The number of capsizes, falls out of a canoe, wildlife sightings, and desserts consumed: our family of eleven breaks multiple records as we journey 105 kilometres down the fast-flowing Kootenay River in the Canadian Rockies. There are scary moments, but half of us say the rushing rapids are their favourite part of the trip. The solitude and cleanliness of the blue-green river, the camping, sunrise yoga, and being unplugged from the internet are also mentioned.
“Do one thing every day that scares you” is advice typically attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt. Eleanor would be proud of us!
Our 2016 family canoe trip, Golden Anniversary Expedition, was successful, so we have a reference point. The next river trip should be shorter than the Upper Missouri, because not everyone loves sleeping in a tent. The water should be friskier (for the action-oriented in the family), but not too dangerous (to respect the risk-averse among us). Log cabins and mountain scenery are a must for the land portion of the trip; wildflowers would be a bonus.
The timing doesn’t work for grandson Nick, who is off to start his working life in London, England. Leif, Lizzie’s boyfriend, steps up, as does everyone else, so we are a group of eleven, as in Montana in 2016. The Kootenay River appears to meet our functional requirements, but the Kootenay is a gamble for us as organizers, because we have never done this trip. Will it be safe, scenic, and fun?
Meet-up at Marble Canyon
Of the interpretive trails in Kootenay National Park, Marble Canyon is the prettiest – and now the closest to our hearts, because it is our rendezvous point.
The gentle Marble Canyon Trail crisscrosses a narrow gorge seven times on a series of footbridges. From the final bridge we, the Victoria/Sooke group, spot our son Alec and his family, who have just arrived from California. We wave madly. Oh, boy, our clan is now complete!
Getting our feet wet
“It’s a great northern river in the wrong place,” says Lyle, as he introduces us to the Kootenay River. Fed by glaciers and snowmelt, our stretch of the Kootenay flows through the picturesque Canadian Rockies of southeast British Columbia.
For whitewater beginners like us, a guided trip is the safest approach. We choose the six-day canoe trip package offered by Nipika Mountain Resort, with an extra pre-trip day for a guided alpine day-hike. Lyle, Nipika’s founder, tells stories and provides advice (count to three, let them settle, then swat – to deal with horseflies), as he and jet pilot Jenna lead us on a 14-kilometre, five-hour hike to Marvel Pass and Aurora Lake.
River guides Brad and Jenn issue our expedition equipment. The tents, pfds, and dry bags we expect, the colourful helmets we do not. “Any adventurous paddler can enjoy this trip,” according to the trip description, but some of us question our ability to enjoy – or even survive – a river dangerous enough to require helmets.
Day one: two capsizes
After two nights at Nipika, it is time to start our four-day paddling adventure. Our family of eleven and guides Brad and Jenn hop into the van, and Lyle drives us to the starting point, a roadside near McLeod Meadows in Kootenay National Park.
This first section, called Park Reach, is advertised as providing an easy introduction, a meandering river with lots of swifts and easy rapids. We admire the turquoise water and briefly glance at the mountain scenery, but the intensity quickly builds.
A sweeper causes the first capsize. Kirsten and Willy are swept into tree branches hanging at water level, and for a few adrenaline-filled moments, Kirsten is under the fully-loaded upside-down canoe. Before long Alec and Angie flip, after hitting a large, unexpected rock. Brad and Jenn to the rescue!
Already two company records are broken: the most capsizes in a single day and the most capsizes in a four-day trip. These are stable, inflatable SOAR canoes, in which “anyone can handle the rapids.” What is wrong with us?
We camp near the Cross River confluence, an attractive spot within walking distance of Nipika. Brad and Jenn outline three options for reducing our capsize risk on the big whitewater days ahead. The runners run on the Nipika trails; the non-runners rest and debate the three options.
Day two: course correction, Canyon Reach
Brad leads a morning hike to an impressive natural bridge at the end of a slot canyon, where the Cross River drops into a deep plunge pool.
We reach a consensus on Option Three: swap out three of the canoes for a less-tippy whitewater raft, which will hold Brad and four of our paddlers. This leaves four tandem canoes, with Doug, Leif, Nathan, and Jenn as stern persons.
We don our helmets and enter Canyon Reach, the more challenging and tricky section of the Kootenay River run. The rapids have names (Bridge, Ledge, Horseshoe, Boulder) and classifications (II-III, easy-medium), and they cut through scenic steep-walled canyons.
No capsizes today! Bringing on the raft is clearly the right choice. In camp, an elk is spotted, and Nathan demonstrates his Russian squat-dancing skills.
Day three: a dump truck and Pedley Falls
More elk, deer, and a dump truck today, extending our records for wildlife spotting and unintentional swims.
This time it’s our turn to swim. At Hair Pin Corner we hit a water feature called a hole. The canoe turns on its side and dumps us out, then rights itself without flipping over (a dump truck, in rafting jargon). Conveniently, we are dumped onto a rock ledge, from which we are able to self-rescue quickly and carry on.
Pedley Falls, a beautiful cascading waterfall, and a cliff-jumping rock are memorable stops en route to Big Eddy Beach, our final and favourite campsite. S’mores are devoured, and Jenn observes that our group has broken the record for dessert consumption. Humph! We’ve seen one grandchild alone eat a bag of marshmallows, a box of graham crackers, and two chocolate bars all by himself.
Day four: the big finish
Peninsula yoga sets the stage for the more-relaxing run through White River Reach to our take-out point at Canal Flats, where a two-kilometre strip of land separates the southward-flowing Kootenay from the headwaters of the northward-flowing Columbia River.
A few splashy sections require attention today, but in between the river becomes progressively slower, and we can swivel our heads to observe the spires and turrets of the hoodoos, the steep pitted walls of Gibraltar Rock, and the bald eagle swooping overhead.
Somehow Robin falls into the water from the bow of her canoe. She’s laughing as Nathan hauls her back into place.
We may have set another record: the fastest de-rigging time. Scarlett and Robin jump on the raft to deflate it, as the rest of us haul gear to the van and trailer for our shuttle back to Nipika, where a celebratory steak dinner awaits.
Hiking and other sports
Alarm clocks are set for 6:30 am on the day we hike the Stanley Glacier Trail. Stanley Glacier is the most popular day-hike in Kootenay National Park, and we are advised to arrive by eight o’clock to be assured of a parking spot. This trail’s popularity is justified: it’s a real hike (8.4 km return, with an optional 2 km extension), but achievable by most people (rated moderate, elevation gain 365 m/1,200 ft; allow four to five hours, return). Highlights include great views, wildflowers, a boulder-strewn meadow, creek crossings, a receding glacier, a waterfall, the shrill “eep” of pikas, and the opportunity to look for fossils.
Ride a fat-tire bike, run on a trail, play eighteen holes of disc golf, swim in the pond, play badminton, balance on the slackline, practice martial arts in the meadow, pet horses and dogs: these are the choices we face at Nipika Mountain Resort. On the canoe trip, there are, of course, the camping sports: stone-skipping, rock-lifting, river-swimming, and the carving of marshmallow sticks. Some of us do everything; others, especially those who bring Helinox chairs, simply sit and relax.
We believe log cabins are charming, cozy, and close to nature, so we choose cabins for the land-based portion of the trip. Not all log cabins are equal!
At Nipika Mountain Resort, we stay in Palliser and Cross River, two of the property’s nine family-style log cabins. Each cabin is unique, modern, tastefully decorated, self-contained, and surrounded by mountain views. Nipika is entirely off the grid, relying on solar energy and a boiler that is fueled by salvaged deadwood. Comfort in the wild!
“Simple. Authentic. Unapologetically rustic.” It sounds quaint, so we book five one-room cabins for two nights after the canoe trip. Constructed in 1923 by the Canadian Pacific Railway, the Kootenay Park Lodge and its surrounding cabins are a piece of Canadian history. “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all” is our usual motto, but we feel compelled to mention that Kootenay Park Lodge has seen better days and should be avoided by those who cannot tolerate some health and safety code violations. On the plus side, the young people are thrilled with these cabins, perhaps because they are on their own – and because they see a young bear munching berries on the property.
At Nipika Mountain Resort, thanks are owed to Bev and Lyle for helping to plan and manage our trip and to Brad and Jenn for keeping us safe, fed, educated, and entertained on the river.
We acknowledge Alec and Angie, who successfully navigated every COVID-19 travel, testing, quarantine, and border rule set by the governments of Canada and the USA. Thank you, Kirsten and Willy, for acquiring a seven-passenger vehicle during the rental car apocalypse. Thanks, all, for your openness to adventure. Paddles up!