I could hear my name filtering through the bushes, a stark interruption in the string of curse words that more or less captured the essence of the day. Despite our early start and long summer days, night was falling and the Azure River, though almost within site, still felt impossibly far away. I craned my neck in an attempt to spot the rest of the team over the sea of Devils Club, but only succeeded in losing my balance and falling backwards onto my kayak in the turtle position that every expedition kayaker knows all to well. As my loaded boat and I slid headfirst downhill into an ever thickening British Columbia foliage, I doubted there was any way this could possibly be worth the effort. Coming to a stop I rolled awkwardly back to my feet, helped myself to a handful of wild blueberries, and pressed on.
Blind optimism isn’t always a great approach to whitewater exploration, but I constantly struggle to resist the luring temptations the mindset provides. I had found the Azure in a gazetteer a couple years previous after paddling the Clearwater River. From the point where the river spills out of Clearwater Lake it is impossible not to gaze up into Wells Grey Provincial Park and not wonder what lies upstream. I looked first with passive curiosity, but the more I analyzed the topos of the Azure, the more drawn I became to the Clearwater’s easternmost tributary. It wasn’t hard to get the Azure on the itinerary for the 2017 summer reunion of Team Beer, my kayaking adventure club.
The idea was simple. Walk ten kilometers over a pass into the headwaters, paddle 30 kilometers to Azure Lake, transition to flat water mode and paddle across two lakes to the start of the Clearwater. Easily do able in five to six days. However, the closer we got, the more obstacles arose. First, half the team’s paddles were lost by the airlines, seemingly into an alternate universe. Second, the Grand Canyon of the Stikine was coming in and the teams growing desire to head north was palpable. This second factor was amplified when Ben Luck (of the Colorado front range) decided to fly to Prince George and run the Stikine with us over a long weekend, giving us only a few days budgeted for the Azure. Lastly, in our quest for paddles we were met with much local skepticism. Heavy - slightly aggressive - doubts regarding the presence of quality whitewater on the Azure were punctuated with assurances of dense Grizzly, Moose, and Wolf populations directly along our line of travel. Alas, we found paddles and sat down with the map. If we hired a jet boat for the lake, compressed the hike/river into two days, and didn’t get eaten by wolves we could still make our rendezvous with Ben. It was almost too easy. We would start at dawn.
We stumbled onto the river bank right as darkness fell. It had been a huge day, but spirits were high as we engaged in one of Team Beer’s all-time favorite activities; cooking dinner next to a river.
The next morning was an early start. We had an ambitious distance to cover, and had no idea exactly what we would find in the canyon. Shortly after sunrise we pushed off, giddily excited to see what the day would bring. We didn’t have to wait long. After less than a kilometer we reached the first horizon line and were pleasantly surprised to find a beautiful fifteen-foot double drop into an emerald pool. Peeling out of the eddy, all the pain and suffering of the approach evaporated. I knew our efforts would be well rewarded.
All morning the river dropped over bedrock ledges in slides and waterfalls that ranged from five to thirty feet, and by the time we stopped for lunch we had already run as much quality whitewater as you could ever hope to run in a day. We had portaged a couple times, but we agreed that every drop was objectively runnable and between the less runnable drops were some of the finest waterfalls we had ever seen.
After lunch the true toil began. After a few easy miles the gradient started building and we found ourselves at our first major portage. The falls was undeniably dreamy, the kind of perfect double drop paddlers fantasize about, but of the scale that one doesn’t run deep in the wilderness at the end of a long day. By this time the river was spiking from the heat of the day and turned to a chalky gray color.
By the time we finished our next portage around an even bigger and equally dreamy falls, the Azure was at full flood stage. We knew we were close to the end of the canyon, but we were exhausted and night was fast approaching. Accepting that we wouldn’t reach our goal, we set up camp on the only cobble bar we could find. While we worked on dinner Matt went and scouted the rest of the run. Just below camp the river cut through a final ridge in an impressive canyon that looked really good but way to high to run. We would get up before sunrise, portage the entire final gorge, and paddle the ten kilometers to our boat pickup.
Paddling away from the Azure canyons was a surreal experience. Dense smoke from the countless BC wildfires had settled in the valley, limiting the view and blending the sky almost perfectly with the water. Eagles would appear out of nowhere only to be instantly swallowed back into the curtain. Exhausted, but satisfied we paddled out on to the lake. The Azure had pushed our limits, but was the kind of river one is rarely lucky enough to stumble upon. The effort had proven worthwhile.
Blind optimism isn’t always a great approach to whitewater exploration, but I constantly struggle to resist the luring temptations the mindset provides.