Downhill swim to save the Skeena

🕔Jun 04, 2009

The Skeena River has a long history as a food source, travel route and hub of cultural activity. It has been explored by boat, by air and by foot, but until this summer it’s unlikely the Skeena has been experienced—top to bottom—from in the water.

In mid-July, Ali Howard will wade into the Skeena’s headwaters as she embarks on a four-week mission to become the first to swim the river’s 610 kilometres from its high mountain source to the Pacific Ocean. With events planned for communities along her journey, she hopes the expedition will raise awareness for a watershed whose inhabitants rely on the five million spawning salmon that return to the river each year.

Howard has a safety and moral-support team on board, including Hazelton kayaker Chris Gee who will remain a paddle stroke away throughout the journey. “None of us is being cavalier about this,” she says. “It’s a big river. It’s moving. It is unforgiving if you do the wrong thing. If you have respect for the river and you’re careful with your decision-making, I think the trip is possible.”

The Skeena’s upper reaches provide fast-flowing rapids up to Class 4+, and two sections that Howard will have to walk around, interspersed with slow-moving water amidst some of the most beautiful scenery the world has to offer. As countless tributaries join the river on its journey to the ocean, it widens into a peaceful, slow-moving waterway. But looks can be deceiving: beneath its surface, the Skeena harbours unexpected currents and suspended debris. Wearing a drysuit, helmet and PFD, Howard will have to swim up to 40 kilometres each day in temperatures between six and 10 degrees.

When she steps into the river this summer, only one thing is for sure: Howard will experience great beauty and unforeseen challenges on a river that is never the same from one year to the next and can be as unpredictable and diverse as the characters that have explored it for millennia.

Sacred beginnings
The mighty Skeena begins as a trickle, a gentle upwelling in the Spatsizi Plateau that can be easily forded late summer in a pair of gumboots. A vast, open wilderness where caribou migrate and calve, the area known as the Sacred Headwaters gives birth to the Skeena, Stikine and Nass rivers.

“It’s a totally unique ecosystem for our watershed. This river goes 610 kilometres and the only place it functions ecologically and esthetically that way is up there,” says Brian Huntington, who has done fieldwork in the Skeena’s upper reaches since 2003.

From its humble beginnings, the river begins to pick up speed and volume, falling steeply through a series of boulder gardens. Each tributary that joins the Skeena brings a reprieve with slow-moving water that meanders through a wide valley bottom.

“You’re starting in sub-alpine. It’s like a big sponge up there—wide open meadows and groundwater everywhere with meandering creeks that come together,” says Jim Allen, who grew up in the Kispiox Valley and began exploring the Skeena in his mid-teens.

On an early season rafting trip last June, Allen and Huntington combined research on water quality and fish habitat with the opportunity to experience the river and plan a trip for later in the year. After starting as close to the headwaters as possible, Huntington remembers entering the first constriction.

“Once we were in that it was high water and there was no place to eddy out,” he says. “The only place we got to rest was five minutes in. We got hung up on a rock and that’s the first time we got to stop and look each other in the eyes and say, ‘Holy shit!’”

Allen predicts the first few days will be some of the toughest for Howard: “She’s going to be walking through fast moving water with boulders the size of tires,” he says. After about 30 kilometres, the Kluatantan joins the river a couple hundred kilometres north of Hazelton, and the Skeena begins to resemble the river most northerners recognize: wide and meandering, but still full of surprises.

Whirlpools and river monsters
The Skeena is more commonly paddled for recreation downstream from its confluence with the Babine. In this stretch of big water mixed with rapids, stories abound from the early days of recreational kayaking in the area.

“Skeena is a big, honkin’ river. It’s one of the biggest rivers in North America. Its size is what makes it so wonderful,” says search-and-rescue technician Walter Bucher, who has travelled this section at least a dozen times. “The people are inconsequential to the river. It’s been here forever, and it will continue to be here forever. The people come and go.

“These big epics, when you put them up against the scale of the river, look so trite. They seem so shallow—excuse the pun.”

He describes the Skeena, also known as the River of Mists, as a volatile and relatively young river. As a result, it braids and weaves through the wilderness, often tearing up forests and collapsing banks in its path to the coast. This accounts for the high amount of wood on the river, and Bucher remembers a recent flood year when he saw “forests floating around in the eddies.”

Back in the 1990s, Bucher was paddling the Skeena near Cigarette Corner—between its confluences with the Babine and the Kispiox—in June, when bottomless whirlpools 20 feet wide could completely swallow a kayak: “You’d try to get away from them but they’d suck you down and your boat would point up so all you can see is the sky,” Bucher says.

It’s never couth for a kayaker to lose his paddle midstream. So when paddling companion Max Lautenbacher was pulled into a hole for 10 to 15 seconds, then popped up without a paddle, he explained that, “this giant monster grabbed me and grabbed my paddle out of my hands.” His paddling companions thought they were hearing the best excuse yet.

“He was dead serious,” Bucher says. “All of a sudden, a giant cottonwood tree surfaced, with its root ball intact. At the very top of the root ball, stuck in the roots, was Max’s paddle.”

Lautenbacher hand-paddled to the log, got out of his boat and climbed the root ball, to about 12 feet—or so the story goes—to retrieve his paddle.

The water level in the river—and its ability to carry full-sized trees downriver—will likely have dissipated by the time Howard starts her journey in July, but many variables play into the river’s size: snow levels, spring melt timing and precipitation.

Long before Gore-tex
Gitxsan wing chief Yvonne Lattie was born and raised in Hazelton and spends her summers setting fishing nets on the Skeena, often around Kitwanga. For at least 10,000 years, Lattie’s ancestors used the river and its adjacent grease trail as a travel route to the headwaters.

“The Gitxsan people would meet up with the Tahltan up there and they would have a big gathering of gambling and eating—a big gathering of companionship,” Lattie says. “The Skeena goes through so many hereditary chiefs’ territories. If we lose the river, we’re going to lose our food source. The wildlife depend on it as well—the birds, the bears, the wolves.

“Even in a raft I find it to be very peaceful on the river.”

When Howard reaches the Skeena’s lower portions, she’ll be gliding past Skeena residents that continue to use the family fishing holes their ancestors fished for generations. Lattie worries that developments such as micro-hydro projects in its tributaries could destroy the Skeena, currently the longest un-dammed river in North America.

“Once you start playing with the creeks that are the spawning beds for salmon, you’re also playing with the livelihood of a lot of people,” Lattie says. “I am so glad Ali’s doing this Skeena awareness swim. Awareness needs to come to the Skeena.”

Just upstream from Terrace is Kitselas, a Tsimshian word meaning “keepers of the canyon,” where Web Bennett has continued his ancestors’ legacy by creating a national historic site at the canyon once used to control river traffic. Going back 5,000 years, the people at Kitselas Canyon would collect a toll, often in the form of oolichan grease from the coast or moose hides from the interior, from coastal and interior tribes travelling the river by canoe.

At high water, the kilometre-long canyon can produce large boils and turbulent water, but Bennett says by the time Howard makes her descent, the channel should be relatively calm: “Once the spring runoff settles around June or July is a good time to head in,” he says.

Out to sea
After Kitselas Canyon, the river’s character changes again, opening into a wide valley where the Skeena meanders amidst gravel bars. “As soon as you go through Kitselas Canyon, the valley and the river get a lot wider,” says Hatha Callis, who runs rafting tours in the area, often on the eight-kilometre stretch between the Exchamsiks and Kasiks rivers.

“The [lower] river has this mystique around it for being dangerous, but apart from there being a lot of wood in the water, it’s pretty sleepy,” Callis says, adding that hazards include logjams and up-river winds. “Often people go out on the river with a lack of understanding about it and there’s lots you can do to get yourself into trouble.”

As the crew reaches big water near the ocean—where the river widens to nearly four kilometres—it will be important to remain in the main channel to avoid logjams, he says. Upriver winds and tidal currents will make it challenging for the rafting support crew to keep up with Howard. From the mouth of the Skeena, Howard will have a 10-kilometre swim to Port Edward, where she hopes to end her journey Aug. 12.

“I don’t know what that’s going to be like to swim,” Callis says. “It’s big. All of a sudden the river changes to be basically the ocean.”