By Scott Lindgren
Photos courtesy Rob Lesser
The first whisper of the Grand Canyon of Stikine was a brief conversation between Rob Lesser and Bob Walker. It’s August of 1977. Al Lowande, Ron Frye and Lesser are headed to Alaska to kayak the second descent of the Devils Canyon of the Susitna.
The plan was to meet in Dease Lake, British Columbia so the boys could take a look at the Grand of the Stikine with the thought that, if it looked good, they would consider making a run. Lesser jumped in Cessna 172 and took a flight through the canyon. The flow: 36,000 CFS. The sight of the river at such high water humbled Lesser, but he thought that at a lower flow it might just be runnable.
A month earlier, following a two-week kayak expedition throughout Idaho, Walker and Lesser had turned their interest to the North Fork of the Payette. The boys spent a day scouting every rapid at about 1,200 cfs. The next day Lesser and Walker put on the Top 5 miles of the North Fork, and completed the first descent. Immediately, Lesser realized he had discovered the ultimate whitewater training ground.
If there was a beginning to modern big-water expedition paddling, in my opinion this was it. To realize something, train for it, study it, organize a team and know that the second you commit nothing will ever be the same. I call it making history. Very few have such vision and opportunity. With the likes of Don Banducci, Rick Fernald, John Wasson and Paul Hoobayer, Lesser spent the next three summers developing his skills on the North Fork Payette with one goal in mind: An all-out assault on The Grand Canyon of Stikine.
In 1980 Lesser’s preparation included the fist descent of Turn Back Canyon on the Alsek. The stage was set. Lesser had spent four years gathering intel, flow studies, and maps. It was time.
On July 16th, 1981, Lesser and Roger Brown—a cinematographer and producer for the popular show ABC’s American Sportsman—flew in a helicopter through the Stikine Canyon. The flow: 35,663 cfs.
Brown asked Lesser, “Are you sure this is runnable?”
Lesser wasn’t sure, but he’d already made up his mind to try. “I don’t care about a film,” he said. “I’m going with or without your cameras.”
One month later on August 18th, 1981, the boys begin the journey to the Stikine. There are very few things in life that grab hold of your mind and expose your every insecurity. Traveling north to the Stikine is one of the loneliest and scariest drives a kayaker will ever make. The anticipation is palpable.
On August 25, Lesser and American Sportsman host Bob Beattie made one last helicopter flight through the Canyon. In that chopper, the door open to better view the river below, Lesser looked straight into the camera and told the world that the Grand Canyon of the Stikine was about to go down.
The next day Don Banducci, Rick Fernald, Lars Holbek, John Wasson and Rob Lesser put on with 11,157 cfs registering on the Cassiar Highway Bridge gauge. On the 27th the river dropped a bit to 10,875 but rose the next day to 12,711 cfs.
If you have ever seen this film, you know that to this day, it is some of the most dramatic expedition kayak footage ever caught on camera. It is raw, and the film has a pounding pulse that you can feel through the screen.
Thirty-two years later it still defines the world of expedition kayaking. The Stikine is our proving grounds. It is the closest thing we have to going to war. For Lesser it was full circle. He had just completed the triple crown of big water expedition kayaking. Devils Canyon on the Susitna, Turnback Canyon on the Alsek and the Grand Canyon of the Stikine.
In 1985 Lesser, Lars Holbek and Bob McDougall returned to finish the canyon from V-Drive down, and the second descent of the Stikine was in the bag. Almost ten years after the first descent, in 1990, Lesser returned again and completed the first self-support kayak expedition through the canyon.
To me, of all Lesser’s accomplishments, including the first descent of the Braldu in Pakistan (you know, that little river that drains K2), out of all those accomplishments the one that impresses me the most is Lesser returning in 1998 at the age of 53 and successfully navigating the Grand Canyon of the Stikine for the fourth time.
I’ve been asked on occasion what inspired me to dedicate a significant chunk of my life to river travel. I answer simply, Rob Lesser.
I’ve been asked, if there were a training ground for big water kayaking where would it be? The North Fork of the Payette.
I’ve been asked, what is the ultimate proving ground for big water expedition kayaking? I’ll stare you straight in the eyes and tell you it is the Grand Canyon of the Stikine.
I am proud, honored and incredibly humbled to present the 2013 C&K Lifetime Achievement Award to Mr. Rob Lesser.
–Scott Lindgren is an Emmy Award-winning cinematographer and expedition paddler best known for leading the first descent of the Tsangpo Gorge in 2002. This story is a transcript of his speech presenting the 2013 C&K Lifetime Achievement Award to his friend and mentor, the incomparable Rob Lesser.