Sunday, August 27, 2017

The Young Man and the River

Rafting on the Kootenay River was an amazing experience and our guide Mitch was a big reason for that.

We didn't start out enamoured of him. There were two guides and Ian was clearly the more seasoned of the two. Friendly and confident, he chatted up the passengers as we rode a rickety school bus down 93 out of Radium and onto Settler’s Road, supervised the unloading of the equipment and handled the safety briefing after we had donned our splash gear, helmets and lifejackets.

 After being told in no uncertain terms about the perilous relationship between our paddle's t-grip and the dental safety of those nearby, we were shown how to properly hold one, then broke into two groups, and those of us on the full-day trip went with Mitch.

There hadn't been much chance for Mitch to make an impression prior to this, because while Ian had engaged us on the ride out, he had clambered on top of the pile of lifejackets at the back of the bus to catch a nap.

After Mitch introduced himself to us, he explained that the teasing he was receiving from the other staff was due to his wrecking the last camera he was given for taking pictures on the river. Despite this carelessness, however, he was still entrusted with a raft carrying 11 souls: a mum and dad from Victoria with their two small children (10 and 7 maybe?), a Swiss couple and their 15 year-old son, and ourselves.

Mitch got us on board and went over the various commands we could expect to hear on the water, explained how it was the job of the front paddlers to set the pace for everyone else, and got serious when he said he would fire anyone from that position if they proved to be ineffective.

Otherwise though, he spoke in the confident slangy patois of the surfer-athlete, despite being from Ontario. He advised us to ‘get stoked’ and described the various rapids we would encounter that day based on not only their established classes which he was very conversant with (I-V being navigable, II-III being the order of the day), but also subjectively on their gnarliness. He was easygoing and funny but clearly knew his business, and was obviously committed to everyone enjoying themselves on the river that day.

Most importantly though, he had a tremendous and earnest appreciation of the river and outdoor life that he was only too willing to share. In fact, his roommate was supposed to be our guide while Mitch was scheduled for a day off. But he was ‘so cranky’ and Mitch had never done the full-day on the Kootenay so he agreed to take over.

The Kootenay was low enough that the raft needed to be dragged across a gravel sandbar before we could actually get out float on, and Mitch got us underway in good order. Once on the river he tested us with various commands: team forward, right side reverse, left side forward. When he shouted for us to hang on, we all grabbed for the centerline that ran the length of the boat, only to have Mitch admonish almost all of us for releasing our grip on our t-handles. Then he paused and said, "Wait, back up; I never showed you guys how to do that. My bad!" We had much better results the second time.

Before too long we were feeling much more confident, and ready for our first bit of whitewater. Mitch exhorted us to "GET HYPE!!", and we did. His transparent affection and exuberance for the river life was infectious. 

The rapids on the Kootenay are fairly mild, so Mitch maneuvered our craft to ensure we hit them sideways, maximizing the amount of splash and cheering afterwards, "Sideways, yeeeeaaahhh!" As we approached the next one, he exalted, "I'm so stoked- who's stoked?"

Again, not California, Ottawa. And not a put-on, either, just a young man very happy with where his life had taken him this particular afternoon.

Lest you think Mitch is nothing but a long-gone hard-charging adrenalin junkie (which, to be fair, he probably is), I should mention that he took as much delight explaining the river topography to us. He pointed out which cliffs were in fact glacial moraines, carved out after the last ice age. He explained how some of the trees on the banks had to grow parallel to the water before curving upwards to get the sun, a phenomenon called phototrophism. 

When we passed a trickle of water running over the rocks, he pointed out how the pale colour beneath it marked it as a mineral spring, meaning it was drinkable.Mitch also seemed to take tremendous delight in explaining exactly why drinking groundwater is a bad idea. "I mean, for all you know, some grizzly has dumped a deer kill 200 metres upstream, and its laying their in the water, its guts all hanging out and stuff..." embellishing the effect with dramatic disemboweling hand movements.

Whatever he was doing, he did in the most irrepressible way possible. When it came time to take a photo of the other boat, he would bellow "PHOTOOOO" at the top of lungs to get their attention. When we reached an eddy and said we could actually swim in this part of the river if we wanted, he demonstrated by standing on the back of the raft and doing a backflip into the Kootenay. When the Swiss lady grabbed the troat of her paddle and stretched the other for him to grab, he shouted "T-grip rescue, YEAH!" before clambering back into the boat.

He reassured everyone by demonstrating how it was impossible to fall out while holding the centerline, contorting himself every which way, half his body suspended over the beautiful cloudy waters of the river (a side-effect of glacial flour, the fine sediment created by the weight of the glacier grinding against sedimentary stone), but remaining dry throughout.

At 45 km, the Kootenay run may be the longest whitewater trip in North America, if not the world. The whitewater wasn't what I would call thrilling, but it was fun, and just the right speed for the girls' first time out. And the float portions were great too, with all the remoteness and tremendous scenery we had been promised. We even spotted a bear on shore, a first for Mitch.

It was during these quieter moments that Mitch would often pause before earnestly advising us to "take it all in", and Lord knows we did our best.

Near the end of the trip we stopped by an amazing waterfall for some pictures, which can't possibly do it justice. Do yourself a favour and take the trip sometime.

Kootenay River Runners runs a great trip, breaking up a six-hour trek with a morning snack and early afternoon lunch (with treats from Invermere Bakery!). Enjoying a cold cut sandwich and Caesar salad so far from civilization makes everything taste just that much better, especially after a morning of cold splashes and often frenzied paddling.

On the day he took us on the river instead of taking his first full day off in four weeks, Mitch only had ten days left in the Kootenays. He planned to visit with his family before returning to school and take the second year of his Outdoor Adventure tourism course at Algonquin College. As part of his studies, he had taken a grueling 80-hour Wilderness First Responder first aid course, since paramedics don't normally come in to remote areas.

Not bad for a kid who isn't even 19 yet!

We really enjoyed our time on the river, and now I want to go back and do the Kicking Horse at some point, maybe when the river is a little deeper, but it was Mitch's impressions and passion for river adventure that made our trip so memorable. His energy and enthusiasm even inspired me to jump into the river before we got to the end of the run.

And if he didn't have my respect before, he certainly had it, along with my gratitude, after hauling my carcass back into the boat all by himself!

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