Pierre Trudeau wrote, “What sets a canoeing expedition apart is that it purifies you more rapidly and inescapably than any other. Travel a thousand miles by train and you are a brute; pedal 500 on a bicycle and you remain basically a bourgeois; paddle a hundred in a canoe and you are already a child of nature.” But he never paddled the Columbia River in -30°C hauling a splitboard looking for virgin lines. This photographic trip of four Kootenay brutes is anything but bourgeois.
In January 2020, four adventurers loaded splitboards and winter camping gear into two canoes and paddled 150 kilometres along the Columbia River from Mica Creek to the Revelstoke Dam. Seven of the 10 days involved riding, sometimes on perfect, virgin pillow lines. But it was not without hardship. The average temperature was -20°C and dipped as low as -35°C. Frostbite, frozen camera gear, and avalanches ensued. As one team member reports, a winter float in British Columbia’s Kootenays can be an immersion in pain. Captions and photographs by Nicholas Khattar.
The David Thompson Paddlesport Classic is an event held every summer in Revelstoke that follows the Columbia River from Mica Creek to the Revelstoke Dam. I wondered what it would be like to do it in the winter, accessing the slopes along the way by boat. I figured a snowboard film documenting the journey would be cool, so I enlisted the help of videographer Ben Howell, who divides his time between Revelstoke and his native England. The rest of the team included Revy residents Johan Rosen, who played the role of secondary videographer, and aspiring guide Seb Grondin. We finished the film this summer, called it Without a Paddle, and sent it along to a bunch of festivals.
Armed with two 20-foot Old Town canoes that could carry a lot of gear, we took a 10 x 10-foot Esker canvas tent that had a small woodstove in it. There was no problem finding wood at our camp spots, but it was challenging getting water because Grondin refused to drink from the lake. He’d had a bout with giardiasis before and wasn’t taking any chances, so we either had to collect creek water or melt snow—or just drink whiskey. In the bottom photo that’s exactly what Grondin is doing. Howell is grimacing in pain from the frostbite he got on the index and middle fingers of his right hand during our three-day foray into the Scrip Range (centre photo).
There were plenty of amazing pillow lines all along the river, and we hit a few of them where it was easy to get in and out of the canoes. Being hyperaware of the consequences of getting wet, we used extreme caution around the boats and never had any mishaps. But that didn’t prevent us from freezing our asses off. The worst conditions were in the alpine, specifically the Scrip Range, where it hovered around -35°C. The slopes had been blasted by 90 kilometre-per-hour winds, and the snow was totally wind affected. On top of that, our camera batteries froze and three of us were caught in avalanche sluff. I was swept down a chute and had to back paddle to stay above it all. In short, Scrip sucked.
Some of our best riding was just south of Mica Dam, at the beginning of the trip, where we slayed perfect powder in old-growth forest. At one point we just kept going into the night, following each other with battery-powered LED work lights to see our lines. But then the temperature dropped, and we suffered through a few days of really long paddles. The 50-kilometre stretch to Downie Creek was particularly brutal. It was so foggy, Grondin and I actually lost sight of Rosen and Howell in the other canoe for a few hours. We doubled back to try and locate them but didn’t reunite again until about five kilometres north of Downie. We left at 7 a.m. and didn’t stop until 9 p.m. It was the hardest paddling I’ve ever done.
Our entire journey down the Columbia took 10 days. The first few had us boarding and paddling just south of Mica Dam. Day three was all paddling, and then days four to six were spent pounding in an uptrack and riding some wind-blasted slopes in the Scrip Range. Day seven was our big canoe to Downie Creek, and day eight was all snowboarding. On the ninth day we paddled and boarded, and on the tenth we canoed all the way to the Revelstoke Dam as a symbolic gesture and then back upriver for about a kilometre to the boat launch. That’s where my girlfriend and Rosen’s girlfriend were waiting to pick us up in the trucks, with the heat blasting.
Nick is a writer and photographer in Revelstoke, British Columbia, who has a proclivity for roping his friends into hare-brained, usually painful, schemes.
2022 Update: The full “Without A Paddle” Movie is now available to watch on YouTube: