Where to find a helicopter in the first challenge. The closest Heliport is 150 km west in Powell River, or 200 km north in Tatla Lake, which both options would be extremely costly. However, Kokatat ambassador Jules Domine, being a resourceful young man, had a plan. Loving the wild and pristine place, he decided to work in the Bute Inlet for the summer. Partly because he loved the place, but also because he knew that it was a strategic base camp to score many first descents all summer. After warming up on creeks like the Heacamean, the Bear River and many others, he started to think about Bishop and Southgate. The working crew at Homathko camp were using helicopters to get around and it wasn’t long before Jules approached the Pilot with his plan. Wait for a crew change, and during the day off, have the pilot fly him and a friend some 90 km up the Bishop, which flows to the ocean next to the Homathko in Bute Inlet. The pilot was skeptical at first, but Jules’s determination was such that he finally agreed.
A few days later, Jules’s longtime friend and adventure partner, Sandy McEwan, got a water taxi to Homathko camp where the adventure would begin. On the evening of July 16th, the team flew up the valley. The Bishop is very calm and beautiful on the lower stretch, then becomes a deep canyon in the upper section where the gradient reaches 10%. As they reached the canyon by helicopter, the tension rose up a few notches. The water levels appeared extremely high and some of the gorge revealed river wide sieves and tall water falls. Once up in the glacier the team had to make a call.
Conscious that this opportunity would most likely never repeat, but conscious of the extreme hardship that awaited them if they choose to portage some section, the decision making was risky. Within a few minutes they sent the chopper off, leaving them in the middle of nowhere with 10 days’ worth of food and the unknown as the only escape plan.
After taking a few days to explore the surrounding mountains, Sandy and Jules headed to the river to start their real adventure. As soon as they hit the water, their hands froze, and their kayaks where furiously tossed around by the grey monster out-flowing of the bleeding Glacier. In a few kilometers, they realized how deadly the canyon would be at such flows.
When the granite walls started to lock up on them, they had no choice but to find an escape route and continue on foot. Easier said than done. Imagine portaging a 120 pound kayak through the forest and rugged terrain… But soon, another challenge awaited them. A side creek, huge in volume due to the heat, blocked their progression. They had to wait for the temperature and water to drop before attempting the crossing. Any mistake would have been fatal, but they managed to cross safely. After a long strenuous day of following game tracks and eventually encountering Grizzlies and Moose, they reached the bottom of Canyon 1, which they named “Westcoastia Canyon”.
The next day, after paddling a few kilometers, they reached Canyon 2, which was shorter but significantly steeper and even more locked up. From where they were, portaging seemed impossible. Sheer granite walls rose to the mountain top and no apparent gullies or ledges could be spotted. The only apparent escape was to realize a hard multi pitch climb, which they were not equipped for and even less skilled to do. Doubts settled in their minds, and the thought of using the sat phone to call the helicopter back was present. But their pride and determination kept them alert, and the search for a portage route continued. Eventually they spotted a gully leading to a steep granite wall partly covered with trees. The gully appeared to lead to a thin bench in the cliff. Even if the outcome of this risky climb wasn’t garnered, it was the only option, so they went for it.
Extreme physical and mental suffering, that’s how you could describe the days. Due to the extreme steepness and instability of the terrain, they chose to do 3 trips; first with a light bag to set up ropes, second with the empty kayaks, and third with the rest of the gear. The days were blurred, but they can recall chugging straight olive oil from a bottle to keep going. As the day declined, they finally reached the small bench with all their gear, and fell to the ground exhausted.
The next day was dedicated to crossing the cliff using the bench, which they named “Bench of Suffering”. The infamous devil’s club and alders were making progress extremely slow, and forced them once again to divide the equipment into 2 loads. At the end of the day, they finally reached the other side and stumbled down the hill, back to the dearly missed river.
If a good night of rest brought them comfort and hope, the morning took it all away. There was no hope of surviving gorge 3 if they choose the river, so portaging was once again the only option. By this time, their shoulders where sore, their hand spotted by all sorts of splinters and devil’s club spikes, and their brand new shoes falling to pieces. The fight went on, repeating a very similar scenario as the previous canyon. A day and a half later, they finally made it back to water level, exhausted, but confident of the upcoming events. Here the gradient slows down, and the valley slightly opens up. They decided to go for it.
As they progressed downstream, they rediscovered the joys of gravity, effortlessly being pushed down river, and covering more distance in an hour that they did the past day. The whitewater was incredible, huge round granite boulders created a maze of white water, sometimes trapped with monster holes, which luckily they avoided. Later that day, they reached the last constriction. This one was short, and they were able to portage quickly.
The next day, they paddled similar style of class 4 / 5 big water and reached the confluence with the Southgate. The original plan was to hike up the Southgate, so they had made a food drop on the way up. Undoubtedly the Southgate was too high, and just the thought of a few more steps with a kayak on their back made them shiver. They resupplied and kept moving downstream. The rapids progressively diminished in intensity and the saner got even more powerful. The lower valley, carved by thousands of years of glaciation reminded them of Yosemite. If any climber laid their eyes on these smooth vertical walls, they would lose their mind.
After 11 days, they finally reached the sea. They got the Sat phone out and called Chuck from Homathko camp for a boat ride across the inlet. Bishop River, from the source to the sea is an evil but beautiful place, to those wishing to experience it, here is 2 pieces of advice. 1) Wait for October 2) Be mentally prepared.
Where to find a helicopter in the first challenge