30 Years: Grand Canyon of the Stikine

Rob Lesser's Return Journey Marks the Anniversary of Expedition Kayaking's Benchmark Run

30 Years: Grand Canyon of the Stikine

Eds. Note: This story originally ran in the June 2011 issue of Canoe & Kayak, now available on newsstands. Anson Fogel of Forge Motion Pictures recently announced, after press time, that plans to shoot Lesser: A Life Less Ordinary have been canceled for 2011, "due to a variety of factors," and that the expedition/film crew tentatively plans to start production in fall 2012. "There is no easy single issue, it's a complex logistical issue and combination of different problems," Fogel says. For more information on the project, visit Lesserfilm.com.

By Eugene Buchanan

Grand Canyon of the Stikine

Photo: Erik Boomer

Thirty years ago, Idaho’s Rob Lesser led one of the more audacious whitewater feats of all time: the first descent of the Grand Canyon of the Stikine. This summer, at the ripe age of 65, he’s going back-not necessarily to run the tortuous rapids of the 45-mile-long canyon, but to pay his respects.

“It’s not exactly my intent to go run the canyon again,” Lesser says. “I’m old enough to realize that just because you feel like doing something, it doesn’t mean that when the shit hits the fan you’re ready to deal with the consequences.”

There’s plenty of that on the Stikine. Located 1,000 miles north of the Washington border in British Columbia, the river drains 20,000 square miles of wilderness in its 350-mile course to the ocean north of Wrangell, Alaska. The crux: the 45-mile-long Grand Canyon, a cataract of massive, Class V-VI rapids surrounded by inescapable, 1,000-foot vertical walls.

Even on the 30th anniversary of its historic first descent, it’s still considered the benchmark of big-water boating and remains one of whitewater’s biggest prizes. And this means it still lures the sport’s best every year. Last fall, Erik Boomer, Jeff West and Todd Wells paddled it in a single day. They were only the second group to do that, ever. In mid-September, Maxi Kniewasser, Ric Moxon, Ben Howthorne, Cody Howard, Taylor Cavin and Daz Clarkson ran it on Kniewasser and Moxon’s Triple Crown tour, also knocking off the Alsek and Susitna.

Photo: Erik Boomer

“The run was perfect, but still it’s the Stikine. We still had some big trashings,” Kniewasser says. “Ric’s skirt blew and he had to swim for his life upstream of The Wall and I got stuck in The Hole That Ate Chicago.”

Indeed, even though its siren call still lures kayaking’s upper echelon, the list of those willing to attempt it is small. To date less than 100 people have paddled it, and in the three decades since Lesser’s first descent in 1981, only 15 teams have repeated the feat.

“Lesser accomplishing the first Stikine descent was truly epic. It’s hard to imagine what it felt like to be the first people paddling through there,” says Boomer, who claims five and a half Stikine runs-the “half” coming when limit-pushing high water forced him, Tristan McClaran and Ryan Casey into an grueling bushwhack out after paddling roughly one-sixth of the run.

Abandoned Stikine runs are commonplace, despite the committing canyon walls that make escape a dangerous and arduous undertaking. The reason is simple: The Stikine has dealt some of the world’s best boaters the beatdowns of their lives. There was John Wasson’s brush with mortality in 1981, resulting in the name of Wasson’s Hole; Bob McDougall’s near-death swim and epic cliff-scaling escape in 1989, recounted in his essay, “Drowning;” Jay Kincaid and Taylor Robertson’s quickly aborted high-water attempt in 2000, leading to a two-and-a-half-day hike out; and Austin Rathman’s life-altering swim at Site Zed, the run’s one consistently necessary portage, during a high-water attempt in 2007. “The Stikine will change how you view yourself, the world and everyone in it,” he says.

Photo: Rob Lesser

And that’s exactly why Lesser is returning to the Stikine for the first time since 1998, when he ran it at age 53. This time he’ll be accompanied by a top-notch camera team filming Lesser: A Life Less Ordinary, which focuses in large part, on his five trips to the Stikine and historic return. He’ll be in good company. Joining him on the 350-mile, source-to-sea expedition will be filmmakers Anson Fogel of Forge Motion Pictures and Bryan Smith of Reel Water Productions, as well as National Geographic cinematographer Skip Armstrong.

“The film will be about Rob returning with his heirs to the river that shaped so much of his life,” Smith says. “This is a story about a quiet hero, in a deafening place of almost incomprehensible power.”

While the list of canyon paddlers for this summer’s descent and film isn’t finalized, on the short list are McCall, Idaho, paddlers Brian Ward, Melissa Newell and Fred Coriell; Small World Adventures kayak guides Darcy Gaechter and Don Beveridge, and Boomer. Happy to hang out on the canyon rim and assist via helicopter, Lesser plans to paddle the 170-mile upper section leading to the Cassiar Bridge and the 135-mile lower section from the canyon takeout at Telegraph Creek out to the ocean.

“I’m primarily there for the history aspect of it all,” Lesser says. “But I’m still very attached to the canyon. The Stikine occupies the top rung on my list of paddling accomplishments, but I really have no interest in going in there and puckering myself up again. My basic plan is just to go up and enjoy the canyon… you don’t get to do that too much when you’re inside paddling it.”

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RETURN OF THE BUS

Photo: Rob Lesser

Rob Lesser isn’t the only heirloom returning to the Stikine this summer. Coming along for the ride-or, rather, bringing other people along-will be his 1971 Volkswagen camper van, Lesser’s faithful river-running companion from 1973 to 1985. With 10 trips up and down on the Alcan Highway and 230,800 miles, it’s been through seven complete engine overhauls and is now owned by McCall, Idaho’s Ryan Bailey. “The bus will provide a unique narrative thread linking two generations of explorers,” filmmaker Bryan Smith says. For Lesser, the bus “just represents the whole philosophy of the expedition kayaking lifestyle. It might be my 30th anniversary of running the canyon, but it’s got that by almost another 10 years.”

— HIGHLIGHTS FROM THE LAST THREE DECADES —

1981: Rob Lesser, John Wasson, Lars Holbek, Don Banducci and Rick Fernald make first descent attempt of the Grand Canyon of the Stikine. Boat of choice: Perception Mirage. Group makes it two-thirds of the way down before the film crew from ABC’s The American Sportsman, satisfied with their footage from the first two-thirds of the run, cuts the trip short after Site Zed. The difficult Lower Narrows section is left un-run.

1985: A Canadian TV film crew pushes a larger team (and helicopter support) to return and complete a full descent, including kayakers Holbek, Lesser and Bob McDougall, plus a rafting team of Peter Fox, Mark Kosina, Beth Rypins Steve Ellsberg, Peggy Lindsay, Dan Bolster and Joe Willie Jones. Kosina and Rypins’ raft team completes over 70 percent of the canyon before a helicopter ride out.

1989: First self-contained descent attempt. McDougall has epic swim and climbs out after getting stuck in a hole at Entry Falls and pinned under a rock. Trip aborted when Lesser and Doug Ammons can’t find his boat. “When something like that happens,” McDougall wrote in his essay, “Drowning,” “it changes you as a person.”

1990: Ammons and Lesser return with Tom Schibig to finish first self-support from Cassiar Bridge to Telegraph Creek.

1990: Days later, the Oregon-based team of Hayden Glatte, Phil DeReimer and Bryan Tooley complete “in-the-dark” run. “They had no beta, no knowledge of the run except that Lars had told them he thought it could be done at 5,000 cfs by a good team, taking extreme care,” Ammons says of their 9,000-cfs run.

1992: Ammons completes first solo self-support descent, finishing in three days. “It is the most intense place I’ve ever been, it will strip you clean,” he says. “Nobody goes in there and comes out with a swagger, because the place makes it obvious that you’re so damn small … I don’t know of any other river or set of experiences that comes close to what this place offers. It is the purest expedition run in the world.”

1992: A crew of kayakers plus Dave Slover and Joe Dangler’s raft team attempt run. Slover calls the intermediate rapids “hard Class V”. After spending two and a half portage-packed days getting to Wasson’s Hole (the first mandatory rapid) part of the group climbs out to arrange a helicopter rescue for the remaining team members.

1994: Conrad Fourney and Charlie Munsey’s self-support descent at highest level of the time (Munsey estimates between 14,800-15,200 cfs).

1998: In a one-month flurry, Gerry Moffat, Reggie Crist, Charlie Munsey, Wink Jones III, Ammons, and Lesser (then aged 53) add a Stikine descent to runs on Devil’s Canyon of the Susitna and Turnback Canyon of the Alsek to coin term Triple Crown.

2000: Taylor Robertson and Jay Kincaid put on at an unbeknownst level (an ill-advised flow of nearly 40,000 cfs). “We got to Entry Falls, couldn’t stop and got trashed,” says Robertson, who with Kincaid, continued, swept out of control. “We caught one of three eddies available and decided to hike out.” Only three rapids in, it takes them two and a half days to return to the put-in, at one point having a moose chase them out of their sleeping bags early in the morning.

2001: Scott Lindgren, Willie Kern and Dustin Knapp run Stikine as warm-up for Tsangpo expedition, only to see river rise three feet on the final day, pushing past an estimated 25,000 cfs. “The lines were just as hard or harder than those on the Tsangpo,” Knapp says.

2003: German paddlers Ollie Grau, Olaf Obsommer, Marcus Kratzer, and Michael Neumann survive massive 16,500-cfs run. Shaken, they attempt to climb out above The Wall, but decide to finish the run.

2004: New Zealand’s Nikki Kelly becomes first female to kayak the canyon, with crew from Lunch Video Magazine

2005: LVM crew returns, Daniel DeLaVergne, John Grace, Tommy Hilleke and Toby McDermit complete first-ever one-day descent.

2006: Mark Cramer attempts solo cataraft descent, flips in second named rapid (Three Goat), barely escapes cliff-walled eddy to unflip cataraft and meet his planned helicopter rendezvous, and evacuates.

2007: Austin Rathman and Maxi Kniewasser survive harrowing 19,700-cfs run to notch highest full run descent.

2010: Erik Boomer, Jeff West and Todd Wells complete second-ever one-day descent. “We paddled it once before to acclimate ourselves with the rapids, then put on pre-light the next day,” Boomer says. “It was one of the best days of paddling I’ve ever had.”

2011: Lesser returns for the 30th anniversary of the first descent (Lesserfilm.com).

– For more stories, testimonies and history, visit Dougammons.com; his latest book, The Stikine prints this fall and is available there for preorder.

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A-Team Originals: From left, John Wasson, Rob Lesser, Rick Fernald, Don Banducci, Lars Holbek. Photo: Rob Lesser

THE ’81 CREW

Don Banducci‘s decision to walk Site Zed on the ’81 descent was a turning point for the longtime Arcata, Calif., resident. “I was in my early 30s, in a solid relationship, and president of a growing business. Risking everything didn’t appeal the way it did formerly … after that trip I slowly began to back off from pushing my personal limits in a boat.” That didn’t mean he stopped taking risks. Banducci, 62, co-founded rack giant Yakima Products, Inc., in the fall of 1979 and sold it in 1994. “The ‘go-for-it-ness’ I learned kayaking certainly enhanced my business career at Yakima. I was the guy always pushing, always challenging others to step up and take a risk, ’cause chances were, you’d wind up at the bottom of the drop looking back up and thinking, ‘Damn, I’m glad I did that!'” Now “mostly retired” Banducci spends his river time flyfishing in a drift-boat, bird hunting and training springer spaniels.

After running the Stikine, Rick Fernald went on to a distinguished kayaking career, teaching as an ACA-certified instructor for Alder Creek Kayak & Canoe and authoring The Playboater’s Guide to Idaho in 2001. Still pursuing mountain biking and windsurfing, he now lives in Bend, Ore., a safe distance away from the Stikine. You can still find him surfing his favorite wave, Trestle on the Deschutes River, at 15,000 cfs.

Lars Holbek went on to notch numerous first descents, pioneering classic runs across the Sierra Nevada and co-authoring The Best Whitewater in California with Chuck Stanley in 1984, which, in its third edition, is still considered the definitive California guidebook among boaters today. In March 2009, Holbek died from liver cancer in his home near Durango, Colo., at 51 as one of expedition kayaking’s most-respected, all-time greats.

John Wasson, 61, lives on the outskirts of Jackson, Wyo., working some, but mostly skiing the backcountry in the winter, and securing river permits (this summer: his 16th trip on Idaho’s Main Salmon, with his 16-year-old daughter Luna). Though he never returned to the Stikine, Wasson recalls, “all of us rode the crest of a blossoming sport. Adventure films, first descents far away and in the backyard-plastic, plastic, plastic. I paddled a lot with Don and Rob over the years. Some with Rick. Paddling with Lars was just too nerve-racking.” And on his dubious namesake legacy: “I of course left with a rapid named after me. I do not recommend this method for getting your name in a guidebook.”

Stikine Now: Ric Moxon, Taylor Cavin, Ben Hawthorne, Daz Clarkson, Maxi Kniewasser and Cody Howard after their successful September 2010 run.

For a unique river-level perspective of the Grand Canyon of the Stikine, check out the amazing dueling helmet cam footage from Mikkel St. Jean-Duncan (top video) and Sean Allen (bottom video) from their late August 2010 descent with Bryce Shaw, what St. Jean Duncan believes was the canyon's third all-Canadian group. Keep in mind, these are considered LOW flows.

Stikine 2010 from seanallen on Vimeo.

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