What I Learned in B.C.

Five northern expedition tips learned the hard way

Words and photos by Eric Adsit

I was bent over and panting, not because the scenery of British Columbia’s backcountry had taken my breath away, but because I’d been dragging, shoving and carrying a 100-pound boat through two or three miles of Devil’s Club and alder thickets. As I listened to the sweat drip from my nose and splatter against the blade of my paddle, I was reminded that the glaciers along the valley’s rim were doing the same: adding more water to the already raging Clendinning Creek, where we had planned to paddle over Labor Day weekend. In moments like these, it’s hard to remember that this was exactly what I’d expected, and that I had spent a month’s rent on the float plane just to to get there. But as the saying goes, “Good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgment.” I was gaining experience.

Here are a few lessons my team and I learned from this adventure.

British Columbia Class IV is Stateside Class V
Despite paddlers’ best efforts, the whitewater rating system will always be somewhat subjective. The high volume, glacier-melt rivers of British Columbia tend to be pushier than similarly rated rapids in the States. Couple that with the remote nature and frigid water that make British Columbian rivers so iconic and you have a whole new scale. Because of these elements, add an extra half-class of difficulty to the local rating, and a full class higher if the river is in a wilderness setting.

Cubic meters per second does not equal cubic feet per second
Canada (like everywhere else outside of the U.S.) uses the metric system, including flow measurements. One cumec (cubic meter per second) is equivalent to 35 cfs. That means the difference between ~150 cms (suggested medium flows) and 200 cms (our average flows) can be a river’s worth of water, while the difference between ~150 cfs and 200 cfs is usually minimal. Do not forget to make that conversion; a seemingly small change in flow might be much greater than you expect.

Remember the portage when packing
All that extra water transformed what we had hoped would be challenging but manageable Class IV and V- into the British Columbia backcountry equivalent of Idaho’s North Fork Payette. While we expected one or two lengthy portages, some group members struggled with unnecessarily heavy loads. As nice as hot pasta at camp and the extra long camera lenses are, it’s important to remember all that gear will end up on your shoulder if you have to portage.

Group gear should be split among the group
The smallest person in the group was also the most prepared (meaning, he brought the most stuff) resulting in his boat weighing the most at around 115 pounds. Much of that weight was rescue gear and first aid equipment, which should have been divvied up and shared at the beginning of the trip. He and I ended up trading boats for the last major portage, each carrying a more proportional weight to our body sizes.

Light comes late in the mountains
We waited for the sun to wake us up on our first morning. By the time it had finally filtered through the narrow passes and bounced deep enough into the valley to rouse us, it was 9:30 a.m., and then 10 a.m. by the time we had packed up camp and gotten back on the river. Valuable hours of workable light were lost while we unknowingly slept in.

These experiences enrich your life
On the long shuttle around the mountains and back to open air, one group member remarked on the memory-making potential of trips like this. “Too often it seems like weeks go by at school or work where nothing really happens and I don’t make any real memories,” he said, “but this trip lasted three days, and it already feels like it’s been a week.” Doing something memorable, even if it’s bushwhacking through the wilderness for a couple days, will leave you richer in experience, and that’s something you can never lose.

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Add a Comment

  • Will

    Don’t know if I agree necessarily with the “divide up your gear” part. It would suck if someone with essential gear for the group swims and loses their boat/gear

  • John Schauer

    Great article and photos, Eric! I agree with almost all of your points. As a wilderness guide for 25 years, your judgement/experience quote has always been a favorite. I have been doing Alaskan river trips for a long time, but haven’t run stuff quite as stout as the crux rapids on your trip (my son certainly has).

    One point I would take issue with is rating a wilderness float an extra grade or half-grade higher. It’s true that one should have Class V skills to run wilderness Class IV. The consequences of a lost or broken boat or injury are much higher when you are days or weeks from a road. That doesn’t make the water any harder. I know difficulty ratings vary regionally, and locals may downgrade runs the same way that commercial raft companies exaggerate ratings. I still think that the difficulty rapids should be the basis for the rating. A class IV rapid can have class III consequences or class V consequences for screwing up. Those consequences are part of the judgement and experience equation. The consequences don’t change the difficulty of the drop like water level does. Portaging a heavily loaded boat, or risking losing it with food, camping, and safety gear also plays into the judgement and experience required, but doesn’t make the river difficulty itself harder. You can legitimately argue whether a drop should be rated IV, IV+, V-, or V in difficulty, but boater experience, choice of craft, or wilderness nature shouldn’t be the determining factor for the rating.

    I have seen swift flatwater, road accessible rivers in Alaska rated Class II by agencies because of log jams and sweepers. People who are comfortable paddling these rivers in canoes and rec kayaks may get a big dose of experience from bad judgement if they attempt a big water wilderness run with actual Class II whitewater difficulties.

    I’ve also been one to take a bit of extra gear for safety and comfort on trips, but I’m learning a lot from my son and from the community of Alaskan adventurers pushing limits of ultra-light wilderness travel with minimalist gear. They are acutely aware of safety and consequences, while making the most of each carefully chosen piece of gear. The packrafters are taking this to an amazing level, running challenging IV-IV+ wilderness runs in 7 lb boats. Kayakers boats are 20-30 pounds lighter for trips the length of yours. I’m trying to absorb and embrace their wisdom in my geezer years.

    I do agree with dividing up essential group gear. Don’t put all safety gear in one boat, but still try not to carry lots of redundant stuff. Have a plan if the one stove/pot or group shelter is lost. Does someone else have a pot to cook over a stick fire? If one person has a sat phone in a boat, does someone else have a Spot on their person? What emergency gear is on you if your lose your boat?

    Thanks for sharing your thoughtful reflections. I wholeheartedly agree with your conclusions! These experiences truly enrich your life!

    John

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