No Province for Old Men

Reaching My Limit in BC’s Coast Range and Discovering Life beyond the Progression

From our overhung perch hundreds of feet above Snowcap Creek, it appeared Bett and I would have a slow if not slightly bumpy flow.  We quickly assessed it as perfect for a September afternoon exploratory fix. Only after pulling a few strokes into the bulging center flow did we immediately adjust our assessment from “a good first-time level” to “high water indeed.” I should have known how the gorge effect- when swollen features look puny from the top of a gorge high above the river- would skew our terse analysis of Snowcap Creek in British Columbia. On the water, as we scrambled to make last-second portages around trees and questionable whitewater, we were tossed back and forth from one side of the creek to the other by single surges.  Nonetheless, we pressed on with the natural optimism of stubborn creek paddlers. The quality of the run soon picked up, and we even cracked a few smiles. When the walls abruptly constricted, our cheer dimmed as we looked into the clichéd unscoutable, unportageable corner in British Columbia.

Bett, an avid and skilled outdoor practitioner, traversed downstream and initiated a technical rock climb high on the left as I scrambled down the crumbling, narrow right bank hoping for a clear view of the next move. Our reconnaissance came up short, however, and our gazes locked with a thick acknowledgement. Our silent cross-stream conversation eventually ended with me pointing upwards and Bett giving a reluctant nod. Retreat.

Moments later, I found myself dangling 75 feet above the river holding a rotten tree root. Hands bleeding and with stinging sweat blurring my view of the roaring water below, I irrationally wished to be sitting safely, but no better off, back at river level. Weak with dehydration, I hoisted my boat overhead and propped it against two diminutive saplings, the bow resting on one and the stern on the other. Falling here would be disastrous. I breathed out all my doubt and dismay and pulled up to the ledge.  While I waited for Bett to clip into a rope I’d lowered for him, my thoughts began to wander through a bleak mental landscape of self-doubt and uncertainty.

This was my fourth season paddling in the wild Coast Range of southwestern British Columbia, and I had stacked up an inclusive résumé of classic descents during what normally cagey locals openly conceded were incredibly brief stays. As a committed career/family man, my necessarily quick trips demanded preparation, focus, and the pointed resolve to avoid the “down days” and “life-styling” longer-term visitors could comfortably fit into their loose schedules. The goal was always new and harder streams, and a successful trip ended with more unique runs than vacation days elapsed. Having become adept at working through the intense gorges of the north, I developed the sense I was born with a tenacity for this very task.  In turn, this drew me into the type of meditative mindfulness and flow state to which so many outdoor writers allude. British Columbia is heaven for many outdoor sports, kayaking included. The committing and powerful gorges that line the impressive Coast Range are some of the most beautiful on Earth and demand the highest level of skill.  It was a natural place to continue down the progression of becoming a better, more mindful hardcore boater despite the perspective from my perch above Snowcap Creek.

On an earlier trip to the Northwest I’d been part of a fast-and-light crew of three. We went as hard as possible every day of the trip. Our first day out consisted of a double header on Ernie’s Grove and Robe Canyon.  The following week featuring back-to-back high-water descents of Rutherford Creek, and dawn-to-dusk exploratory bashes down obscure, committing creeks. On Skookum Creek, an intimidating rappel into a precipitous gorge filled with rowdy whitewater committed us to blind high-water runs over a 35-foot waterfall. We were getting everything we asked for and relished the taste of adventure for days on end.  A brutal two-day marathon of routing the Top Tye, Lower Icicle, Cooper, and the Ohanapecosh, though, found even my stalwart companions’ fire growing dim as our last day in the Northwest approached.

A strong believer that it is the official duty of the disinterested to run shuttle for the motivated, I stubbornly demanded a late-afternoon drop-off atop the eerie Carbon Canyon on the north shoulder of Mt. Rainier. Without a willing partner, I opted to rappel in alone and solo the canyon at a high level. I could almost commend myself for my myopia in sticking to the plan, but my companions’ faces remained dull in the face of my zeal—they were understandably concerned about making our early morning flight and weren’t as charmed with the Carbon’s dreary abyss as I. Alone, I plodded through the dark, thick forest to the gorge rim, anchored my 60-meter rope, and embraced a strange brew of delight, acute awareness, and terror as I abseiled toward the coldly indifferent, grey ribbon far below.  My tenacity of spirit seemed to prevail.

Coming from this take-no-prisoners style of divide and descend, I was thus shocked at how quickly I’d unraveled on Snowcap Creek. I’d loved to have simply viewed our failure as an outlier, but in reality this was yet another day in the middle of a week fraught with similar experiences.

It had all begun with an extended and deeply anaerobic out-of-boat tour of the burliest rapid on Thunder Creek in the North Cascades. With my gear lost to the canyon, I clawed out of the gorge and waited for an hour on the footbridge at the canyon mouth for any sign of my kayak. Soon my unmanned vessel appeared around the corner capsized and listing. I jumped in and limped my battered Nomad to the bank. Though my only loss appeared to be a throw bag that had been ripped from its attachment point, something more ineffable also seemed to have gone missing: my confidence.

The big-water expedition runs of the Canadian Northwest add a dimension of unpredictability to the style I’m used to.  Having knocked off challenging creeks and multi-day trips in the lower 48 states, big water expeditions in remote areas seemed like the natural next step for our hard driving adventures.  With this in mind, rivers like the Homathko began to drift into my crosshairs.  The contrast between creeking and expedition paddling feels analogous to the jump from the somewhat more-static multi-pitch routes of rock in Yosemite to the dynamic nature of bagging the 8000-meter snow- and ice-covered peaks of the Himalaya. Massive glaciated watersheds and unpredictable weather patterns threaten the already thin autumn windows when the flows drop low enough for a survivable run. An unexpected heat wave or a steady rain can render these rivers unrunnably high in a heartbeat. We, unfortunately, had August-like temperatures of 85–90 degrees in September, warming the glaciers and rendering the Homathko out of the question. We rummaged around for day runs in southwest BC — a paddling paradise, but admittedly a letdown given the original plan. The best whitewater in Canada would just have to do; we imagined ourselves on another rampage of river running with the Homathko now out of the picture.  This made it all the more debilitating when we were field-stripped by almost every river we paddled, including Snowcap Creek.

Decisions on the Ohanapecosh
Decisions on the Ohanapecosh

My return home to Tennessee after Snowcap Creek brought more hard times. Getting laid off and a serious illness in the family whisked my ego’s ten-day battering in the Northwest away to the lesser recesses of my memory. When the bad things happen — usually in their unpredictable bursts of twos and threes — their forceful jolts put us in our place, and we can see the staggering gulf that separates pursuits of pride from the things that truly matter. Having a wife and child who depend on you is always a reasonable excuse to check out of the Class V universe, at least for a while, and earns at minimum a modicum of understanding from the more committed of river chasers. But I’ve never been able to let myself off that easily. The reasons to paddle hard rivers never did involve rationality or prudence, and, perhaps, the reasons not to paddle them shouldn’t either. It may come down to accepting the limits the river presents to you — and the only way to find those limits is by pushing your boundaries. After thirteen years of not knowing when or where my personal peak would occur, it had made itself rather clear in astonishingly short order. Having turned around short of my intended summit, I experienced a cocktail of negative emotions. In a heartbeat, the lightness and vibrance born of years of pushing my limits had been squeezed out of me and replaced with the thick, heavy fog of disappointment.  I felt broken and lost in a habitat that meant so much more to me before than it did now.  I have seen the tide come and go for many paddlers, and now I felt the tug myself.

As it strips away the clutter of life, the river can bring an immeasurable wealth and healing to the soul, forge deep friendships, and cultivate a deep connectivity to our natural surroundings. For anyone diving headfirst into paddling, however, the progression of striving to paddle harder and harder whitewater can sink its poison barb in quickly. Early in my career, I would routinely leave veteran paddling friends behind in favor of venturing to harder rivers, steeper creeks, and scarier places. Drunk on my newly expanding mobility and freedom, I wondered why their appetite for these types of experiences wasn’t stronger. One sunny day when the flows were mellow, I asked a long-time paddling mentor to accompany me to the Linville Gorge. He had the experience and was in fine shape, and, in an attempt to repay a fraction of all he had taught me, I desperately wanted to share this most special of Southern Appalachian rivers. Yet he declined, following with, “I’ve heard great things about the Linville, Kirk. I’m sure it’s an amazing place, but I just don’t know that I have the drive to paddle rivers like that anymore.”

In my immaturity, I couldn’t imagine such a capable paddler choosing to relegate the Linville Gorge to an acquaintance in name only. He further explained that he was lying low and focusing his efforts on preparing for a trip down the Grand Canyon, a place that, at the time, did not pique my interest. If I was going to travel west for an overnighter during my one annual window, I thought, it certainly wasn’t going to be for flat-water sprinkled with the occasional mellow rapid and a pretty looking canyon.

I don’t regret my route through the sport of kayaking and am increasingly grateful for all my days on the water, difficult or not. More and more as I reach my limits in the progression of hard whitewater, I am refocusing on what originally drew me to the river; it has also dawned on me that I’ve been playing catch-up with ”the lingerers” all along. Pushing drowned out the subtle rewards of being on the river and monopolized the experience to its own end.  The meditative state I once reserved for challenging whitewater I am now grafting onto every moment on the river regardless of the whitewater. Every color, the nudge of every current, every sensation is increasingly vivid as I take my rivers one bend, one eddy, one moment at a time.  The more attention I give, the more the river gives back.   No longer is this attention concentrated mostly on whitewater, and the river still gives.

As I refocus my paddling goals, a whole new frontier of river adventures has come into view. I now realize that my appreciation for lengthy wilderness immersions — the self-reliance they require and the meditative simplification of day-to-day life to be gained — can be enriched with or without tackling cutting-edge whitewater. To exclude a river based on difficulty would be a mistake I’ve learned. Now instead of asking, ‘how hard is it?’ I ask, ‘how long will it take?’ or more directly, ‘how long can we stay?’ These days I aspire to the great rivers of the West: the wilderness rivers of Idaho, labyrinthine desert canyons both great and small, and, of course, the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon.

This past fall, as summer exhaled her final warm, moist breath into the rivers near our home, I floated quietly in the twilight alongside my son, Alexander, who at seven years old is already caught up in the river’s spell. I’m re-learning the river’s lessons through his eyes, and I envision us sharing, learning, exploring, and finding humility together in the big ditch of the Grand Canyon a few years down the road. “That’s assuming he’ll be interested in slumming it in the Canyon with a moderate old boater like me,” I remind myself. My paddling mentors were years farther down a path along which I myself am just beginning despite decades of paddling and progressing. On the river under the vivid contrast of the fading evening light, my gaze returned to Alexander, a silhouette on the shimmering water. In that moment, I hoped my son’s path would be as exciting and fulfilling as my own. And, even though all paths have limits, the potential of each moment within an experience is infinitely boundless, and carries an immense energy. Mindfully appreciative of this electricity, this energy of the now, I stroked toward Alexander.

“Isn’t this great?” I reflected, edging in to pull his boat alongside mine.

“Yeah,” Alexander sighed.

“But, daddy,” he hesitated. “Aren’t there any good rapids on this river?”

I shouldn’t have been surprised.

“Yes, Alex,” I replied. “There are. But those are for another day.”