Beware the Biting Elk

Late October was feeling more like winter than fall. Camping was getting colder by the day and, with a whitewater kayaking agenda, I wondered  if we were crazy to still be be pushing north. We had departed Colorado some weeks before and made our way through Wyoming and Montana. Next stop, the Canadian Border. The year was 1996 and my two friends and I were wide-eyed with enthusiasm over our latest passion, whitewater kayaking.
  Over the previous summer, we had spent our afternoons kayaking with abandon. Our days were simple; commercial guiding during the day and kayaking after work. The fire within had been lit and now we were stoking it by boating a different stretch of water every few days. Our itinerary was loose.  Every day started with the Western Whitewater guidebook in the navigators lap with our plan evolving mile after highway mile.  British Columbia, with the Canadian Rockies to the East and multiple other ranges in the interior, seemed like a logical destination for whitewater. Our loose plan had us driving northward with the idea that at some point we would start heading west. Our ultimate destination was the Pacific ocean. How long we took to get there depended on our motivation level and gas money. Where we were going to boat in between had yet to be determined. This road-trip, like most, was whimsical. The border was coming quickly and from there, well we just weren't totally sure.
Fernie seemed like a nice spot. The authors of Western Whitewater spoke highly of it and my friends had heard of it. Those were two good reasons to go. Plus it was a  ski town with a few rivers and creeks in the vicinity……we liked ski towns…..why not? The smiling border patrol agents welcomed us, declined to search the car and sent us on northward.  Our intentions were clear enough, adventure through kayaking.
    The trip into Fernie BC was quick. And as the light of the afternoon started fading we pulled into the parking lot of Frozen Ocean, a ski and snowboard shop. It seemed plausible to us that such a shop would hold the promise of  local river beta. Our whitewater guide book had put a few ideas into our heads but there is never a substitute for solid reliable local knowledge. The gentleman behind the counter confessed having little knowledge of the current river and stream flows but was quick to jot down the phone number of an avid local kayaker who was sure to have answers. The name scrawled above the number was Simon. The phone slid our way across the counter and soon enough Simon was on the other end confirming  there were some dam release runs still flowing in the area. He suggested the Elk River. We had read  about the Elk so this wasn't a surprise. Simon went as far as to volunteer to paddle with us in the morning. He was interested in getting another day in his boat before the cold temps, snow and ice took over. Seeing as how the put-in was tricky to find, being situated down a maze of dirt-roads with insufficient signage, we welcomed the company. The plan was to meet at his house in the morning. We had a paddling plan.
    We camped that night in the British Columbia cold. The fire we huddled around was sufficient as long as we were in close proximity, but a few paces away, the cold bit hard. I recall a long night bundled in my sleeping bag with most of my winter clothes still on, jacket collar cinched high and tight,  hat pulled down close, my nose exposed and very cold. Morning broke early after a fitful night's sleep. The frost was thick on our bivy sacs. Why we were not in our tent is beyond me. Young and dumb I guess. One of our clan, I don't remember who, ventured forth in a cloud of their own vaporizing breath to relight the fire. The rest of us stirred slowly and slithered out of our bags only when the fire was established and promised warmth.  With coffee and breakfast warming our insides we broke camp and  headed to Simon's. We pulled up to his house as the sun crested the horizon. He was ready, with a full compliment of paddling gear organized and warming in the morning sun. We introduced ourselves, expressed our appreciation for his generous offer to show a few travelers a local gem and loaded up. We took two cars to keep the shuttle easy. The off the beaten path nature of this run rendered hitch-hiking unrealistic. With short days and cold water we figured that less time standing around in wet gear the better. We followed Simon out of town, down a labyrinth of logging roads and eventually to the take out. Piling his  gear in the back and his boat on top of our stack, we crammed into our Subaru and drove to the put-in. We were thankful to have the confidence of a local for without Simon we would have been unlikely to be here. The approach to the water involved sliding our boats full of gear down a steep narrow gauge railway track that plunged over the edge of a very steep embankment. Evidently, there was mining in the area and the only way to extract the ore from the gorge was by hauling it up this incredibly steep track with pulleys. The carts were gone, the cables frayed, but the tracks were still intact. We descended to the water.
    Slowly we slid our boats down the track. The scene was dramatic. With each step closer the the thundering waterfall that cascaded into the upper end of our put-in pool dug a little deeper into our consciousness. There was gradient here. Water moving downhill quickly, very quickly.  It was unlikely the ELK would just settle and meander. We were in the mountains, rivers don't do that in the mountains. The ultimate opportunist, water takes the easiest way out. Seems in this drainage, the easiest way out was richtor speed through huge boulders. Oh well, I thought, this is what we asked for. At the edge of the pool it was hard to be heard. Simon was visibly out of whack however. The ritual of piecing together the cold water boating costume was interrupted by him screaming something about not having his spray skirt. OOPS!. No worries, we had an extra up in the car.
    The rest of us carried on into our insulating layers and then pulled on the dry-tops, all the while scanning the first stretch. The water was clear, cold and moving fast. Probably no more than 800 CFS, but an angry 800 at that. With Simon outfitted and all of us tucked into our kayaks, we made a plan. Two at a time we would run a section,  eddy out , and be ready for the next two. Pretty standard and simple enough. Simon pushed off, peeled out and shot downstream. Being his partner I was close behind. The first splash is always welcome. We were here. Welcome to the Elk River.
     We were off to the races from the get-go. The swift boulder choked current was commanding. In an instant, Simon splashed midstream into an eddy behind a boulder. I rocketed in next to him. The waters were bouncy, it was hard to stay there. Thousands of gallons of cold Canadian water were flying by every instant. Above the din of the whitewater, Simon shouted about the upcoming drop.  From his description, it seemed maybe a meter and a half, with quite a sticky hole below. I nodded and he was gone. Peeling out I could see him paddling with intent downstream. Momentum is always your friend in these situations. Over the edge he slid. Things looked good from my vantage point. I focused downstream to the pool below the ledge…..nothing. Then out of the depths of the drop I saw the bow of Simon's boat heave unnaturally up in the air and fall back. He was caught. The hydraulic below the hole had him tight and he was no more than a pool toy for the Elk. Bow then stern then bow again. Then he was free. Fortunate to be free of the hole but oh so unfortunate to be free of his boat as well. As we learned later, the borrowed spray-skirt had imploded during the river gymnastics in the hole. Simon had flooded out and had to swim for it. Well, partners are partners and partners are there to back-up their partners so I was on my way. I knew Jim and Justin, just upstream were watching all this with hearts in their stomach. I could practically feel them willing me to have a clean run and make it to Simon who was quickly washing out of sight. I went weightless for a split second as my bow nudged into free air. I looked, ducked in behind my blade and slid into the turmoil. Tiny bubbles, like a thousand gallons of Champagne, caught my descent. Instinctively, I knew my forward progress had stopped. I too was going nowhere but back upstream into the curtain. The Elk was still biting, still hungry. I flipped ends only twice before washing out. Even, so, it felt like an eternity. I was upright and abreast of Simon soon enough. With the gorge walls hemmed in tight, finding a place to regroup was difficult at best. A dislodged boulder that protruded above the water line would have to suffice. I don't know what was pounding harder my heart or my paddle as I towed him to the landing.
    The afternoon continued as it had begun, only difference being the length of the autumn shadows. The sun didn't linger in these depths. Not this time of year at least. With more effort than ease we navigated our small plastic crafts down the Elk. Around each bend was a new surprise, a new slide, an unexpected hydraulic. Once more one of our group swam. Justin this time, caught unexpected by the river's slight of hand. The Elk was crafty. She'd lull you into thinking it was a slow dance and then spring the Kentucky Two-Step on ya. We stayed on our toes and let her lead. As the afternoon turned into early evening, we sensed a break in the action. The walls pulled away, the gradient eased and the water mellowed. Just like that we were done. As the adrenaline and total focus turned to relief and satisfaction, we called the day a success. Sure, we were cold, hungry and tired, but it was a GOOD cold, hungry and tired.