My heart and stomach felt like they traded places in my chest as the plane’s engine sputtered and the props visibly slowed. It looked like Chris, the pilot, had the same startled feeling, and that did nothing to comfort me. Flying above the Bishop River in the perfect sub-alpine of BC’s rugged Coast Mountains, prospects of a rescue did not seem good. Prospects of surviving a plane crash here seemed worse. We flew the 50 or so miles of river in the 6-seat Beaver float plane so we weren’t paddling into the complete unknown once we started the river descent. Even flying over in the supposed safety of the aircraft felt exposed and remote. “Sorry about that,” Chris exhaled. “She was running a little thin,” referring to the air/fuel mix that needs to be changed manually depending on altitude. “It won’t happen again.”
He landed perfectly in the iceberg strewn glacial lake at the headwaters of the Bishop, dropping the three of us on a small rock outcropping before being chased away by waves from the calving glacier. From the looks of it, not many people had been where Todd Wells, Eric Parker and I were standing. The glacier had only retreated enough in the past few years to enable a float plane to land, and chances are that ice covered our little rock just the year before.
At our layover camp near the foot of the glacier, we slept to the rhythm of the glacier creaking, moaning, falling apart, and woke to the lake completely full of small icebergs frozen in a thin sheet of ice. Nowhere to land a plane, we had arrived at the perfect time.
With the entire lake covered in fresh bergs, this made for a surreal paddle to the lake outflow and the beginning of the river. For miles we paddled where we could clearly see recent glaciation until the river steepened, narrowed, and demanded every bit of our attention. A series of gorges at times slowed our progress to less than a kilometer per day.
During a particularly grueling portage through the magical moss-covered old-growth temperate rainforest, Todd leaned his boat on a massive spruce trunk to rest, only to turn and hear the boat slide and start tumbling downhill behind him. Downhill might not be the best term here, actually. Mountainside perched on the edge of a vertical-walled river gorge is more appropriate, and there was nothing to do but watch as the green kayak cartwheeled out of view through the forest. Silence for a moment and I thought it must have stopped on a tree or blueberry bush or soft pad of moss, perched in the sunlight above the abyss. We would still have the two dinners, lunches, and pound of cheese in Todd’s boat, the breakdown paddle, Todd’s warm clothes and sleeping bag; it was going to be okay.
BOOM!!! And all the optimism that briefly flickered through my head fizzled. That unmistakable sound meant the boat was in the river. It was in the gorge we were portaging because of class VI and sieves and the unknown. We slid to the edge to see green flashes in a siphon hundreds of vertical feet below. There was nothing we could do, it was gone, and we were left with few poor options when moments before the plan had been so clear.
What do you do in the middle of vast wilderness when you or a teammate loses transportation, food, and shelter? I had seen this place from the air and knew we were still about as deep as you can get into these rugged mountains. There was no easy way downstream. The nearest road was 45 miles in the wrong direction. There were three people, two kayaks, gear and food for two people for two days. We had 40 miles to go. My stomach turned. Suddenly things felt like they were running a little thin.
We scouted, portaged, and stayed together for the night. Todd wrapped up in my and Parker’s down jackets and all our extra layers, though I don’t think he slept much. Frost in the morning confirmed our suspicions that it was actually really cold. Scouting downstream revealed a thousand foot vertical wall down to the river that Todd wouldn’t be able to pass on foot, so we sent him across the river at a break in the walls to continue alone while Parker and I would abseil into the gorge not knowing if the last few corners would be manageable at river level.
Running my hands along the dark rock, smoothed by millennia of the same glacial outflow on which I was floating, I let the walls know we could really use a break. Nothing suddenly shifted in the cosmos, but I felt great comfort approaching the last corner we could see. It opened, we released yells of satisfaction and elation, and put our heads down for the two-day push out to Bute Inlet. We could make it without food, but where was Todd, on foot, with the little food we had to share?
As we departed camp after a night below the gorges, we heard the unmistakable thump-thump-thump of a helicopter overhead. My Delorme inReach lit up with messages from Todd that he had to press the hot-drinks-n-fresh-sandwiches button and get a lift out. In preventing a possibly life-threatening situation, I think it was the right call. After sharing a candy bar for the day, Parker and I paddled hard into the night, but made it out exhausted, exhilarated, and full as ever.