Thursday, September 18, 2014

Tea Time on the Stikine

Last summer on a trip report of the Stikine, our friend Dave Spiegel wrote:

“But despite the many, very real challenges of pulling off this run, it seems to me that it’s becoming more and more common as the next generation of boaters begins to paddle at a higher level. The river that was once the biggest challenge in whitewater has become a training ground for those looking to achieve even higher levels.” (full write up)

This summer/fall the Stikine saw many many crews paddle through its steep and committing canyon. It seems that Dave was right on point. It is now more common for a crew of paddlers to go to the Stikine and run it multiple times. First as a three day, then as a two, or even a one day trip. Perhaps one of the most impressive feats this summer was Nouria Newman not only becoming the second woman to run the Stikine (I guess that makes me the third) but the first women to run Site Zed. Check out the video of her run. After being there and seeing this impressive feature I can say that the next generation surely is taking kayaking to the next level. Nouria didn’t run it to prove a point. She looked at the rapid and realized that she had the skills to paddle it cleanly, and that she did.

Usually Leif and I leave the North while the Stikine is still high in early to mid August. This year we stayed at the Slave River until late September and so we were around to jump on an opportunity to join our friend Ash and his crew of british boys on a three day descent of the canyon. The crew was quite large, 11 people. We had 5 Brits who travelled from England solely for this trip (sorry boys - there’s no way I am going to remember all your names), Two ex pat Brits from Southern BC (Ash Bullivant and Nick Bennett) who were showing their countrymen around and then 4 randoms- Me and Leif (USA), Adrian Mattern (GER), and veteran Corey Boux (CAN)- for whom the Stikine is a “backyard run”.

Paddling the Stikine has been in the back of my mind for the last couple years but it hasn’t been something that I felt that I must do to the point where I wanted to make a special effort to go. I confess that when I am not kayaking I don’t really follow all the videos and blogs and internet hype (Leif takes care of this and some for me!). I tend to focus on other things such as my family, my research or my teaching. I like to do runs for the first time without seeing all the video footage first. I get to look at rapids and decide on my lines based on what I see and what I feel at the moment rather than having preset notions about what lines have been done before. This is why I ran the Stout Ten on the Middle Palguin. I knew I wanted to run the 70 foot waterfall just below the Stout Ten, and because I hadn’t watched any video footage beforehand I didn’t know about the option to seal launch in between the two drops. I just assumed that you had to run the pair together as one rapid. Because it looked doable, I did it and had a nice line.
I guess this bridge is supposed to be instantly recognizable?
Before I paddled the Stikine this all I knew about the run:


  • It is a beautiful overnight class V bigwater remote canyon in Northern BC
  • There is a rapid on it called Site Zed that most people portage
  • I knew some people that paddled it and one that got helicoptered out a few times (not going to name names on the poor dude that got helicoptered out of multiple expeditions)

  • Sometimes this lack of video watching actually pays off. While everyone else was talking about their nerves before the trip, I found myself surprisingly calm. I knew that it was a committing canyon of hard whitewater, but based on conversations with people that had run it before, I felt very confident that I had the skills to not only navigate it safely but to have a good time doing it. I was looking forward to the following three days.

    The crew was obsessed with getting a photo at this sign.  No idea why.

    I loved the trip. Not only was the whitewater was amazing but the geology was simply breathtaking. I got to see rocks associated with delta fronts, braided/meandering rivers, tidal nearshore environments, magma chambers, lava flows, and compressional tectonics. The fault plane at site Zed in the river left wall was incredible. But I digress. Most people probably don’t want to hear me geologizing. The whitewater is big. The consequences are real (swimming would be a nightmare). The scenery is out of this world. The Stikine is truly a special amazing place and I feel honored that I have been able to visit it.


    If you are unsure if you are ready to do the Stikine, then you probably aren’t ready. If you are comfortable in big water then this is a doable and quite enjoyable trip. I think a good test is to ask yourself these questions, “would I feel good about doing this run with a solid crew but without a guide?”, “am I 200% confident that I can roll up every time in boils, getting slammed against walls and knocked around by crashing waves”, and “can I get trashed in a violent and large hole and still retain enough calmness and skill to ride it out and escape?”. In a write up about his Spring trip (yeah - spring, not fall) Xavier Engle wrote that if you are serious about the Stikine then spend a lot of time paddling big water class V such as the North Fork Payette and Pandora's Box (see full write up).

    Wall Two, not to be confused with Wall One.

    Another way to train is to spend a lot of time playboating in big water. I attribute my ability to be relaxed and confident during the run to the sheer amount of time I have spent playboating on the Slave River (typically flows between 3000 and 6000 cms per summer). In fact, all of the boaters on our trip were also big water playboaters (or had been at one time in their past) and I think that this background really made everyone on the crew comfortable on the run. Despite the rainy and cold weather everyone was simply having a great time. There wasn’t one weak link that I had to worry about and this made the trip way less stressful that it could have been. If you want to run the stikine somewhere in your future, I highly recommend spending lots of time at big water play destinations like the Nile, the Slave, The Futaleufu or the Ottawa. This gives you practice in being knocked around and out of control while remaining calm in a low risk situations.
    "Don't tell me about Stikine 'traditions'.  I was doing this river when you was still in diapers, boy!" - Corey Boux

    One of my favorite aspects of the trip was going with a great group who came to the Stikine, not to prove some sort of point, but because they wanted to experience a special place with friends and be comfortable doing it. For the Brits this meant packing a huge freezer full of tea bags and brewing massive batches to share, ALL THE TIME. For Corey the homeboy Canadian, this meant going his own pace, scouting sheep to hunt and pulling out his shotgun during shuttle to bag a rabbit for dinner. For Adrian the German, this meant going “soopah lightweight”. Adrian had a prototype liquid logic boat that when fully loaded still weighed less than my boat unloaded. Admittedly, he was cold at night and didn’t sleep well, but the Site Zed portage sure was easy! For Leif and I, the only Americans, this meant pre-cooking a freezer bag full of bacon. Apparently all those stereotypes really are spot on.

    Yep.  Nothing to worry about.

    Perhaps the most special part for me was to be there with Leif. Not many people get to experience adventures like the Stikine with their significant other. During the trip, Ash made a comment about how the hardest thing about these “boys” trips was the sexual abstinence. Well, that isn’t exactly true for everyone…

    SeasonFive waterproof breathable rashguards made this trip a lot more enjoyable!