>> Louise Stanway
Death doesn’t discriminate —sometimes shit just happens.
This is what I tell myself, anyway, as I contemplate the events late last summer deep in the Incomappleux Valley.
AN ORDINARY DAY
It was early-afternoon when two friends and I hopped a ferry to Nakusp. We’d hoped to catch a lap on the rapids of the Incomappleux River before sunset. The Incomappleux is a major tributary of the Columbia River and joins at the Beaton Arm of Upper Arrow Lake.
Glacier-blue water runs among old-growth cedar forest in this secret playground that grizzly bears call home. The journey from Revelstoke to this valley is a long one, but we were keen to paddle some fun, yet technical, Class III-IV whitewater.
LET THE FUN BEGIN
Our first hurdle was accessing the FSR leading to the put-in, which had been barricaded with cement blocks. We hiked for two kilometres with boats and gear in 30-something-degree heat, enduring attacks from bloodthirsty horseflies.
Remaining optimistic, we were thankful that the gravel road allowed us to clearly scout the river below. We took note of the take-out eddy located above the Class V crux section of the canyon. We also noted that these normally friendly rapids looked pissed.
There’s no water gauge for this river, so the planning stage is mostly educated guesswork. Unfazed, my friends encouraged me to put-in.
As we manoeuvred through the first boulder garden of rapids, we soon realized this wasn’t the Class III we anticipated. My heart pounded as we powered through must-make lines out of fear of unknown consequences. Once regrouped, we panted through nervous smiles as we discussed sketchy moments.
RIVER: ROUND II
The second section snuck up on us. Still wobbly from the last, I immediately screwed up. I paddled into a retentive hole—a river feature that feels like being in a washing machine—that forced me to pull my spray-skirt and eject from my kayak.
The water temperature took my breath away. After a long swim, my thermal layers became soaked and ineffective. I helplessly watched my gear float away downstream. I swam as hard as I could to the riverbank, where I scrambled up the rocky ledge of the canyon wall.
From the other side, my friends directed me to a calmer spot downstream where I could attempt to swim across. I reluctantly entered the glacier water once more, already shaking, only to miss the safety rope thrown in my direction. “LINE!” I heard, as I reached out to grab a rope that was hopelessly too short. The rapids grew fiercer. They mercilessly swept me down the river toward the lip of a major drop.
SH*T GETS REAL
My friend’s loud curse made me suddenly aware I had passed the safe take-out zone. Panicking and short of breath, I had a 50/50 shot if I didn’t make it out soon—shit was getting real.
At this thought, a wave of strength came over me. I clung to a semi-submerged boulder, dragged my body up over its slippery surface and crawled to the riverbank. I was trembling on the ground, freezing and pumping with adrenaline. My friends—also exhausted—ran to my aid offering their body heat.
It was getting late and the sun crept behind the canyon walls. We climbed up the steep riverbank to my vehicle, and heard a stranger shout from the road: “Hey, kayakers!”
The man walked towards us with his two dogs and a wide smile on his face. He introduced himself * and asked how the river was. He knew the river well, and quickly realizing we’d had trouble and wanting to help, he ran and grabbed a blanket from his truck to wrap around me. We searched for my gear and thankfully managed to recover my boat. My paddle, on the other hand, had been claimed by Arrow Lake. He offered to help hunt for it another day with daylight on our side.
As it turns out, that was the last time I would see him. He was reported missing days later, and soon, his truck was found off the road, submerged in the river a short distance from where he had helped me out.
That was the last time I saw him. He was reported missing days later.
As heart-sinking as this news was, I don’t believe there’s any moral that stems from this sequence of events. Here in Revelstoke, we put ourselves in harm’s way daily, whether intentionally or not, for sport and leisure. We toy with death. We beckon it closer. In the end, it takes whomever it pleases. There is no rulebook.
My experience on the river taught me to always be prepared and manage risk. It also taught me that bad things happen to good people—as cliché as it sounds.
It’s important to respect our surroundings; utilize nature’s gifts wisely, but don’t for one second think you’re invincible.
*The name of the kind stranger has been intentionally withheld at the request of his family.