30 Years: Grand Canyon of the Stikine

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

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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