Scratching puffy eyes and grumbling about the cold, Hal Monkman emerges from a dew-soaked sleeping bag on the bank of the Nelson River in Northern Manitoba. He shoves his hands deep in the pockets of his puffy down jacket and gazes at the thundering cascade of Bladder Falls. After a long look he turns to Ben Marr, who sits clasping a steeping pot of tea.

“It’s still there,” Monkman says.

Joel Kowalski, the mastermind of this unprecedented whitewater mission, answers quietly from his perch on a mossy knoll.

“It wasn’t a dream."

All three go silent again, drinking in the spectacle they would soon come to call the Dream Wave. None of them had anywhere else to be.

The dream had begun four years before, with Kowalski poring over maps and satellite imagery of the wild rivers flowing from Northern Manitoba’s Lake Winnipeg toward Hudson Bay. Kowalski, raised on the banks of Ontario’s Ottawa River where his family runs a rafting business, is a charter member of the world’s most progressive freestyle kayaking crew, a loose collective of international boaters who convene each year to surf Eastern Canada’s spring flood. They call it the Stakeout, a name that pays homage to the elusiveness of the perfect river-surfing conditions they seek, and also to the tribe’s aesthetic. Capturing that fickle magic is a waiting game.

Kowalski’s search for the next great wave started with a Google Earth survey of the Canadian wilderness, scanning for high-volume rivers with gradient and characteristics similar to that of his home river, which boasts perhaps the planet’s highest concentration of world-class play waves. He kept coming back to the Nelson for one compelling reason: Its sheer quantity of water.

“You essentially have an inland ocean going downhill,” explains Kowalski.

Everyone agreed the Nelson should be a river-surfing paradise. But with almost no information beyond the flow data and river-wide smears of white on the Google Earth images, the only way to know for sure was to go there. Maniflowba, as the trip soon came to be called, was on.

In a van and trailer borrowed from his folks’ raft outfit, Wilderness Tours, Kowalski and eight kindred spirits began the 1,800-mile journey from the Ottawa Valley to Cross Lake, Manitoba, where they would begin a nine-day, 84-mile descent of the massive river. The cargo was vast and elaborate: Two 20-foot expedition rafts equipped with oar rigs and propane motors, seven carbon freestyle kayaks, three creek boats, fishing supplies, camping equipment, and enough miscellaneous gear to outfit a small village. On the morning of September 20th, with a blast of the horn and a chorus of whoops, the boys began the 40-hour non-stop run to the banks of the Nelson River.

With kayaks on the roof and a trailer full of raft support equipment in tow, the team drove nearly 3,000km's to reach the Nelson River at Cross Lake.

Leaning far out the passenger window to give the mud-spattered trailer a rolling inspection, Hal smiled as his long hair whipped in the wind. This was Hal’s vacation from his job in the family business, pouring concrete and he’d spent the last few days working overtime with Bren Orton, who sat in the back seat poring over maps with fellow professional kayakers Dane Jackson and Kabob Grady. For hours, the three had been discussing the mission’s disturbingly long list of unknowns. Would White Mud Falls, the largest rapid on the river, be navigable? Would the heavily loaded rafts be too cumbersome to navigate huge rapids, potentially rife with hazards, that they would have to run sight-unseen? Would there even be waves? The questions left all of them transfixed with a thrill of adventure, the zest of the unknown.

Canyon Waters
Restless and ready for the river, Kalob Grady, Bren Orton, and Dane Jackson make up exercises at a gas station in Moosehorn, Manitoba.

Glued to the window with his camera, Seth Ashworth snapped pictures while Louis-Philippe “LP” Rivest slept in a puddle of down jackets and stinky shoes. Nearly silent, the body-boarding brothers Tom and Jon Paterson sat like black sheep in the far corner of the van. Unlike the kayakers, this was the Paterson’s first big foray in a team mission to a new river. For years, the Patersons conducted their own version of Stakeout, embarking on extended river missions in Northeastern Canada equipped with little more than shady wetsuits, homemade body boards, outdated helmets, and the look of frenzied wolves in their eyes. In the spring of 2016 the duo travelled for a time with the Stakeout crew, and the big-wave kayakers recognized the grit in their hearts and fire in their souls. Now, six months later, the Patersons are not only part of the tribe, but among its foremost exemplars of human endurance and wilderness survival. Everyone brought an invaluable skill to the expedition.

On the second night of driving, the northern lights came out just hours short of Cross Lake and the banks of the Nelson River. The Aurora Borealis lead the van for the final hours of the trip.

Thirty-four hours in, the team was restless. The last Tim Hortons was an hour in the rear view, the sun had set twice on the travelers, and in the darkness ahead lurked 500 more miles of straight gravel road. Then a sudden flash of Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights, danced across the sky, and the team stopped to soak it in. There was one last rendezvous to collect Ben Marr, who had driven from Canada’s west coast to join the expedition. Leaving his truck at the takeout on Sipiwesk Lake, Marr crawled over sleeping, smelly bodies, and joined the rest of the team on the final stretch to Cross Lake.

Ice Camp
Before sunrise the next morning, Kowalski stumbled around the motel parking lot rousing his team. Having booked a motel room in Cross Lake, Kowalski had showered and slept well in the four hours since they arrived. Others had less savory accommodations.

“Hal, is this seriously where you slept?” asked Kowalski as he giggled and prodded Monkman, curled into his sleeping bag on a bed of discarded cargo pallets in the lee of a run-down truck. Like zombies, the team collected their sleeping bags and piled into the van one last time.

Isabela Island
Joel Kowalski wakes Bren Orton and Louise-Phillip Rivest from their resting place under a transport truck in Cross Lake, Manitoba.

Kowalski and Marr would soon board a bush plane to get their first glimpse of the Nelson River’s major rapids. The scouting flight was essential to devise a plan of action on how to navigate the Nelson’s many rapids and multiple channels. Gazing from the cockpit, Kowalski watched his dream trip unfold across an empty expanse of northern wilderness, dotted by lakes, forest, swamps, and the river. In the back seat, Marr surveyed from his bubble window. A seasoned expedition kayaker, this was no new procedure for Marr and his calm demeanor captured his state of mind. Peering out the windows, Kowalski and Marr laid eyes on White Mud Falls for the first time. Both stared intently.

Then, like a kid who’s just spotted the amusement park from his car window, Marr jerked straight and pressed his face to the cold plastic. Without exchanging a word, he and Kowalski locked eyes and smiled. Below them flowed Bladder Falls, a rapid of massive volume feeding into a single, surging feature: a tall, smooth, green wave that looked as if it had sprung from the kayaker’s wildest imaginations.
Outsiders don’t come this way often, and the crowd of locals lobbed questions into the frenzy of preparations. Concerned that Kowalski’s dream trip was a suicide mission, they tried to dissuade the team from running straight down the rapids, noting the grave toll the cascades have taken on their community.

“You’ll find good portage around the rapids, we’ve made trails, because there’s no need to bother in those,” said Alan McLeod, an elder of Cross Lake. Tribal leaders insisted the team join them for a lunch feast of Walleye, Moose, and Bannock—an offering of safe passage in First Nations communities—prior to departure. The kayakers savored the feast.

After Joel and Ben reported their findings from the airplane, presenting the reality of a major wave, Bren Orton and Dane Jackson began speculating about the wave might be like.

Back on shore, the rest of the team bustled about to ready the rafts. By the time Kowalski and Marr returned, the rafts were inflated, rigging was in progress, and the Cross Lake beach looked like a gear store’s yard sale. A curious crowd had gathered. For the local people here, members of the Pimicikamak Cree Nation, the Nelson is a lifeline. The river’s rich fishery and surrounding hunting grounds helps sustain them now, just as it nourished their ancestors.

Belly’s full and Cree flags waving in the wind, the team shoved off and soon entered the river channel. The wide riverbed and swift current confirmed to all that there would be no shortage of water. The anticipation grew with every turn in the river. Noting a horizon line in the distance, Kowalski scratched his head and checked his map. “We can’t be at the first rapid already.”

After the examination
After experiencing one big rapid and the unrunnable White Mud Falls, Ben Marr holds the rope as Tom Paterson and Louis-Phillip Rivest jostle to keep the raft away from potentially dangerous holes through Eve's Falls. This was the only section of whitewater where rafts had to be lined around a rapid for safety concerns.
Having confirmed what could be the biggest river wave in the world, it was agreed upon that rafts would be run through Bladder Falls before anyone attempted to surf the wave.
After successfully navigating both rafts down the rapid, each were pulled into 'the garage', as it became known, where camp was to be set.
South Nahanni River
Ben Marr takes the first surf of what became known as Dream Wave.

A small team clambered into kayaks and paddled ahead to scout this mystery. With a high sign, which indicates to go, Kalob Grady began steering his raft to the middle of the river. An experienced guide on the Ottawa River, Grady surveyed the fast-approaching rapid. He had absolutely no beta. As the current accelerated and the rapid came into view, everyone could see that the middle was strictly no-go. Grady began to haul furiously at the oars, trying to move the heavily loaded raft towards what looked to be a marginally viable line just right of center. Wide-eyed and grunting with effort, Grady managed to move the raft a few meters to the right, narrowly skirting the churning gut of the rapid. Whoops and hollers rang out from the boys. “That was huge!” Grady shouted.

Four years of dreaming, 40 hours of driving, 4 days spent searching and finally, it was all smiles for Joel Kowalski as the sunsets on Dream Wave. Not only did Kowalski find these rapids, he was able to convince a team of elite, extreme, and competitive kayakers into days of travel for unknown variables of the Nelson River.
Polar Bears
Dane Jackson mid rotation during an airscrew while surfing Dream Wave, Seth Ashworth looking on from the river right shoreline.

That nameless rapid, which had appeared as only a minor blip from the airplane, gave the team a sobering taste of the Nelson’s volume, power, and scale. That night they set camp beside the fearsome chaos of White Mud Falls, deemed too dangerous for raft or kayak. The next morning, the team descended the smaller Eve’s Falls in a secondary channel, avoiding White Mud. One more camp separated the them from Bladder Falls and the wave that had ignited Kowalski and Marr’s imagination when they first saw it from the plane. On the afternoon of day three, lashed together, the two rafts continued downstream at a slow and steady pace, the little propane motors working furiously against a head wind. Bladder Falls was below the next horizon line, and excitement was mounting.

Tom Paterson surfs Dream Wave.

“I think I see mist up ahead,” shouted Rivest, and everyone jostled for a better view. In a river as large as the Nelson horizon lines can be difficult to see, and the team had learned to identify approaching rapids by their telltale plumes of mist erupting in the distance. The rafts touched shore on the river right bank above Bladder Falls, and everyone bounded off to get a glimpse of the idyllic wave they had traveled so far to find. Huddled on a small outcropping of rocks, the kayakers stared in disbelief at the green shoulder. Spying an eddy below, Kowalski decreed that the rafts should be run “straight down the middle and parked” before anyone attempted the first surf. Leading out in creek boats, Orton and Rivest paddled toward the horizon line with the two rafts and the rest of the team in tow, preparing for the enormity of Bladder Falls. The crew whooped in the entrance, then got down to business as the big rafts trundled through the meat. The oarsmen dug in while the Paterson boys, equipped with plastic canoe paddles, scratched doggedly at the mountainous peaks of water exploding all around. The rapid flirted with the rafts’ limits, but the oarsmen’s lines were true. Now safely in the eddy, everyone itched with excitement.

Dane Jackson surfs Dream Wave.

Dane Jackson took the first shot. Splashing water on his face, Jackson paddled his tiny carbon freestyle boat into the current above Bladder Falls. All eyes were on him. Reaching the center of the river, Jackson paused, letting the current carry him toward the towering wave. With one glance over his shoulder, he picked his spot on the tall green face and began paddling furiously to initiate his surf. It wasn’t enough. Jackson, one of the very best freestyle kayakers in the world, had misjudged the scale of the Dream Wave and the immense current that feeds it. He bubbled out behind the wave and into the boils and chaos below. Ben Marr was next. Nodding his head, Marr grabbed his carbon kayak and began walking up the rapid. No one followed him. The crew was content to let Marr—the pioneer of Site Zed and veteran of the world’s biggest rapids—work out the nuances of this intimidating feature.

Rushing toward the wave in the grip of the current, Marr looked over his right shoulder at the wave’s smooth green face, then glanced left at the head-high pile of frothing foam high above his head. He went left. Disappearing into the pile, Marr thrashed and clawed, enveloped in whiteness, and finally surged forward onto the face. He looked around, the river rushing away behind him, his kayak cutting a knife-like wake across what seemed like acres of smooth green wave, and began to surf. Cheers rang out from the shoreline, high fives met every hand, and Kowalski looked on at what four years of dreaming had created. Dream Wave was in session.
Old friends and partners in the perpetual hunt for new river waves, Ben Marr and Hal Monkman sit and debate which is better, the moonrise or sunset beside the best wave either has ever experienced.
For the next six days, the boys lived that dream to the fullest. Mornings were leisurely, the warming fire tall, fish plentiful, the moon full and bright. People surfed when they pleased. Fueled by pounds of bacon, the Patersons ran up the river and swam down it day after day, enjoying the most progressive riverboarding either could imagine, occasionally joining the kayakers for party surfs.

By placing their trust in Kowalski, every one of these athletes had taken a leap of faith, and now they savored the fruits. With the embers of a fire dying down, the full moon rising through a pink sky, Monkman rolled a smoke and Marr watched as the Patersons enjoyed their final family surf of the day.

“This was the perfect trip,” Monkman said.

“I can’t decide what’s better though, the moonrise or the sunset,” answered Marr.

Monkman looked around, surveying both horizons, and giggled.

“It’s all a dream, Benny.” The two fell silent under the hum of the Nelson River.

On the last morning at Dream Wave camp, Ben Marr takes his final surfs during sunrise at Bladder Falls.

Bottom Left: On the morning of day 6 at Dream Wave camp, beside Bladder Falls, the team pushed away, leaving behind the finest river wave ever surfed. 50km's, one rapid, and two lakes separated the rafts from their takeout on Sipiwesk Lake.

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