Change in the Weather: A Historic Season on the Stikine


Darin_McQuoid_4British Columbia’s Grand Canyon of the Stikine has long been a proving ground for elite kayakers.  In 2014, more paddlers ran more rapids on the Stikine than ever before, marking a new progression in the sport and reshaping the BC whitewater scene. Duct Tape Diaries contributor Darin McQuoid reports.

Rok Sribar runs V-Drive on the Stikine.

Conversation about the weather is the last refuge of the unimaginative. ―Oscar Wilde

British Columbia, kayaking and the weather. You and me and the devil makes three.

One can’t discuss BC paddling without talking about the weather. I’d swear that river grades can go up or down a level due to weather. An exhilarating, easy V in the warm sun becomes a menacing horizon of survival in frigid temperatures. At least that’s what it feels like.

There’s no such thing as bad weather, just soft people. —Bill Bowerman

This might be the best motivational statement for paddling in BC. The farther north you go, the more unreliable the weather gets. Liquid sunshine will be experienced. The Stikine is notoriously cold. The air temperature. The glacial water. The deep canyon. This is literally the river that caused drysuits to be invented.

Sven Lammer was one of several paddlers, including the first female, to run Site Zed on the Stikine in 2014. Site Zed, long considered a mandatory portage, was first run by Ben Marr just one year earlier.

So, how has such a cold and committing river become so popular? A lot has changed since Rob Lesser and crew notched their first descent back in 1981, when the only gauge was 120-odd miles downstream, providing only the vaguest indication of what was happening in the canyon.1,000 miles north of Whistler, no one was swinging by to check the visual. So groups would go late in the fall, when it was cold and the weather was wildly unpredictable.

Nature provides exceptions to every rule. ―Margaret Fuller

Then, one day, an old gauge at the take-out was put online. Real time flows. Everything changed.

The new online gauge revealed that the window of opportunity on the Stikine was larger than previously thought. Low-water years opened up the possibility for late-summer trips with considerably more predictable weather. Instead of enduring rain and spiking flows, paddlers were swimming in the river at camp. Word spread, and more groups started heading north—a Stikine trip doesn’t sound as scary when the sun is out. Big water is a lot more fun when you’re looking forward to the splashes.

In 2014, the northern BC summer finished in a drought with unseasonably hot temperatures—perfect conditions for a historic season on the Stikine.

Manuel Koehler charges through Wall 2 on the Stikine.

Progression. The holy grail of athletics.  Perhaps no other river represents the modern-day progression in kayaking more than the Stikine.

Seventeen paddlers at the put-in.

It’s hard to believe I was just one of seventeen paddlers at the put-in this warm bright day. It was like a romantic comedy, funny yet vaguely painful. As a group of people who love the wild outdoors, we were celebrating a chance to run a river that once came very close to being dammed. And yet we’d all traveled more than 1,000 miles on fossil fuels to arrive there. The ironies of the situation were unspoken but inescapable. It felt more like a scheduled release than a wilderness experience. But as wild-water paddlers, we share indefatigable optimism. We focused on the moment, enjoying the river for what it is—something that can’t be put into words. That’s why we’d come. Try as we might to share the experience through media, nothing can convey the spirit of the Stikine. It’s emotional.

This gas pump in remote northern BC says a lot about the people who visit.

Times have changed. The Stikine has become a busy river that many have done and more will do. You can no longer stroke the inner ego by being one of an elite few. Now you’re just one of the fortunate many. But the more people who experience the majesty of the Stikine, the more who fall in love and truly care about it, and that’s what’s important.

Michael Wutti about to fly in to the Clendenning.

Warm weather—when you’re lucky enough to get it—makes British Columbia a different beast. After the Stikine, we returned to Whistler and ran many of the classics. After some delicate negotiating with Harbor Air (new owners of Whistler Air) we convinced them to fly into the Clendenning for just under what it would take to finance a coup d’etat.

Michael Wutti enjoying a sunny day on the Clendenning.

Sitting at camp on an island in the middle of the Clendenning we patted ourselves on the back, congratulating ourselves over something we couldn’t control: the weather. As one team member said, it’s important to be good, but more important to be lucky. Almost two weeks had passed and the weather had been perfect. Sun day after day. Shorts and T-shirts all trip long.

Camp on the Clendenning.

A cloud peeked over the hill but the sun smiled down on us. Then a few raindrops fell. It was still sunny, all was okay, we were just getting a little liquid sunshine until, out of nowhere, a huge gust of wind tore through camp. A staked-out tent full of gear lifted off the ground to join the downstream flow. Nature got the last laugh—a fitting end to our time in British Columbia, where no matter how prepared you are, the weather can create an adventure at any moment.

First tent descent of the Clendenning.
Unconfirmed first tent descent of the Clendenning.