Kokatat Ambassador Erik Boomer, Jeff West and Todd Wells returned from two back-to-back trips down the Grand Canyon of the Stikine River. The first trip took two days, followed by a one day express!
Words by Jeff West, photos courtesy of Erik Boomer
Before Sunrise - Stikine in a day:
“Bear”, I yelled and frantically set up in my mummified sleeping bag. It was still dark and I turned my flashlight on expecting a Grizzly. Laughter came from a few feet away. Boomer and Todd are already in their dry suits, packing their kayaks. It is 5:13 am and I overslept by 13 minutes. I climb out of my sleeping bag and slide into my carefully folded Kokatat dry suit. I pull my river shoes on. I had laid my gear out the night before so I could step into it much like a fireman would jump into his suit if the alarm sounded. We are camped at the put in for the Grand Canyon of the Stikine. We are going to try to paddle the entire 50 some odd miles of this class V+ beast in one day.
It is completely dark at 6:00 am, but we are packed and slide our kayaks into the water. Its cold, we are more than a 1,000 miles north of the Canadian/U.S. border and only a few hours from the Yukon. Barely able to see we float downstream motionless, trying to conserve energy. Our hands are tucked in between our vests and chests trying to stay warm. The first six miles of the Stikine could not be easier. Gentle rolling hills border a broad river with mild current. We float in silence. I visualize each rapid, mentally trying to thread a line through the massive features, dodging gigantic holes. Reminding myself, do not EVER let go of this paddle! DO NOT FREAKING SWIM!!!!!!!!!
Twenty minutes of floating, and blue streaks of light begin to cross the sky. I can make out the silhouettes of my buddies, Erik Boomer and Todd Wells. Each floating motionless and spinning in the current. We float for another twenty minutes, and its time to warm up. In fact, there is enough daylight at this point to paddle the first rapid. We are on schedule, but realize we could have started twenty minutes sooner. Knowing we may need every minute of daylight, we feel late.
We start paddling. I have my ritual warm-up routine, regardless of kayaking class I or V, it is the same drill: forward, forward, sweep, sweep, draw, draw, repeat. I paddle in a straight line alternating between the three things that will hopefully keep me on line today: forward stroke, forward stroke, forward sweep, forward sweep, stern draw, stern draw. It feels good, I feel good, Boomer and Todd are getting fired up too and we fall into formation. Boomer knows the run. This is his sixth time to put on the Stikine. Todd and I are on our second trip. Boomer leads, Todd follows, I sweep. The day is starting and I could not feel more ready for what is about to happen. Its 6:55 am and we are charging through the last of the flat water. The river meanders back and forth as we approach Entry Falls. The Stikine takes a sharp turn to the left and is funneled between two massive and narrow 400 foot cliffs. The cliffs look like giant gates opening from the greatest of all arenas. The current pulls us in like nothing I have ever seen. Boomer charges forward, passes the middle boulder, breaks right and disappears into the largest whitewater chaos few are fortunate to see. I see the line; follow the screaming tongue to the right and charge through the massive crashing waves. The Stikine in a day, hopefully, maybe.
Paddling the Stikine had been a great wish of mine for many years. Everything about it seemed amazing. After driving 70 hours from the southeast we were forced to rush our first Stikine trip due to weather and levels. The river was high and dropping about a 1,000 cfs per day. It had to be lower than 17,000 for us to put on. We were hoping for a two day window where the flow would be low enough before the incoming rains hit. We originally planned a 3 day trip, but with the high level and a large storm rolling in we had to rush the drive, put in a day early and finish before the rains came. The rains never materialized, so when we finished the first trip we still had two days. We were tired, but with a full day to rest, we decided to go for a one day express. We packed enough camping gear to turn our one day mission into another two day trip if need be.
The nervousness of starting our first trip was almost overwhelming for me. I had trained for a year to do this, but I really had no idea what to expect. The car ride from Tennessee had been a roller coaster of emotions. It took the first three major rapids, Entry Falls, Wicked Wanda and Three Goats to build my confidence. I had never seen anything like this type of whitewater. Stacked, huge, complex rapids with monster holes, crushing diagonal waves, 3 foot tall surging eddy walls all surrounded by 1,000 foot cliffs. The Stikine makes other rivers seem two dimensional. I had always thought of water flowing downstream, side to side and sometimes upstream. Additionally, on this river the water is constantly exploding upward and sucking down. It felt like a giant roller coaster and monster trampoline combined. Waves would throw you into the air. Seams would pull you into deep mystery moves. The crashing diagonals were the painful part. These waves are so massive that when you hit them it knocks the breath out of you. Imagine the ghost of Paul Bunyan standing next to the rapid. Instead of swinging an axe he has a giant 30 foot long wiffle ball bat. As you charge your way through the rapid he squares up and knocks you into tomorrow. I have never been hit so hard by water. I can see how big water paddlers can have good lines, stay upright and still break their ribs. And when you flip, you better hold on to your paddle like never before. The current wants to wrench the paddle from you. Dropping a paddle on this river could easily kill you.
The beauty of this canyon is without a doubt the greatest my eyes have ever seen. The whitewater offers the most amazing, fun and consequential puzzle imaginable. The canyon is colored in every shade of gray and green. However, the end result of a Stikine trip is usually black or white. You either succeed or you are lucky to survive. Swimming here will be the worst mistake you will ever make. Surviving more than a rapid or two out of your boat is unlikely. Actually being able to swim into an eddy is highly unlikely (the eddy lines are surging walls of water you can barely paddle through). If you survive a swim and make it to shore you are then confronted with a 1,000 foot cliff. If you survive the climb to the rim, my personal greatest fear is possible, becoming dinner for a Grizzly. The epic stories of paddlers climbing out of this canyon sound terrifying. Some groups have tried to quit and climb out only to find themselves trapped. They have to abandon their escape, return to the river and continue downstream. There seems to be two very different types of Stikine trips. You either have the trip of a lifetime or you are terrified and barely survive. A black or white outcome through a canyon painted in every shade of gray.
First Trip Goes Well:
The predicted rains, which rushed our first trip, never came. The second day, like the first, was amazing. We portaged Scissors and The Hole that Ate Chicago. My only bad line on the first trip was the ABC line at Site Zed. Of course, this is the only rapid where we took photos. There is a great photo of me dropping the main drop backwards. It felt how I imagine running Gorilla backwards at 13,000 cfs might feel. It worked out. Paddling through the Tanzilla Slot that first time was incredible. There is still plenty of class IV whitewater below the Tanzilla. The Mountain Goats are there to welcome you. Finally, you have a chance to enjoy the amazing scenery and wildlife.
Levels and Gear:
Our first trip was at 13,500 cfs. The one day express was at 12,000 cfs. I was in a Jackson Villain. It handled the massive water well. The bow floats over most anything. The boat stayed dry and the removable bulkhead made packing gear a breeze. I wore a Kokatat GORE-TEX® Meridian Dry Suit and Ronin Pro rescue vest. When it really matters, Kokatat is the best. For footwear, I wore Five Ten Canyoneer boots. The grippy soles and ankle support kept the portaging and scouting safe.
One Day Express Goes Well:
There is so much great whitewater in there. Countless and constant un-named rapids go on for miles. Garden of the Gods I and II, The Wall I and II, Wassons, AFP, The Hole that Ate the Hole. V-Drive is the craziest rapid I have ever kayaked. Imagine falling 30 feet with 13,000 cfs under you. There is nothing like it! We rolled into it all, but portaged Scissors and the Hole that Ate Chicago again. Running V-Drive for the second time was even better than the first. We ran Entry Falls at 7:00 am. At 12:30 pm we arrived at the Tanzilla Slot. Six and a half hours after leaving the put in. We stopped and hiked for a bit and floated the next 12 or so miles to the takeout. We finished around 4:00 pm.
The emotions swirling around in your head as you commit to each rapid is mind blowing. You realize that you are far more dependent upon your paddle not to break, your skirt not to implode and your kayak to perform than anything else. Your buddies are there, but they have their hands full and really could not do much if you crash. It is just you and your gear. You obviously need the skills, preparation and training for this type of stuff, but what made all the difference was sheer determination. Jason Hale emailed me before I put on and said, “Do not ever quit”. If the rapid is not working out as planned you simply have to paddle your ass off and make it work. Before each rapid I imagined having such a burning fire in my heart that when I blew the snot out of my nose flames shot out. It is funny to think about now, but I would growl before I hit the big waves.
We were not the first or the fastest to one day it, but that was definitely the best six and a half hours of kayaking I have ever done. The Stikine is everything I had dreamed it would be. A brutally consequential puzzle immersed in perfect beauty." - Jeff West