MADE IN CANADA Episode 5: B.C.’s Elk River
Catching up with Mikkel St. Jean-Duncan
Five2Nine and NRS have teamed up to offer a glimpse into the rivers of Canada. Past installments have included episodes on British Columbia’s Ashlu, as well as Quebec classics such as the Magpie, Taureau, and Neilson. Each river is seen through the eyes of the locals that paddle them like no one else can. “The goal is to show the individuals and the rivers in the diverse landscape that is Canadian whitewater,” says Mike McKay, owner of Five2Nine and director of the film series. Episode 5 features British Columbia’s Elk River, seen through the strokes of one of B.C.’s top expedition paddlers, Mikkel St. Jean-Duncan, and his wife Lianne Germaine. C&K caught up with St. Jean-Duncan, a recent computer engineering graduate, to tell us a bit more on his favored hometown run and on keeping paddling and work local to balance a stacked schedule of elite steep-creek races and big expeditions.
CANOE & KAYAK: What’s so great about the Elk?
ST. JEAN-DUNCAN: One of the rivers with the longest seasons in Western Canada was first paddled at the end of March this year and there is still talk of runs at this time of year, so seven full months. The Upper is Class V with a cool, small box canyon, easy to get out and scout everything and only one rapid is hard to walk. One of the best waterfalls anywhere, Leap of Faith, 35-40 feet—once you seal-launch in you’re committed, but it has one of the biggest safest pools I’ve ever seen on a river. Middle has a great Class IV, 300-foot deep canyon, scenic good quality rapids, which runs when the Upper is too high, and Lower is a great Class III-IV (depending on level again), with a scenic canyon and a good to paddle at almost any level: 30-300 cms.
How did the making of this film segment go?
A month before we filmed this segment, I paddled the Upper and Middle, including Leap of Faith the morning of my wedding, with 17 other people, 10 takers on the falls. Also we were nearly turned away by the workers working on the dam that day, although for the most part were fine with us going — in fact most of them like to watch.
Wait, what about that dam, any threats to the river?
There is a small diversion project that diverts water around the Upper, it’s small for the size of the river, is publicly owned by BC Hydro and actually helps paddling with only minor environmental impacts. It’s been in for a long time now too and not part of the recent [run-o-river hydroelectric project] push in B.C. If we could trade a few more of these types of projects in exchange for some of the more damaging ones it would be worth it. There is also some initial planning for putting a playpark/slalom course in on the Elk through the town of Fernie, where it would be nice to follow the U.S’s lead in building parks all over the place—funding is the big issue.
What advice do you have for paddlers making the haul up north to experience the Elk?
Late July, early August is a great time to catch flows on the Upper and Middle and there are a bunch of other good Class IV-V runs a little farther north near Golden and Revelstoke. There is a gauge on the Environment Canada website, 30-40 cms for the Upper, 30-100 for the Middle, 30-300 for the Lower.
What was your paddling season like otherwise?
I had a great season, attended a bunch of races, Big Fork, North Fork Championship, Callaghan. Winning Big Fork was tons of fun, the North Fork of the Payette was great this year, I had two weeks on it and love the warm big-water paddling, the vibe around that race is so much fun with an amazing river community down there. I had a good rip around B.C. in July including the Callaghan race, I paddled a 35 runs on 11 different rivers all across B.C. Then of course my trip up North, first time for me to Terrace where I paddle a couple new runs and drove over a ton of others I’ve heard good things about, that place looks as good as Whistler just more off the beaten path. My third trip down the Stikine, level was right around what I wanted, knew which rapids I could/wanted to walk going in and even added a rapid I had never run before. Felt like my safest most controlled descent and as always was tons of fun, as far as I’m concerned there is no better river trip you can do.
What’s set for the next year?
Next year will probably be a little mellower than my last couple as I’ll likely have a new job and not as much time off. Big Fork race is already planned so I would like to defend my title there, going back to the North Fork race is unlikely even though I would love to go again. I’ll definitely go to the Callaghan race; I’d like to win that one, as I’ve had two third-place finishes and a second in the last three years. Lots of local Alberta and Eastern B.C. paddling, and of course, probably a number of Elk trips.