Editor’s note: In August, Paddling Life correspondent Austin Rathman ran the Grand Canyon of the Stikine in Canada’s Northwest Territories. It was a trip of redemption as the last time Rathman was in the canyon, he took a life-altering swim and hiked out at Site-Zed. Instead of editing this journal down to a snipit, we left it intact so you can fully understand the emotions involved in running one of Earth’s most difficult multi-day trips.
Pre Put-On Thoughts
Saying the word brings mixed emotions to mind. I’m both terrified and overly excited of what lays downstream. The drive north from Whistler went incredibly smooth. Max and I left at 2:00 Tuesday afternoon and drove all the way to Smithers that night. We arrived at the Stikine at 4:00 pm Wednesday August, 29th 2007 and were greeted by a friendly sight. The most beautiful river in the world, and it was running. Upon paddling out to the cement pillar my assumption was affirmed, we had 4 1/2 notches showing on the bridge. A perfect level.
I sit here at the campfire pondering the events that will take place in the days to come. I’m trying not to dwell on the fears I have of Wasson’s hole, and instead focus on the positive. I’m here with a great paddling partner and friend in Max Kneiwasser, I am in the best paddling condition of my life, and the flow couldn’t be better. The weather is good and our hopes are high for a successful decent of the Grand Canyon of the Stikine River. I go to sleep now. Anxious. Nervous. Excited.
Thursday, August, 30 2007
We awoke today prepared to put-on. We were disappointed to find that the river had risen over night. We are determined to put safety first on this trip and decided to wait a day and watch the levels. We hiked to Entry Falls to check out the flow in the canyon and were thrilled to see a perfect medium flow. The rock was about six feet out of the water and the river looked to be handling the flow well. There was far less water here today than on my first trip to the canyon. That’s a relief. I hope I have learned from my mistakes on that first trip and will enter the canyon a smarter, more humbled person than I was three years ago when I attempted to run the Stikine at an incredibly high flow after not having kayaked at all for three months.
Friday August 31
This morning we are put on the Stikine. The river has risen slightly but is holding steady.
We made it to Site Zed successfully. Both Max and I are buzzing right now from all the good white-water we just ran. My line at Entry Falls could have been better. I started left, but moved right too early and got swirled around in the nasty eddy in the center of the river. Max had a perfect line and was stoked. We eddied out below and took it all in.
The great canyon towering above and the raging river powering downstream. It felt good to be back. We continued downstream, bombing through all of the amazing read and run day one offers, stopping on occasion to take photos and just enjoy the surroundings. We paddled past a pair of goats relaxing next to the river. The closest one must have been no more than 15 feet away and didn’t even move when we paddled by. These animals are so beautiful and powerful. They are the true guardians of the Stikine.
As we approached Wicked Wanda, I got very excited. I remembered this being one of the best rapids I had ever run and couldn’t wait to run it again. After a quick scout I got in my boat while Max took photos and I paddled down the tongue with a little left angle straight into the left curler. BOOM. Upside down. A quick roll and I was laughing as I paddled up and over the gigantic waves in the run out. I eddied out to watch Max come through in style. Both grinning we kept moving downstream.
Towards Three Goats Rapid
As we pulled in to Three Goats I began to realize we had more water in the river than we thought when we put on. Things seemed to be plenty manageable however, so I didn’t give it a second thought. We scouted and ran Three Goats, by far the biggest rapid yet. We both opted for the left line into a V-shaped hole and then into the MASSIVE wave train below. I hit the V and subbed down deep, resurfacing upright and moving right on the shoulder of the wave train. I was stoked. Max made it through the V upright as well but not as far right and ended up getting swallowed by one of the massive 15-foot waves.
After a quick roll he was up and paddling through. I knew we were quickly approaching Pass or Fail. From my previous trip, I remembered the entrance to this rapid being one of the hardest parts of Day 1. But I couldn’t remember what the line was. As we approached the whole river seemed to disappear over a ledge with a tongue down the right side. We got out and quickly scouted the ledge and the rest of the entrance downstream. As I peered around the corner at Pass or Fail my heart sunk.
The river was really high and I didn’t realize how high until now. The rock at Pass or Fail was at times completely under water as the river surged. At other times it was maybe a foot out of the water. I had seen this sight before – two years ago when I put on too high.
At this point my mental strength broke-down and I got really scared. I ran the entry ledge and wave train and eddied out above P/F. I began to portage, exercising the unacceptable “tweaker” mentallity, meaning I was unable to overcome my fears and control my mind. I told myself to stop. Put the boat down and run the rapid. If I couldn’t run this I had no business running what lay downstream.
So I went. My line couldn’t have been smoother. I went right the whole way. At the bottom I got really scared. Around the corner was Wasson’s Hole. The sight of my near drowning two years ago. And the level was the exact same. After scouting my fears were confirmed, the rapid looked terrifying. A 2/3 of the river wide ledge hole at the top all feeding left into the massive hole on the left. The only route through was to go left of the top hole and paddle hard right through a curler missing the hole by inches. I was terrified to try this again, as last time it didn’t work well. Not to mention this one rapid has been the most accident-prone sight on the Stikine (it nearly killed its namesake).
I knew what I had to do and I did it. I looked to Max and told him I had to go now. If I didn’t go I’d get inside my head and that would not be good. I got in my boat and charged. I got left on top of the curler, pulled a hard left sweep, and charged right. I was clear, safe and was never more stoked. All the drugs in the world couldn’t have gotten me as high as the feeling I had at the bottom. I was in my boat this time looking upstream as Max styled it as well.
Grinning from ear to ear we both took off downstream. For the first time on the trip I was running rapids I had never run before, only swam. I looked around stoked to be in my boat as we charged through the read and run to Site Zed.
We set up camp at Site Zed and portaged our boats sans-gear to the bottom. We placed several gauge markers to watch the flow, fearful if it were to rise we wouldn’t be able to make it through downstream.
At dinner, we carved our names into the bench around the campfire at Site Zed, seeing as there is no more chalkboard to right our names on.
As we fell asleep that night it was raining and I slept restlessly wondering what we would find when we woke up in the morning.
Saturday, September 1
When we awoke this morning the rain was still falling. Both Max and I lay in our tent dreading what we might find when we emerged to check the level. As we exited the tent and checked our gauges, our hearts leapt to see that the water had held steady all night despite the rain. The question now, was for how long? We decided rather than risk camping at beach camp and having the water spike to un-runnable levels on us, we would paddle all the way out today.
After a quick breakfast we packed up headed towards the Site-Zed ferry. Of all the ferries I’ve ever done this one scared me the most. Both Max and I seal launched in and paddled hard left clearing the wall and charging into the maw below. When we regrouped below our eyes were wide. That was the most challenging ferry we had ever done.
We continued on looking for the rapids known as AFP (Always a Fucking Problem) and the Wall. For several miles all we encountered was endless read and run class V through the narrowest section of the canyon. Walls towering 1000 feet overhead and, at times, no more than 30 feet wide.
It was incredible to be in that canyon running that much good whitewater. Finally we reached AFP and scouted quickly. Luckily our high flow had washed most of the rapid out into nothing more than a big wave-train. However, the entry move was gigantic. A huge curler crashed from right to left into a massive pourover on the left. We charged ahead into the pourover, boofing hard and clearing the hole.
Shortly downstream came the Wall. The Wall consists of three drops, the crux being in the middle. At these flows the first drop was a large wave-train feeding directly into the middle drop which was an exploding mess of holes, boils and crashing waves. Both Max and I went center-left and plowed through the mess. Both clear, we smiled and continued downstream towards Garden of the Gods 1 and Beach Camp, where we planned on eating a light snack and resting before the large committing rapids of the Day 3 narrows.
Garden of the Gods is a long, complex boulder garden that, at these flows, was terrifying. Finding our way through the maze, Max and I both fell blindly into several large crashing waves and holes.
Luckily, it all worked out ok and we made it to Beach Camp safely.
Beach Camp on the Stikine River is the most beautiful campsite one could imagine. A large sandy beach extends several hundred feet across, at a calm bend in the river. The mountains on both sides are stunning. This might be one of the most peaceful places on earth. We sat down to eat a good snack and re-energize ourselves for what we knew would be the greatest test of both our lives. Day 3 narrows. Garden of the Gods 2, The Wall 2, Scissors, The Hole that ate Chicago, V-Drive, Guard Dog and Tanzilla Slot all lay downstream in the incredibly narrow final gorges of the Grand Canyon of the Stikine.
Garden of the Gods 2 proved to be as challenging as its predecessor. We were treated to a not-so-pleasant surprise directly above the Wall 2.
The river narrows to a width of maybe 15 feet and pours over a large pourover with a 2/3 river wide pocket on the left backed up by a cliff protruding 10 feet into the river from left to right. Unable to scout both Max and I charged in blindly. I went first and got stuffed hard into the wall. I rolled up only to find myself in the pocket as I watched Max getting beaten on the wall but finally rolling up and escaping. I however, was stuck. After several failed attempts to exit and spending a lot of time underwater, I finally managed to paddle clear of the pocket and into the relative safety below.
The Wall 2 was next and went smoothly. Our lines were left of center away from both the wall and the massive hole on the right. Overjoyed to be past this rapid, we paddled downstream towards Scissors.
As we approached the Scissors eddy, I kept getting pushed back into the middle of the river despite my greatest efforts to move left. Finally, I realized I was not going to catch the eddy and lined up to charge into Scissors blind. I turned to Max and yelled,”SCISSORS! , I’m going!” God Bless him because Max, who had caught the eddy, pulled out right behind me not wanting to let me go through that alone. I charged into the left curler and blew right through it. This was terrifying because at normal flows the rocks on the river left are undercut and should be avoided at all costs. Luckily for me the rocks were under-water at this level and I went over the top of them and turned around to watch Max do the same.
We gave each other a look of, ” We just got away with one there.”
We continued downstream to The Hole that Ate Chicago and directly after that, V-Drive.
The Hole that Ate Chicago (left) is a raw freak of power. The entire river pours directly into this massive 15-foot tall hole. It would not be a fun place to surf. Luckily both Max and I ran hard right avoiding the hole and eddying out above V-Drive.
When I say this rapid is a 30-foot, Mavericks sized wave (right) I’m not exaggerating. Max and I scouted to see that all was clean and psyched ourselves up for what was the largest rapid we’d ever run. Not the most difficult, just charge down the middle, hit the wave, take the beating, roll up and paddle away from the wall. Ha. Right. Fired up, I gained a full head of steam stroking hard to the drop. I hit the left curler first and immediately went deep. Never have I been in a creekboat that far underwater before. As soon as I resurfaced “BAM,” the next curler nailed me, knocking me upside down. I snapped off a quick roll and paddled right, away from the wall and looked upstream to see Max clearing the wall as well. We’d done it. We’d run the crux rapids of the Stikine and we were stoked.
I may have over celebrated, as Guard Dog lurked downstream and was more than happy to dish out a fine serving of whoop ass on me. Sucking me deep and flipping me against the right wall.
I struggled to roll up and finally reached the surface again, with plenty of time to straighten up for Tanzilla Slot. The entire Stikine River pours through a 5-foot wide slot, creating a boily freak of nature that luckily, if upright is no big hassle, especially after what we’d already run upstream.
Below Tanzilla slot my hear leapt for joy. I had finally accomplished a goal I had set for myself during my first season of kayaking seven years ago. I had run the Stikine, without incident, unlike last time when I had to hike out.
I would love to be able to say something profound about how you feel when you finish the Stikine, but I believe Willie Kern said it best, ” Nothing has changed, but everything is different.”
These words had never made sense to me until I paddled the 20 miles of “flatwater” out of the Stikine. Willie was on to something very deep with this quote and nothing was closer to the truth. The Stikine will change how you view yourself, the world, and everyone in it.
All for the better.