Game for the Gamsby

a class V British Columbia waterway provides a lesson in exploration

Paddler magazine
March/April 2002

Standing above the river on a six-inch wide shelf of granite, I pushed aside bright green leaves of alder to get an unobstructed view of the rapid. Two thousand cubic feet per second of pale blue glacial snowmelt roared through a funnel of vertical granite walls.

It was an intimidating three-tiered flush of whitewater, followed by swift current racing around the corner downstream—a class V rapid to be sure. Seth and I both felt that we had run harder rapids than this one in the past, but never in these circumstances. We were deep in the northern Coast Range of British Columbia. In case of trouble, it would be at least a week's trek to find the nearest human. We had five more days before a float plane was scheduled to pick us up on the Pacific Ocean, or start flying upstream looking for us. Given our situation, we decided to return to the kayaks and begin the laborious process of hauling them out of the canyon—again.

The brutally exhausting task of dragging a fully loaded eighty pound kayak through untrailed wilderness was starting to wear us down. Nonetheless, kayak dragging was part of the trip plan— a plan, it seemed, that was drifting further and further from reality.

Our goal was to cross the British Columbia Coast Range by kayak, traveling from the spruce covered interior to the grizzly inhabited rain forest along the Pacific Ocean. The journey would require a five mile overland approach, followed by a forty two mile descent of three different named waterways leading to the Pacific. En route, we would make a first descent of the Gamsby River system.

Sias Creek, our first tributary stream, promised to be the most difficult with a gradient of 300 feet per mile. The Gamsby would be slightly easier, flowing mostly through an open glacial valley with gradients averaging less than 100 feet per mile. After negotiating a canyon on the lower Gamsby, we would emerge onto the flat and braided Kitlope River, and drift and fish our way to salt water.

Our rescue from the lonely coastline was to come from pilot Lou Debuc flying his quintessential backcountry aircraft—the Beaver on floats. Naturally, our first stop before embarking was at Lou's float plane dock on the shores of Burns Lake, British Columbia. Lou spread his tattered charts on the dock and began pointing out landmarks. "The Morice River, now that's a nice one. But hell, that's just puppy chow compared to what you guys are doing. I'll pick you up on this beach here." He pointed. We showed him the canyon on the Gamsby that might cause us trouble, and he responded. "If you can't get through there, go back to Ear Lake. I've landed there before." Confident that we had hired the right man, we left for the first leg of our journey—a boat ride across the Nechako Reservoir.

Our powerboat ride to the upper end of the reservoir would not have been possible previous to 1952. That is the year the Aluminum Company of Canada built the Kenney Dam on the Nechako River. With the dam's completion, a series of long narrow wilderness lakes linked by short stretches of river were flooded, creating a 150 mile continuous body of water known as the Nechako Reservoir.

Along with this massive development came all the standard losers of industrialization: declining salmon populations, displaced people, and buried rivers. It was with a bitter sense of irony, then, that we boarded the 20 foot aluminum-hulled powerboat to transport us across the artificial body of water toward our pristine wilderness playground.

Two hours later, the driver cut the motor signaling the end of the ride. The months of planning were over—it was our time.

Seth and I crawled into our kayaks and launched off the side of the boat into cold lake water. Two minutes later we were paddling by ourselves—no powerboat in sight.

Seth reached the beach ahead of me and as I approached he bellowed "Well, I've already seen bear tracks." Sure enough, a huge grizzly print greeted us immediately upon hitting shore. I put my pepper spray in my pocket and began to prepare my kayak for our five mile hike to Sias Creek.

A six foot length of rope was attached to the back of my life jacket and then clipped to my kayak's front grab loop. With this tow-line, I could use my life jacket as a body harness, and drag the kayak directly behind me.

In some places we found flat grassy meadows that were checkerboarded with small ponds. These ponds provided easy, frictionless dragging. We zig-zagged through the maze of pools, walking along their edges while keeping our kayaks gliding across the middle of the shallow water holes.

As easy as the meadows were for dragging, however, the encroaching forest was equally as difficult. Moss-covered boulders and irregular piles of deadfall slowed our pace to a crawl. We staggered through the dark woods like drunks; lurching ahead when our boats would clear an obstacle, and abruptly rearing to a halt when our kayaks lodged on an immovable log or rock.

This grueling bushwhack continued into the afternoon of day two, when we finally heard the roar of whitewater at the edge of the silent forest. High fives were exchanged as we put on sprayskirts and prepared to launch on a burgeoning 400 c.f.s. We knew the stream was called Sias Creek, but from our vantage point, it looked more like a river—a small, cold, angry river. It raced headlong around corners and accelerated into frothing chutes as it squeezed between jagged granite boulders.

Eyes bulging with attentiveness, we slashed across the powerful current, whiplashing into eddies behind the gray boulders. We quickly moved downstream, cautiously scanning each successive drop from our boats.

I led through a rapid and pulled into slow water, grabbing a handhold along the cliff on river right. Following, Seth paddled by me, heading for an eddy on river left at the lip of the next rapid. From his eddy, he craned his head around to get a visual of the drop immediately below. Apparently satisfied with what he saw, he executed a tight peelout into the current and got one good paddle stroke before hitting the ledge and coming to a violent, dead stop. He instantly and instinctively leaned downstream, avoiding a pin. The situation seemed stable for the moment, until I saw the yellow hull of his kayak rise on edge and lift completely out of the water. He was rolling downstream off the ledge!

I ferried into the current and headed his way. By the time I made it securely into the eddy he had left, Seth was below the drop on the safety of a gravel bar. He yelled to me in a firm but calm tone; "That ledge is a log."

Following a quick portage, I joined him below the rapid, and he explained what had happened. "I couldn't tell that was a log until I hit it, and it immediately tried to suck my stern under. I had to pull a Tao move." he said; referring to the desperate log rolling technique he had once seen Tao Berman use. I replied simply "Good one", not wanting to dwell on the near-miss, not while we were still in the thick of it, anyway.

Not far downstream, a more obvious logjam forced a portage. As we hacked through chest high ferns on shore, we noticed a flat spot in the forest just above. With daylight slowly drifting into the long northern twilight, we climbed up to the flat and made camp.

Intently scanning the map, we determined that we were just above another gorge where Sias Creek was due to drop 500 feet per mile as it made its final plunge to the Gamsby. Knowing this section would be mostly unrunnable, we plotted a portage route leading over a low pass to the north of the creek.

The next morning when we saw Sias Creek turn south and drop out of sight, we got out and began what by now felt like our routine morning hike. A twenty minute uphill carry had us at a picturesque mountain meadow on the low pass. A perfect grizzly track decorated the mud at our feet, prompting us to be more diligent in our "Hey Bear" calls as we crashed into the woods.

Creamy white snowfields rose above us, glistening in the summer sun. The valley of the Gamsby sat before us. Our river of mystery was soon to be a river of reality.

Within an hour we were gazing into the swift murky turquoise of the Gamsby. Its 1,200 c.f.s. rushed along in a train of classic, symmetrical breaking waves between outcrops of granite. We slid down a mossy rock slab into the cold river and started bouncing along through absolutely fantastic class IV whitewater.

I rounded a corner with Seth in the lead and saw his paddle steering me right just in time for me to get in a few strokes. I charged into the right side of a deep river-wide ledge hole. The whitewater of the hole slowed me and surfed me left towards the center of the maw. I sat on the crest of the white pile for a moment, paddling downstream while my stern hung over the slope of whitewater that led into the depths of the hydraulic. On my fourth forward stroke, the hole decided to let me pass, and I felt the glorious surge of current usher me downstream away from the monster. I turned into an eddy with Seth and we both looked back at the hole with reverence before Seth finally said what we we both thinking. "That thing could throttle you." Indeed.

As we moved downstream, the river grew rapidly. Every half mile meant an additional 100 c.f.s. as waterfalls tumbled down from snowy headwalls two thousand feet above. The ribbon waterfalls creased the middle of giant avalanche paths where snow remained thirty feet deep in places. In winter, these slides spanned the river, flattening trees for hundreds of feet up the opposite bank.

The whitewater, however, was a bit too demanding to allow for much scenery gazing. Continuous class IV was the rule, with an occasional class V. Picture perfect surf waves laced the river, but our play boating was kept to a minimum. We were a half day behind schedule, and thirty miles of unknown river lay ahead. It was time to be conservative.

We were nearing a section of river that dropped 150 feet per mile. That much gradient combined with our now 2,000 c.f.s. was enough to cause alarm on its own accord, but we also saw the granite bluffs along the river growing into bona-fide walls fifty to eighty feet tall.

This emerging canyon was a curious development, because the general geography of the area is not that of vertical cliffs and canyons. On the map, the Gamsby appears to run through a U-shaped glacial valley, and to an extent that is exactly what it does. However, the river has carved its own mini-gorge which is incised in the bottom of the otherwise gentle valley. This makes a discordant landscape of a narrow canyon slicing beneath flat and open meadows. It was an unexpected twist of topography not evident on our 100-foot contour maps.

Our eyes darted between river and shore as we read the water and scanned the cliffs for escape routes. The whitewater relented slightly to continuous big class III, but the granite walls continued to grow and narrow.

I focused on a large eddy at the base of a forested gully on river right. Below this eddy, the powerful Gamsby roared around the corner in a series of large breaking waves. What waited around that corner I did not know, so I assumed the worst and stroked purposefully into the eddy as if my life depended on it. Which, as it turned out, it did.

Below my eddy, vertical walls locked the river into a sluice box of class VI whitewater. A house-sized boulder blocked nearly the entire river channel with most of the frothing, roaring water sucking underneath it. Below this deathtrap was a river-wide ledge that produced a hole of gut-wrenching proportions, something akin to what a low-head dam on the Mississippi might look like.

A portage ensued. The near vertical ledges and deadfall-choked gullies leading to the rim were too steep for traditional on-the-shoulder carrying, so an elaborate haul system was required, portaging one boat at a time. Leaving the boats riverside, I scrambled up a trickling waterfall to a natural platform thirty five feet above the river. Here, I secured a carabiner and some webbing to a stout western red cedar—my anchor. Seth clipped the far end of the rope to his kayak, and we began to haul the eighty pound boat up the face. With Seth pushing from below and me hauling from above, we made about three feet of progress with each lunge of effort. "One...two...three...ugh!" Following each push, I wrapped my haul rope around an adjacent tree to hold the hanging kayak in place while Seth re-positioned himself on the precipice for another push.

At the rim of the canyon, we were faced with a decision: Either complete our portage on this side of the gorge and risk being thwarted by a side creek slot canyon, or cross back to river left and portage there, where the terrain was likely to be easier. River right was a gamble. If the side creek ahead were un-crossable, we could be delayed for a day or more portaging around it. River left was a surer bet, but certainly arduous—it meant hauling our boats into, and then out of the gorge again. Nonetheless, it was the safer, smarter choice. We would cross to river left.

After a thirty minute hike upstream, we found a climbable gully, and our boat lowering process was begun. Anchors were set, ropes rigged, kayaks lowered.

Our put-in location was a sloping bedrock ledge four feet above the cold rushing Gamsby. The mossy ledge was a precarious place to attempt crawling into a kayak, so I moved my boat down to a barely submerged boulder inches away from shore. With my weight in the boat, it rested on the rock squarely. I started to carefully tuck my legs into the cockpit of the kayak. With little warning, the boat shifted under me, my stern caught the swift downstream current, and I began to spin away from shore.

The consequences of a lost boat flashed across my brain: hiking through the mountains with little food and no sleeping bag. It would not be good. As quickly and delicately as possible, I hopped out, stood on the submerged boulder, and grabbed my boat by the cockpit rim, but it had already swung into the current and taken on water. The strong tug of current threatened to pull me in, too, if I didn't let go. I tossed my paddle ashore and reached for the front grab loop with my free hand. Just as I bowed over the icy water with my last lurch of balance, I released my grasp on the cockpit, put both hands on the grab loop, and squatted in preparation for the weighty pull of a water-logged kayak. Seeing the disaster unfold, Seth scampered down the ledges and grabbed me by the lifejacket, bracing us both. Luckily, the floundering boat swung downstream into the micro-eddy behind the boulder I was on, and the struggle was over. Together, we muscled the boat back onto the ledges and emptied it of water. A close call.

That night as I burrowed in my sleeping bag to escape the mosquitoes, the wilderness seemed to loom over me like a great indifferent force—ominous, awesome, and numb to our struggle. The wilderness was just there, as always. Wilderness isn't good or bad, it just is. I realize that this constancy is part of its allure, but on this night it definitely felt bad. Bad to its soul.

The next morning a large black bull moose nervously trotted through our camp. I sat in my sleeping bag bleary-eyed, and we stared at one another, stupefied. His large muscular frame and huffing, aggresive posture should have had me worried, but I stared at him indifferently, and he trotted away. I was too sore to care.

My lower legs were bruised, scratched, and swollen. Shoulders were sore from the pull of the kayak during our drags. My hands had a scattering of infected red nics from occasional falls and subsequent inadvertent grabs of sharp woody staubs. A cumulative fatigue from the past few days was beginning to show. Slips were becoming more frequent, and ankle rolls were starting to occur.

Perhaps it was due to this fatigue that we decided to drop back into the canyon at our first opportunity, rather than continuing our portage downstream to below the canyon's vertical walls.

We changed into our boating gear and slid back into the river, rapidly sweeping downstream into an eddy on the right. From what we could tell, the rapid below was a moderate river-wide hole followed by a mid-stream boulder. To the left of the boulder was a powerful but flushy hole. The right was out of view.

I ran first. As I crested the lip of the drop, that rarely felt, yet distinctly memorable sensation of whitewater panic hit me as I discovered the "moderate" hole to be much larger than anticipated. With a few hard strokes, I punched through, but was spun to the right. Not wanting to probe the unknown right side, I backpaddled furiously and washed left of the boulder. The next hole spun me around and spit me out. I caught an eddy and watched for Seth, hoping he could improve on my run. He did, and my confidence grew momentarily, only to be crushed by our next scout.

And so there we were, standing on the six inch shelf of granite behind the bright green alders, looking at a three-tiered flush of whitewater that neither of us wanted to tangle with.

The boat hauling began again. Across the slimy rocks below a waterfall, over a log, Seth pulls, I push, up, up, sweat, mosquitoes, moss—a familiar scene.

Sitting for a water break at the top of the gorge, I broached the subject that had been silently festering in the backs of our minds since hitting the canyon. "I'm not sure we can make the ocean in time for our pick-up." We had three days to reach the ocean and our scheduled plane rescue. The river was continually growing beyond its already pushy volume of 2,500 c.f.s. Eight miles downstream, the Gamsby entered the lower canyon—a gorge several times deeper than the one we had been negotiating for the past two days. At this water level, it was clear that the entire lower gorge would have to be portaged. It was doubtful that we could portage the four mile canyon and paddle the remaining twenty miles to the ocean in time.
Fortunately, our bush pilot Lou had suggested a back up plan. We would have to portage to Ear Lake, and hope he finds us.

With our decision to go to Ear Lake established, an initial sense of relief washed over me, followed by an emotionally gripping wave of disappointment. A lifetime of dreaming and a year's planning, and still I was left short of my goal. I sat and wrote in my journal: "I was so looking forward to the lower Gamsby and Kitlope Rivers with their huge overhanging Sitka spruce, gravel bars of fishing grizzlies, and the smell of salt water at the end of our journey. It twists my gut just to write about it, knowing that only with much more great effort will I have the chance to realize my dream."

An hour of dragging had us back at the river where it exited the upper gorge. Our view upstream was that of a narrow canyon overstuffed with angrily rushing water. Downstream, it was a normal looking river in the mountains, broad and swift.

After a few miles of easy, scenic paddling, all that was left was a two mile drag across forested flats to Ear Lake. Our final portage was greeted much like an adult's trip to the dentist—not at all pleasant, but at least familiar. Two hours of dragging through the mosquito-clouded forest brought us to the breezy open water of Ear Lake. There was nothing to do now but wait.

The rumble of Lou's floatplane nearly caught us still in bed on our final morning. Looking down on the Gamsby from the comfortable perspective of an airplane two thousand feet above, it all looked so friendly and inviting that I wanted to go right back down and continue exploring. Then I realized that that is what we had been doing—exploring—and maybe that is why everything didn't go as planned. There was no way to know how runnable the Gamsby was without actually doing it. The maps didn't tell us, and now it was apparent that even an over flight couldn't tell us.

This is why I am drawn to first descents, because they offer an avenue of exploration. The age of discovery is over. I cannot sign up for Lewis & Clark's corps of discovery, but I can explore places new to kayaking. It doesn't come easy, though. In this remote river valley of northern British Columbia, it looks like further kayak exploration will take considerable effort—again.