Liquid Fun of the Whitewater Kind
Boof. Huck. Boogy water. Like many sports, whitewater paddling has its own language. But in northwest BC, the words that are often repeated are world-class whitewater.
For Tlell Glover, a volunteer with the Bulkley Valley Canoe and Kayak Club, what makes northwest BC whitewater world-class is the variety and quality of the paddling. “We’re really fortunate to have a huge variety of paddles right on our doorstep. You can mosey down the Skeena in a canoe, kayak a really technical creek, surf the tide at Butze Rapids, or head out for a remote week-long trip. And that’s just for starters.”
A group of paddlers who recently got together in Terrace listed over 200 runs that have been paddled in northwest BC. Although some of these may never be paddled again, others may become classics.
Glover says that another unique aspect of paddling here is the wild land that many routes travel through. There simply aren’t many places in the world that have accessible wilderness like we do in our backyard. And it’s often the wilderness experience that draws both Canadian and international paddlers to the area.
Pat Colgan, who is part of an informal paddling group based in Terrace, agrees. “Paddlers come from all over the world—Canada, the US, Europe, you name it—to paddle the Babine and the Grand Canyon of the Stikine. They do our local runs for warm-up, then head off for an adventure on a remote river. That says to me that we’ve got something special here.”
Paddling extremes Special is right. With the mention of the Grand Canyon of the Stikine, many paddlers and non-paddlers alike will question whether paddling there is even possible. The Stikine River flows west for 540 kilometres from the Sacred Headwaters on northwest BC’s interior plateau through the Coast Mountains and Alaska Panhandle to the Pacific Ocean. Separating the upper plateau and lower mountainous sections of the river is a geological feature unparalleled in Canada. Eighty kilometres of steep-walled canyon has been carved by water through sedimentary and volcanic rock over eons. The wild, and to most people un-navigable, Stikine River flows through this canyon—the Grand Canyon of the Stikine.
The sign at the river where the Highway 37 bridge crosses the Stikine states, “WARNING—Grand Canyon of the Stikine—Extremely dangerous rapids downstream. Unnavigable by all craft.” However, in 1981 a group of American paddlers literally took the plunge and paddled portions of the canyon. But it wasn’t until 1985 that the entire canyon was paddled. Even now, less than 30 teams of highly skilled boaters have attempted the run. Corey Boux of Terrace has paddled the canyon six times—more times than anyone else—and he says, “Every time I run it, it’s different. It’s a really unique river. The Grand Canyon of the Stikine is so difficult it’s got its own rating system. You can’t really compare it to anything else in the world. It’s been called ‘the Everest of kayaking.’”
So how hard is it? There’s an international scale of river difficulty that everyone uses. The scale is changing as the sport of whitewater paddling evolves, but the basics of the system remain the same. There are six grades or classes. Class 1 and 2 are beginner-type runs that many people paddle in canoes. Class 3 is a bit tougher and has more hazards, which means that there are higher consequences if something goes wrong. Good paddlers can canoe these rivers, but most people kayak whitewater at this level of difficulty.
Paddlers must have solid skills for Class 4 water and many paddlers don’t enjoy runs beyond this level. Mistakes in whitewater graded Class 5 can have serious consequences and fatalities are not unheard of. Class 6 whitewater is considered un-runnable or is water that hasn’t been paddled yet. According to Boux, the Stikine doesn’t really fit into the system. It’s in a league of its own.
Boof and huck It’s easy to imagine the mystique that the “Everest of kayaking” holds for paddlers, and the Grand Canyon of the Stikine certainly draws some exceptional boaters to the area. But for the majority of people, including the author, whitewater paddling is about enjoying an afternoon with friends and family on moving water without having any hair-raising experiences. Fortunately, there are sections of the Bulkley, Morice, Kispiox, Kitimat, and Skeena rivers, among others, that are ideal for recreational paddlers, families, and their four-legged friends.
In contrast, there are many moving-water runs in the region that can involve boofing (using a rock to get air then splooshing into the water), hucking (shooting over waterfalls), and boogy-water (continuous-fun whitewater). If you hear these words, you’ve probably encountered some creek boaters: colourful characters in neck-choking plastic suits who steer short plastic boats down fast-moving water, sometimes over waterfalls and rocks, often flipping upside down then righting themselves repeatedly, while saner spectators stay safely ashore. East Boulder, Hirsch, Kleanza and Williams creeks are some of the runs that creek boaters rave about.
Park-and-play spots are ideal for those who just want to drive to one location and have fun without actually paddling down a river. These spots generally have waves for surfing with an eddy alongside, and a comfortable place for fans, family or photographers to hang out. They’re a great place to practise paddling skills and there are no time-consuming shuttles to figure out. Park-and-play paddlers will be interested in Tatlow Falls (Smithers); Moricetown Wave (Moricetown); Friendly Giant, Stinky Wave and Orgasmatron (Hazelton); Dog Dish (Terrace); and Butze Rapids (Prince Rupert). Ideal water levels at these spots are all different, so it’s best to seek out local paddlers to find out when they’re ‘on.’
Paddlers looking to sample some of this area’s more unique runs may wish to check out the Khtada River, which flows into the lower Skeena River west of Terrace via a series of Grade 5 bedrock slides; the spectacular Shegunia canyon, a road-accessible remote run that ends near Hazelton; or the locally renowned Bulkley Canyon between Moricetown and Hazelton.
Long wilderness rivers in northwest BC are also ideal for paddling and are extremely scenic. Multi-day trips down the grizzly-populated Babine River, the 570-km Skeena, the smaller Copper River, or the wild Nass are all options for adventurous Class 3 to 4 paddlers. The Duti and Sustut Rivers, remote wilderness fly-in adventures in the upper Skeena watershed, are rarely paddled but often discussed. For non-paddlers who wish to experience the water wilderness of northwest BC without spending years learning whitewater skills, commercial rafting companies offer guided excursions on the Babine, Skeena, Tatshenshini and Nass rivers, among others.
There’s whitewater for everyone in BC’s northwest, from the paddling neophyte to the adrenaline-seeking junkie; the afternoon canoe-tripper to the multi-day wilderness adventurer. And that just might make our whitewater world-class.
Tania Millen is the author of Rockin’ Whitewater: A Guide to Paddling in Northwest British Columbia, published by Creekstone Press.