From the Mag: Last Rights

Three paddlers return to claim the Sacred Headwaters’ last great unrun section with a single imperative: stealth.

CAKP-140500-AQUA-01
By Todd Wells
Illustration By André Caetano

We reached the entrance of Bourquin Canyon just as the sun disappeared behind the Coast Mountains. With darkness descending, we scouted hastily from the moss-covered rim of the gorge. In the fading light we could see that the quarter-mile of rapids surging through the canyon was burly, but runnable. This would be our only shot.

If we waited to run the canyon in daylight, workers from AltaGas would almost certainly intercept us, as they had in August 2012. This section, the last un-run mystery of the Iskut River, had become an obsession ever since our first attempt ran into a concrete wall.

We paddled toward the turbulent chaos, ignoring conventional paddling logic that remote first descents probably shouldn't be attempted at night.

That wall is the Forest Kerr Hydroelectric Dam. That August, when Erik Boomer, John Grace, Sarah McNair-Landry and I first scouted the explosive chaos raging through Bourquin Canyon, we decided to portage along the rim. The trail brought us to the dam site, where AltaGas security escorted us from the river. We never got so much as a glance at Forest Kerr Canyon, which begins below the dam site.

In September 2013, I returned with Louis Geltman, my brother Brendan and a single imperative: stealth. We packed six days worth of food and camping gear into our boats, and planned a 120-mile journey down the Iskut through its confluence with the Stikine and out to the Pacific Ocean. We booked a ferry ride from our takeout in Wrangell, Alaska, and didn't breathe a word of our plans to anyone.

The Iskut was running at a relatively low level of about 8,000 cfs. The moderate flow gave us hope that we'd be able to run the whitewater, but it did nothing to diminish the grandeur of our surroundings as we quietly put on the Iskut. There's good reason that this remote untamed region of northern British Columbia, where the Nass, Skeena and Stikine rivers all originate, is known as the Sacred Headwaters. Caribou and moose graze the vast tundra, wolves and lynx patrol the steep mountains, bear snatch salmon in the glacial streams—all uninterrupted by any human distraction. Expedition kayakers aren't the only people who feel a deep appreciation and connection to this place. On our drive in, we witnessed the passion of native Tahltan people protesting an open-pit anthracite mine in the heart of the headwaters region.

As we approached the canyon at sunset, the sound of heavy industry reminded us of the changes coming to the Sacred Headwaters. Truck noise broke the silence as semitrailers and concrete mixers roared along the gravel road to our left. Keeping out of sight, we observed a swath of fallen trees that parallels the river to the south. This clear-cut ribbon stood out against the thick old-growth evergreens, ready to host a string of power lines linking the Forest Kerr powerhouse with the Canadian Northwest Transmission Line.

After scouting the canyon, we rushed to gear up as daylight turned to night. We paddled toward the turbulent chaos, ignoring conventional paddling logic that remote first descents probably shouldn't be attempted at night. At the start of the gorge we shared a quick moment of serenity. The dream of running Bouquin Canyon was, one way or another, about to unfold in front of us. We exchanged one last set of high fives and peeled out one after another.

Within the first 500 yards, a giant hydraulic swallowed me. I went deep, to the dark, cold bottom of the river. I popped up in the turmoil of boiling currents just in time to line up for another big ledge. SMACK, Upside-down again. I managed to emerge in the canyon's only calm pool. Excited shouts echoed off the tall basalt walls as we prepared for the canyon's final, and most technical, rapid.

Except now, deep in the gorge, visibility was limited to less than 50 feet, making it next to impossible to read and run. I barely made out a small seam 10 feet off the right wall that separated two violent holes. What I couldn't see was the crashing wave below the seam. With just enough speed, I stern-squirted through the mayhem, charged right of a final river-wide hole, and emerged below. The three of us regrouped and caught our breath, congratulating each other in a flood of emotion. And then we remembered the dark forest above, and the imperative of stealth: Get off the river. Don't get caught.

We climbed up the river-left basalt wall, hauling our boats behind us. With headlamps on and a faint moonlight illuminating the forest we crept toward the dam site, watching for the next set of headlights rumbling up the road—waiting. We turned off our headlamps, crossed the road, and were back into thick and mossy B.C. forest. With the moon high enough into the night sky, we set our course around the dam and back toward the river, to the unknown Forest Kerr Canyon.

We woke the next day in a soft bed of moss, packed up and scouted the exploding mystery downstream. Atop the rim of Forest Kerr, I glimpsed the growing dam upstream, already doubled in size since I'd seen it a year ago. This mass of concrete and steel had completely remodeled the landscape, pinching the narrow river even tighter than before. We quickly determined that it would be suicidal to attempt the canyon in kayaks.

A hard two-and-a-half-mile portage brought us to another discouraging scout. Again we shouldered our boats, dashing past a busy construction site and descending a steep gully. Finally we lowered our kayaks to the water, one rope-length at a time.

At the river's edge our masks of fatigue, caked in dirt and sweat, were washed away by the cold glacial waters and replaced with ear-to-ear smiles. Two days of portaging had finally deposited us back on the banks of the Iskut. We soaked in the waterfalls, the yellow aspens and cottonwoods in stark contrast to the massive glaciers on either side of the river. Beams of afternoon light burst through an overcast sky lined with rainbows.

A long, four-day journey to the Pacific Ocean still lay ahead, but we had made it past the most difficult and unknown section of the river. We realized then how fleeting our night run through Bourquin Canyon had been. By next autumn's turning of the leaves, the Forest Kerr dam will be finished, and it will transform the unruly gorge we had just descended into a stagnant reservoir. A first and likely last descent, our shouts of excitement may be the only such echoes this canyon will ever know.

This feature originally ran in our May 2014 issue.

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