The winter of 2016-17 was indeed an epic. For kayakers, this spring is shaping up to be equally so. Here’s a gun-’em-and-run-’em bucket list of rivers in the Rockies that could well be swell as hell. By Ray Schmidt.
Snowflakes the size of the Michelin Man fell in the Rockies this past winter setting up what could be one of the best whitewater paddling seasons on record. Of course, a cold spring might mean water slowly trickles over time, whereas a hot June coupled with monsoon rains can tip the scale the other way and cause flooding. But there is a sweet spot in there, that elusive three-star Michelin rating that is “exceptional…worth a special journey.” We’ve already had massive amounts of fat flakes, so when everything else comes together, these are my recommendations for the rivers where you’ll find the best whitewater in the Rockies.
Skookumchuck Creek — near Kimberly
“What level is Skook at?” is a common question asked by East Kootenay kayakers. The answer you’ll never get is “high,” “medium” or “low.” Rather, you’ll hear mention of architectural aspects of bridgework. Some still talk about running Skook when “only the top of the bridge support was showing,” which is damn high for this narrow, technical river. We could see something similar this season. But instead of eyeing the bridges, kayakers now refer to random numbers (they’re not associated with metre height) painted on a boulder in the water to help with decision-making. If levels reach 3.5 the planets have aligned, and it’s time to grab your spray skirt.
Bow Falls — Banff
My last trip down Bow Falls began with a text from Canmore kayaker Chris McTaggart that read, “Let’s do lunch.” He didn’t want to meet for a burger, he was looking to run the Bow at noon. The big-volume waterfall on the Bow River rages just below Banff burger joints and is rarely high enough to cover dangerously sharp rocks. But after monitoring it for a decade, I was convinced conditions were prime. And, they may be again this year. If you do hit it, you’ll be in good company, because Marilyn Monroe ran these falls on a raft in River Of No Return.
Fraser River — near Valemount
It was the late kayaker Peter Thompson who convinced fellow paddler Bryce Shaw to do the Alberta-British Columbia double-double. They had just done the ephemeral Excalibur run near Jasper National Park (see KMC summer 2013) when they decided the Fraser River, near Valemount on the BC side, might be an appropriate cool-down. An hour later Shaw discovered the river was flowing twice as fast as normal, and the usual landmarks were submerged. They had discretion enough to pull out above Overlander Falls and forego running the canyon. Perhaps this will be the year for the double-double?
Wigwam River — near Fernie
There’s a trinity of rules in kayaking, and you don’t want to break more than one at a time. Don’t paddle a new river. Don’t paddle a new boat. And, don’t paddle with people you don’t know. I broke all those rules in 2012 on the Wigwam, which is a tributary of the Elk River in East Kootenay. Normally the river offers clear sets of rapids, with calm stretches in between. But, that year I found myself with a group of eight strangers, scattered like flotsam, on a non-stop, seven-kilometre-long rapid. I was later told that was the highest anyone had ever run the Wigwam. But, 2017 is setting up to be even better.
Cascade River — near Banff
It doesn’t happen every year, or even every decade. The lower Cascade River may only run once a century, and the last time was in 2013 when floods tore across the Alberta Rockies. Because floodwaters threatened to burst the Lake Minnewanka Dam, officials opened the spillway exposing a channel that now had mature trees growing in it. Alberta kayakers Logan Grayling and Liam Fourner saw the prize and went for it: a steep, 100-metre-long channel still reeking of freshly uprooted vegetation. They’ll recount tales of this one to their grandchildren, who might just be the next generation to chance upon running it. Unless this season again delivers.