A Short History of the Grand Canyon of the Stikine River

Doug Ammons

 

“The Stikine is the river of a lifetime.  If you want to run it, you need nerves of steel.”

Olli Grau, World Freestyle Champion, after a 2003 descent

“I should go back someday and see if it really is as scary as I remember.”

Lars Holbeck, 1985 first descent

“I’ve been here once before and the water level doubled and it was one of the most

terrifying experiences of my life.  I wasn’t sure I ever wanted to try the Stikine again, but here I am, and there it is.” Polk Dieters, 2005

 

The Grand Canyon of the Stikine River in northern British Columbia is one of the greatest whitewater runs in the world.  Hidden away in the Canadian wilderness, it has everything an expedition kayaker could ever want.  While it is impossible to say that something is the hardest, over the last 30 years and a total of 28 attempts, the Stikine has proved itself to be one of the most challenging runs anybody has ever found on this planet.  In 2006, 25 years after the first attempt, three of four teams bailed off the run.

Numbers do not do the river justice, nor do photographs. To the people who have been there, the Stikine means huge rapids, vertical walls, and total commitment.  It means a deep and dark gorge, rockfall, dangerous portages, and bad weather.  It is the personification of the entire north country wilderness condensed into the purest of runs.  There are no permits and you don’t need anybody’s permission. Just get in the car, drive up the Cassiar highway to the put in, and be prepared to run the biggest shit in the most dramatic canyon you’ve ever seen.

 

            My own introduction to the Stikine defined my kayaking career.  In the early 1980s, just as I started kayaking seriously, I happened across an American Sportsman episode showing the first attempted descent of the river, featuring Rob Lesser and other top kayakers.  I watched in astonishment as a blue-eyed, wild-haired guy gave an interview sitting in a chopper, hovering over the exploding water.  Instead of dude-speak, he talked passionately about the mystique of being in blank territory on a first descent.  As the film progressed, I saw the paddlers disappear into frothing monstrosities with the dark writhing water exploding between sheer walls.  It was truth in the rawest and most powerful form.  I knew the instant I saw it, that kayaking was my sport, and the Stikine was the place I wanted to go. Before I had even begun to paddle seriously, the Stikine had become my personal definition of what kayaking was all about.

           

            The river is in uppermost corner of British Columbia, located about 1200 miles north of Seattle Washington.  It gathers its waters from the glaciers and mountain ranges of the Canadian interior, and runs for 400 miles through the coastal mountains to the Pacific Ocean.  It is a land of vast forests and mountains, with grizzly bears, wolves, and caribou far outnumbering the several thousand people who inhabit an immense wilderness nearly twice the size of France. 

The incomparable Rob Lesser of Boise Idaho almost singlehandedly defined the exploration and early history of the river.  After hearing rumors of a “Grand Canyon” in 1977 on his way up to run the Susitna in Alaska with Walt Blackadar, he stopped in Dease Lake and flew the Stikine.  Looking down into this incredibly improbable place, he saw the river pounding through the deep canyon with at least 35,000 cfs.   On his topo map, he labeled rapids with descriptions like "Killer Falls #1" and "Killer #2."  It was 60 miles of incredible whitewater, dozens and dozens of huge class V rapids, and sections completely hidden by the narrow, overhanging canyon walls, impossible to see from the plane.  One thing was clear - this was a hell of a river.  The Stikine was on the map.

Rob returned in 1981 to attempt the first descent in a film for American Sportsman.  Supported by helicopter, the team paddled about 60% of the run, but did not finish the crux – which is the section we now call the lower Narrows.  You can only gasp as the film shows ragged, exploding surges of water swallowing the kayaks, and the paddlers disappearing into monstrosities in what is some of the greatest whitewater footage ever filmed.  Lars Holbeck took a bad swim and John Wasson was nearly killed in a particularly grotesque rapid that is now named after him, Wasson’s Hole.   His description: “I got sucked into the hole, the lights went out. I was ripped out of my boat and rag-dolled deep underwater in God’s gyroscope.  I had a long time to think what that first breath of water was going to feel like.”

The first descent was done in 1985, as Lesser returned with Bob McDougall and Holbeck.  Another film resulted, this time for Canadian television and National Geographic Explorer.  Like the first attempt, this trip also was heavily supported by helicopter for scouting and portaging. The team put all the pieces together for what can only be considered a milestone in expedition kayaking. 

Outside of those trips, from 1989 to 2006 there have been another 25 self-contained attempts at different water levels and conditions, with 15 successful descents.  In a whitewater culture where people are used to guidebook runs, this is a different beast.  What is not expressed in those figures is the indelible mark the river has made on the kayakers who have been there.  The reason for this impression is not just the huge, challenging rapids, but comes from the singularly ominous feeling the canyon provokes.  The Stikine reminds you at every corner that it’s not just the whitewater that defines a river.   A sense of rawness unlike any other river pervades this place. It shouts power, violence, and danger from the moment you enter, until you emerge from the Tanzilla slot. 

 

A few gruesome tales will give you the proper impression.

            In 1989 on the first self-contained attempt, Rob Lesser, Bob McDougall and I came as close to complete disaster as any of us ever want to experience. After scouting from high on the walls above Entry Falls, we tried what seemed like a relatively conservative 'sneak' route, avoiding an awkward move at the top.  McD powered down and disappeared.  He immediately got desperately trapped in a horrible undercut hole with no exit. Coming down, I was able to back ferry and balance in a precarious spot to have a hair-raising ring-side seat as he got pounded beyond belief.   Violent cartwheels, sucked out of sight under the undercut on one side, windowshaded, and fighting for his life.  He finally ejected and was recirculatated without air several more times, getting violently slammed on the bottom.  Starting to black out, he got shoved against the underside of a boulder with the current threatening to suck him under the rock.  On the verge of losing consciousness, he clawed up the face to light.  When he broke the surface the current dragged him around the corner of the boulder.  Exhausted and choking, he slapped a handhold that spun him into the small eddy behind the rock, preventing what would probably have been a fatal swim through the main rapid below.  After he finished puking the water out of his lungs, he had two simple options. He could jump back in and try to swim the rest of the rapid, or climb the cliff.  He climbed. I watched.

McD, an accomplished big-wall climber, then free soloed with no shoes a four hundred foot vertical face of shattered rock.  Somehow he kept himself together and made it up.   Watching him, I was convinced I was going to see one of my best friends die right in front of my eyes.  The entire cliff was loose, making it impossible to rely on anything.  He repeatedly pulled or kicked free big chunks of rock.  Each time I saw one crack loose my heart leaped into my throat, thinking it was him falling.   Just below the top he laybacked up a loose block, dirt and rocks falling out from behind it as he climbed.  The last move was an overhang of nothing but dirt held together with roots.  400 feet off the deck with no place to go, he reached a long arm over the edge, and got a grasp on a small sapling growing on the overhang.  He took a deep breath, and cut free.  The sapling held.  He pulled himself up and over and crawled trembling away from the edge.

 

            In 1998, Gerry Moffatt put together a team to do what he called the Triple Crown (Susitna, Alsek and Stikine), with Charlie, Wink Jones, and Reggie Crist.  Rob Lesser and I joined them on the Stikine.  It was Rob’s fifth trip and my fourth.  I broke two ribs the first day, getting blasted by a wave in an unnamed rapid. Gerry nearly died after being pinned under a boulder at the rapid called Scissors.  “That’s one of my nine lives,” he said, “and I’m never doing that again.”  We did a quick calculation at the end of that trip, and realized the people on our team accounted for 7 of the 9 descents, and Idaho-related paddlers were connected with 10 of the 12 attempts. But the next year, 2000, put the Stikine on the map for the younger generation of paddlers.

Although we had always known how good the Stikine was, the younger crowd did not.  While we sought out hard wilderness runs, during the explosion of the sport in the 1990s the New Schoolers acted as if the “cutting edge” was defined by freestyle competition, waterfalls, and steep creeks.   That changed in the year 2000, when top young paddlers Jay Kinkaid and Taylor Robertson came up to do the canyon and were nearly killed. 

Originally, they had planned to do a preliminary run and scout for a video, then do the canyon again while filming.  Things didn’t turn out that way.  They mistakenly put on at a huge, even insane, flow (35,000cfs) and were flushed into Entry Falls before they knew it, getting stuffed in a wild, out-of-control ride, pounded beyond belief, praying their spray skirts would hold.  They eddied out below Entry wondering what the hell was going on.   It’s understandable they wouldn’t quit after just one rapid, so they headed downstream and immediately got thrashed in the second rapid, Three Goat.  At that point, only two rapids into the canyon, they both agreed something was very wrong, “We decided to climb out, and the decision saved our lives,” said Taylor.  They left their boats, climbed up a long gully, and began bushwacking.  They had no map or compass, and no decent shoes. 

Several days later, minus their toenails, hungry, thrashed, exhausted and having been nearly killed by a pissed-off moose, they made it back to the highway bridge.  Shortly thereafter in Dease Lake, they ran into a team headed by Rob Lesser, who had been insisting to his partners that the river was too high to put on.  A quick flight confirmed what Jay and Taylor had already experienced, and what would have awaited them had they kept going. 

            “I’ve never seen water do anything like it,” Chris Spelius told me later. “I thought Entry and Three Goat were possible, there was a line there, but as we flew farther downstream I started laughing. There were huge waves breaking from one side of the river all the way into the wall on the other side. There were holes parallel to the current.  Massive boils spouted up against the sides.  Wasson’s Hole was one enormous explosion, recirculating at a million miles an hour.  Impossible.  There was no line, no nothing.”   The simple truth is, had Jay and Taylor gone around another few corners, nobody would have ever seen them again.   It’s not a question of skill.  It’s a fact about life and death.

In kenpo, the style of karate I do, when you are promoted to an upper rank the presiding master delivers something called the birth of pain.  It is a rite of passage that marks your awareness of where you’ve been, and affirms that you are seeking greater skill and wisdom. It’s typically a powerful kick to the stomach, and if you aren’t prepared, it will do major damage.  Sometimes, for favorite students, all the senior instructors join in.  To my way of thinking, Jay and Taylor experienced the same birth and were promoted to a new rank - Stikine awareness.  It’s defined by the experience of getting your ass so thoroughly kicked that you now understand the real shit in a way you’ll never forget.  When you join that group, you never look at rivers the same way.  McDougall called it the loss of his whitewater innocence.  I call it the truth.

 

            A German team of World Freestyle Champion Ollie Grau, Olaf Obsommer (“Sick Line” videos), Markus Kratzer, and Micheal Neumann attempted the Stikine in 2003. The level was high, probably 16,000 or 17,000 cfs, and it took everything they had.  By the time they got to Pass Fail midway through the first day, Olli said, “With the water level and loaded boats, we were at our absolute limit.”  The river squeezed everything out of them, slamming and shoving them where it wanted.   When asked to summarize the first day, Ollie laughed, “The first day? Oh my god…” Markus added, “There was one point below Wasson’s hole where I didn’t know whether to laugh, cry, or scream.”  

When they got to a rapid called The Wall late in the afternoon on the second day, they had had enough.  They ran the initial lead in, then climbed up on the rock wall on river right to scout. All they could see below were huge holes and mist.  It was too much.  Ollie said, “We decided not to run it after all the horror we had already been through. It looked too dangerous, bad lines, the main holes were gigantic. It would be fatal to swim.  We were so terribly hammered and unnerved, we decided to break off the descent.”

They tried to climb up one of the gullies and got cliffed out.  They tried another. The same thing happened. Vertical shattered rock and no way out.   They retreated to the talus by the river to bivvy for an anxious, difficult night.  With the morning’s new light on things, they ran the rapid and headed down, finally realizing where they must be. 

At V-Drive, the final rapid of the lower Narrows, they again faced hard decisions. “At V-Drive we were all terribly frightened.  Nobody wanted to be a hero and run it.”  They did several short rappels down around the entrance to the rapid onto the scoured knobs above the exploding water.  With their boats roped, Olaf and Markus were last. Ollie had gotten so cold standing on the last knob, with waves breaking on him, that he was becoming hypothermic and had to get in his boat with Michael holding it.   They drew straws and Olaf lost. He helped Markus rap down to the final knob and launch his boat off the little ledge. Then he fixed his boat, tied off to the rappel rope.  With his knife from his lifejacket, he cut himself free and launched into the rapid.

In an interview for Olaf’s film “Stikine: The Great River”, Ollie commented, “We’ve been out of the canyon for days and I haven’t been able to calm down.  I’m tense and haven’t slept well, really bad, bad sleep.  Maybe this just shows how many volts you have to deal with to function in this kind of surrounding.”   He summed up his experience, “The Stikine is the river of a lifetime.”  “If you want to run it, you need nerves of steel.”

 

            In 2005, Lunch Video came in with a large team, plus several additional people for a group of ten.  It was raining and cloudy, but the level looked acceptable – high but holding.  They ran into huge problems at Wasson’s.  The first four ran the rapid, sketching their lines and nearly getting pulled into the main hole against the left wall, where John Wasson had nearly died. Then, Fred Coriell ran right of center, got slammed by the initial ledge hole and typewritered all the way left into the hole on the opposite wall.  He flailed for several go-rounds, and got stripped out of his boat.  Immediately afterward, Austin Rathman from Wyoming got stuffed.  He was shaken after watching Fred’s run, and opted for coming off the curlers farther left. He flipped in the bizarre crossbreaks and although he went wide of Wasson’s, he was beaten down repeatedly by the huge haystacks, and jammed into the huge boils against the far right wall.  Out of air, he ejected and went for the swim of his life.  Completely at the mercy of the water, he flailed, choked and struggled as John Grace tried to get him to shore.  He was pinned underwater, badly hurting his knees, and finally swam weakly into an eddy to pull himself up on a small ledge. “I was nauseated, beaten, and helpless. Tommy Hilleke appeared and asked if I was all right.  I just shook my head and sat there with my feet dangling into the cold water, legs aching from the pin. I couldn’t talk, couldn’t stand up, filled with incredible fatigue and nausea. I looked over and saw Fred lying motionless on his back. ”

 

This is not a normal river run, not even by the standards of highly experienced class V kayakers.  The rapids are dominated by compressional turbulence, incredibly large holes, closed out features, and monstrous slabs of water that you stick to like fly paper as you try to make your moves.  It’s an ominous and spectacular canyon, over 1000 feet deep and in some places so narrow that a helicopter can barely slip through. You are exposed to rockfall while scouting and even in your boat.  It isn’t the Zambezi, there is no warmth in the glacial water or the typically blustery fall weather. The flow is between 8000 to 20,000 cfs at low water and levels can change as much as ten feet in a day.  Many sections are from 60 to over 120 feet per mile, and as any big water paddler knows, when you combine steep and narrow with lots of water, you’re talking the real shit.  Attempts are made at low water in the early fall, and there’s the very real possibility of a freeze or snow, which has happened to two different teams.  For 70% of the canyon, it is very difficult or utterly impossible to climb out, with vertical walls on both sides rising straight out of the river.  If you do have to bail and climb out, as has happened to eight teams, it is easy to get lost up on the plateau and entirely possible to get killed by the wildlife, as Jay Kinkaid and Taylor Robertson found out. This isn’t California.  It’s the god-damned Canadian wilderness.

 

*

            Rob Lesser has been the pioneering force for the Stikine, and in a real sense, is the living history of the expeditions there. He and I have talked about the river many times, and we agree the Stikine is the purest of expeditions.  The power the place has had over us has led to an unspoken ethic these last 25 years.  We believe that specifics should not be given except to identify certain lethal spots.  The sense of mystery defines an essential part of the river's challenge, so every team should be given the opportunity of feeling the pressure, stress, and exhilaration of a first descent.    The Stikine isn’t a notch on your belt, it’s a force of nature and a gift to us all.  Keep your team small and let the canyon speak loudly to you.  You won’t regret it.

There have been 28 attempts since 1981, with 18 successes.  There have been five near disasters, and a great many very sketchy incidents, but no deaths.  Those are pretty good odds overall, compared to something like Himalayan climbing.  The Germans lost 30 climbers before Hermann Buhl climbed 8000 meter Nanga Parbat.  Roughly one person dies on Everest for every five that reach the summit.  But remember, nobody but the best have tried the Stikine. The odds will change if the skill level changes. The odds also show that you had better be willing to pay for your mistakes in blood. 

What the odds don’t show is the effect of the canyon on your emotions, inscribed on your soul.  McDougall was the toughest guy I’ve ever known.  He never returned to form after his epic, and I still have bad dreams about it all these years later.  Being a helpless witness to a friend’s death takes all the fun out of everything.   Olli wasn’t kidding about the voltage. Reggie Crist wasn’t either when he said, “I feel like a mistake in Wasson’s is a death sentence.”   Or Michael Neumann after he returned to Germany: “Von jetzt an, nur noch Eiscanal.”   Lars Holbeck said, “I should go back someday and see if it’s really as scary as I remember.”  Willie Kern said, “The river lived up to its reputation.”  Jody Schick wrote me, “I didn’t paddle class V for three years after the Stikine. I’d had enough.”  One of my favorite memories is of a phone call I got from a team of friends after their run in 1995. Gerry Moffatt shouted into the phone, “It was everything you said it would be, and more.” Scott Lindgren said, “I feel like I just went to Vietnam and came back alive.”  Finally, Charlie Munsey got on and said simply, “Doug, it’s still the truth.”

            There aren’t many places that have the power to move people, especially those who have devoted their lives to kayaking, and who are among the best our sport has to offer.  The long and short of it is, when you’re in this canyon the river calls the shots.  You’re there on its terms and you can never forget that it is bigger than you in every way.  Like Charlie said, it’s still the truth.