river was a striking but friendly blue-green. Fine silt from upstream glaciers tempered the bright water with cloudiness, and soil flushed in by recent rains added a hint of ochre to the blend. Yellow cottonwood leaves tumbled gaily in the current.

Eagerly we packed the canoe, donned our life vests and set out. All the previous night we had heard a sucking roar coming from downstream and expected this would be our first obstacle. To our surprise it was just a little riffle—the river splashing over some rocks in the middle of the current. With a sense of relief and some self-deprecating remarks we disappeared around the next bend.

As the sun traced its arc across the pale blue sky we travelled deeper and deeper into the unknown. Around every few turns was a new challenge. We soon learned the volume of sound that this powerful river could generate when crashing through its rapids: while portaging around a couple of these we could not even hear each other shout.

We grew more comfortable with running the rapids as the day progressed. Before each we would scout ahead, clambering along the tawny riverside rock. We would plan our route, then carry it out.

The frothing water was a brilliant, crystalline white, but as we drifted through the pool below a cataract the colour changed gradually to jade green and finally a stunning aquamarine before re-entering the rushing current.  

We were enjoying this so much, and so preoccupied with what the next stretch of river might bring, that we forgot to eat. With the arrival of an amber dusk we made camp on a sandbar, cooked over a fire, relived our glorious day and speculated on the morrow.  A trembling aurora, pale green and rose, sent us to bed in highest spirits.

In the black of a moonless night a hard rain began; water was seeping into the tent. We ran around in the dark in our underwear trying to repair the problem, re-setting guy lines and anchoring corners with river rock. It was to little avail.

The morning brought a changed scene. The sky was wet steel; the previously lustrous cottonwoods were now a tired yellow and shivered in the chill breeze. The river, already rising from the overnight rain, had turned chalky grey without the gay sparkle of yesterday. It hissed and snarled at the shore as it sped past.

Amid showers and drizzle we set out, wearing our rain gear. The river turned abruptly and seemed to steepen by several degrees. The walls rose higher and higher on either side. We scouted ahead, climbing sometimes to the top of the rocky bluffs to plan our route. We were still making it.

“Okay…down through that chute…past that rock on its left …then into the eddy for the next scout.”

We launched into the current and made for the other side of the midstream rock. But we were being swept downstream awfully fast; the rock appeared to be charging right at us. The dirty green wave above it was growing larger by the second and looked entirely unfriendly.

Now it was upon us—or we were upon it: we were going to hit it head-on. The canoe dropped into the trough on its upstream side; from here the wave towered high above our heads. We were lifted up and over the top—an exhilarating ride—but then plunged bow-first into the next wave. Cold water poured over my lap, half-filling the canoe. We now had no maneuverability and the next wave capsized us completely.

At this point I lost track of Rob. I briefly clung to the canoe until I realized that it and the current were one—it was not going to help me escape from the river. I let go and started kicking towards shore. Even with the flotation of the life vest I was often underwater. Water came in through my nose and mouth. I was swept across gigantic boulders as the current flung me around. I imagined my mother reading in the paper about my death by drowning, and felt very bad about this. Rob’s mother, in Vancouver, had already glimpsed our predicament in her premonitory dream.

Now my head was above water long enough to see that I had managed to propel myself into calmer water, closer to the shore. In fact, there was Rob, and he was crawling from the river. I swam frantically to break through the current that kept pushing me away. Rob spotted me and called encouragement; there wasn’t much else he could do. I struggled against the current—it didn’t feel like I was making any headway. My strength was ebbing. In desperation I kicked off my shoes. My bare feet worked better and I finally broke through and into the slack water along the shore. I climbed from the river, my body feeling like it weighed hundreds of pounds. I was panting harder than I ever had before. Rob scrambled up a rib of rock and watched the canoe, with all our belongings, rolling in the current as it disappeared downstream.

We wrung out our clothes and took stock. We were on the opposite side of the river from Highway 37 and the Nass Road, and had nothing besides our life vests. We had no food. I had no shoes. In those days there were only two vehicle bridges over the Nass: a highway bridge far upstream at Meziadin, and a one-lane logging bridge that we had passed under earlier that day. We trudged up the shore, over rock buttresses and piles of driftwood. At the bridge we crossed the river and followed the logging road. My feet were tough but after 15 kilometres of gravel they were getting tender. Eventually we caught a ride back to Rob’s van, our starting point. We had covered some 65 km on the river.

I had once met a couple named Clive and Joyce who lived somewhere in the Nass Valley. By asking around we got directions to their place, a vegetable farm downriver, near New Aiyansh. In the gathering dusk we knocked on their door. Surprised but hospitable, they took us in. We told them our story. Clive loaned me a pair of old runners, three sizes too big. They felt great. Over the next two days Clive directed us to various spots along the river where he thought we might find our canoe, or remnants thereof. The prevailing opinion among the locals was that it would not be found: it had either been smashed to bits or had already made its way to the ocean, or both. The canyon in which we’d capsized was renowned for taking lives: everyone we talked to had a story, and reminded us how lucky we were.

The deep blue-green of the mountainsides stood in stark contrast to the autumn reds of fireweed and other young growth in the massive clearcuts at their base. This was the heyday of logging in the Nass. While taking in these vistas we contemplated our fate and fortune: in spite of all we’d lost, we kept shaking our heads that we were still alive.

On our third day there Clive had another idea. We piled in the van and he directed us to the riverbank across from Old Aiyansh, formerly a thriving village on the north side of the river, now mostly abandoned. But today there was a service in the old church there, followed by a picnic. Boats were ferrying people across the river and we jumped in one of these.

The river here was swift but flat. The weather had improved and the water once again had a promising sparkle. We landed downstream of the village and hiked up to it. A boardwalk wound through the old grey-and-brown wooden houses with a spectacular view of the glittering, glaciated peaks upriver.

Right about then the service concluded and people streamed out from the old white church. The picnic began. Among other delicacies we feasted on roasted oolichan, boiled smoked humpie, and dried fish dipped in oolichan oil.

Peering over the edge of the clearing at the riverbank below, I was startled to see a battered canoe lying upside-down across the back of a riverboat. It was a pale pastel green, just like Rob’s had been. We climbed down to investigate. Indeed, it was the very one we’d lost upstream. Somehow it had mostly survived its solo descent through the canyon.

As we marvelled at this unexpected turn, an older Nisga’a man approached. He introduced himself as Sam. His voice was soft but his eyes had a haunted look. He had found the canoe a couple days ago while fishing. It was in a pool, upside down, nudging against his salmon net.

After a pause, he continued. Years ago, he said, he had been coming downriver in a boat with one of his sons, and he had decided they would run the canyon. They had capsized. Sam somehow got out, but his son had drowned. While Sam was relieved to see that Rob and I were alive, finding our desolate-looking canoe had brought back the loss of his son: the irreversible consequence of a choice made long ago.

In January, an RCMP jet boat was travelling upriver on a routine patrol. The sky was winter blue, the water low and black. From deep in a pool a flash of colour caught the eye of one of the officers. It was yellow-orange—not a natural river colour. They circled back and retrieved it from the depths. It was a nylon backpack on a metal frame. All but one of the pockets of the pack had been torn off, as if by some violent force.

A week later I received a registered letter from the RCMP. They had found a pack in the river, and in its one surviving pocket was my wallet. Was I still alive?  

They sent my wallet to me, and what was left of the pack. Inside the wallet was some money, and to this day I still have a few of the bills. Although still recognizable, they do have a different look to them: tinted, after months in the river, by the colour of the water.