Standing on the shores of turquoise blue Chilko Lake in the B.C. Interior, lashing gear aboard our raft, Shaun Boughen, Derrick Law and I looked up and saw the campground warden approaching. "You boys ain't gonna paddle Lava Canyon are ya?" he asked. "I've been workin' here 40 years, and every summer someone tries. But they never make it, they always end up dyin'."
I swallowed hard. An onslaught of warnings and horror stories about our proposed river run had created a niggling worry in the back of my head, and I suddenly felt my doubt and insecurity rear up. Were we in over our heads? Had we lost our sanity and good judgment?
But I also knew the warden's well-meaning words were a gross exaggeration. In 1987, five people perished downstream on a stretch known as the White Mile in one of British Columbia's worst rafting accidents, but people frequently run the Chilko River with success. We would face far more serious white water farther downstream.
After sea-kayaking 700 kilometres up the Inside Passage, then traversing the rugged Coast Range Mountains on foot, this final, 700-kilometre whitewater journey would eventually take us down the powerful Fraser River, through the formidable rapids of Hell's Gate and back to Vancouver.
By midafternoon, we were ready, and with a mighty shove the raft floated from shore. Boughen and Law darted around me in tiny kayaks while I strained against the oars of the raft, working the sluggish craft down the long, narrow lake. Snowcapped peaks rose behind us. We laughed and splashed each other, intoxicated by the elation that comes with beginning a grand adventure.
As the lake narrowed, a building current funnelled us toward the Chilko River, whisking us past wooded islands and wide gravel bars. Large fish flashed beneath us in the afternoon sun. After several hours, we stopped to camp in a dusty clearing just upstream of Lava Canyon.
Morning came quickly, and the sun was high by the time we had finished packing camp. We struggled into our tight wetsuits, faces already red from the heat. After an hour, the cerulean river narrowed and basalt intrusions began to appear. We remained vigilant for the start of the tumultuous canyon, and with each passing corner our anticipation grew. Suddenly, a deafening roar echoed from around the bend, and the water dropped from sight. We wasted no time in getting to shore, where we scrambled up a steep slope for a better view.
For as far as we could see, the river was frothing and white, careening into a series of tight bends. Powerful holes formed at each turn and a deadly sluice of car-sized rocks blocked much of the exit. This was Bidwell Canyon, and just beyond the next corner lay the White Mile.
Boughen and Law ran first, their kayaks dwarfed by the waves. I followed, struggling madly to move the heavy raft in the powerful water, unable to stop its momentum in the eddy where the kayaks waited. They soon caught up, and together we entered the White Mile.
The white water was now a continuous series of three- to 4½-metre waves, one directly after another, with the river dropping away at the staggering rate of 19 metres a kilometre. There was no stopping. As the boats broke over the top of each swell, we had a fraction of a second to scan the river ahead before dropping into a trough and slamming into the next wave. The shore flashed past.
In brief lulls, we would yell at each other and wave with excitement, quickly refocusing again as we were swept onward. Eventually, the rapids eased, and we floated on until dusk, exhausted.
With each passing day, the river grew wider and deeper. The land around us turned dry; the sweet smell of sage filled the air as we ran through countless canyons, each cutting deeper into the rolling ranchland plateau.
Just when we thought we had passed the final rapids of the Chilcotin, the canyon walls suddenly reared up once again, higher and tighter than ever before. The sun was blocked from sight, and the water cascaded over steep drops into turbulent pools. We worked our way down the canyon carefully. Faster and faster it came, until suddenly, like a massive exhale, we were spat out into the expansive desert of the Fraser River Valley. After six days in tight forested canyons, the magnitude of the parched vista was eerily unsettling.
We had entered a moving ocean. Draining more than one-quarter of British Columbia, and travelling 1,325 kilometres from its headwaters near Mount Robson, the Fraser is Canada's fifth-largest river.
Crossing to the opposite shore was an exhausting exercise. Although the river had an air of serenity, its power was apparent. Pillowing cushions of water boiled up from below, tossing the boats about like twigs. Whirlpools opened along eddy lines, tugging at the raft's tubes, threatening to suck the kayaks down. It was hard to imagine what lay ahead; this was supposed to be the calm section.
Day after day, we paddled through the northern canyons of the Fraser Valley, one of the hottest, driest regions in Canada. Parched fields of golden grass, tumbleweed and cactus spotted the steep hillsides above. Apart from the big horn sheep clambering along dusty trails on the riverside cliffs, the valley was totally deserted. "Hey guys," Law said one night, a faint tinge of panic in his voice, "I think we have a cougar in camp."
Sitting by the campfire, Boughten and I swung around in unison, our headlamps catching the brilliant green glow of the cat's eyes, crouched less than seven metres away. As my mind reeled, a second cougar appeared from the darkness, lowering itself just behind the first. I had the distinct feeling of being hunted.
"Let's pelt them with rocks," Law whispered, stooping to collect a handful. On the count of three, we unleashed a fusillade of stones, screaming at the top of our lungs. Both cougars sprang up, sprinted into the darkness, and stopped just beyond our range, their quick green eyes following our every movement.
Finally, I launched a "bear banger," an exploding charge that reverberated through the desolate canyon. Both eyes disappeared and did not return, but we remained haunted by an eerie feeling of being watched.
We pulled our tents close by the fire, and I fell asleep with a bear banger and a large knife carefully arranged by my side. Just upstream of Lillooet, the Fraser enters Moran Canyon, a tortuously tight S-bend, where 300-metre walls rise sheer from the river. At the canyon's exit is Bridge River Rapids, a terrifying cauldron of white water that commercial rafts are forbidden from running. Thundering between two granite buttresses, the power of the rapids was unbelievable. The only possible route through was a difficult and aggressive line on the right, where the water slammed into a jagged wall.
The water was also thick with salmon. They burst from exploding waves, leaping against the current, sloshing ashore as the river ebbed and flowed. Thousands upon thousands of dark fins swirled in the turbulent pools.
A sprawl of first nation salmon-drying racks cluttered every inch of the shore. Native men dipped nets into the swirling waters, pulling up heavy loads of salmon with every swing. The rocks ran red with an orgy of blood as the fish were slaughtered, gutted and hung to dry.
From the shore, we stared long and hard at the pounding rapids. The line through was difficult, and a mistake would be disastrous. This was not worth dying for. Law and I decided to portage. After a long pause, Boughen said he wanted to run. I watched him line up, dwarfed by the waves. Every move went as planned, and seconds later he popped out at the bottom. Turning to smile as he passed, I felt his quiet elation as if it were my own.
As the last rays of afternoon sun kissed the rapids, we set off again. Salmon literally clogged the water. I could not take a single stroke without my oar thudding into countless bodies. Law dragged his hands in the water, shouting, "I have a 20-pound fish in each hand!"
That evening we camped at Lillooet. Although we were still three days away, Hell's Gate loomed as our last major challenge. I called a rafting outfitter and learned that water levels were unusually high for late summer.
"There is no way your raft should go," he said. "And the kayaks? Forget it." For the next two days, headwinds roared up the Fraser, stalling our progress. We stopped often to chat with the native fishermen camped along the river's edge. Reserved at first, they always welcomed us, sharing stories and offering samples of their freshly dried fish, which they had been patiently filleting and drying for more than a month.
The morning of the Hell's Gate run dawned grey, and we packed by a smouldering fire, each lost in our own thoughts. We hugged each other and shook hands. There was an ominous air as we drifted into the dark Fraser Canyon. Black cliffs ahead showed where the massive river funnelled into a tight gorge, at places hardly 30 metres wide.
China Bar Rapids came first, and my oars felt powerless against the incredible hydraulics of the confined water. A whirlpool opened between Boughen and Law, and they fought hard to break free. We were just catching our breath when the Hell's Gate Airtram (a small sightseeing gondola) appeared over the river ahead.
I manoeuvred the raft into a swirling eddy, shipped the oars and lunged to grab the canyon wall as I drifted by. Shimmying up the wall with the bowline between my teeth, I tied the boat off and scrambled to the Airtram bridge above, conspicuous amid a sea of photo-snapping tourists.
A huge wave guarded the left side of the rapid and a strong eddy tore along the right-hand cliffs. The only way through was a narrow, turbulent gap between. If our boats were a few feet out of place to either side, the result would be catastrophic.
Back at the raft, I found myself alone, facing a moment of total commitment. Once I stepped from the rocks, and the boat drifted into the swift current, there would be no turning back. It seemed everything I had done in the past 10 years had lead to this moment, and a sense of peace descended upon me.
As the shore slid away, the exploding whitewater of Hell's Gate loomed on the horizon. Sheer walls rose all around. I was aware of the river's roar, then my world fell to silence.
The raft shuddered as waves broke off the bow, but I hardly noticed. Time slowed down. I sensed the river accelerating and at the last moment I dug in my oars and used the current to catapult me past. I was conscious of the huge wave beside me, but I was already straightening the boat as it rocketed through the constriction.
Spray exploded from every direction, the raft shook violently, and a whirlpool opened to my side. I saw Law, who had run behind me, deeper in the whirlpool. Our eyes met, we both dug in, and seconds later were free. Boughen followed. Hell's Gate was behind us.
Suddenly, noise and sound came rushing back, the veil of transcendent concentration lifted. Tourists whooped from the bridge, and we pumped our fists in the air, savouring the moment. Law left us when we reached Hope, taking the bus back to Vancouver and flying home to Whitehorse later that night. My girlfriend, Christine Pitkanen, arrived to take his place, rowing for five long days with Boughen and me through the flatlands of the Fraser Delta. As we passed under the Port Mann Bridge, where barges laden with wood chips lay at anchor, we finally sensed the end was near.
On a sunny August morning, we oared around the University of British Columbia headland, and the skyline of downtown Vancouver came into view. An onshore breeze sped us past Spanish Banks, and 65 days after we had departed from the exact same spot, we landed at Jericho Beach.
The grand circuit that I had traced on a map 10 years earlier had turned into a glorious summer in the Canadian wilderness.
The journey left me with a meaningful and deep satisfaction that continues to buoy my spirits today. The route we travelled was longer in distance and time than any of my previous ventures in Arabia, Africa or Asia. The mountaineering section was the most physically gruelling challenge I have faced. After travelling to more than 40 countries around the globe, I realized that our country is a jewel. Our 1,500-km loop around the Coast Mountains is just one of millions of world-class adventures that are all in our own back yard.
Bruce Kirkby is the author of Sand Dance, By Camel Across Arabia's Great Southern Desert . This article was condensed from the manuscript of his upcoming book, tentatively titled Shifting Frontiers . To learn more about Kirkby's adventures, visit http://www.brucekirkby.com.