White Water Rafting on the Kicking Horse River, Upper and Lower Legs

One of these days, I’m gonna learn to stop cheating death (or at least severe injury) and cease doing really foolish things.

Like whitewater rafting.

As you no doubt have already guessed, we were downriver again this year, third in a row for me (see [[Janine and Dory’s Wedding, White Water Rafting on the Kicking Horse River]] and [[A Whitewater Rafting Adventure on the Kicking Horse River]]), on Saturday (6 July). I had hoped that our troupe would be larger than previous years, but in the end we still ended up with a good crew. Despite Carl having to back out at literally the last minute, we still had 14 people brave enough to dare the trip.

Shortly after 8:00, I headed up to Beddington to pick up Torin and his girlfriend, Nicole. They would be my companions for the trip out to the Whitewater Ranch. Picking them up around 8:30, we made a hasty trip for the Esso station on Stoney Trail, where we would obtain fuel for the car, and fuel (in the form of TimBits) for ourselves.

I had hoped and prayed that this year, I wouldn’t have to break speed limits to get to our destination on time. But for some reason, half of Calgary had turned out at the station, and it took Torin nearly 25 minutes to get our TimBits. I ended up driving a little quicker than I would have liked.

I just hope the speed planes weren’t flying that day. (So far, so good.)

We pulled in just after 11:30, to find Tom and Corey already there (they had camped the night before), two men who would later turn out to be Doug B.’s brother and friend, and I found Angie’s car, but Angie, Tyler, and Karen were not to be seen. We would later find them down by the river. Doug and his friend would show up not too long after (they had picked up a pair of rather attractive French hitchhikers, and taken them to Golden — an extra hour round trip), finally followed by Liza and her friend Peter (the explained their tardiness as: “We have an excuse: We’re Swedish.”).

As we mingled around waiting for things to get underway, we stood around and chatted, talking about the things we could expect, when I heard my name being called. At first I thought it was someone from my group, but I was quite surprised to see Janet, a former Critical Mass employee who had worked in our Bistro. We talked briefly — she was up with her friends as part of her birthday present.

Lunch started shortly after noon, and we ate excitedly, just ready for a great trip down river. It was a gorgeous day, nice and sunny, warm, and the water level was ideal for us to get some really good rapids. After lunch, Rhino (a long-time guide) did his standard safety schtick. It hasn’t changed much in the last three years, although he introduced some new material this time. The speech still drew laughs, so it wasn’t all bad.

Then it was over to pick up equipment. Unlike previous years, we were told that unless we got cold on a hot day, the fleeces weren’t really necessary. (Which, as we found out, was true.) Also, unlike last year, there were no gloves. After a while up front, I really needed them — my hands were like icecubes after a while.

We suited up, put our change of clothes away, and marched down to the river for the next safety briefing. This was the typical “what to do if you fall out of the boat” speech. Hardly anything different than the previous years, so I kinda tuned out for part of it. (You can only listen to the Flight Attendant Safety Speech so many times before you can do it yourself.)

Finally, it was time to call rafts. I had tried to book Mike, the guide we’d had the year before. He’s certifiably insane, and an absolute blast to have as a guide. Unfortunately, it’s a little hard to get a specific guide unless you follow them like a lost puppy. Besides, if there’s one thing Kootenay River Runners can boast, it’s some of the most maverick river guides in the area.

We didn’t get Mike, nor did our other half of the team. (One of the two groups of a rather large stag party had the pleasure of learning about the “Shocker”.) Instead, my group pulled down a new guy by the name of Earl. (Actually, that was his last name. However, there were so many guys with his first name that it made a little more sense.)

Earl was about as stereotypical a “mountain man” as it comes. Toned, well-tanned, and a beard that was half-way between well-kempt and complete disarray. That’s to say nothing of his hair. But amongst all of it, his smile beamed like a lighthouse.

So I tested him.

“Are you certifiably insane?”


Well, at least he didn’t cackle like a madman.

My raft bore Torin, Nicole, Tom, Corey, Liza, Peter, myself, and an eight person, Nora. I’d talked with Nora (not knowing who she was) prior to lunch, so having her join along wasn’t a big deal. As it turned out, Nora was also a friend of Earl’s, out visiting from Vancouver.

We boarded our raft and began our trip downriver. Torin and I sat at front, wearing only our wetsuits and the life jackets. It was hot, even in just that. (Although after a small rapid, and just prior to the main set, Earl suggested we put our splash jackets on.)

We began the usual drills: Paddling, moving around in the raft, and holding on for dear life. This was old hat for me (having done it two times before), but you always have to learn to work in a team, and this was a group I was unfamiliar with. It wasn’t long before we were ready.

Which was good, because the river level was higher than the year before, and we needed all the skill we had to brave the rapids and emerge on the other side unscathed, and unflipped.

Earl is what I would refer to as a technical guide. He knows how the boat will roll (and describes exactly what will happen), knows the rapids and how to get through them (with assistance from his crew), and is very careful to instruct the team on exactly what to do to survive not only in the raft, but out of the raft in the event of falling over the edge.

Before long, we were barrelling down the rapids, charging through, around, and across rocks and waves, getting ourselves thoroughly soaked from head to foot. At one point, Torin and I caught a rather large wave … it was almost like someone emptying a bathtub of barely above freezing water on our heads. Nicole wished she had a picture of us — the look on our faces was apparently priceless.

The upper portion of the Kicking Horse was better than the previous year, and not as wild as the first. And I finally think I got a grasp of the rapid names. There are two particularly wild sections: Portage and Shotgun. Portage named due to what people used to do around it. Shotgun … well, that’s anyone’s guess. As for the mythical Tablesaw, Earl made no mention of it, making me wonder if it’s really there at all.

We breezed through Portage and Shotgun without difficulty, only once colliding with another raft when I lost my ability to paddle after losing my grip on the edge. (In the future, I’m going to stay off the bow — I keep sliding off.)

Finally, we reached the end of the Upper Kicking Horse. Unlike previous years, though, this was not the end of our journey. Even though out of the group, only Angie and I had done the river at all, we were psyched and ready to take the challenge.

Boarding the bus, we headed a few kilometres down river (necessary, as the section of the river between the Upper and the Lower is commercially impassible). We had to hike a bit down a rather steep railway access road where we picked up our rafts (they were driven down for us), and entered for our second burst at the river.

I took a backseat, and Nora took my place. We were ready.

Admittedly, Earl made the lower section out to be a little wilder, a little rougher, and a lot harder than it really was.

That’s not to say that it was easy. We had to follow instructions carefully. We had to make sure that we did exactly as we were told. The Lower river isn’t an easy stretch. It’s fun, but if you make a wrong move, you can end up swimming a bit downriver.

Which is almost what happened to us.

As we were rolling through one stretch of rapid, Earl came to realize halfway through that were probably going to be in a bit of trouble. We very quickly went from an all-forward paddle to an all-back paddle, which managed to keep us from going over a large rapid that would have flipped us.

However, we rolled into a smaller rapid, which we went over sideways. Normally, we would slide right through and continue on our way down. However, the rolling action of the water kept us pinned in the rapid, and we were unable to get out.

At first, I wasn’t at all worried. We’d done this very thing the year before with Mike (except we did it nose-first), and had a whale of a time. However, after a few moments, it was clear that we weren’t having fun. We were actually in a bit of trouble.

The raft rocked side-to-side, sometimes filling with a little water. Earl was straining behind me, trying to pry us loose. He called out a couple of commands, none of which had any effect. Finally, he started to swamp the boat. The extra weight would keep us from flipping, and would hopefully help us out of the rapid. He let us know we were alright, which kept us from panicking.

After what seemed more than five minutes (but was probably like one), we broke free, and continued our journey.

Seemingly almost as soon as we had started, we found ourselves in the eastern end of Golden, and at the end of our river trip. We pulled the rafts from the river, boarded the bus, and spent the next half-hour on our trip back to Whitewater Ranch. I sat with Nora, and talked about the trip, and tried to get a better idea of who our rafting buddy had been.

Back at the ranch, we changed, and prepared for the long trip home.

With a side-trip to St. James Gate in Banff (Bamf!), of course.

The trip is over. But there’s always next year.

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