Frank J. Stewart
© Copyright 2021 by Frank J. Stewart
It was 1964 and it was a proper morning of mountains and rising sun. Quail in the bushes, the Raven discovering some irritant on the beach below A new day awaited and the young man had decided on a course of action. It was a moment that he had been awaiting and had done much preparation for. This was the day that he and his cousin would go to the high River. The north Kootenay of British Columbia. He had just recently bought an adventure, an 18 foot aluminum canoe. Floatation in the front and back and riveted engineering. He considered it a work of art. And it was. At $800 it was one of the more expensive floatation devices you could buy in that part of Canada and in that part of time. Someone had asked, "Does that not make you proud?" He answered no. The concept of being proud of something he owned was an unreachable way of thinking for him. His mind didn't work that way and this canoe was a magical device that had already taken him through some serious wonders. It didn't need the elaboration of pride.
When he had first acquired the canoe, he and his cousin had taken it to Columbia Lake and then paddled it down the small Columbia River through the bird sanctuaries and beaver runs to Lake Windermere and then on to the town of Invermere at the northern end.. Columbia lake was the source of the Columbia River. Twelve miles of nearly sterile water. Pure and clear and too alkaline to support much life except for one strange-looking weed interspersed sparsely throughout the clear bottom. At the south end of this lake, the little sawmill town of Canal Flats. The southern boundary of which was straddled by the tranquility of the North Kootenay river. The river they were going to enter today many miles to the northeast. This journey would take them through what looked like two mountain ranges with two connected valleys. They had looked at the forestry maps of the area and had noticed that the logging roads only entered so far into this wilderness. They had also been told that no canoe had ever traversed this area. Not even a kayak. This pleased them. They would be the first.
The two young men had loaded up their expedition the night before. Their inventory was as professional and thorough as they could make it. One canoe, four paddles, one two-man tent, two sleeping bags, one Winchester rifle, two fishing rods with various lures, a change of socks, and enough provisions to last for three days. No worry about water. They also didn't feel the need to overdo the grocery factor, because they felt they'd be catching plenty of fish on the way. They had acquired two Mae West flotation devices that had been stolen from Canadian Airways and seemed to be very high-tech. Gas cartridge inflated and a blow-tube for further inflation if necessary. They felt well-equipped and ready for anything that could happen on a three day journey. They were eager.
hour later they
were travelling into the Rockies past Radium Hot Springs and on up to
Kootenay Flats where they would disembark. Turning off the highway,
they followed a forestry road that led to an open spot by the river.
There were three of them now. Their other cousin Donny coming along
to drop them off and drive the truck back. The river was calm and
clear with a small herd of elk on the other side foraging in the
buffalo grass that grew up to their bellies. They ignored the young
men. There was no hunting in the park and they knew they were safe.
It was the end of June and hunting wasn't allowed anyway. They
munched on, unconcerned, as the equipment was unloaded.
Don was standing on the shore looking down-river with his binoculars.
"I think I see some white water down there."
"Were bound to see some of that today." He gestured to the water at their feet. "Can't be all like this. That would just be boring."
The two other cousins laughing at their binocular-holding relative. Who said. "Yeah, but it also seems that the river kind of goes downward there. You know, kind of sloping."
Now, perhaps some information on the three individuals in this scene. And now that we are ready to debark, I'm going to switch to the first person narrative. Because a lot of this gets real personal. There was myself, Frank. Just moved to the Rocky Mountains and coming from the great flat lands to the east. I never experienced or even heard of the concept of a river having a slope. At least not one that you can notice or see. My cousin Brian was the same because he grew up in the Columbia Valley enjoying the slow-moving waters of the Columbia River. We considered Donny a greenhorn because he wasn't outdoorsy and just liked to chase girls. His main hobby. I was 22 years old, Brian was 20 and Donny was 19. I realize now we were all greenhorns and I shouldn't have snickered. But I did decide to make a gesture of common sense. Also I wanted to placate his obvious worry.
by the map, there's another access road about a mile down-river. You
go meet us there, Don, and we'll decide whether we should do this or
not." With that we went our temporary separate ways.
Pushing in, we paddled out to the centre of the stream where we finally got close enough to disturb the elk. Who turned their rear ends toward us and kept eating. I got the impression they weren't impressed. The river looked to be about 100 feet across at this point and the water was clear and shallow. After the initial excitement of starting our journey, I noticed that the water, though calm, was moving us fairly quickly. Looking at the shoreline passing by I realized we were traveling about five mph. That surprised me. We had concluded that the total as-the-crow-flies distance to our destination was about 80 miles. Then, using a string, we carefully traced the river and figured its actual travelling distance was about 110 miles. A nice 3 to 4 day trip. I realized now that at this speed we would be doing it in two days. I felt a little disappointed. I was hoping for more of a challenge.
Moving further down the river we did see that there was some mild rapids ahead of us and, yes, you could actually see that there was a mild slope to the river. Nothing untoward and kind of fun as we entered the little sharp waves and listened to the rising tone of the water. We even went over a small two-foot dam that must've been built as a gold weir many years ago.
We pulled up to the beach where Donnie was waiting.
"How did it go guys? Pretty crazy, huh?"
"Nothing to it! Itís fun!"
When we went over the little dam he had given a whoop and seemed to be having fun. Me too. I turned to Brian.
"So, what do you think?"
"I'm for it if you are. It's your canoe."
After about 10 seconds of non-coherent thought, I said.
"We'll do it. It's going to be a hot day and getting splashed a bit will be nice."
words haunt me
to this day.
Now could be a proper time to talk about the vagaries of youth and the how and why we do things. Some of which are not good. And some are bad with the possibility of good. But mostly it just boils down to your everyday greenhorn stupidity backed up by testosterone with a feeling of optimistic imperviousness given to youth that lets you know, without a doubt, that you can overcome anything that heaven or hell throws at you. You could have shot me with a gun and I would've laughed, fully expecting the bullet to bounce off my chest.
the river is not a gun or a bullet. It is alive. And it thinks. And
it plots. And it sucks you in. And you discover a whole new
relationship with water that is not water.
Going by the sun, we had been in the water about two hours. Making it about 9 o'clock in the morning and the water was going faster than 5 miles an hour. That was frighteningly obvious and you could see that the river had a slope to it. That was also frighteningly obvious. At times it looked like we were sliding down a long rock-walled chute descending into a mass of complicated waves and jumping water that were leading us, by now against our will, into even more convoluted excitement and trickiness. We were handling it and had no real fear, it was putting us to the very edge of our skills, but we were handling it. The canoe was doing its job well. Even as loaded as it was, it's still only drafted about 5 inches. I had been worried about shallow water, but that worry was gone now. This river had enough water to put out the fires of hell and she was happy to have us along for the ride. Oh, And we were happy too. And worried and exhilarated and excited and overwhelmed, underwhelmed with every range of emotion in between except fear. Too busy for that. And besides, it was working. We were running her and I could feel her like a living thing beneath me and I rode her like the master I was with my cousin feeling exactly the same. It was good.
And then, as we came out of a fairly calm area of dense woods and broad valley into a tight and turning narrowing, we saw ahead that the river fell up. No other way to describe it. It was running directly into a broad sloping granite face and it just went up. For about 30 feet. Then it turned right into a crashing maelstrom of house-sized boulders being scoured clean by house-sized waves funneling into a narrow twisting canyon. It looked like the canyon had teeth like the bottom jaw of a sperm whale.
And of course we turned over.
Some people say when they have traumatic events, they can't remember. The shootings, the rapes, the car crash. The brain in self defense, will erase the memory. I was not given that luxury. Every second, every nano second, has been put down like a branding on my forehead. The river was no longer a robust and playfully adventurous girl. She had turned into a woman with a grudge. We had said and done something wrong and now she hated us for it. I popped the gas cylinder on my May West. Brian did too and that kept our heads above the water. Sort of. Now I was exhilarated to the point of hysteria. Knowing death was near, I shouted over to him.
"It's a good day to die!"
cast me a tense look and then swirled away behind a rising wave. This
was when I lost my moccasins. They got ripped off in the swirl. We
bounced down the gorge and once in a while I would catch a glimpse of
my cousin. Sometimes ahead of me, sometimes behind me. Brief glimpses
with the relief of seeing him still alive. I tried keeping my feet
angled in front of me and facing downstream. If I hit a rock at this
speed I didn't want to break anything. Oddly enough, I only hit one
large boulder and skimmed over it and felt that it was glassy smooth.
And then we came out of it into a broader area with Brian ahead of me and the canoe beside me about 20 feet away.. Suddenly the current swept me over a large round boulder and I got caught in the undertow beneath it. And I stayed there kicking against this giant monolith trying to catapult myself to the surface. I tried opening my eyes but could see nothing but a pearlescent glow that hurt. Then I was running out of air. No panic. Just the awareness that I was reaching my limit. Time to go.
And then I went. Something grabbed my ankle and pulled me to the surface. It was my canoe. I had tied myself to it with a rope and it had gone ahead and saved me. I had forgotten all about the rope. I could've reached down and perhaps pulled myself out of my problem by hand. My canoe and rope were smarter than I was.
Now, looking downstream, I saw that Brian had reached a sandy shore and was retrieving the canoe. We lay there and gasped some restoration into our lungs and after a while I got up and looked at the water. It wasn't all water anymore. It was at least 30% roiling sand. When we got back in the water you could hear it hissing under us like a snake moving over gravel. It felt heavier paddling in it. Like viscous lava moving downslope. We took stock. There wasn't any. It was all gone except for the two paddles that we had lashed under the seats.
It was noon.
Now, in this part of the story, I have been asked. 'Why didn't you just turn back?' Which was the question that my cousin and I were debating on that sandy refuge. We both came to the same conclusion. There was no turning back. Not against the power of the river. There were no roads to reach either. We knew that from the maps. Walking back through the dense woods and equally dense undergrowth, we felt would be impossible. We had seen the terrain. Tumbled rocks and broken mountains all the way. My cousin stated that we would have gotten lost. I agreed. It would have even been more dangerous than the river. At least that route had a known destination. We also knew that there were lions and bears out there with big teeth and our gun was gone.
Pushing back into the water we moved away from the rapids behind us and into a broader part of the valley. Up to this point we had been in a fairly constricted area perhaps a half mile separation of valley from east to west. Now we could see the valley opening up and it looked to be about a mile wide. This gave us the hope that the river would widen out and become more reasonable. And she seemed to agree with us. The river stretched out to roughly a couple of hundred feet and she was calm. Still moving about 8 to 10 miles an hour, but tranquil. We didn't even have to paddle. We could see that the river ahead of us turned to the West and headed toward another range of mountains. Which we took to be the Rockies. The eastern wall of the Columbia Valley. Hell! We just had to follow the river down to Canal Flats! Two or three hours at the most with lunch at the restaurant! Needless to say, our spirits picked up as did our optimism. Life was good and the river was good after all. She really did love us and our previous argument was just a misunderstanding and all was forgiven. I know now that at this point she was laughing at us and our gullibility. She had two idiot greenhorns in her grasp and she wasn't even close to letting us off easy.Chapter 5
And then he held up his hand.
"Can you hear that?"
I couldn't hear anything.
"It's kind of a humming sound."
I was about to say 'what?' Again, and then I heard it. A low droning coming from somewhere in front of us. And then my cousin said.
"You know, Cuz?"
"See that valley we're coming into?"
"It's a lot lower than we are."
I looked and saw that he was right as I said.
He must've heard the dismay in my voice because he said.
good way to put it because as we rounded the bend of the nice part of
the river, the drone became a roar and what lay before us now in all
of its horrifying glory, could only be described as a bitter
complication of facts. I was starting to realize that the river had
probably hundreds of variations of bad water and she was just biding
her time waiting to break our will and our bodies. We headed for
shore and got out.
"Maybe we could portage."
Brian shook his head.
"How? That cliff is vertical."
He was right. The river went through an opening in a broad escarpment that ran from one side of the valley to the other. Again covered by dense undergrowth. Impossible.
"Let's look at the river."
headed for a large ledge of rock about 100 feet away to get a better
view. Scrambling on to it, we gazed down-river and looked at the
mess. Our previous set of bad rapids had been adorned with large
up-thrusting teeth, these rapids had hundreds of smaller molars that
looked ready to chew on anything that passed by. And it went on into
the distance for at least a mile before I could see more sane waters
ahead. And those were a long ways away down-hill. Complicated and
scary, but as I looked closer, I could see a route that looked
possible for at least 200 yards. After that I couldn't tell. I
pointed out what I thought could be the best route to Brian and he
agreed that we should try it. He pointed out that after that it would
depend on luck. I agreed. So, being two agreeable guys, we returned
to our floatation device and prepared our minds to receive injury or
death. Or, more likely, both. Hopefully not at the same time.
To say that we were exhausted, would be like saying a bucking bronco gets a little peckish when you shove a burr under the saddle My moan was more like a whimper and Brian was still coughing up water. Our life vests had both been shredded and my cousin had lost his shoes and I lost my pants with my wallet in it. No gourmet meal for us. That is, if we even made it to that now-mythical restaurant somewhere to the west. My cousin had broken his paddle in half attempting to pry his end of the canoe off of a spiked rock. As we were released from that claw, his paddle had stayed in the notch upside down and snapped. And then we both went under and were at the mercy of the river. Which, obviously had no mercy. She just wasn't built that way. At least this time, we held onto the canoe and our paddles and did our best to keep the boat between us and the rocks as we crashed through the rapids. And these rocks weren't nice round moss-covered monoliths. They were Dragon's teeth and they were sharp and they cut.
I got up and looked at the canoe. It was heavily dented and a bit bent. But, no holes. Good.
"Frank. You're bleeding." I looked over to him. He was bleeding too.
"So are you. Look at your leg." His leg looked bad.
"Yeah. I think I sprained it. It hurts like a son of a bitch."
I walked over to him and looked at his leg.
"I think that's worse than a sprain, Bry. It looks broken." I could see a raised knob just under the skin above his ankle.
"I don't think you're going be able to walk." I realized now that the only way we were going to get out of here was by canoe. No walking out. Not at all.
He looked over at our ride..
"Let's keep going. It's getting late."
it was. The Sun was starting to get low and that meant it must've
been around 6 p.m. Sunset comes early in the mountains. And the worst
part of it was we had understood that the mountains we were in were
not the Columbian valley Rockies. We didn't realize it, but we still
had two more mountain ranges to navigate. Each entrance into the next
valley being another shattered hope.
We could see that the river had now meandered further south and was going through another notch and toward another set of mountains. At least they didn't look much lower than where we were now. Hopefully, no rapids. Something that I'd been wishing now for half the day. Then I noticed an odd sight. About 50 feet away from us, a goose was looking at us and not moving. I pointed it out to my cousin and the three of us stood there quietly watching each other. Then the goose rose and hobbled into the water. It had obviously been injured somehow and was afraid of us. As hungry as I was I felt pity. Then I felt concerned when I saw that it wasn't capable of swimming in the waves. Then it disappeared. I looked for some evidence of its survival, but it was gone. It had come to this place to die and it seemed that I had hurried its decision. This event made me sad in the thought that this beautiful valley was a place where things came to expire.
We got back in the boat and started paddling. Brian dipping his leg into the cold water once in a while to dull the pain.
We went through two more ranges. Each time hoping they were the mountains we were looking for. But they weren't. The God damn forestry maps had lied. There were four ranges of mountains, not two.
Then we saw some dust rising out of the trees about three miles to the southwest of us. The logging road! So those mountains now to our right were the Rockies. Some relief, but there still must be 20 miles in front of us to the landing.
As we left the last ridges of the previous range we paddled by a black monolith that must've been at least 1000 feet high that was full of holes and caves and perforations. I knew it must have been ventriculated basalt, the holes being made by trapped gases in the lava flow. But I'd never seen them this big. There were giant bubble caves that you could've walked into. A strange and otherworldly sight.
We were now about 5 miles from our seventh rollover and paddling very hard. By now we were getting pretty good at the inevitable and had mastered the skill of keeping our feet in the submerged canoe to protect us. We were tired and beyond hungry. Fresh water was running into the river from creeks on a regular basis now but we were beyond thirst too. And it was getting darker and I was having trouble from my station in the back to see the path ahead. As we came to a sharp bend in the river we saw that the water was turning hard right off of a granite cliff. No waves, but a massive amount of water moving through a narrow channel. Old overhanging trees making a giant bower. I decided to take it on the inside. Make it as easy as possible because Brian wasn't able to paddle effectively with his broken oar. I set us into good position and the water looked calm, but then we were pulled to the centre of the channel and started to be sucked under by something. We both panicked as we realized that the massive amounts of water under us didn't need waves to be deadly. She had us in her grip and she was sucking us down. And then the water quietly started coming over the edge of what now can only be called a raft, Then the canoe swamped and we were up to our hips in the water and going down still paddling frantically for shore and as we reached the bank Brian grabbed a branch and held on. The water was up to my chest by now and the canoe swung hard left and carried itself to shore. My cousin was a particularly strong man and if he had ever let go of that branch I know we would've been sucked to the depths of that granite channel. Who knows where the current would have spit us out. I told my cousin quite a few times over the next few weeks how grateful I was that he had good arms. I know he saved our lives. That was the first time in the river that I felt real fear from the dark water below me. To die in rocks and rapids is one thing. But to die from a hidden hand below pulling you into its embrace, just seemed particularly horrifying to me. I realized now the river was much more than a mischievous woman playing tricks and behaving badly. She was a mysterious and powerful God who gave beauty to the land and sometimes, if you're really lucky, she will even grant you a shade of mercy. And now, in my youth, I'd finally come to understand what she was. A beautiful thing that demanded and got respect. Or else.
I was humbled.
Which is a good lesson for a young man who thought he was bulletproof.Chapter 8
It was a dark now. A broken moon rising in the sky behind us. Brian grunting with pain every time the canoe jerked. We passed a house by the river that still had some lights on and I wanted to stop and get help. Plus I didn't like paddling in the dark. The river had broadened and gentled, but the difference between the islands we were passing and the water we were on was a difference of black against grey. I couldn't see worth a crap.
"I think we should stop, Bry. I'll get some help at that house."
"No. The landing at the bridge is only a half a mile away. We'll stop there and you can phone my dad. He'll be worried." Bryan knew the river here.
We paddled on into the darkness and now the moon had brightened behind us and I could see the river more clearly. And then there was the landing. I guided to the beach, hopped out and pulled us on to shore. I had to lift my cousin out because by this time he couldn't put any weight at all on his leg. And then we collapsed half naked on the sand. Sand that was still warm from a hot day and it felt good. And then the mosquitoes fell upon our mostly bare bodies like they had never seen such easy targets in their hungry little blood-sucking lives. And we didn't care.
On my stumble to the phone booth a man and his wife stopped and asked me what was wrong. I had a pair of shorts and a T-shirt on, and I must've looked pretty rough.
"Me and my cousin just came down the river. Were pretty beat up and my cousins hurt."
"You came down the river?"
"Where's your raft?"
"It's not a raft. It's a canoe and it's under the bridge."
"Nobody's ever gone down that river in a canoe."
"I don't blame them."
"But you did."
"Yes. Me and my cousin. Do you mind? I have to phone and get a truck coming."
"Oh! I'm sorry! Do you want a ride?"
"Do you have the time?" I was wondering if the restaurant was still open. His wife looked at the clock on the dash.
"It's 10 o'clock." Then she looked at me more closely.
"Are you hungry? The restaurants open for another half hour."
"No money." God I was tired. "Lost my wallet."
Ever since I've only worn a wallet with a chain on. Looks kind of punky, but you don't lose your last dollar which could have bought you a meal.
Shortly after I got back to Brian with two fat hamburgers and fries, a jug of water and two concerned locals making sure we were all right. My cousin was itchy, hungry, and thirsty all at the same time. We got him into the car and the two good people drove him off to the hospital 30 miles away in Invermere. I stayed to help with the canoe. We even gave it a name after that.
I moved away from the Columbia Valley after that. Went to start my own business in the Okanogan. Two doctors from Calgary had heard about our more or less legendary stupidity, and being world class kayakers, wanted to duplicate our adventure. So they went to Brian and wanted to rent our repaired canoe from him. He gave a very detailed account, to the best of his memory, of the river and its quirks. As he related to me later, he always had wondered what a smirk was, and, after talking with the two gentlemen, he found out. And he didn't like it, so he rented the canoe to them.
The next morning, the two doctors took our canoe into the same spot on the river that we had debarked from and upended at what I now call the Whale-Tooth rapids. Only the canoe wrapped itself around a rock and stayed there while the two men washed out onto the farther shore losing all their equipment. But, by golly. They did walk out. It took three days and several near-death experiences but they made it. Mainly because they found a brand-new logging road that had just been built that spring and they had the forethought of having large canteens of water strapped to their belts. They even wrote a book about their experience. I'm not sure, but I think it was called, "How Two World-Class Idiots Followed the Example of Two Low-Classed Idiots into the River of Death."
I heard they made a fortune on it.