There’s something about the Illecillewaet River. Maybe it’s because of the fact that it originates high up in Rogers Pass from the glacier that shares its name. Or the fact it leads the way through the Selkirk Mountains. Perhaps its because that while driving east on the Trans-Canada Highway, you only get a few glimpses of it even though it’s so close. Or maybe it’s because it took me so long to spell I-L-L-E-C-I-L-L-E-W-A-E-T properly.
Maybe it’s the fact that while Revelstoke shares the Columbia River with many other communities, the Illecillewaet is ours alone.
The Illecillewaet River Valley marks the eastern access to Revelstoke. From the glacier, it tumbles down the mountain side before the Asulkan Creek joins it and then turns and runs through Glacier National Park, before crashing through Albert Canyon proper.
That’s where Apex Rafting begins its journeys. The raft run, as all the paddlers in town call it, is about 25 kilometres long and runs from Albert Canyon to Greeley, a little east of Revelstoke. A treacherous box canyon that is run by only the best kayakers stands between the pick-up point and town. I joined one Apex one day in late-June to experience the river from right in it.
“It’s a gorgeous river. It makes you feel like you’re a million miles away,” said Debbie Koerber, who has run Apex with her husband Ralph since 1993. “It’s right in your backyard. It’s challenging but everyone can do it. It’s gorgeous scenery. It’s exciting just enough to scare you without being dangerous.”
First Nations would venture up the Illecillewaet River to hunt and fish, but the river did not gain prominence in western minds until 1865 when the explorer Walter Moberly ventured up it in search of a passage through the Selkirk Mountains. He made it to Albert Canyon and then turned north, up what is now known as the Tangiers River. He described the area as “thickly timbered with firm white pine, cypress, cedar, and spruce, of large size.”
On his return journey down the Illecillewaet he wrote in his journal of Oct. 2: “The water in river was a succession of rapids, falls, and riffles, and very dangerous to run.” The following day, he wrote: “We ran 4 very bad rapids, and broke the canoe in one or two places.”
A trip with Apex Rafting starts just downstream of Albert Canyon, near where the Tangiers flows into the Illecillewaet, and downstream of the canyon proper, which was described by the Kootenay Star in 1890 as a “raging mass of waters compressed into a stream 20 feet wide. This strange chasm twists about, and from the train you momentary glimpses of the foaming waters far below.”
Albert Canyon is home to the Canyon Hot Springs Resort and a few homes. It’s been a retreat for Revelstokians and tourists for more than a century. It’s also where skiing was introduced to British Columbia and where Fred Forrest published a newspaper/gossip-rag with great items such as, “St. Patrick’s Day has come and gone and the boys are all nursing sore heads”, “Sealed bids wanted for rat killing at the station,” and “On the 8th day of this month, the editor received a present of a bushel of hot cross buns from Mrs. Edwards. The editorial staff sampled them and pronounced them excellent.”
The day started at the Regent Inn, where Apex stores its gear. There were 26 of us, plus four guides – Amy, Cory, Danny and Geoff. We signed our waivers and were kitted up with wetsuits, fleeces and jackets. It was around 20 C outside, but the glacier-fed river stays a chilly 5 C year round. Unlike many other rivers, like the Kicking Horse near Golden, B.C., which have multiple companies running trips, Apex is the only rafting company on the Illecillewaet, so we were the only four rafts on the river today.
We hopped in a bus for the trip to the put-in point at Albert Canyon. Ralph Koerber was the driver (and photographer) today. We unloaded and got our helmets, lifejackets and paddles. I hopped in a raft with eight staff from SkyTrek Adventure Park and our guide Geoff Stewart. We received a safety briefing, and an explanation of the orders we would have to follow, and we set off. Geoff had us do a couple of drills as a warm up before we hit the first of about a dozen rapids.
The first set of rapids came almost instantly. We dropped into the white canyon, where somewhere above Koerber was taking pictures. We crashed through rapids named Two-foot Falls, Dog’s Leg, Woolley Bully, and Split Rock. No one knew how the rapids got their names – whoever runs them first gets to name them. They run from class two to class three – not crazy, but enough to get your adrenaline pumping and have your arms flail about as you try to keep paddling while being thrown in the air.
The river is squeezed between the CP Rail tracks on the left and the Trans-Canada Highway on the right. I wondered how this would effect the experience, but the reality is that the highway isn’t even noticeable, and the trains add to the experience. We floated along with Mount Albert on our left and Mount Klotz to the right. At some points the river narrowed and our views were restricted to the rainforest that crowded dwn to the bank.
The raft run is 25-kilometres long and the water was moving fast today, at a rate of about 200 cubic-metres per second (it would peak at a little more than 300 cm/s a week later). That meant we didn’t have to paddle too much – just a few strokes here and there to correct course – and we listened as Geoff cracked a bunch of jokes, some family friendly, some not so much. We passed under the Skunk Cabbage Boardwalk, where tourists snapped pictures. Then there were more rapids – Lauretta’s, Twin Turbo, and Rock Garden – and at one smoother section, we all jumped out to go for a dip in the freezing cold water.
The last bit of action was the rodeo wave followed by Peanut Butter and Jam, two rapids that came in quick succession before the coast to the take out point at Greeley, about 2.5 hours after getting dropped off.
Below Greeley the river gets funneled through a raging canyon before widening and spilling into the Columbia River at Revelstoke. It’s where a logger lost his life when the river surged way back in 1887. We took the easy way back – a short 10-minute jaunt in the Apex bus back to the Regent, where they let us warm up in the hot tub.
For more information on Apex Rafting, call 1-888-232-6666 or visit www.apexrafting.com.