The last time a group attempted to descend the upper Incomappleux River, the trip ended in tragedy. In July 2003, Yves Laforest, Aurelie Chabaud, Michel Bastien and Martin Champagneur set out to climb Mount Hope in the southwest corner of Glacier National Park, then paddle the Incomappleux River to the Upper Arrow Lake. They were aiming to raise money to support children with leukemia.
They were successful in summiting, but their trip down the river ended quickly in tragedy when they were all swept up in a rapid. Only Champagneur survived.
Ten years later, a group of nine Kootenay kayakers – including Revelstokians Sean Bozkewycz, Sam Ewing and Christian Foster – is heading back to the Incomappleux River in an attempt to complete a first descent of the river and raise awareness about the unique rainforest that exists in its upper reaches.
Carl Jacks, a 36-year-old nurse who lives in New Denver, B.C., is leading the expedition. He is a co-founder of the West Kootenay-based Endangered Creeks Expedition, a team of paddlers that dedicate their time to exploring and reporting on waterways threatened by run-of-river power projects. As a kayaker, he’s regarded as fearless, a bit reckless, adventurous and a very skilled paddler.
The idea of paddling the Incomappleux has been with him since he first explored its middle and lower sections in 2006, when ventured as far as he could upriver by road. “Being a paddler, I couldn’t help think what’s above, what keeps going,” he said. “The features we were seeing in the lower sections were quite unbelievable.”
Jacks has undertaken a number of first descents of rivers and creeks throughout B.C., but the Incomappleux is the one he’s felt would be the biggest challenge. He’s not wrong, that’s for sure. Just to access the river, Jacks and his team will have to trek 13-kilometres overland through the Flat Creek Valley in Glacier National Park. Once on the river, they will be faced with 55-kilometres of paddling, some of which has never been run before. All they have is aerial photos to go on taking during the August 2003 search and rescue mission to go on.
“It’s going to be what looks to really intense class four, five whitewater,” he said. “It cuts through a lot of slide paths so the terrain on the side of the river will be extremely hard to navigate if we choose to get out of the boat, which is usually the case if we need to scout a section of water.”
The purpose of the trip isn’t just to accomplish a first descent. The team also aims to document the wilderness found in the upper Incomappleux valley – a largely untouched wilderness filled with massive old growth cedars and that is also prime mountain caribou habitat. They are partnering with the Valhalla Wilderness Society, an environmental organizational that is lobbying to have the area preserved as a park. They have also received funding from Mountain Equipment Co-op.
What are the challenges in an expedition like this?
First, there’s the overland approach through the Flat Creek valley. Jacks expects it to be two to three days of bushwhacking. Then there’s the river itself. The rapid that took out the 2003 expedition is the first one they will encounter. It is followed by a kilometre-long canyon. All of it is class four and five white water – about as intense as it gets. On land, the river is surrounded by avalanche paths that are full of devil’s club and alders.
Safety will be the prime consideration. “We’re not trying to be heroes out there. The river and the land is always going to win,” he said. “If something looks like it’s too dangerous to run or impossible to set safety on, then we walk it. If the walking is almost as dangerous as paddling, you’re almost in a toss up. It’s like a game of chess strategy, with putting safety in the forefront.”
Jacks said the fate of the last expedition is in his mind, but that they are going in much more prepared. The 2003 mission consisted of mountaineers who were unprepared to run the river, he said, whereas his team consists of experienced kayakers.
“The idea there are unclaimed bodies in the woods, you can’t help but think you’ll be passing over them at some point. It adds an element of mysticism to it,” he said. “You can’t help thinking about it. In the same regards, I understand where they flipped, what claimed them and what happened.”
Jacks’ teams is leaving Revelstoke on Tuesday, Sept. 3. They hope to arrive in Beaton a week later. He said this will be his most physically challenging trip ever.