By Darin McQuoid
If you ever want to accomplish something, just say it’s impossible.
The four-minute mile, Everest without oxygen, the Grand Canyon of the Stikine—all were once proclaimed impossible but are now achievable. It’s amazing what can be done with an untamable spirit of adventure.
As the first attempt on the Grand Canyon of the Stikine was happening in 1981, I was just being born. The expedition reached a modest success, navigating 60 percent of the river and using helicopter support to avoid the lower narrows. Four years later, 1981 expedition leader Rob Lesser brought a team to the Stikine and completed the river through the lower narrows, without helicopter support. Over the next 20 years, only half the groups attempting the Stikine would descend successfully.
I had one mission this fall: Run the Stikine. It’s the Everest of rivers, the most well-known class V and the “hardest in North America,” a rite of passage for class V kayakers.
We were slated to go weeks earlier than we did due to a sudden rainstorm that brought water levels up high above any chance of survival. I had to wait and bide my time. Two weeks later, I headed out of California with a good crew of friends, a solid weather forecast and optimism requisite for the drive. Forty hours of driving from Sacramento to the Stikine is no small feat when packed five deep into a Ford F-150. Thankfully we broke up our time with an adventure on the Homathko River, which made me nervous … simply because the weather could change and bring the Stikine’s water levels up again. Luckily, Mother Nature was kind and although a cold spell was coming in, it was to be dry for us on the Stikine.
Arriving at the Stikine Bridge, two things always need to happen. 1. Check the water level. 2. Get a photograph of yourself with the infamous sign. Check. Check. Time to pack the boat.
A standard trip down the Grand Canyon of the Stikine takes three days. Our weather was supposed to be well below freezing overnight, so I packed a lot more gear than on my average California overnight trip, where I don’t bring any extra clothes for around camp. For this one I threw in a First Ascent Downlight Sweater (which doubles nicely as a pillow), a set of Ultra-195 Merino wool baselayers and extra fleece.
Loaded up, we launched into the glacial waters, and paddled at a mellow pace the first 6 miles of flatwater, a perfect way to loosen up for entrance falls. Trepidation was high as we talked about the rapid. Trips have ended here for the unfortunate. We had an experienced group, talked over the rapid and proceeded to go in without scouting. Since you have to scout from 300 vertical feet above the river, relativity is lost anyways! Coming through the crashing waves and skirting big holes, I felt at home. India and its enormous rivers had prepared me perfectly.
Proceeding through the day we scouted where necessary and enjoyed the whitewater. These rapids may not be the toughest in the world, but most are completely walled in. We were having fun but remained cautious. Any mistake could result in a freezing swim if you were lucky. We chose not to think of what would happen if we really had bad luck after a poor line.
Pulling into camp, I felt a flood of relief. Sometimes doing a run with history like the Stikine is more frightening than a first descent, because you know where things can and have gone wrong. Our nights were well below freezing and the days just above, adding to the challenge. Besides being my first time on the Stikine, it was the first time I’ve thawed out a drysuit just to have it freeze again in daylight at -10C.
Each day on the river was more fun than the last as we perfected our ability to work as a team and got more in tune with the river, running larger and larger rapids as the days progressed. Passing through 7-foot-wide Tanzilla Slot and the end of the Grand Canyon, I was glad to have the immense gorges behind me. I took time to reflect on the explorers who had come before me. There is no way I would have ventured into such a remote, deep and dangerous canyon with the equipment available at the time. Hats off to both the early explorers and companies pushing the boundaries of technical gear that make adventures like these possible today!
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