Atnarko: a test of an alpinist

Its taken myself sometime to sit down and write this blog, my last post was as Satu and I left for BC, just after the Worlds in Thun, so some 4 months ago. There are many reasons for this delayed article, and much of this has been from the raw experience of the BC trip, and the recession busting level of working coming through Gene17kayaking’s doors. Still I am now sat in a small apartment inside the arctic circle in Finnish Lappland and now have the time and wish to craft some words on this modern day epic.

Over the Summer, I had word from an old Plymouth Uni paddling friend Patch that our trip to BC would include one if not two first descents. These as you may know are not common these days in the well trodden paddling destinations like BC, yet a friend of Patch’s had a hot tip when scouting from a ski plane last Winter, that this multi day trip had the makings of an adventure. Various Google Earth images and maps were circulated within our small group, gear ordered and the rallying point was to be in Rockies at Canmore, a mountain town I used to live in some time ago.

Patch had settled in Canmore, after Pete, Patch and I worked rafting on the river, post University studies on a student visa programme, and he provided the wheels. We caught up with old friends who had also moved there from Plymouth Uni, whilst packing. We met another Canmore paddler, the river spotter from the plane, and headed West, via Kamloops, Williams Lake and on to Nimpo Lake. Arrangements for logistics had ben made with a local lodge, and after a hearty breakfast the guys took a float plane to make a last aerial check of the run. Pete had a compact digital camera, that gave no indication of what was really in sort, and on the return leg, when Satu could see the river with her SLR camera, the wind picked up and tossed the light aircraft around some what, so $400CA later we did not know much more than we knew at breakfast and Pete was a little green around the gills.

Full of hope that a new challenge brings, we got dropped off at the shores of Lake Charlotte, and paddled for an hour or so West to the start of the Atnako. A small team with bedrock features was the only escape from the lake, off we went, and as the Atnako flowed into the Little Charlotte Lake, a small just impassable log jam signed our first portage. Across this Lake and the Baby Charlotte Lake, and our river started for real. Well, not really, a low volume stream drafted westward, around a corner, and the sight of a mega forest burn awaited. A few years back, the whole upper catchment had burned out, leaving the landscape littered with thousands of grey and blacked spirals of a long since dead forest. At ground level, was lush green shrub, and numerous outcrops of light grey granite and hundreds of boulders leaved after the last ice age, a perfectly dead U shaped valley. Onwards we went with dropping light, a few portages around trees, then a short gorge filled with trees, and then a near perfect boulder boof move. We set camp in the forest graveyard, there was no shortage of wood to burn, and settled in for the camp routine. Unfortunately we consumed all the Single Malt Whiskey we had that night, as our spirits were high sensing the action that awaited us in the morning.

Off we went, the going was like the day before, then a lake, and for about 10km we had near alpine runaway Class III rapids to the brink of a large slide. The slide was not at all clean, and had no ones name on it that day. Onwards we went, sometimes 200m, other times 50m then portaged a fallen tree, or a log jam, or just super crappy rapids combining all the elements of the above. Our goal, well my goal was to arrive to or close to a confluence with a bigger river flowing north, from where the Atnako turns north itself. Progress was prompt, and our pace was fine, another and myself swapped the lead, hopping out when all looked bad, indicating where the line was or which side was the best portage. Still we could not break the back of the 40Km or so we needed to get through to reach the confluence. Now a pet annoyance of mine is when the scouting boater relays all the possible details of the rapid at hand. This is often overly complicated, and normally invites the paddlers’ occasionally vivid imagination to run riot. I called the paddler on this, and with the stress level running high for a few days now, it was not a welcome comment……(timing or the lack of it, is everything in communication). As we hit a particularly steep section of tree infested WW, we called it a day, and made camp under what was now living trees. In pure BC style, the old growth trees were huge, and when they fall into the river pretty much block the water course completely. Portages had been coming thick and fast, we had a few close calls, with the uncertain following on after the lead boater, yet we had managed to keep it all together. During the evening at Camp 2, I came close to a sense of humour failure, when one of our number pointed out this run was what they had expected. The moment of tension past, yet the impression of shear amazement did not.

On Day 3 I had hoped to be paddling out to an awaiting truck with a cool box full of beer, instead, it was another look at the GPS, and then onwards, much more of the same, and now in the living forest, the shade along with tree foliage often lessened the line of sight and made progress even slower. Still after another 4 hours the gradient lessened, and the horror of the fast alpine swallow river full of dead fall was nearly over. During one awkward move with a submerged tree, I sent the group the other way. A long way round, and with the focus fading, one of the group managed to get pinned on a small tree. A quick solution from a few in the group, and we were under way again. We were 80Km from a road. Still we were all a little battle worn, however what was to come would kill off any hope of an early supper.

As the Atnako poured onto the valley floor losing its gradient, numerous channels fanned into a delta, through the cotton woods, and the swamp. We thought initially to follow the northern branch of the river and keep right on the higher ground to cut the corner. We paddled in the channel for a few hundred metres, then sledged the boats through the swamp, before hitting the channel again. The grasses were getting higher, the swamp deeper, plus the GPS did not really help us either. So a straight line to the confluence was taken, where the mountain side to the West was our only landmark visible beyond the swamp. After an hour of battle with the delta Livingstonesque style, we found a beach on the shore of the main river.

Wash off all the mud and sweat, before paddling on down the significantly wider and flatter Atnarko River to our first lake crossing. Along the way were of cause more log jams, but this river was full of Pink Salmon, large shoals of big fish resting in the calm pools, occasionally there would be the mega Chinook salmon, huge magnificent silver dragons of the deep. White tailed eagles played their waiting game, for one of these fish to be too tired to move on upriver to spawn or too close to the surface to be plucked out from above. Once into the first lake, we saw a flock of Canada geese, fattening up for the trip south, and Northern Diver’s or Loons, by night fall their haunting call would echo off the rock outcrops. We camped half away a long the first lake, ate what was to be our last reasonable meal, and slept soundly under the stars.

After a very light tuna pasta breakfast, it was all we had left, northwards we went, across the lake, to the river again, a small river this time, tighter for a while, and then more log jams. The migratory fish were everywhere under our boats, and also on the sides half eaten or just left to dry in the air. We were now very much in bear country, the salmon runs had brought the top carnivores down from the hills to the river to feast on the bounty that is one of the most amazing natural sights you can see. As a gang of brightly coloured paddlers sledging our boats through the forest around log jams, we were aliens in the realm of the bear, and although we saw lots of evidence of fresh bear activity, be did not sight one. Around the next corner, under a huge log, all STOP! A large Grizzly Bear was only 20m away feeding on its latest catch, within seconds it noticed us, and fled, still the fish was firmly held in its jaws…. Around the next corner, and I stopped the group, as I saw a large Black Bear walk down into a hollow, we waiting and as it came up an incline to the bottom of our eddy, the bear paused to consider the scene and then ran away, again we were within 20m of the beast.

Another lake, this time shorter, and then at the outflow, a footbridge, signs of the coming road 15m away. Some nice WW for a while, and then more trees as the river slowed, starting meandering its way to the sea, the Coastal Mountain ridge had been breached, and only 80Km to the inlet at Bella Coola remained. Evidence of bears littered the banks, as thousands upon thousands of fish swam freely in the perfectly clear river. Around one of the endless bends again and again, sapping our lessening energy supplies, we were shocked to come across a group of guys in wetsuits, a big fishing net and a small raft. These guys, mostly Native Indians were herding fish into their net, to capture the Chinook Salmon for the Provisional Governments fish breeding programme. Their single catch was impressive, maybe a hundred fish, the Chinook were kept, plus a few Sockeye too for dinner, but the pinks and all, were through back. Midday turned to afternoon, and still we were not at the take out, a dirt track on the right came into view, and just at the horizon of a longer rapid was our truck and that cooler of beer I’d wished for.

After packing up, we headed to Bella Coola, its at the end of a long road from Central BC, nestled at the end of a West Coast inlet. It’s a raw place, not too unlike fjordland in Norway, yet inhabited for thousands of years by a native culture so different yet so rich and in grain into the natural environment. Its quite the spot, and interestingly enough, you had the feeling that people looked West for their contact with World, as the BC Ferries comes regularly, where as the road back East certainly appeared less well travelled. For us it was back to Nimpo Lake and another challenge. We were a day longer on the river than we planned, so our next appointment with a helicopter shuttle with another river was missed. Still after what was to be an epic low quality white water run, with some 100+ portages we were alive, scrapped by a few minor incidents, enriched by the natural sights we had scene. For myself, I still consider the question of whether it was right to go in the first place, perhaps we should have turned back at Baby Charlotte Lake. My aspirations are for high quality white water, and this river was not. For the enduringly adventurer, this was adventure for adventures sake, where different motivations clearly strive for different goals, still one thing is for sure, we went so now you do not need to.

Simon

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