humble tumble

🕔Sep 07, 2005

The realization that my worst fear was coming true washed over me as coldly as the Class IV whitewater on my face. “I can’t believe this,” I thought. “Our guide says he’s never capsized in the two dozen times he’s run this river. And I, a whitewater rookie, have to be here when it happens.”

I was among three people journeying down the 100-kilometre Babine River in a 12-foot raft. Smithers photographer David Jennings and I sat opposite each other in the bow, following paddling instructions from our guide Len Vanderstar, who operated the oars behind us.

Len had gotten me into this. How could I have refused an invite to a six-day rafting tour of one of Canada’s premiere rafting destinations? A habitat biologist at the Ministry of Water, Land & Air Protection in Smithers, Len is also a certified rafting guide. He knows the Babine’s every nook and mood, and calls it an “intimate” river, but as our heavily loaded raft tilted backward it became clear that the Babine—however familiar—was about to spring some surprises on us.

  • * *

We had put in three days earlier, at the fish weir close to Nilkitkwa Lake. Our group included a Kataraft manned by Brandin, Robyn and Les: B.C. Parks staff out to assess the impacts on this river of about 300 whitewater recreationists and 1,300 rod days annually. Spirits were high as we stocked our rafts, but I was already learning that the Babine was no kiddie pool.

Our full-body wetsuits and booties were necessary, said Len, because frigid water temperatures can render you immobile in half an hour. He replaced my borrowed life jacket with a better one, and said the attached sheathed knife could be useful in… well, “situations.” These, I learned, could include being trapped underwater with your ankle snagged by a root, or having to shed the jacket to dive deep enough to extract yourself from what Len calls a helico-current: known to whoosh lifeless bodies in vertical underwater circles for days. Len inspected my helmet, or “brain bucket,” emphasizing its utility if my head is hit by the raft’s metal frame, a flying crew member, or river rocks. My paddle could also be handy in rescues.

We launched at about 9 a.m., waving at dozens of hip-wadered anglers who’d come for the plump salmon, which make this a worldwide fishing mecca, and for a moment I wondered if I’d rather be with them.

But the Babine’s quiet rhythms displaced anxiety with enchantment. There were whitewater rushes at places like House Rock, but mostly we drifted through lush subboreal, interior cedar and hemlock forests. Sandpipers, mergansers, kingfishers and osprey flashed in the sun. Countless bald eagles circled overhead, descending to slice the water for juicy prey. Their molting bodies shed tufts of eagle-down, carried to our waiting fingers like blessings on the breeze.

During many riverside stops, we explored, photographed, took notes, fly-fished, and followed fresh wolf-prints. We tucked tents nightly into narrow beaches, carefully packing all of our waste out—even our own excrement.

Around campfires, I learned about the successful effort to safeguard 145 square kilometers of this ecosystem by awarding it park status in 1999. I heard about madmen and athletes who gave rapids names, such as Goble’s Gobble, Pat’s Panic and (on the Skeena) Go Right or Die.

Len’s knowledge of this region’s rich natural and cultural history unlocked Babine secrets, such as a fossil-rich tributary where the fern fronds of 250 million years ago are mirrored in glistening black shale, and an ancient “highway”: inter-regional trails used by the Gitxsan when trading with people from Fort Babine to Bear Lake.

They’re marked by cottonwood trees which were knotted and twisted as saplings to encourage visibly irregular growth, and/or systematically stripped of bark. An abandoned village site, food caches, hand-carved wooden oars, and a mysterious petroglyph offered more clues about the people who thrived here for some 10,000 years.

At Slide Drop, we poked in the rusting remnants of a 1950s work camp, constructed for a two-year effort to restore fish runs, which had been choked by a massive slide. We stopped in at fishing lodges frequented by contemporary Babine devotees, such as the Babine Steelhead Lodge and the luxurious Silver Hilton, where celebrities, multi-millionaires, and power brokers come to play. More than a few have been welcomed by the sweet fiddle sounds of Jenny Lester—a Bulkley Valley resident who, in addition to working as a cook at the Silver Hilton, is a renowned bluegrass player.

It was day three that drew wonder, then fear. Around noon, we secured our boats to a shaded rock. Whispering, we trekked boxes of camera equipment to a rocky ledge where we crouched discreetly for the next five hours.

Babine grizzly bears enjoy some the richest habitat in B.C.’s interior, and here, at Grizzly Drop, it’s common to see more than a dozen grizzly bears frolicking and fishing at a time.

Bear dramas quickly unfolded when a sow arrived with her two cubs. While she pulled up flopping steelhead for lunch, her adventurous cub was cruelly sucked into the powerful currents. We held our breaths, fearing his demise as he failed to surface for long moments. But the Babine relented, spewing him out about 150 metres downstream on the opposite side. Momma Grizzly bawled her anguish, before braving those same currents to retrieve him—forcing cub number two to follow. As the family reunited on the other side, we cheered quietly.

Soon afterward, a boar grizzly approached the sunning threesome. Stared down by the sow, he wisely retreated—and lolled guilelessly in calm water a stone’s throw from us—for a half hour we wished would never end. He toyed lazily with a stick, paying us no mind at all until the audible shutter click on Dave’s camera piqued his interest. He peered curiously at us, but ignored us again when Dave switched to a quieter digital camera.

A few mesmerizing hours later, the bears had gone. We reloaded and set out, with our raft in the lead. And by making the wrong call on how to navigate the grizzlies’ lunch spot, we abruptly understood the “drop” part of Grizzly Drop.

As the raft flipped upward, my foot slipped out of the place where I’d wedged it for stability. “Here we go,” I thought, before churning whitewater swallowed me up. I emerged spluttering, clinging to my paddle, and caught hold of a rope fixed to the perimeter of the raft, which was now upside down and hurtling downstream.

Dave was nowhere in sight, but Len had already managed to hoist himself up on the raft—no easy feat in the roil. He grabbed my paddle, seized the shoulders of my life jacket, signaled me to hold my breath, and plunged me down underwater. It’s a rescue move the jacket was built to aid. When it bobbed me up rapidly, Len utilized this momentum to pull me up onto the raft. “Paddle!” he hollered, thrusting it at me while I sought to balance.

He shifted his focus to Dave and somehow, we were all aboard within minutes. We steered into an eddy, secured the boat and caught our breaths. With ropes and the weight of our other crew, who made it through Grizzly Drop unscathed, our raft was righted. Aside from a broken oar and some shaken rookies, we and all of our carefully waterproofed goods were intact.

“I got too cocky,” laughed Len later, remembering his previous assurances. “The river had to teach me a lesson.

“There’s two types of rafting guides on the Babine: the ones that have flipped their rafts, and the ones that will,” he summarized.

We were not the only ones humbled that week by the Babine. The next morning, we met 10 rafters from Utah. Lacking wetsuits, helmets, adequate rescue rope, paddles, spare oars, or a working radio, they were seriously under-prepared—and in dire straits.

They had just flipped two of their three rafts while attempting to navigate the 14-foot narrow, treacherously rocky channel called Sphincter II. Two oars were broken, there were no more spares, and one of their flipped rafts had floated away. Its fate—and that of one passenger—was unknown.

Upon surveying this carnage, I was happy to disembark to photograph Len, Les and Robyn from the safety of the river’s edge as they expertly steered our two rafts through the channel.

The Americans’ lost raft was found one kilometre down river, snagged upside down on rocks which protruded from the middle of the Babine. Its shaken passenger perched on top, aware that at any moment, swirling currents could dislodge it—with much of the crew’s gear and food—and usher it to oblivion in Kitsegas Canyon below. A group effort co-ordinated by Len and Les using ropes and pulleys, saved the raft, its passenger and contents: but that’s another story.

“Well, we’d read about the Babine on the Internet,” offered the group’s leader, explaining why they hadn’t engaged a guide with direct experience of this challenging waterway.

We wished the Americans luck. When they offered to return the favour by taking us out rafting if we ever made it down to Utah, we smiled politely. (“Note to self: avoid that trip,” I thought).

The next two days carried us down the Babine until it rejoined the Skeena. We concluded our trip 60 km down river at Kispiox, where inquisitive Gitxsan children waded up to our rafts and playfully hopped aboard.

I looked at these kids, whose people’s well-being has always been intimately related to the Babine and the Skeena. And I felt I was blessed, with a tactile new understanding of the word “river.”

©Larissa Ardis