Rafters faced Class IV rapids on the Chilko River.
Photo: Justin Bailie
The wild trip: Chilko River, B.C.
Day 1: Entry: My first glimpse of the Chilko is from 15,000 feet up in a tiny 10-seater plane, looking down the longest raftable stretch of continuous Class IV whitewater on the continent. Did I mention this is my first-ever rafting trip?
Beer talk: Our guide Mark has a shaggy river-rat beard and a Canadian lilt, and he's as skinny and spritelike as he is ruggedly reassuring. He instructs the eight of us--a motley crew of three businessmen, a doctor, a lawyer, and a ranching couple--on what to do if we run into a bear, how to tell a grizzly from a black, and how to prevent Mace mishaps. We're introduced to the Groover (a portable toilet).
Day 2: Calm water: After a paddling 101, our three rafts head out through the riffled water that the guides--Mark, Brian, and Jorge--refer to as "calm." Which makes me and Ginny, the other whitewater rookie, mighty nervous about the hardcore rapids to come. We ride 22 miles, dipping our water bottles into the 50º glacier water on the way. The landscape looks surprisingly like New Mexico, with pine-covered mountains and mesas--plus moose! We spot a chocolate-hued mother with calf, and two bald eagles.
Day 3: Rapids!: Here they come. Deep breaths. We don our helmets, wetsuits, and life jackets, and practice paddle maneuvers. Back paddle. Hard forward! We vanish into the rapids, as the raft bends and catapults and the waves pound through us on the famous great White Mile: 12 miles of rapids in 55 minutes--yes, that longest stretch of continuous Class IV on the continent. Mark slides our 18-foot-2-inch raft through an 18-foot-4-inch gorge. We officially become whitewater junkies.
At camp: Tents are pitched while the guides set up and find a scenic spot for the Groover. Dinner is grilled chicken, fresh veggies with ginger butter, tiramisu, and five bottles of well-deserved wine.
Day 4: An "easy" day: Our raft gets hung up on a protuding log inside a rapid. Ever been inside a washing machine? On the "very cold" cycle? Jorge deftly extricates us, and we lay out clothes to dry on the rocks. We've entered hoodoo country.
Day 5: Class III cakewalk: Class III? No sweat. We talk politics as we run them. Camp goes up at Big Creek, with 200-year-old pines and grassy meadows. Mark reads stories about spectacular Groover mishaps (picture it overturning while you're in the way).
Day 6: The gaping jaws of death: Hang on! Hard forward!! Time for the 8-foot waves of the daunting Farewell Canyon, and I'm paddling too intently to see past the waves. We just clear the foam when Brian yells, "Bear!" and a young black bear runs up the cliff. After lunch, we take the two final, gargantuan rapids called Gaping Jaws of Death and Brains Smashed In. I'm drenched. We high-five with our paddles, and pull up to the raft carrying the beer cooler for a toast. Later, there'll be Champagne and reminiscing on a sandy beach under a red sky at our last campsite. And more Groover stories.