RIDING DOWN A DYING RIVER

Few men know the Canoe, a lovely river that cascades through British Columbia. Now the chance is gone—a dam soon will engulf it
November 21, 1966

Stand on the wooden bridge over the Canoe River in British Columbia, watch the glacial water sputtering down a long slope between the pines and you realize you are seeing something future generations will never know: this river, doomed to disappear. The Canoe is the longest, least-known and most remote of the rivers that will be virtually erased by the dam that is being built as a joint U.S.-Canadian venture on the Columbia River. The Canoe starts on an ice field high on Mount Sir Wilfrid Laurier. It drops straight down in many places, falling 8,000 feet in 20 miles, cascading among unreachable rocks. Then the Canoe becomes a real river, when it pours into the Canoe River valley, two or three miles wide, a hundred miles long, running through country inhabited only by moose, deer, black bear, grizzlies, mountain goats, beaver and other wild creatures.

The Canoe makes a melodramatic entrance into the valley. It jets out of a canyon only 70 feet across, with rock walls a hundred feet high. The black metal girders of a Canadian National Railway bridge cross high above, from one canyon wall to the other. The splintery wooden bridge is just below the trestle, almost at the water level. The water curls and coils and braids from the sharp canyon curves, it is cold, fast, impenetrable, gray-green, white-necked, carrying the scent of rocks and ice.

All sorts of treasured wild rivers are being changed or destroyed or threatened these days by dams, from the Gunnison in Colorado to the Buffalo in Arkansas, and each assault gives rise to anguished protests from conservationists, fishermen, canoeists and wilderness enthusiasts, but the case of the Canoe River is different: almost all of it will be wiped out before it has been discovered. Except for a float boat trip or two, no outdoor recreationists have enjoyed it. David Thompson found and named the river in 1811, but until surveys were made for the new dam it was scarcely explored. Nothing ever happened along its banks—no railroads, farms, towns, battles—and only a few hunters and explorers even knew of its existence. Nothing will ever happen on its banks, for it is not going to have any banks. What is now the Canoe River will be part of a lake, from one to five miles wide and about 90 miles long, which will be formed behind the Mica Creek Dam now being built on the Columbia a few miles downstream from where the Canoe joins it.

We spent a lot of time on that wooden bridge over the river. We had two canoes, 17-foot Grummans, rented from the Northern Stores Department of the Hudson's Bay Company for $25 a week, and it was our intention to go down the Canoe to the Columbia. However, the canoes were not at the river's edge. They were at the railroad station in the town of Valemount, four miles north of the point where the road crossed the Canoe River, and there they remained a week while the delayed members of our scattered party assembled. Bright, shiny, new and extremely conspicuous, each canoe bore painted representations of the flag of Canada and the Hudson's Bay Company near its bow, plus a tastefully lettered sign, "U-Paddle." Those canoes were stared at by passengers of the transcontinental trains, and even more by the skeptical citizens of Valemount. They thought we had lost our nerve and were not going to start down the Canoe River at all.

So many searching questions were asked about the exact time we were going to leave and so many knowing looks were exchanged when we explained that we were waiting for others to join us that we avoided people after the first few days. We stood on the bridge and studied the current. Or we hiked along the bank and pretended to fish. In any case, we more or less kept out of sight. Bil Gilbert, an accomplished white-water canoeist, was to join us at Valemount, but he was held up in California on an article he was writing. An English naturalist, an old canoe companion of Gilbert's, was to arrive with him, but he had been delayed in Washington, D. C. Bob Waldrop, also an expert white-water man, a young staff member of a wilderness conservation foundation, was getting in some fieldwork before settling down in his office. He and I were the only ones present. Waldrop was dismayed at the appearance of the Canoe River. It was not dangerous enough. This was at the opposite extreme from my feeling about it, so we did not have much in common.

In the absence of anything else to do, we talked about food. Gilbert had prepared a large fiber-glass box filled with dried mush, dried soup, dried potatoes, dried omelets and other nourishing fare. He impressed on us that this was more than sufficient to sustain life but it lacked variety, and just before starting out we were to add appetizing items such as cheese, ham, sandwich spread, chocolate bars and food that could be eaten at lunch stops without making it necessary to unpack. So, as the days passed and Waldrop and I loafed around Valemount, we listed imaginative additions from the supermarket to our impending wilderness meals. From time to time confused messages arrived, saying Gilbert was in Sacramento, or that someone would arrive soon, but the telephone system in the interior of British Columbia carries you right back to the days of Alexander Graham Bell. Any conversation is apt to break off suddenly, with shrieks and wails akin to the sounds used in the brainwashing scenes of The Ipcress File. And so we did not buy the food we planned to buy. To tell the truth, I was afraid the townspeople would be even more perplexed if we remained much longer around the place carrying a lot of sandwich spread and cookies, instead of starting down the river.

Eventually, however, a message came through. Gilbert would arrive on the train from Vancouver at 11 the next morning. The naturalist had decided he could not make it. So we got everything in readiness, and I planned to buy the essentials in the morning before the train came in. The morning was fresh, windy, cool, a promising September day. The snow had come down on the sides of Mount Thompson in the night. It whitened the rocks from its 8,703-foot summit down to the green, yellow-tinted caribou meadows and would retreat back up the slopes as the day warmed. It was an ideal day for the start of a trip. And Gilbert arrived at 7—four hours earlier than expected. The canoes were hastily lifted from the railway platform to a truck, and we rode out to the bridge. Waldrop and I forgot all about our supermarket lists. The truck driver helped carry the canoes to the gravel bank. Below the bridge the river was 50 feet wide, sweeping down between banks lined with cedars and lodgepole pines, a turbulent, disorderly passage rather than a chute, broken with jets of foam and ending in standing waves. At the end of a quarter of a mile the river turned sharply beyond a high, haystack-shaped logjam. Well-wishers at Valemount had told us not to put in at the bridge; the river seemed to go around the jam, but the current went under it. They also warned us about the first bad rapids, Yellowjacket Rapids, only a few miles downstream. These were not very rough, but the approach was so smooth you were in them before you knew they were there.

Over the sound of the water the truck driver said, "You fellows might keep your eyes open for a body when you're going down the river."

I asked, "Was somebody lost trying to run it?"

"No," he said. "He jumped off the bridge."

The maze of girders looked extremely high overhead; the unfortunate man had been plainly determined not to survive.

"Who was it?" Bil Gilbert asked. "A stranger?"

"No," said the truck driver sadly. "He was a prominent man."

He returned to his truck and headed back in the direction of Valemount. The thought of coming upon the body of a prominent man deep in the wilderness somewhat checked any elation we felt at starting out. But there is always an instant of concentrated excitement in starting down a new river, regardless of any dispiriting prospect ahead. Waldrop, alone in one canoe, got away first, paddling hard and sashaying around boulders like someone learning to ride a bicycle. I was the bowman in Gilbert's canoe. "All ready?" Gilbert asked. We went sliding away fast, into the animated world that is compounded of fresh air, wind, noisy current and the ceaseless attention demanded by the changes in the racing water. There was just time enough to say, "Some current," or "What a river," or make some equally profound observation when glimpses of rocks under the surface and occasional resonant submarine boomings as the bottom scraped on rocks kept us too busy to observe anything else.

Below the long, rough glide the river was deep, an unbroken gray-green surface, with occasional eddies and rings and swirls that raced downstream as soon as they formed. A few miles on there was mild and riffly water, running fast and smoothly. The river was silent except for noisy passages from time to time caused by shoals at the bends. These hummed and buzzed in the late-summer woods. Sometimes a splash made one think a fish had jumped near, but the sound came from trees seesawing in the hurrying water.

Deeper in the woods the Canoe River retired into a world where it really seemed that nothing had ever happened. As we rounded a bend a hawk dropped silently on a kingfisher, only a few feet in front of the canoe. The two birds seemed to hang suspended in the air for a few moments as the canoe drifted near. Then they exploded in a Hurry that ended when the kingfisher broke free. They both hit the water. Almost at once they were in the air again, separated. The hawk seemed to spring upward before it struck, slantingly this time, the kingfisher plainly in its claws. "A goshawk," Gilbert called to Waldrop in the other canoe. "He got a kingfisher." Much of Gilbert's adult life has been spent trapping and banding hawks.

The hawk had paid no attention to the canoe, but at the sound it turned in the air. The kingfisher dropped free and skimmed very low across the water to land on a stick projecting from a tangle of driftwood. The hawk turned in a half circle to look us over, and then perched on a gray snag across the river from its intended prey and watched us with morose dislike as we drifted away. "I shouldn't have yelled," Gilbert said. "It scared him."

Around another bend two deer poised on a sun-washed gravel bank a hundred yards downstream, watching us approach. One shifted uneasily in the shadow of small birch trees; the other stood almost negligently in the open, at the edge of the water. We stopped paddling and drifted straight toward them. There was no sound except the drowsy wash of the water and the splash of minute waves against the canoe. Apparently these aluminum craft were too unfamiliar to be very alarming—merely some strange shape, gleaming, clawless and unthreatening, for we were not more than a hundred feet away when the deer turned unhurriedly and went into the woods. Around another bend a moose, not fully grown, stood on a slight grassy knoll, its head down, looking at the water, evidently undecided about crossing the river. When it finally saw the canoe we were within the distance of a Don't Walk sign. The moose turned and stumbled into the woods in an awkward, embarrassed fashion, like someone trying to avoid meeting an acquaintance he does not want to see.

Were there animal eyes watching us from behind the trees all along the river? Every 200 feet or so along the Canoe there were sandbanks, smooth as boat-launching ramps, sloping down from the forest floor, and these were covered with tracks—raccoon, black bear, grizzlies, moose, deer, marten, wolverine, mink, otter, prints readily identified in a copy of Olaus Murie's Field Guide to Animal Tracks, which Bil Gilbert carried with him—all sorts of tracks except the tracks of human beings. These would soon be there: seven lumber companies had combined to put a road down the east bank of the Canoe River so they could take out the trees in the area to be flooded. Ours was the last trip down the Canoe before the major changes, and even we were a little too late, for logging had begun. But it was still wild enough. The river was dropping fast, a hundred feet in eight miles, but flowing smoothly, as if it were solid—gliding at the same speed along the bottom and at the surface. We went back and forth across the narrow valley, sometimes facing the Rockies on the east, sometimes the confusion of rocks and snow and knife-edged flint pyramids that made up the Monashee Mountains—so named from a Gaelic word meaning mountain of peace—reaching south along the Columbia. At each hairpin turn the current speeded up. Then, at the next straight stretch, it was possible to see the river slanting down a real grade, like a gentle hill of water, with lodgepole pines lining the bank as regularly as if they had been planted in rows. And beyond these, white and gold in the sunlight, the incredible profusion and grandeur of the mountains.

"I don't see how you guys could have forgotten to bring the food," Gilbert said. He returned to this subject frequently. He did not seem to be particularly concerned or irritated about it; he merely wondered, with a naturalist's curiosity, how it was possible to have forgotten something so essential to the survival of the species. At other times he approached the problem from a negative point of view, wondering what else one could be doing that was more important than providing food.

"Now, you had a week in Valemount," he said. "What were you doing all that time?" It seemed to be impossible to make him understand that when you are waiting around a small town in the Canadian Rockies you cannot buy delicacies ahead of time. Or that it was the most natural thing in the world to forget them entirely, since he had arrived at 7 o'clock instead of four hours later.

We pulled in to shore near Beaverpelt Lake for a good reason—fish. We set out in single file, Gilbert in the lead, Waldrop next and myself last. An outlet from Beaverpelt Lake poured into the Canoe River opposite our campground, and we headed up it. However, the outlet forked. One fork ran parallel with the Canoe and entered it far below. Slogging along behind Gilbert and Waldrop, I came to easier walking along this fork—not a trail, but a place where the brush had been pushed aside—and, thinking they were ahead of me, I followed it. In fact, I sometimes saw the brush ahead of me wave a little, and hurried to catch up, but I missed them. Instead, I came to a fast-flowing little creek. Now I knew it must be flowing away from the lake toward the river, so I was obviously going in the wrong direction. It is probably impossible to become lost in the Canoe River valley, since there are mountains on both sides, and if you head straight away from them you should come to the river. But the woods are so thick it is impossible to go straight toward anything.

Giving up any thought of finding the lake, I decided to follow the stream until it entered the river. I gradually became aware of large scuffed places in the sand on the creek bank. They were about the size of dinner plates and about four inches deep. At one point, close to the stream, there was a slight seep of water into one of them. At such times as this, one becomes depressed by the banality of nature. It seems to be imitating innumerable lousy outdoor adventure stories. They were unquestionably the tracks of a gigantic grizzly. Obviously, while we were going up one outlet to Beaverpelt Lake, the grizzly was heading down the other outlet, and I had inadvertently switched downstream to follow him.

Not wishing to put another body beside that of the prominent man, I called on the deepest resources of my knowledge of woodcraft and charged upstream through the brush until I reached the point where we had left the canoes. There I found Gilbert and Waldrop preparing a tasty meal of powdered chili. We sat around the fire, the white light of the gasoline lantern forming a sort of protective shell against the night. The early starlight dimly outlined the shape of the mountains.

The conversation went as follows:

First voice: These dried foods aren't bad if you soak them long enough.

Second voice: You can hardly taste the fiber glass.

The next morning was different. The river flowing green and blue in the cool air, a great blue heron flying low and unafraid overhead, the windless space of the mountains above the trees, the silence and motionless speed of the canoe, the spellbound air of the woods along the bank make a river seem part of a higher order of nature than the incoherent tangle of underbrush.

The approach to Yellowjacket Rapids was tranquil. Then the current ran a little faster, the canoe accelerated and the river narrowed until big cottonwoods nearly joined overhead. There was a turmoil of small waves, marbled with white lines, that seemed to promise real rapids ahead. But instead we washed into a placid blue expanse of water. That was all. That was Yellowjacket Rapids. Gilbert and Waldrop were enraged. They wanted real white water, some Wild West equivalent of the Cheat River or the Smokehole or the Savage or the Jackson, and they looked back on the rapids as if they had been defrauded.

The Canoe River should have been leaping over rocks, twisting between boulders and driving and probing with the limitless power of mountain streams. Instead it raced along quietly, the Rolls-Royce of rivers. The Canoe was never dull or stagnant or monotonous, and it had to be watched every foot of the way for a hundred miles, but it was not foaming and careening around its innumerable bends. Creeks that were really small rivers—about the size of the Canoe where we started from the bridge—entered it from the mountains, and there were usually rapids below each such junction. Bulldog Creek came from the east. It dropped 6,000 feet in 10 miles. The woods were filled with the high, ringing sound, almost metallic, of cascading water. A circular pool, a hundred yards across, formed where the creek joined the Canoe. Crossing the pool, we drifted slowly, Gilbert and Waldrop standing up in the canoes to ponder the current.

A rock wall, between a hundred and two hundred feet high, formed the west bank of the river. Here the river dropped 40 feet. We raced into crisscrossed chop and then into standing waves about three feet high. We kept to the east side of the river, away from the confused water at the base of the cliff. The river became very narrow, with the channel so close to the trees you could see drops from the spray glistening on the leaves. It was like coasting down a shaded drive in a park, except that the sunlight that shone through the trees was tinted by the water and had a vague submarine look. The sound of the rapids became an echoing roar. There were, strangely, no rocks or obstructions, and no violent maneuvers were necessary: the canoe alternately accelerated and then was checked as it bucked in the waves. Water shot over us in these, no longer as foam or spray but in bucketsful. The erratic rhythm of the waves gave a kind of lurching cadence to the run. The timing between splashes was never even—not a matter of one, two, three, splash! like a count in music, but an irregular count, one and two and splash! and one and splash! splash! splash! and so on. Midway in the rapids there was a long, smoothly flowing, silent stretch. The water was still fast but the surface was unbroken. It was exhilarating—uncomplicated, fast, magical. As we raced along I could see grass and small trees, patterns of shadow and sunlight that somehow suggested French Impressionist painting. But that went by in a few moments, and we were in even faster water, with standing waves that were higher than those near the start of the rapids. A good deal of water came over the bow. The canoe was bucking, the bow going up and down. I tried digging the paddle deeper to see if it would be possible to get some leverage that would keep the bow higher, but we suddenly careened into smooth, dry water again before I had time to find out.

At a spot called Canoe Hotsprings I had, for the first time, a sense of the underwater future of this valley. It never seemed real before. Now I found myself thinking without difficulty that where we were now would soon be the bottom of the lake. High above, higher than the tops of the huge cedars, would be the surface. It could be imagined here—the water of the future, riffled with the winds, or lying motionless and reflecting the mountains.

Gilbert discovered a trail leading back through the woods to a lake a mile from the river. He found it in the evening when we camped below Bulldog Rapids but lost it in the shadows. The trail led to an old cabin, bolted, locked, nailed shut, with hinged slabs fastened over the windows. Two hawthorn bushes eight or 10 feet high grew on a grass slope in front of the cabin. The weeds indicated no one had lived there for some time, certainly not this summer or the one before. Gilbert and Waldrop left me there and went back to the Canoe to bring back supplies for camp.

The cabin faced a lake half a mile long and a quarter of a mile wide. About a hundred feet from the cabin, and the same distance from the lake, water was boiling in a narrow, V-shaped ravine. Weeds grew higher than one's head. Vapors rose through the cedars in wavering columns. A stream of hot water flowed toward the lake, sending up steam all along its course. Little logs lying in its channel looked as if they were cooking. Slow, languid bubbles rose to the surface and exploded. A hundred yards across the silky water sizable fish sometimes splashed. Except for an occasional keening when one cedar tree scraped against another if the wind caught it right, that was the only sound. The stillness was uncanny, the utter silence of a place where nothing ever happened and where nothing would ever happen. In spite of the cabin, the lake carried with it an untouched, unknown air. It was not difficult to think of it lying cold and quiet under a hundred feet of water.

Two camp robbers and a stellar jay suddenly flew silently to the hawthorn bushes. They were the most cautious camp robbers I ever saw. Some of these birds will come into a camp and take pancakes off a breakfast plate. The two now visiting us moved nervously around the hawthorn bushes, never still, and took nothing openly. The stellar jay, a magnificent bird, deep luminous purple, was plainly following the camp robbers, trying to emulate them, but was afraid, and constantly orbited at a greater distance, barely landing on a small cedar or a sapling and taking off again. No, it was not difficult to imagine the area under water, and fish moving around a submarine growth the way the birds moved around the trees.

Waldrop managed to get a raft of small poles wired together, and moved it with an improvised paddle out into the lake and out of sight beyond the reeds. I fished along the shore, catching only suicidal sardine-size minnows, and tried to get to the cold-water inlet at the opposite end of the lake but could not reach it through the marshy ground. When I got back to the cabin Gilbert was lying in the hot spring. There was a place where mossy logs ringed a pool about seven feet square, the hot water coming in through a hollow log at one end and spilling over the side to drop two feet to the lake. "This is the greatest place in the world," he said. He jumped from the hot water in the pool to the tepid water near the shore of the lake, then into cold water farther from shore, and then dressed and went back to the campfire, where he was cooking some preparation of dried foods.

I climbed into the pool. The water was astonishingly buoyant, not quite hot, and with the mossy logs forming a headrest it was almost impossible not to doze or even to sleep there. From time to time a faint breeze reminded one of the freshness of the air. The sky, seen through the cedar boughs, was a picture-postcard blue. When I climbed out of the pool Waldrop was laboriously paddling the raft into shore. It was even harder to control than when he took it out, the poles spreading apart when he paddled. He reached shore and stood breathing heavily, pale and exhausted, like an actor after a triumphant opening night. "Well?" Gilbert said.

Waldrop spread the logs in front of the raft and pulled up a wire. That was why the raft was hard to handle; he had taken off the wires used to hold the poles together. He had used the wires to string five trout—a 16-inch rainbow, a Dolly Varden about the same size and three magnificent fish, nearly 18 inches, which we could not identify. They were brilliantly but delicately colored, with a distinct red band from head to tail down the sides, with the lower half, below the band, yellow that faded to white. They amounted to some 15 pounds of food.

Gilbert filleted a couple of big fish, cut them into chunks about three inches long, and dropped the chunks into a deep frying pan filled with Wesson oil. We piled our plates high with the chunks, salted them and stood around the fire eating. The sun went down and the air turned cold. Beaver appeared on the mirror-still water by the reeds. Gilbert took a flashlight and made his way to a point of land that projected into the reeds near the beaver houses. I washed the dishes in the hot spring—a humdrum use for a natural wonder.

The night grew very cold. In the brilliant moonlight the mountains took on a gemlike quality, a subdued old-rose and copper color. I found they were not to be looked at steadily; it was better to glance at them from time to time, and then look at the lake or the camp-fire or something ordinary and familiar and less touched with enchantment.

In the morning the water on the tin plates had frozen into paper-thin sheets. Locomotive clouds of steam were billowing from the hot spring, pumping and driving ceaselessly from the fog factory.

When we left our camp at the hot springs we drifted into a lagoonlike expanse of slow water, where the Canoe began mirroring ponderosa pines and white mountains which looked like a window display in a travel agency office. On the western side of the river an escarpment rose in a solid wall. A thousand-foot cascade fell over the cliff. Halfway down, the water struck a projection, and thinned into two falls—white, filmy and wavering, in the intense green forest.

Nearer the Columbia the snow mountains closed in on both sides of the river: the forests became darker and the air chill and changeable. Through the last mile below Dawson Creek the rapids were almost continuous. Every river has its own pattern, its own character, slow or fast or turbulent or reedy or wild or noisy, or with some other descriptive term applied to it by generations of fishermen and dwellers on its banks, and the Canoe River was friendly. It had become a big, powerful river, wild and remote, ceaselessly changing, but with a kind of tranquillity, a busy harmlessness, in its hurry. It should have had its share of poets and artists to celebrate it before it was destroyed.

We came out of the Canoe in the rainy twilight on our seventh day and were on the Columbia before we knew it. The current of the bigger river caught the canoe and shot it diagonally halfway across the river. It felt as if someone had grabbed the canoe under the water and thrown it like a javelin. Bil Gilbert said it was the first time in his experience that he felt he could see the current of a river like a hill in the middle of it. We pulled the canoes far up on the bank, shouldered our packs and walked two miles to the prefabricated comforts of Boat Encampment. Freshly cut cedar logs waiting to be hauled away were piled beside a muddy road. There was the sound of a pump, the hum of a gasoline-driven generator, the gleam of an unshaded yellow light bulb at the door of a work shed. Waldrop and Gilbert began singing We Are Marching to Pretoria. I stumbled along after them. For some reason, perhaps fatigue, I began thinking of Finnegans Wake and trying to remember the lines about the River Liffey: "Can't hear the waters of. The chittering waters of.... I feel as old as yonder elm.... Night now! ...Beside the rivering waters of, the hitherandthithering waters of. Night!"

FOUR ILLUSTRATIONS

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)