British Columbia - August 2019
First descents in Coastal BC – Looking for untouched wilderness and whitewater. Words by Jules Domine, photos by Chris Korbulic.
We soon found ourselves in the most beautiful granite canyons, surrounded by untouched old growth cedar forests, far from any logging. "
The apocalyptic landscape unfolding bellow us for more than 40 minutes now, leaving me to wonder, are we really going to find a river here? As I stared out of our float plane’s window, a strange discomfort was slowly setting in. Fire had recently ravaged hundreds of thousands of acres of forest. Rushing down the hills and leaping over rivers, the flames left only a few green spots dotting the land. It was like staring at an old back and white landscape photograph. From the snow line to the horizon on the plain, all was back. Even the majestic peaks were black, although sometimes still topped by agonizing glaciers. No sun, just the grey sky.
It’s not the first time I’ve witnessed such a sight, yet to face another irrefutable proof that our planet is on the edge of a cataclysmic change, is disturbing. Knowing that we were burning gas, using plastic, batteries and more, simply to have fun, lead me to wonder - do I really love nature? I’m sincerely preoccupied by the state of our planet, or is it just on the surface that I’m sensitive to what’s affecting her, and that deep down lays in me the same selfishness I observed in many other humans beings before…
Suddenly, the plane turned left into a narrow valley filled by a blue lake and surrounded by lush coniferous trees. We had reached our destination and the influence of the coastal weather could already be felt. The smell of the cedars and the wet moss combined with the cool breeze rushing on the surface of the lake reminded me of something crucial – you cannot care about what you don’t know exists. I care about rivers, about trees and glaciers because I know them, and without being here, experiencing this environment first hand, I would never feel so compelled to contribute to their conservation and well-being. After being so obsessed with stopping dams from being erected in Colombia for the past 5 years, I lost sight of the meaning of why I was doing this in the first place. It had been keeping me away from the rivers too much. But no time for guilt trips here, inspiration is born from these places and this is where I can draw my motivation.
It’s always a peculiar feeling to watch a plane leave while you stand there on the shore, in the backwash of its props, knowing that within a few minutes the solitude of the wilderness will settle in.
It’s a delicious feeling, isn’t it! But just as the plane was already too far away, Chris says to me, “Bro, you brought a lighter right?” Panic set in as I stood in silence, mentally checking my possessions, in search of a positive answer. The plane lifted into the air. “I think I did, let me check.” All my gear exploded on the rocks and a few minutes later, lighter in hand, I proudly announced I had found it, heart rate back to normal.
It was mid-august 2019, and after spending some great days on the Stikine River in the company of Benny Marr and Chris Korbulic, Chris and I decided to go look for a bit of adventure in the Bella Coola area. Benny headed down south to go surf Skookumchuck, and we headed west.
Everyone has a different approach to kayaking, and Chris always has some kind of interesting ‘out there’ expedition on the back burner. I could tell just doing laps on the Stikine wasn’t enough for him; the unknown was calling, even if it meant suffering for days carrying a loaded kayak up mountains. What would typically make any kayaker run away is what strikes Chris’s interest. I’m the same in a way, so I was happy to share with him this little venture into the Sakumtha valley.
The Sakumtha is a small river flowing from interior BC through the coast range, then out into the lower Dean River, and finally to the ocean. Our plan was relatively simple: Fly from Nimpo Lake into an unnamed lake near the headwaters of the Sakumtha. Then make our way across 5 km of swamps to reach the river, and make our way to the ocean.
Just to keep things interesting, we had not arranged any way to get back to Bella Coola and the mouth of the Dean River was at least 120 km from any roads; it was certainly going to be interesting.
After a quick lunch we started to walk across the swamps, yelling “Hey Beeeaaarrrr”, as it was clearly prime grizzly habitat. Soon we found a small creek (one of the 2 streams that forms the Sakumtha) and began paddling. The stream was very narrow and meandered tough tall grass. Then we reached a point where the trees became taller, which meant the end of the float because the small waterway was now obstructed by large logs every 20 meters. Back to waist deep swamp action.
Finally, we reached another lake. As we paddled across, the large mountains and glacier that fed the river stood in the back ground.
Towards the end of the day, we reached the confluence between the small unnamed creek we had been following, and the actual Sakumtha. Blue mixing with white, rain and ice, blending into one fast current, snapping over sharp, freshly broken black rocks.
As it was late in the evening, and because of the glacial influence, the water was flowing strong. We were satisfied to find the water level was appropriate for the time being. It had been one of our main concerns as there was literally no way to know what to expect. We had relied on luck to time our expedition, and so far it was working in our favor.
I say ‘so far’ because the other concern we had was the gradient; superior to 250 feet per mile in boxed-in canyons. Even with the right water level, it could still mean horrendous portaging. But that would wait until tomorrow. The sun was going down, and camp spots were scarce. We cooked silently, enjoying both solitude and company, then quickly fell asleep under our tarp.
Next day meant entering the canyon. It meant doing what we love - entering a remote area, with no guarantees about the way out, taking the risk to find none.
Within meters, a steep gorge appeared. Somehow, scouting was easy, and although we could not see the end of the gorge, we dropped in. There wasn’t any other options anyways. I think both Chris and I could agree, it was manky and very very steep. Not the best kayaking ever, but far better than portaging.
Then 500 meters later, the walls became tight. The river made a sharp turn to the left, and disappeared. Time for action.
It was only a small drop, and the end of the gorge was right there. I could see the flat water below. Yet it was impossible to scout the drop, and it could have been good or bad, or even deadly – no way to know.
We had a drone. Drones have revolutionized expedition kayaking. No need to walk for hours to scout a long section. Just send the drone, and simply by lifting a finger, you get your answer. Technology makes you lazy, and this yet another proof of it. But before reaching out to modern day scouting methods, we had to try the old school one. The one involving a sketchy climb above the drop. The one where if you fall, you will end up swimming the rapid. I helped Chris get to the wall and he carefully traversed to a small ledge, then onto another one until he could see the drop.
His hesitation was telling me that it was probably a ‘good to go drop’, but that it wasn’t that good, so I started setting up for a portage. We roped the boats out on the ledge and swung them into the currents, pulling them back in quickly as they nearly got taken away into the falls. The whole operation, including the seal launch to get back in, was probably much more risky than paddling the drop, but at least no one will dare accuse us of sneaking via the easy route.
Once bellow the drop we realized that if the river had been 5 cm higher, neither the portage route nor the drop would have been a feasible option. We would have probably been stuck in the gorge for a good while. But once again, luck was on our side.
The rest of the day unfolded without any major event. Slowly but surely the whitewater kept getting better and better, as the iconic BC smooth granite started to pop up more and more regularly…
A good place to camp, however, was hard to find. We settled for a gravel bar with a few square meters of sand to spread our mattresses. A fire, sausages on a stick, hot chocolate and good night.
We were full of expectation for the new day. Granite bed rock had to mean waterfall, or big drops perhaps, or slides – something!
And yes – there they were. Or at least it looked like that from the top, in many occasions. Unfortunately no major drops were found. There was significant gradient, spectacular bed rocks, but nothing huge to be remembered.
However, we soon found ourselves in the most beautiful granite canyons, surrounded by untouched old growth cedar forests, far from any logging. In BC, this is comparatively much harder to find than good whitewater.
By mid-day it was over; we had made it less than 10 km from the Dean River, and the gradient died. We rested at a small confluence, happy. Sure, the whitewater had been below our expectations, but the remoteness of the valley had provided what is rare to find – untouched wilderness.
It’s always when you think you’re done, that you are bound to get surprised. Soon after reaching the Dean River, our jaw dropped – there were people here - People everywhere, and motor boats… The people present here didn’t seem happy to see us, but why? We should have been the ones unhappy to see them, they were ruining our wilderness experience!
Further down, I saw an older man, probably in his late 90’s, walking into waist deep waters with the help of his cane. What was going on? Well, it turns out that the Dean River is supposedly the best Steelhead fishing in the world! People pay big dollars to be flown in to wade in these waters, to catch and release one of the last specimens of this fish species. Why? ‘cuss them fight good.
Don’t get me wrong, I love fishing. Had they not frowned upon our passage, and instead answered our friendly salutations, I think they would have got a pass. But here, they just made me angry as we passed by their lodge, helicopter parked on the deck. Anger dissipated as I realized this made me feel better about what I had been preoccupied with at the beginning of the trip. Yes I was guilty of gas consumption for recreational purposes, but what about this. To fly in by helicopter is one thing, but I can’t imagine what it takes to maintain theses lodges, and to bring in everything via air.
Luckily, we ran into some rafters below that were much more low-key and invited us to their camp. Nice people, Chris bonded with them quickly as they all lived near his home in Oregon. They told us about the last canyon of the Dean, right as it reached the ocean. “No one could pass it in a boat”, they said. Naturally, we wanted to see it.
We continued our float, passing many fishing camps along the way, getting blown by the strong wind. The entry of the canyon was marked by two old concrete stone bridges. We stopped and found a fully furnished house, with two fish officers in it. The Dean isn’t that wild near the ocean, I guess. They welcomed us warmly, offered to show us the trail to the canyon, and became very excited at the idea of watching us go down the next day. We asked them how we get out of here. Turns out there isn’t many people going out of the Dean by any other means than helicopter, and that it’s worth a fortune. But there was one lodge on the ocean that maybe had a boat, and maybe that boat was going to be able to take us back to camp. The owner, Jeff, was coming to watch our descent the next day, so we could talk to him then.
We camped on the beach, had a great campfire conversation and spent the night praying that none of the huge willow trees would fall onto us, as the wind was extremely violent.
In the morning, people gathered on the shore and we started to scout. Nice, very nice rapids – besides all the death siphons everywhere. There was only a few drops, but they provided for perfect boofs and nice lines. We then made it to the ocean, and following the instruction of Jeff, found his lodge.
Soon, we stood on the patio of a luxury fishing lodge, beer in hand, chillin’. They didn’t have any guests that week, and we were welcomed like family. They offered us food, drinks, and a bed – What else can you ask for?
It was also a good way to get an insight on the fishing world, and it turned out to be much more interesting than I though. Salmon numbers have been in steep decline for a decade now, whether it’s Steelhead, Chinook, Sockeye, or of any other kind - and yes, passionate fisherman play an important role in trying to protect them.
Just like in kayaking where some of us are worried about the future of our rivers, there are fisherman worried about the future of the fish, for the future of the rivers… I realized that once again, it’s only because these people spend their days waist deep in the water, year after year, and feel fewer and fewer bites on their flies, year after year, that the fish population’s decline is alarming to them. That’s why they act to try to save them. The only difference with kayaking is perhaps the amount of money an average fisherman is able to pour into their passion, and into conservation too.
I went to bed that night hoping that everyone in the world could go fishing, or could go kayaking – depending on their budget - to feel that love, that responsibility for the fish and for the river, for the world.
The next day they took us back to Bella Coola. We skipped out on the ocean as hundreds of dolphins surfed in front of the boat. Once back on the ground, we stuck out our thumbs and got a ride back to our cars; end of this adventure. But the Sakumtha is one of many rivers in the area, and Chris and I will be back very soon for more. This area is perhaps the last true wilderness area left on the coast of BC.
We soon found ourselves in the most beautiful granite canyons, surrounded by untouched old growth cedar forests, far from any logging. "