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Night of the Rising River

by Dan Lewis

Like many West Coast rivers, the first mile was uneventful. Moving water, yes, but flatwater nonetheless. Class One on a scale that ends at Six. Main hazard: strainers (trees that have fallen into the river, with the butt still up on the banks), log-jams, and bridge foundations. Even on seemingly mild Class One creeks, the current can push you up against any of these traps and pin you there helplessly.

Of course, we had helmets, and the necessary river training and experience required to negotiate these potential pitfalls. We paddled upriver, hugging the shore and using the back-eddies. We rounded the last bend and saw a huge log-jam spanning the creek.

I looked carefully at this log jam, and noticed there was a way through. You had to duck right down on your deck, and squeeze through. I was aware that this manoeuvre would be more difficult when done from upstream, and would be impossible if the water level rose more than an inch or two. On the other hand, a huge gravel bar beckoned us just upstream of the jam-the most idyllic campsite we'd seen for days. Weighing the risks and benefits, we decided to go for it. What the hell-live wild or die!

Successfully passing the jam, we set up camp as it began to rain. On my second and third trips to carry gear up from the boat, I noticed that the stern was being lifted by the water so quickly that it was in danger of floating free. I pulled the boat up further, thinking how odd this was to encounter such a familiar situation (it reminded me of the tide rising and lifting a boat) in a non-tidal environment.

As we cooked supper under the tarp, it became apparent that the river was rising rapidly, faster than it should. By the time supper was finished we were becoming alarmed as our once-spacious gravel bar was reduced to a much more humble proposition.

By bedtime it was becoming clear that if the trend continued, our campsite would be covered by the deluge. Trying not to panic, we came up with a plan. There was a stick in the river which we would watch as a gauge. We agreed that if that stick went underwater, we would switch to Plan B. (We didn't have a Plan B, but knowing when we would switch was somehow reassuring.) Besides, we were tired, and just wanted to go to sleep and forget this whole crazy scene.

Shortly after retiring, I poked my head out the tent door to monitor the river level. It took a while to register that the rooster tail ten feet out from the bank was being caused by water rushing over the stick, which was now underwater.

Clearly, paddling the now flooding river into the log-jam was not an option. The micro-gap we had squeezed through on our way up the river was long gone, buried beneath tons of moving water. We had discovered shortly before bed-time on a preliminary scouting mission, that there was a flood-channel a short distance back in the woods behind our campsite. It was full of raging water. Essentially we were on an island, with the waters rising rapidly all around us in the dark.

We had no illusions about the likelihood of the whole valley floor going under. In my time as a fisheries research technician, I had seen just that happen more than once in the Clayoquot Valley, a pristine un-protected watershed here in Clayoquot Sound. They don't call it a flood-plain for nothing! We realised that our best option might be to climb a tree, and if possible pull our kayaks and gear up after us.

Reluctantly we concluded that it would be wise to be pro-active, rather than just lie there awaiting our doom. So we climbed out of bed, and began the task of stuffing bags, stowing the tent, and re-loading our kayaks. When we were done, the river still hadn't quite flooded our site and we had a good six feet to the water's edge. We started to feel our first glimmer of hope, even as the storm raged through the tree-tops surrounding us. Maybe we would survive the night after all!

As we huddled under the tarp, we began to crave creature comforts. If we didn't feel quite ready to set the tent up again, perhaps we could at least have... a cup of tea! Picture this dialogue: "Let's have a cup of tea." "Okay, I'll get a fire lit" (we were too hard-core in those days to carry a stove). "Where is the tea pot?" "It's in my bow, I shoved it in there first" (our kayaks didn't have bulkheads, which meant the whole bow would have to be emptied out to get at the teapot).

Within an hour, we had a fire lit, and hot cups of tea warmed our hands. At some point in the wee hours, the rain let up and it became apparent that the river level was dropping. Fast. After watching for another hour, it became clear that we could set the tent back up again, catch some sleep, and with any luck make our escape the next day.

When we finally awoke, we watched the river drop before our eyes as if someone had pulled the plug. In fact, it dropped so much, that our desire to explore this wild rainforest valley overcame our drive to survive. We decided to forego our window of opportunity to escape while the river was down. Instead we'd relax, catch up on our sleep, and spend the next day exploring. After all, the storm was predicted to rage for another 24 hours.

You know what happens next, right? Sure enough, it started to rain again, and the river began to rise rapidly, darkness and floodwaters once again blocking off our escape. We were less freaked out the second time, and managed to get through the night without breaking camp.

The next morning the waters dropped. This time we wasted no time debating. This wonderful valley would have to wait. We hope it won't be destroyed by clearcutting before we have a chance to return.

Lessons learned? I still wonder if the ocean tide didn't have something to do with our ordeal, even though we were a mile or more from the saltchuck. Perhaps with the amount of rainfall in this early fall storm, the high tide slowed the rate of drainage, backing the water up to our campsite. One thing for sure-there are always a lot of surprises in store for even the best prepared paddler.

First published in WaveLength Magazine, Jun/Jul 2001.