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The Value of Wilderness: First Descent of B.C.’s Bishop River

Chris Korbulic chronicles a trying first complete descent attempt deep in changing wilds of southern British Columbia

Words and film by Chris Korbulic // Photos by Eric Parker

The Bishop River in southwest British Columbia is the southern sister to the famed Homathko, a wilderness whitewater classic of southern B.C. From its source at the Bishop Glacier the river drops 4,500 feet over 45 miles to Bute Inlet, five times more gradient than the Homathko, most of it condensed in the first 15 miles through a series of distinct gorges. From satellite and the sky, the course of the river through this recondite swath of glaciated coast range is aesthetically pleasing and full of unknowns.

In October 2016, Eric Parker, Todd Wells, and I attempted the first complete descent of the Bishop. I was struck by the rugged beauty of the landscape and that we could choose to experience it in such a way. During a portage of a final unrunnable section, Todd accidentally let his resting kayak slip from a tree and tumble hundreds of feet into the river, inaccessible to us deep in the gorge. Food, shelter, and dry clothes were cut by a third. With 30 miles to go, we split the remaining food, shelter, and clothing. Todd started hiking and Eric and I started paddling, sure Todd would find an old logging road at the end of this final canyon and hike out to meet us at the end.

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The values of wilderness we had all been cherishing suddenly became sinister. The incredible landscape was no longer a wonderland just to appreciate but an isolated, rugged obstacle course to get Todd out safely. A small shift in perception, and everything was different.

Just downstream, the transition from untouched old-growth forest to clear cuts and rampant second-growth was shocking. The distinctly different set of values that had created this new landscape starkly contrasted those I had been reveling in the previous week on the river. These distinct changes in perception made me question the value of wild places, their place in our lives, and our responsibilities to maintain them. Our perceived distance, both physically and emotionally, from these wonderful and wild places is much greater than in reality and we must somehow experience them in order to enjoy and protect the wild places that remain.

Sometimes it takes more than one experience. A return trip this year, finishing under different circumstances, will undoubtedly weave another thread in our perception of its value, and our role in it.


— Read a full account of the descent on Kokatat.com, and stay tuned to C&K to hear about the return attempt this year by Wells and Korbulic, who reported today that hot temperatures have caused the river to spike, and that they’ll look to launch next week as temperatures cool.

— See Korbulic’s Altai: The Road and the River, plus more expedition-first films from the northland.

— Check out more photos from Eric Parker and Todd Wells in our recent 4-part Patagonia Triple Crown series.

— Read another Portrait of a First Descent: South Fork Kaweah.