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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Stand on the wooden bridge over the Canoe River in British Columbia, watch the glacial water sputtering down a long slope between the pines and you realize you are seeing something future generations will never know: this river, doomed to disappear. The Canoe is the longest, least-known and most remote of the rivers that will be virtually erased by the dam that is being built as a joint U.S.-Canadian venture on the Columbia River. The Canoe starts on an ice field high on Mount Sir Wilfrid Laurier. It drops straight down in many places, falling 8,000 feet in 20 miles, cascading among unreachable rocks. Then the Canoe becomes a real river, when it pours into the Canoe River valley, two or three miles wide, a hundred miles long, running through country inhabited only by moose, deer, black bear, grizzlies, mountain goats, beaver and other wild creatures.

The Canoe makes a melodramatic entrance into the valley. It jets out of a canyon only 70 feet across, with rock walls a hundred feet high. The black metal girders of a Canadian National Railway bridge cross high above, from one canyon wall to the other. The splintery wooden bridge is just below the trestle, almost at the water level. The water curls and coils and braids from the sharp canyon curves, it is cold, fast, impenetrable, gray-green, white-necked, carrying the scent of rocks and ice.

All sorts of treasured wild rivers are being changed or destroyed or threatened these days by dams, from the Gunnison in Colorado to the Buffalo in Arkansas, and each assault gives rise to anguished protests from conservationists, fishermen, canoeists and wilderness enthusiasts, but the case of the Canoe River is different: almost all of it will be wiped out before it has been discovered. Except for a float boat trip or two, no outdoor recreationists have enjoyed it. David Thompson found and named the river in 1811, but until surveys were made for the new dam it was scarcely explored. Nothing ever happened along its banks—no railroads, farms, towns, battles—and only a few hunters and explorers even knew of its existence. Nothing will ever happen on its banks, for it is not going to have any banks. What is now the Canoe River will be part of a lake, from one to five miles wide and about 90 miles long, which will be formed behind the Mica Creek Dam now being built on the Columbia a few miles downstream from where the Canoe joins it.

We spent a lot of time on that wooden bridge over the river. We had two canoes, 17-foot Grummans, rented from the Northern Stores Department of the Hudson's Bay Company for $25 a week, and it was our intention to go down the Canoe to the Columbia. However, the canoes were not at the river's edge. They were at the railroad station in the town of Valemount, four miles north of the point where the road crossed the Canoe River, and there they remained a week while the delayed members of our scattered party assembled. Bright, shiny, new and extremely conspicuous, each canoe bore painted representations of the flag of Canada and the Hudson's Bay Company near its bow, plus a tastefully lettered sign, "U-Paddle." Those canoes were stared at by passengers of the transcontinental trains, and even more by the skeptical citizens of Valemount. They thought we had lost our nerve and were not going to start down the Canoe River at all.

So many searching questions were asked about the exact time we were going to leave and so many knowing looks were exchanged when we explained that we were waiting for others to join us that we avoided people after the first few days. We stood on the bridge and studied the current. Or we hiked along the bank and pretended to fish. In any case, we more or less kept out of sight. Bil Gilbert, an accomplished white-water canoeist, was to join us at Valemount, but he was held up in California on an article he was writing. An English naturalist, an old canoe companion of Gilbert's, was to arrive with him, but he had been delayed in Washington, D. C. Bob Waldrop, also an expert white-water man, a young staff member of a wilderness conservation foundation, was getting in some fieldwork before settling down in his office. He and I were the only ones present. Waldrop was dismayed at the appearance of the Canoe River. It was not dangerous enough. This was at the opposite extreme from my feeling about it, so we did not have much in common.

In the absence of anything else to do, we talked about food. Gilbert had prepared a large fiber-glass box filled with dried mush, dried soup, dried potatoes, dried omelets and other nourishing fare. He impressed on us that this was more than sufficient to sustain life but it lacked variety, and just before starting out we were to add appetizing items such as cheese, ham, sandwich spread, chocolate bars and food that could be eaten at lunch stops without making it necessary to unpack. So, as the days passed and Waldrop and I loafed around Valemount, we listed imaginative additions from the supermarket to our impending wilderness meals. From time to time confused messages arrived, saying Gilbert was in Sacramento, or that someone would arrive soon, but the telephone system in the interior of British Columbia carries you right back to the days of Alexander Graham Bell. Any conversation is apt to break off suddenly, with shrieks and wails akin to the sounds used in the brainwashing scenes of The Ipcress File. And so we did not buy the food we planned to buy. To tell the truth, I was afraid the townspeople would be even more perplexed if we remained much longer around the place carrying a lot of sandwich spread and cookies, instead of starting down the river.

Eventually, however, a message came through. Gilbert would arrive on the train from Vancouver at 11 the next morning. The naturalist had decided he could not make it. So we got everything in readiness, and I planned to buy the essentials in the morning before the train came in. The morning was fresh, windy, cool, a promising September day. The snow had come down on the sides of Mount Thompson in the night. It whitened the rocks from its 8,703-foot summit down to the green, yellow-tinted caribou meadows and would retreat back up the slopes as the day warmed. It was an ideal day for the start of a trip. And Gilbert arrived at 7—four hours earlier than expected. The canoes were hastily lifted from the railway platform to a truck, and we rode out to the bridge. Waldrop and I forgot all about our supermarket lists. The truck driver helped carry the canoes to the gravel bank. Below the bridge the river was 50 feet wide, sweeping down between banks lined with cedars and lodgepole pines, a turbulent, disorderly passage rather than a chute, broken with jets of foam and ending in standing waves. At the end of a quarter of a mile the river turned sharply beyond a high, haystack-shaped logjam. Well-wishers at Valemount had told us not to put in at the bridge; the river seemed to go around the jam, but the current went under it. They also warned us about the first bad rapids, Yellowjacket Rapids, only a few miles downstream. These were not very rough, but the approach was so smooth you were in them before you knew they were there.

Over the sound of the water the truck driver said, "You fellows might keep your eyes open for a body when you're going down the river."

I asked, "Was somebody lost trying to run it?"

"No," he said. "He jumped off the bridge."

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