A Whitewater Rafting Adventure on the Kicking Horse River

It all started when I received an email during my stay in Cincinnati. (This was a couple of weeks ago, obviously.) It was entitled “Kicking Horse Blazing Paddles”. It was a call for those interested in experiencing the adrenaline of whitewater rafting on the Kicking Horse River.

I need not mention that I was interested…

I’d never been whitewater rafting before, but I knew a few people who had, and they all loved it. So, naturally, my curiosity was piqued enough to be interested, and certainly the opportunity to try something more invigorating than a rollercoaster was enthralling. I had my named added to the list of other half-suicidal CMassers.

As it turned out, there would only be six of us: Sean (who organized the trip), his brother Robin, Shannon, Sara, and Sara’s significant other, Brett. We had hoped for eight, at which point we could get a group discount, but we settled with our six and hoped for the best trip we could get under the circumstances.

What about Chris? Well, Chris has a love/hate relationship with water. He doesn’t much like it outside of showers (although he’s taken up a healthy swimming regiment as of late). He also hates the cold. Really hates the cold. Loathes the cold. His response to my invitation to join us was:

Your [sic] a funny fucking lad……."

We met early Saturday morning in the Critical Mass parking lot. Sean and his brother would drive in one car, Shannon and I in my car, and Sara and Brett in their SUV. Sean informed us that morning that we might in fact be late — there was the possibility that the drive could take upwards of four hours. Our trip was scheduled for noon. We were going to have to move fast.

We left the parking lot, turned onto 10th Ave. SW, turned up 8th St., and then onto 6th Ave. Robin led us out to Sarcee Trail, which then took us to 16th Ave. (aka Trans Canada Highway), and then out of the city. For the next two hours, we stuck together like glue: Robin and Sean in front, Shannon and I in the middle, and Sara and Brett picking up the rear. This wasn’t particularly easy, since we hit speeds as high as 140 km/h making sure we got to our destination in time.

Our destination was the Kootenay River Runners company, located on the Kicking Horse River about halfway between Field, BC and Golden, BC. This would be my first trip into British Columbia in almost four months. Admittedly, I was a little apprehensive at first, but I cast aside that irrational fear and plunged headlong…

…into rain.

Lots of it. Figures — I was going to BC, after all.

It rained from almost the moment we left Calgary until just after we’d crossed the Kicking Horse Pass. So in a strange way, it wasn’t really raining in BC. Odd, isn’t it?

The trip there was marked with Shannon and I discussing favourite movies, and me giving a brief history of Canadian development in the Rockies to Shannon. He didn’t know a lot about the area, and I guess I know more than I should. But he seemed interested, and (as most of you who know me will testify) I like to talk.

We arrived at the Kootenay River Runner’s Whitewater Ranch at about 11:15 — way ahead of everyone else. We were listed as “early”. This gave us the chance to look around a little. The Whitewater Ranch is not as fancy as it sounds. Basically, it’s nothing more than a large shed (which houses most of the equipment and two washroom/change rooms), a couple of miscellaneous sheds, a half-completed barbecue shelter, and a large section of flood plain where the rafts waited to whisk us downriver.

My first stop (after using the toilet) was to the river. The Kicking Horse River, like most of the rivers in the Rockies, is a glacial river. English translation: Frickin’ cold. About one degree Celsius. Yes Virginia, it’s that cold. The river isn’t clear — it’s powder blue. This is from all the ice crystals suspended in the water. (This is also why glacial lakes, like Lake Louise, are blue.) And yes, it was very cold.

People soon started arriving, and we opted to change into our rafting wear: Bathing suits and t-shirts. I gave up my sandals for my winter boots (basically over-grown shoes), as I wasn’t too keen on putting my bare feet into that river at any time. The guides (specifically one guy who we learned was called “Rhino” — he never told us why he was called that) and given the low-down on equipment.

Our attire would not be limited to our swimsuits and t-shirts, for obvious reasons. (Namely, we’d develop hypothermia in less than a minute in these waters). Our first layer would be a swimsuit (or nothing at all), on top of which would be a wet suit. It wasn’t a full wetsuit, the top looked like neoprene overalls. On top of that would go a nylon fleece top, and a “spray jacket” on top of that (basically a slightly rubberized nylon shell). On top of that would be our life jacket. Our feet would have either neoprene “socks” or boots (or shoes, for those of us who couldn’t get the socks or boots). Lastly would be a helmet, so we wouldn’t knock ourselves silly on the rocks … or each other.

Suiting up didn’t take too long, although some people had problems with the wetsuits, and one guy near me could not get the small fleece top over his extra large body. It was quite amusing to watch, though.

After tossing our things onto one of two buses (we were only doing the Upper Kicking Horse portion of the river; roughly half of the group was also doing the Lower portion), we headed down to the river. There we got the safety speech. This is important. This is where you learn the basics of whitewater survival. Most of the time, you probably don’t need this speech — it’s for the worst-case scenarios.

I’m glad we got it.

The six of us ended up on raft #17. It’s a SOTAR (“State Of The Art Raft”), which basically means short of a nuclear blast, it’ll survive almost anything the river can offer. Our guide, Eric, was a nine-year veteran of river guiding, and had been guiding on this river for several years. He drove in from Vegreville (about five hours away) every weekend to send another group of hapless weekend warriors downriver to experience the thrill of freezing to death.

Okay, it’s not that bad…

Before boarding, we had to finish adjusting our lifejackets. Most people who use them (not all do) wear them pretty loosely. In most cases, this is probably fine. However, if you’re going whitewater rafting, particularly in such cold water, the lifejacket has to be tight … so tight it’s difficult to breathe. Why? Because if you fall out of the boat, they use the jacket to haul you back in. Eric had to tie Sara’s jacket on extra tight — she’s not a large person, and she was swimming inside the flotation device.

We piled in, Shannon and I in the bow, Brett and Sara behind us, Eric in the middle, Sean and Robin behind him, and a recently-married elderly couple behind them (I only learned the man’s name, Neil). After a quick shove-off, we started our journey.

Eric reiterated the safety speech, just to make sure we all understood what was going on. He then sent us through some simple drills. Forward and backward paddling, alternating sides paddling, diving to one side or the other — basic things to get us down river. The key was to paddle in sync, which meant Shannon and I would spend more time watching each other than the river. This would come back to haunt us.

The first portion of the river was fairly tame — the odd ripple, a couple of nice currents, but nothing major. Then Eric sent us into (what I guess is) a Class II rapid. Shannon and I got soaked. It was cold. Really cold. But unlike jumping into cold water and starting to hyperventilate, it wasn’t paralysing. After a couple of moments, the water warmed a bit (as a wetsuit is supposed to) and it became less uncomfortable. Sara, who was sitting behind me, wasn’t quite as comfortable — she hadn’t done up the collar on her spray jacket and got a few cups of ice-cold water down the front.

About 45 minutes after leaving Whitewater Ranch, we pulled over at the side of the river for lunch. By this point we were hucking our lifejackets to try and cool off. It was quite warm with those things on so tight. Waiting for us was hot coffee, hot water (with packets of hot chocolate powder), and lunch … though the guides had to help setting it all up. Soon, lunch was called and we dropped into line to get it.

Lunch was pretty simple — make-your-own sandwiches, pickles, caesar salad, cantaloupe, and cookies. The website had said there would be a barbecue, but the shelter wasn’t complete, so we didn’t get to partake in that. Maybe next time…

Lunch wasn’t particularly lavish, but it was filling enough to occupy the voids beginning to form in our stomachs. The group of 60 (or so) filled out the small clearing, munching away and discussing the first leg of the trip. Some of us knew what was in store for the second leg (we’d already been filled in by co-workers who’d done the trip the year before), and were excited to get back on the water.

Especially since we were beginning to get cold. The lifejackets were great insulation from the cold, which was now beginning to set in. We couldn’t wait to get buckled back in and paddling to warm up.

We shifted seats a bit when we headed back out. Shannon moved back to where Sean was sitting, I moved to where Shannon was sitting, and Sean moved to where I was sitting. Didn’t change much beyond that. I had to switch to the other side because my right arm was beginning to hurt a bit, and I wanted to give my left a chance.

Soon we were off, back into smaller rapids, getting wet, and having fun. Only about five minutes out, we pulled off to the side again. Eric claimed he had to get out and “get his bearings”. I think this is code for the guides to figure out where the largest wave is to scare the bejeebers out of the beginners in the raft. We were about to enter Shotgun Alley.

This is a section of the Kicking Horse where rocks have created the most intense rapids in the Upper section of the river. They max out at Class V (out of a maximum of Class X). We couldn’t see around the corner, and so had no idea what we were about to get into. Eric came back, saying he knew what he was going to do, so loaded us up, and away we went.

Shotgun doesn’t look as bad as it actually is … at least from the river. Maybe from above it looks worse, but it’s hard to tell when your guide is yelling “Forward Paddle! Forward Paddle!” and you’re trying to match your strokes with the guy next to/in front of you.

Suddenly, the powder blue water had turned an angry white. The boat lurched down and a massive wave crashed over the bow, knocking me square in the chest, and into the bottom of the raft. I struggled to get myself back out, but by the time I could, another wave hammered me again. Realizing that there was just no way I could get myself back up on the bow, I stayed inside the boat and hauled my paddle outside and kept paddling.

The boat lurched down and up again, and more ice-cold water briefly blinded me. I flailed with the paddle as best I could, but it was seconds before I could see again. When I did see again, I was quickly wishing I wasn’t seeing what was about to happen.


Big ones.

Eric, our guide, had either steered us too close to the side of the river (which happened to end in a sheer rock face), or my inability to paddle properly had reduced the power on my side of the boat, steering us in. Can’t say which, because I honestly don’t know. Either way, it doesn’t matter — we still hit solid rock.

Well, “hit” isn’t a good verb. “Ran aground” would be more proper, I guess. The rock was sloped, and what’s what we ran onto. I could feel the rock beneath me as we ran onto it — but we didn’t stay there for long. The river’s current dragged the raft sideways (with the bow acting as the pivot) and then off the rock and down river.

Right into a large Class V rapid known as “The Terminator”.

The raft rolled sharply up on it’s side (my side being the low side). The sudden upward swing catapulted Sean off the raft. Neil, the old guy at the stern, slid off. I, who was still trying to get back on the side to try and paddle, found the side now slipping out from under me. I, too, fell into the icy Kicking Horse River.

We had been told at the safety orientation that when faced with a large rapid that the guide would yell “hold on” and we would grab a rope called the “centre line” that ran down the length of the raft. However, the call never came, and I didn’t see the rapid before it was too late. We’d also been told that in the event that you couldn’t grab the centre line, there was another rope that ran around the outside of the raft. This was called (and please pardon the language) the “Oh Shit!” line, so named because that’s what you’re usually yelling as you fall off.

Luckily, my three years in sailing school had ingrained in me a survival instinct to stay with the boat. After my foot slipped out from under the centre line (I had tried to hike myself back in using that method), I reached for the OS line. Brett was immediately at the side of the raft to help me back in. As we were instructed during our training, I brought my paddle hand out of the water to hand them my paddle … only it wasn’t there. In the rush of falling out, I somehow had let go of it. Admittedly, it wasn’t the first thing on my mind at the time.

Brett hauled me back in on the count of three, and we tried to resume a somewhat stable position. My immediate thought was “Where the heck is Sean?” — he wasn’t there (I didn’t know at the time that he’d been thrown clear off). I looked behind us and saw Sean floating some 100 metres away near the side of the river (the side with the sheer cliff).

As we would find out later, Sean was trying to save his butt. He had managed to hang onto his paddle longer than me, but had turfed it in favour of saving himself. The raft behind us had tried to save him with one of the oars, but just as Sean reached for it, a rapid sucked him under. When he came back up, the raft was too far away, and he wasn’t getting any warmer. Sean saw a tree near the side, and swam for safety.

Unfortunately, this meant that Sean was trapped at the side of a frigid raging river with no obvious way out. He’d also lost one of his neoprene boots in the chaos. (But he still had his contact lenses and his waterproof camera.) One of the rafts pulled to the same side of the river as Sean, and the guide went back to retrieve our fallen comrade-in-paddles. It was nearly 30 minutes before we saw them in the trees — we greeted Sean’s safe return with loud cat calls.

A few minutes later, Sean was returned to our raft. Two paddles were passed forward, and we continued our trip. Sean and I stuck to the bow, unafraid of what would befall us (having already been befallen) and kept taking the waves. About 20 minutes later, we arrived at the end of our trip.

Half of the group was continuing onto the Lower Kicking Horse, but had to leave the river and drive a bit further down. There’s a stretch between the Upper Kicking Horse and the Lower Kicking Horse that Eric described as “impassable”. He didn’t elaborate.

Eric was called away to guide one of the Lower rafts, so bade us farewell, and darted away. We were left to peel our waterlogged clothes off, and put our dry clothes (which came in the bus) back on.

We would find out that our raft wasn’t the only one to be taken out by the Terminator. Two other rafts from another company (which had entered the slot not long before us) had flipped. We got off lucky. Eric must have seen the spectacle, and opted not to tell us so that it wouldn’t get us worried. Luckily, we’d gone through a flip drill (not actual, but talked through it) in the event that happened.

We changed, put all our wet things into huge piles, and boarded a bus to take us back to Whitewater Ranch. There we got back into our cars and made for the trip home. I had hoped to convince everyone to stop in Banff and go to the Irish pub there for dinner. I didn’t seem to get any initial takers, but Sean and Robin said they’d want to stop somewhere. The consensus was to drive back, and we’d stop somewhere along the way.

Robin and Sean took the lead, and promptly started to disappear. I don’t know what their hurry was, but the rest of us had a heck of a time trying to keep up. I was cursing them for about an hour until I finally said “the heck with it”, and pulled ahead from Sara and Brett, hoping that they might be able to catch up later. Someone had to tell the other two to slow down.

A couple of times I came close, but as soon as I got within honking distance, they pulled ahead and I couldn’t catch up. It wasn’t until we got back to a four-lane divided highway that I managed to catch them. Doing 150 km/h. In a 90 km/h zone. (If I’m really lucky, I won’t get a speeding ticket.)

I chewed them out over the phone about 30 minutes later, after the cell phone signal was restored. Brett and Sara were nowhere in sight. I finally convinced Robin and Sean to pull over and wait. No sooner than we pulled over than Sara and Brett shot by at about 130 km/h. By the time we got back on the road, they were gone. We assume they pulled into Banff.

We did not — I gave up my Irish stew and Guinness for a Wendy’s double hamburger and lemonade. Not exactly what I would call a consolation prize … more like a booby prize.

When all’s said and done, it was a lot of fun. And I’d do it again. I just have to find seven half-suicidal people to go with me…