Giants of the Northland
Rites of Passage on B.C.’s Homathko River
This story appears in our May “North” issue, available on newsstands now.
By Chris Gragtmans
The rain has been hammering our little tarp for hours, and shows no sign of relenting. Petey is shivering next to me, cursing as the rainwater slowly inundates his sleeping bag. I’m dry in my bivy, but can’t sleep either. My mind goes vertigo, imagining being swept off the face of the earth by the rising river.
I’ve been paddling in British Columbia for two months and the walled-in, log-choked, continuous and deceivingly powerful rivers here have humbled me every day. On the Ashlu a few weeks back, my friends and I spent a harrowing day racing the runoff from a storm much like this one. The river was running a pushy 700 cfs when we reached the takeout. Hours later, it spiked to 7,000.
And now here we are, halfway through a four-day, 80-mile expedition on the Homathko, a river that has proved to be as challenging, physically and psychologically, as anything I’ve done in my life. Yesterday we were on the river 10 hours, thinking the whole time that if the river were any higher it would be impossible to continue. Then it rained most of the night.
Everyone’s awake early. The rain has finally stopped, and looking around the campfire, I’m thankful to be here with a crew I can trust. They’re old hands on rivers like this one, these giants of the Northland, from which a hike out is impossible and a swim means helicopter evacuation, or worse. The six of us peel into the current. We soon pass the confluence with Mosley Creek, where the two rivers combine forces and barrel into the mist at more than 9,000 cfs. In the heart of the run, the dynamics of a good team are fascinating to watch: Communication is minimal, and paddlers take turns leapfrogging their way down a given rapid, slowly working on nature’s puzzle.
It feels primal, fighting our heavily loaded kayaks through boils and around massive holes, always scanning for the next last-chance eddy to snag in the event of a blind corner. Our confidence grows as we get past The Bet, followed by Tragedy Canyon Acts I and II. Then we climb to the canyon rim, stumbling through moss and deadfall to scout Tragedy Canyon Act III, and my heart drops. The canyon is steep-walled and narrow, almost tunnel-like, feeding straight into a massive river-wide hole immediately above a pour-over with a 30-foot towback. We search for any hint of a gap in the top hole. Nothing. The only glimmer of hope is the small green tongue forming left of center every 20 seconds or so. Nate argues that since our loaded boats weigh close to 100 pounds, we are more likely to crash through the monster. The argument against running it is also compelling: everything we need for survival is in our kayaks.
Five of us slide into the river like lemmings. I have never blue-angeled a rapid this big before. We spread out, alone in a state of full commitment, trying not to think that we soon could be sharing the beating of our lives. Whatever happens, we might as well get it over with. The massive walls swallow us as we drop into the pushy entry rapids.
We’d been unable to scout the lead-in from the rim, so I can only read Ric’s movement ahead, and gauge my distance from the left wall in hopes of catching that elusive tongue. A huge curler swallows me, and I struggle to keep things together through the whiteout. Suddenly I crest the ramp leading into the malicious hole. The tongue is nowhere to be seen. There is nothing else to do but paddle as hard as I can.
I take two powerful strokes and hold a righty as I slam into the 6-foot-tall foampile. I can’t get my bow up and over the maw, so my loaded Nomad’s momentum carries it forward and the whitewater slams into my chest. A long moment later I’m through, careening into the chaotic wash behind hole and scrambling to get left of the massive pour-over.
One-by-one, the others bash through the hole and narrowly skirt the massive pour-over. I can’t explain the shared joy of the group all making it through. It was elation, but a certain awareness—that the river itself had decided to offer passage—weighed heavily on us as we floated out to our flight back to civilization with the sun finally shining. The next day, the Homathko spiked 10-fold to 90,000 cfs.