Written by Christoph Schilling
It’s Friday evening before the long weekend. A crew of fearless people comes together yet again to pack The Raft in preparation for three days of white water rafting and floating through endless beautiful canyons. But what was planned to be a calm weekend would turn out to be legen… wait for it… dary!
We met at Piotr’s place and I brought Annika with me, who would be on the raft for the first time. Caitlin arrived just after we finished some small improvements to the raft and stocked up on our supplies. After Skyler pulled in, we loaded the raft onto the truck, packed our stuff and took off to Lytton where the Thompson meets the mighty Fraser River. After dinner in Hope, we had a quick brainstorming session where we decided to run the Fraser from Lillooet back to Lytton the next day, which should be a nice float. We arrived at the confluence of the rivers rather late in the evening and set up camp on a nice sandbank.
The only downsides to this lovely location were the half-hourly trains, the squeaking, rusty sign swaying in the wind which kept us awake for some time, and the pile of sand that slowly blew into our tents. The next morning we got up early and started the car faff by loading everything from the Jetta, a.k.a. ‘Schorsch’, into Piotr’s ‘Trucky Truck’. After we arrived in Lillooet we quickly scouted the Seton River and decided that this would be a nice way to start. Guided by Skyler, we found a perfect put-in, assembled the raft, and “set sail”.
With Piotr steering, we went hard forward over the green water towards the first exciting wave train.. We manoeuvred around a few rocks and managed not to hit the BC Hydro research raft. We plowed through nice holes, over waves and around a giant bolder, which was obviously part of a collapsed bridge. It all finished with a nice wave train before we floated into the big, brown Fraser. The run was amazing; it was what we would call high fun at low death rate by the end of the weekend. Annika’s smile definitely proved the fun we had. We were floating fast until the wind turned up and made life a bit less enjoyable on the raft. There was not much to do, except for defending the raft from logs and smaller pieces of wood drifting down the river, and maybe having some beer… After lunch Piotr insisted on some swimming and rescue exercises while Skyler was keen for sand slope running on the walls of the canyon. By the time we reached the take-out we were quite cold and decided that this was enough floating for one weekend.
Piotr, Skyler and I took Schorsch who was ‘just around zee corner’ and went off to get Trucky Truck and have a look at the Bridge River, which flows into the Fraser in Lillooet. We picked up Annika and Caitlin about 2 hours later and loaded the raft. We reached the campground in Lillooet at around 10 pm and even though we didn’t actually exert ourselves much during the day, our lack of sleep forced us to hit the hay pretty fast.
Chapter II: The Voice of Reason
The next day started with something at which we would become better and better over the course of the weekend: climbing into Trucky Truck through the windows. .Since we didn’t remove the pontoons from the raft, we could not open the doors of the truck and thus had to climb in through the windows – some more graceful than others, and to be honest, I didn’t ever get good at doing this.
The plan was clear for the day – we wanted to raft the Bridge River. We scouted a bit of it the day before and continued to do so today to find a put-in. After all five of us getting in and out through the windows several times, we arrived at the Coliseum, a scenic bend in the Bridge River. The scenery was amazing but we didn’t like what we saw on the river. Boulders strewn across the river, a huge hole and just a narrow passage through all that sh..t. We could have attempted to thread the line, but the consequences of failing would have been very serious. Running the river seemed like a ‘Bad Idea’… and luckily we had Caity, the conscience, and the Voice of Reason, with us. After a long discussion we decided to skip this one and instead have a look at the Bridge River Rapids.
Chapter III: The Bridge River Rapids
Skyler, who had lived in Lillooet for a while, had heard about these legendary rapids, and we were keen to take a look. We followed the Pavilion road above the brown Fraser and saw riffles and a a lot of boily water, but ‘nothing to be particularly concerned about’. The Fraser was running very high – it was mid May after all. We found a nice put-in shortly above the ‘rapids,’ but before driving down to the river Piotr looked at us and repeated one question three times: ‘Did we miss anything???’ The Bridge River Rapids are known to be the biggest on the Fraser. Though all of us negated at the time maybe we had actually missed ‘something’… a sense of scale.
We drove down, unloaded the raft, and as it was already past noon we had a quick lunch. We packed the raft light since it was a short run, probably only about 15 clicks. We were once again ready for more mellow rafting, hopefully with a bit more action this time.
Piotr was once again steering with the oars, Skyler and I took places in the front, and Annika and Caitlin sat behind us. Piotr pushed us in and we started paddling. Skyler pointed at something far away up ahead and said: ‘See that little thing splashing a bit of water? We should hit it!’ No sooner said than done!
We got closer to the ‘little thing’ and it got bigger. First it turned into a 3 foot wave, piling up and breaking down, and then we saw the 5 foot trough in front of it. I remember some words, which rhymed with truck and pit, and then there was just one thing to do: ‘hard forward!!’ We went down into the trough just as the wave was starting to pile up. The brown wall in front of us got bigger and bigger, finally broke and unleashed a fury of water covering the raft and all of us with it. No paddling, no shouting, just holding on. Once I could see again, I looked around and counted our crewmates. We were still five and Skyler looked at us and admitted what, especially Annika, didn’t want to hear. ‘I’m a bit scared now…’ But there was no time to think and no going back! The riffles became huge wave trains with holes all around, and the boily water was full of whirlpools 6 feet wide and 3 feet deep, big enough to suck down a 30 foot long log for about a minute.
There was just one command, ‘hard forward!’. Piotr did an amazing job on the oars getting us around the whirlpools, which opened up everywhere, even right below the raft. The ones that caught us spun the raft around in 360s and made us hold on to the raft. It felt like something wanted to sink us, push and pull us down… We were dragged towards another giant wave but before we could react a hole next to it sucked us in and turned us sideways just before we hit the wave. The masses of water pulled the oars out of Piotr’s hands and we were in a position we were the most afraid of: parallel to the wave. I can still see Skyler looking down on me with big eyes and instinctively leaning backwards. It felt rather vertical and we were lucky the wave was not breaking at that point. Coming down on the other side, Piotr regained control with the oars again, pointed us towards the next waves and we continued paddling. We plowed over and managed to manoeuver around another hole. Things calmed down for a minute but we could already see the final row of waves. No rest – just hard paddling to give as much steering ability as possible. Towards the end of the rapids a current pulled us to the right and flushed us out of the wave train into the calm water we were paddling the day before. The take-out was in sight, and was an easy spot to reach. By the time we got there, we were exhausted, humbled and fascinated. That was what we would from that time on call high fun at high death risk. We were all sure that swimming the Bridge River Rapids was never an option, and thankfully we had Piotr at the oars.
We finished the day with a short run on Cayoosh Creek to the same take-out. It was early in the evening when we were back at the campground, enjoyed our first beer of the day, sat together and toasted to white water and the Mighty Fraser. We did another run on the Seton the next day to have a bit more fun at low death risk, and then drove home over the Duffy to scout the upper Cayoosh whilst enjoying the beautiful drive.
Chapter IV: Hindsight
All in all, maybe another Bad Idea… albeit incredibly satisfying… but what did we miss? The sheer magnitude and power of the Mighty Fraser running at 7000 cubic meters per second is hard to appreciate from a distance, and all its features are dwarfed by the width of the river itself. The hydrodynamics of the Bridge River Rapids are also extremely complex, with giant swirls and boils scattered throughout all the wave trains, making it particularly challenging to navigate, despite the waves themselves not being of exceptionally large stature. This, of course, is not the case at lower water levels, when the Bridge River Rapids aren’t flooded out, and the waves are much bigger. Going down the Rapids at low to normal water levels in our raft would truly be a Bad Idea.
The Bridge River Rapids are a fascinating feature of a fascinating river, and beautifully demonstrate the immense power and magic of big water. We all felt humbled by the experience of making our way through them in the most intimate fashion – on a human powered craft.
What else did we miss? One more thing; a short sentence in the Wikipedia entry about the Bridge River Rapids.
“The rapids are among the fiercest on the Fraser and are generally considered impassable to canoes and river-rafting expeditions…”