The weather held for the few days we were camped at Wilberforce Falls. All the gear had to be portaged about seven kilometres from the upper edge of the red-walled canyon which signals the approach to the falls, past the falls themselves, and then past the deep gorge which runs on for a few kilometres beyond that.
The work took hours. First we hoisted a pack and set the trail for the first section and established the campsite, somewhat off the track, at the most spectacular spot overlooking the falls. Then we began moving the canoes. After portaging on our shoulders for a shift or two, we resorted to dragging them by yoking ourselves to a paddle tied to the bowline, leaving odd snail-like tracks across the tundra.
Wilberforce Falls is one of the most dramatic in North America, and I include both Niagara Falls and Virginia Falls in my assessment. Virginia Falls is nearly twice the height of Niagara and plummets down on either side of an island of rock on its lip. Wilberforce, though it is not nearly as large as either of these, is in a setting that gives it a picturesque grandeur that is hard to equal.
The river flows down the valley in gentle steps. A couple of kilometres above the falls, it begins to squeeze into a tight chute with imposing, sheer sides, descending steadily as the walls get relatively higher. Then, from a surprisingly narrow pitcher-like lip, it turns green and drops thirty metres into a pool. Standing at the edge, you’d think you could jump across if you were agile, for the width of the river at this critical juncture seemed not more than six or eight metres when we were there.
The oval pool itself is also surrounded by sheer red canyon walls and is about 100 metres wide and 300 long. The power of the water makes the whole pool a sort of aerated turquoise-white. At the end of the pool the river makes a right-angled left turn and drops another 35 metres. At high water or flood times, it is joined by a second channel, which flows parallel to the main channel and just west of it. When we were there this auxiliary riverbed was dry, except for a deep pool at the foot of what would be the first drop. Here we fetched our water and bathed, though it was not easy to get to.
The canyon through which the river ran after the double cataract was forbidding and deep. It looked like a scar, jagged and inflamed, with the thin blue and white ribbon of river running along the bottom.
The Liberal Party Canoe by David Silcox
The Johnson-Stollery canoe took a rather erratic course, out, over and around, and they were duly complimented on their originality. They were the only ones to have to do some bailing, and had already earned a reputation for diverting canoe manoeuvres. A day or two earlier, as the last canoe down a fairly simple run, they had hung up briefly on something at the top, lost control, wheeled around 180º, and then had come down backwards, fortunately not hitting anything.
The next day, Johnson & Stollery again lost the line and their sense of direction.
Where Liberal Canoe Met Rock
With Johnson looking apprehensively over his shoulder, trying to steer occasionally from what was now the bow, and Stollery, his paddle resignedly across his knees, gazing forlornly upstream, they floated safely to the bottom, and someone said, “Here comes the Liberal Party Canoe again, doing everything backwards, but still coming out alright in the end.”
Three days later, Johnson and Stollery tried to paddle around different sides of a big rock, with results that put a lot of stress on the canoe. The rescue operation – both canoeists and all their gear ended up in the water – was less than smooth.
Rock Held Firm
Ignoring the swimmers (at Stollery’s request, for he dearly likes swimming, especially in icy water), Godfrey and I made for the half-sunken canoe, secured a line, and headed for shore.
When we seemed not to be gaining much headway, I looked back and saw that Oliver had picked up the stern line of the salvage craft and was making for, or trying to make for, the other shore. The air turned blue with curses and then laughter, and finally we all fetched up on the bank and helped the Liberal Party Canoe and its former occupants dry out.
Top of Wilberforce Gorge
Back L-R: John Gow, Peter Stollery, Craig Oliver, Tim Kotcheff, David Silcox. Front L-R: Ted Johnson, John Godfrey, Bob Duemling.