People who follow the progression of expedition kayaking will all know the name of British Columbia’s Grand Canyon of the Stikine. Since the first attempts at kayaking through the canyon in the 1980’s, the river has never failed to get the attention or the respect of the world’s most accomplished kayakers, although the three day class V masterpiece was attempted by no more than one or two groups in a season for many years. In the last few years, though, a new generation of paddlers has flocked to the river, making one of the most sought after descents in kayaking also one of the most completed. Part of the reason why? One of the world’s most challenging rivers just got a little easier.
Every year, a few Stikine rapids change a little. But for kayakers, the real change has been the addition of real-time flow gauge near the end of the canyon at Telegraph Creek. For the first time in nearly thirty years of attempts on the Stikine, paddlers can know what they are getting into, before a long drive to a serious canyon. The Stikine is a big water run—powerful, huge waves in a narrow canyon—and it has to be run at a fraction of its possible volume, which means it’s big already, and heat or rain quickly makes it too big.
My first trip to the Stikine was in 2005. Then, there was no real-time gauge on the upper Stikine. So we drove 1700 miles or so from Ketchum, ID, to Dease Lake, BC in two days racing toward a weather window that we hoped would keep the river low enough to run. We checked weather forecasts a few times on the way. At the river we guessed the river level by its height on a bridge pylon, and decided to go for it. Without knowing, we ran the river at one of the higher levels to date, although with the weather holding, the river dropped a little every day. A few days later, another group, this one also solid and experienced, put on when the river had jumped and was rising. Two paddlers of eight swam, which is a major incident in big water, and were rescued owing to the skill and strength of the team. I guess you could call it a mistake for them to have put on that day, but the kind of mistake you can only realize after the fact.
Last year I drove down from Girdwood to catch up with a team of friends from all over the lower 48. Between the 8 of us, we had 20 runs down the Stikine. When I saw all of them get out of the car, after their two-day drive, my hearty friends were a little pale. Two days of Stikine stories, as it happened, will turn you queasy. The hardest part of the Stikine is the lore—of carnage at must-run rapids, of harrowing escapes and near misses. On my way down for that trip, I thought I might feel a little guilty calling the gauge before putting on. No, I thought, it’s hard enough as it is…