On the Stikine by Ted Johnson
The essay he wrote in 1946, “Exhaustion and Fulfillment: The Ascetic in a Canoe,” captures Pierre’s passion for canoeing. It was a lifelong affair, and one he enjoyed sharing with his three sons and with friends. Canoeing was one of the interests we had in common, and the subject of many relaxed conversations when I could take off my executive-assistant hat and “chew the fat,” as he would say. While he liked flat-water paddling, he really seemed to enjoy the excitement of descending a rapid. He did plenty of the former, including the long slog with three friends up the Ottawa River (against the current) on his Montreal to James Bay trip in his mid-twenties.
I became keenly aware of his interest in Whitewater paddling – taking on rapids – in 1980 when, only a few months into my job as EA, I accompanied him on a military helicopter through the mountains of northern Norway, where we were visiting the Bardufos military base. As the helicopter passed over a fast-flowing mountain river, he pointed to a long boulder-strewn rapid and commented, “I think that one could be run on river-left.” Over the four years that I worked for him, it became a sort of sport for us, on occasional flights over wild country: spot a rapid and figure out an imaginary route through it before it passed out of sight.
On the ground, he was quite prepared to paddle the real thing. He was in his mid-seventies when he agreed to join me and a group of six of his canoeing friends of long standing, on a ten-day descent of the Upper Stikine. The Stikine is a wild river, with frequent rapids, draining glorious, untouched mountain country around the Spatsizi Plateau in north-central British Columbia.
Pierre and I shared a canoe, alternating daily between paddling in the bow, which some (Pierre included) consider a bit of a joe-job, and the stern, where the action is. Our group was generally cautious, and we stopped to inspect most rapids from shore before running them.
Early in the trip, on a day when it was Pierre’s turn in the stern, he and I were caught on the “wrong” side of the river. The other three canoes had formed a consensus – communicated by hand signals over the roar of the river – that the better route through the whitewater was on the opposite side of the river, where they happened to be.
Lining With Pierre
This provided Pierre with a powerful incentive to find a route down our side of the river. Regrettably, on inspection we couldn’t find one — a ledge reaching well out into the river downstream from us was impassable – but Pierre came up with a route that took us far enough down our side to save face, before weaving a path across to the “right” side, to muted applause.
Days of forty-mile paddles on the swift-moving river, hiking up to see the Spatsizi Plateau, camping among lodgepole pine at a rapid, and evening conversations around the campfire passed quickly.
Then the big test. It was my day in the stern when we came to the Beggarlay Canyon, with its reputation as the trickiest rapid on the route. The river makes a sharp left turn, splits around a rock the size of a truck, and thunders through a narrow cleft between yellow stone cliffs. At appropriate water levels, there is a route through it, but you have to hit it just right at the entrance to the rapid. I was not looking forward to this one, even to the point of checking the map ahead of time to see how long the portage around it would take.
We stopped to scout. Unfortunately, the water level was appropriate. Although the river is glacier-fed, it was a sunny day, so if we dumped, we could warm up and dry out fairly quickly. And anyway, Pierre was keen to give it a go.
We let the other three canoes go ahead. The first missed the entrance, swung into a large eddy, and careered nose-first into the cliff on the left. The expletives were audible above the roar of the rapid, but, undeterred, its crew turned and successfully negotiated the rest of the canyon. The next was slightly off the line, shipped a bit of water, but made it. The third hit the line perfectly and sailed through.
Our turn. Paddling out to mid-river, I thought I had us positioned pretty well, but it’s one thing to inspect a rapid from a few feet above it on shore, and quite another to be down in it. Standing waves are much bigger when one is among them. As we hurtled ahead, it became apparent to me that I had missed the line by a good margin. In my imagination I could feel the coldness of the water, and, even worse, I imagined the headline that I was certain would appear if we kept going: “Former PM Trudeau and one other lost in rapid.”
Fortunately we weren’t in the thick of it yet, and I called for a “right-draw” from the surprised bowman. After we pulled out on gravel shore, it took some explaining from me to finally convince Pierre that there was an easy portage around the canyon, and that we shouldn’t try again. Reluctantly, he agreed.
Below the wicked Beggarly, we reloaded and re-balanced, and set off. Pierre and I were ahead of the other three canoes, and eddied out to wait as they emerged through the narrow defile where the turbulent waters slowed, their paddles clunking against gunnels and voices raised in a cacophony as they rehashed their successful negotiating of the jaws of death.
Listening to the banter amplified across the now quiet waters, Pierre chuckled that it was primordial- like a war party returning from a successful fight.
The character of the river changed beyond Beggarly Canyon. The valley widened, and the shoreline became gravel-strewn. The Spatsizi River flowed in from our left, bringing with it the runoff from the high plateau and multiplying the strength of the flow. But gone were the bedrock ledges and jagged peaks of the upper portion of the river. And knowing as we now did that we were – for once – on time, or even ahead of schedule, we could set camp earlier, linger longer over the campfire, and chew the fat.
Our last day on the river was sunny and pleasantly warm. Shorts and t-shirts were broken out. We were given an obliging push by the steady current, and were surprised when, well before we expected it, the Cassiar Highway bridge loomed ahead as we rounded a bend, and the mesmerizing spell of the Stikine was broken.
Tony Shaw, John Gow’s friend and owner of the Red Goat Inn, was there to meet us as promised and in no time we were bouncing in his van through dust-clouds left by tourist Winnebagos down the gravel highway and back to civilization.