SI Vault
Robert Cantwell
November 21, 1966
Few men know the Canoe, a lovely river that cascades through British Columbia. Now the chance is gone—a dam soon will engulf it
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November 21, 1966

Riding Down A Dying River

Few men know the Canoe, a lovely river that cascades through British Columbia. Now the chance is gone—a dam soon will engulf it

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"Now, you had a week in Valemount," he said. "What were you doing all that time?" It seemed to be impossible to make him understand that when you are waiting around a small town in the Canadian Rockies you cannot buy delicacies ahead of time. Or that it was the most natural thing in the world to forget them entirely, since he had arrived at 7 o'clock instead of four hours later.

We pulled in to shore near Beaverpelt Lake for a good reason—fish. We set out in single file, Gilbert in the lead, Waldrop next and myself last. An outlet from Beaverpelt Lake poured into the Canoe River opposite our campground, and we headed up it. However, the outlet forked. One fork ran parallel with the Canoe and entered it far below. Slogging along behind Gilbert and Waldrop, I came to easier walking along this fork—not a trail, but a place where the brush had been pushed aside—and, thinking they were ahead of me, I followed it. In fact, I sometimes saw the brush ahead of me wave a little, and hurried to catch up, but I missed them. Instead, I came to a fast-flowing little creek. Now I knew it must be flowing away from the lake toward the river, so I was obviously going in the wrong direction. It is probably impossible to become lost in the Canoe River valley, since there are mountains on both sides, and if you head straight away from them you should come to the river. But the woods are so thick it is impossible to go straight toward anything.

Giving up any thought of finding the lake, I decided to follow the stream until it entered the river. I gradually became aware of large scuffed places in the sand on the creek bank. They were about the size of dinner plates and about four inches deep. At one point, close to the stream, there was a slight seep of water into one of them. At such times as this, one becomes depressed by the banality of nature. It seems to be imitating innumerable lousy outdoor adventure stories. They were unquestionably the tracks of a gigantic grizzly. Obviously, while we were going up one outlet to Beaverpelt Lake, the grizzly was heading down the other outlet, and I had inadvertently switched downstream to follow him.

Not wishing to put another body beside that of the prominent man, I called on the deepest resources of my knowledge of woodcraft and charged upstream through the brush until I reached the point where we had left the canoes. There I found Gilbert and Waldrop preparing a tasty meal of powdered chili. We sat around the fire, the white light of the gasoline lantern forming a sort of protective shell against the night. The early starlight dimly outlined the shape of the mountains.

The conversation went as follows:

First voice: These dried foods aren't bad if you soak them long enough.

Second voice: You can hardly taste the fiber glass.

The next morning was different. The river flowing green and blue in the cool air, a great blue heron flying low and unafraid overhead, the windless space of the mountains above the trees, the silence and motionless speed of the canoe, the spellbound air of the woods along the bank make a river seem part of a higher order of nature than the incoherent tangle of underbrush.

The approach to Yellowjacket Rapids was tranquil. Then the current ran a little faster, the canoe accelerated and the river narrowed until big cottonwoods nearly joined overhead. There was a turmoil of small waves, marbled with white lines, that seemed to promise real rapids ahead. But instead we washed into a placid blue expanse of water. That was all. That was Yellowjacket Rapids. Gilbert and Waldrop were enraged. They wanted real white water, some Wild West equivalent of the Cheat River or the Smokehole or the Savage or the Jackson, and they looked back on the rapids as if they had been defrauded.

The Canoe River should have been leaping over rocks, twisting between boulders and driving and probing with the limitless power of mountain streams. Instead it raced along quietly, the Rolls-Royce of rivers. The Canoe was never dull or stagnant or monotonous, and it had to be watched every foot of the way for a hundred miles, but it was not foaming and careening around its innumerable bends. Creeks that were really small rivers—about the size of the Canoe where we started from the bridge—entered it from the mountains, and there were usually rapids below each such junction. Bulldog Creek came from the east. It dropped 6,000 feet in 10 miles. The woods were filled with the high, ringing sound, almost metallic, of cascading water. A circular pool, a hundred yards across, formed where the creek joined the Canoe. Crossing the pool, we drifted slowly, Gilbert and Waldrop standing up in the canoes to ponder the current.

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