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Group of kayakers standing infront of warning sign at the stikine river.

Stikine River - My First Lap

My first descent and many more to come

on the legendary Stikine River in British Columbia.

Written by James Shimizu

After several full days and long nights of solo-driving north from Whistler, BC, I finally heard it. A moment that I’ve waited nearly nine years for. I heard the loud and resonant hum of my van's tires buzzing on the steel grate deck bridge stretching across the Stikine River. Now if you’ve ever driven across the Hood River — White Salmon toll bridge in the Columbia River Gorge, imagine that sound but a louder, deeper vibration. Best of all, this one is free-of-charge! I could feel chills run through my body as it began to sink in that I'd finally arrived at the Stikine.

Metal bridge that spans over the Stikine River in British Columbia

The rest of the crew wasn’t too far behind. Somewhere south of me were friends Blake Miller and Ben Johnston. The pair were driving a comically small, Forest Green 1987 Toyota Corolla named Kermit. I hung out by the river that afternoon with Harold Schaefer and Chris, a couple of Canadians camping there. Later that night, back at the put-in, Blake, Ben, and Kermit the Corolla, rolled in along with Joe Vincent, Sebastian Johnson, and Jimmy Elsen. We made a plan to put on the next day and called it a night. 

Not fully appreciating how bad the bugs were going to be, I left my van doors open all evening. I returned to find a symphony of insects buzzing inside my van. All night, the bugs were terrorizing me and everyone else at camp. It got so bad that I buried myself in my covers and then wrapped shirts around my head, leaving only my mouth and nose exposed to breathe. 

No one slept all that well, but we woke up excited to put on that morning.  Chris, who had set shuttle the day before with Harold, hurt his neck on a previous lap and agreed to shuttle one of our vehicles down to the take out. Since we had both Harold’s and Jimmy’s cars, we had our shuttle ride sorted at the takeout.  

We all got together and took the classic group photo in front of the warning sign at the put in.

Classic Group photo of the Stikine River Warning Sign for the dangerous rapids downstream

(From Left to Right - Harold Schaefer, Jimmy Elsen, Ben Johnston, Blake Miller, James Shimizu, Joe Vincent, Sebastian Johnson)

The sign reads: 


Challenge accepted! We put on and paddled the 30 minutes of flatwater and grade 2 leading up to the canyon.  The river does a big S Turn as it constricts with canyon walls leading into the first named rapid, Entrance Falls. 

Entrance Falls rapid on the Stikine River in BC.

We picked our way down following Blake, who had done one lap the year before. He remembered some of it. We mostly boat scouted and ran a lot of rapids blind.

Even though I hadn’t paddled a lot this past summer, the whitewater felt quite manageable.  I was fortunate enough to catch some of the highest flows I’ve witnessed in Colorado. At higher flows, Upper Death, Barrell Springs, and Gore Canyon proved to be somewhat good training for the Stikine. Those paired with a handful of top to bottoms on the North Fork of the Payette River seemed to pay off. As I paddled along the Stikine, I could not believe that I was actually there. I could not get the massive grin off my face. 

After a few hours of incredible whitewater and laughter, we made it down to Site Zed, the traditional camp on day 1 of the trip.  Site Zed was the proposed location for a dam project that was ultimately canceled due to extreme opposition from passionate, local residents in protection of this sacred river.  

Infamous Site Zed Rapid and proposed Damn Location on the Stikine River.

We made ourselves at home on the graded flat spot, where some structure may have existed or was planned to. Afterward we portaged our boats, sans gear, and carried them around the rest of the rapid.  Walking on shore through the towering walls surrounding Site Zed, it felt like we were walking through a colosseum of rock carved out by a lifetime of water. It’s a place so powerful with raging rapids and stunning natural beauty that I was having a hard time staying focused on the hike.

Camp spot night 1 - Site Zed as the crew overlooks the river from the camp ledge

We all hung out around a fire, recounting the day’s good times until someone finally looked at their watch to find it was 11:30 PM!!! The light in the sky would beg to differ, feeling only like early evening.  We called it a night.  Being so far north in the middle of summer, the dark seemed to last only a few hours in the early morning. This was an amazing asset to us as we were never chasing light. That is a really nice feeling to have on any trip, especially one like this.

The next day, we slept in a bit before hiking the rest of our gear around Site Zed and putting back on.  The day 2 stretch starts off with “boogie” for some time leading into the Narrows. We were all slightly nervous for a rapid called “C$nt Hole”, as we didn’t know where it was and knew there was potential for it to be a sticky closed-out hole. We finally got to a point where I was positive it was that rapid and everyone pulled over. Having gone over some GoPro footage back in Squamish with my friend, Edward Muggridge, I knew I just had to charge right and stay right. I did that and made it through with not much more than a few waves crashing over me. Everyone else followed. We continued making great time through the stunning canyon of the day 2 stretch, until we finally got to the infamous “Wall 1” rapid.  We all got out to scout and despite not being able to see too much from the scout spot, I felt confident. After seeing Chris’s GoPro from his previous lap of that rapid, I knew I could drop in.

We all made it through Wall 1 with varying results but no real problems.  Then we routed through Garden of The Gods 1 before collecting a bunch of firewood on the shore and floating down to Wolf Tracks Camp.  With no rain in the forecast, we all opted to sleep on the beach that night instead of the traditional spot under the big boulder overhang. Ben, from the U.K., said he came to North America for a “chill beach holiday” and the beach at Wolf Tracks was nothing short of that. We had another late night of eating, talking, and basking in the afterglow of the incredible whitewater we had paddled that day, allowing the seemingly never ending daylight up north to keep us up once again.

Wolf Tracks Camp and the crew hanging out on the river bank.

Day 3 started with a nice breakfast at camp and then a short float down to Garden of the Gods 2. Ben and I got out to scout but weren’t able to see that much.  We proceeded to drop in and pick our way through without any issues. We continued through some boogie until the river constricted into a wave train leading into “Rowdy Flatwater,” a boil-filled cauldron with semi problematic eddies on the sides. Luckily we all made it through despite not fully knowing that it was that rapid while dropping in. After that, came one of the more stacked sections of whitewater on the whole river: Wall 2, Scissors, The Hole That Ate Chicago, and V Drive. I scouted Wall 2 and Scissors and took short side-surfs in both but got out easily. 

Following the beta I was given and the copious amounts of Stikine Go-pro Footage I have spent years binge watching, I felt good about running The Hole That Ate Chicago and V Drive blind.  They both went great and we all celebrated below knowing that we had pretty much run all the major rapids of the canyon.  We paddled down to the new landslide rapid “Guard Dog” and scouted.  No one felt inclined to run it but we still had to put in below it and ferry around the new whole above Tanzilla Slot. The first people went and successfully made it around or through.

As it became my turn, I almost made the ferry around, but hot surfed for a bit then rolled up out of it. Immediately below is Tanzilla Slot, a spot where the entire volume of the Stikine flows through a slot a couple boat widths wide.  

We were elated to have made it down as we slowly progressed through the grade 2/3 paddle out.  The feeling of driving across that bridge at the put in is probably only surpassed by the feeling of completing my longest standing goal in kayaking.

We took out on river right at the small fishing village of Talhtan. The basalt wall opposing the take out beach welcomed us with open wings as the rock feature creates a massive impression of an eagle soaring in the sky.  We hung out at the takeout for a while then loaded up the rigs and set back for the put in.  

Rock formation and dog, with an eagle impression in the rock wall.

That first lap over 3 days is and probably will remain one of the most incredible experiences of both my kayaking career and my life. Everyone left after that first lap except for Blake and I. We went on to do 2 one-day laps, just the two of us, one of which was on my birthday. It was the best present that I could ask for. About a week later, Todd Wells, Jules Domine, and Tyler Bradt showed up and we did 3 more laps with them. One of those laps was a 1-day lap at 600 cubic meters, possibly one of the higher flows that the canyon has been paddled at. I drove up there not knowing if I would get a single lap on the canyon at good flow and after spending weeks up there and 6 laps later I feel blessed and grateful to have been able to experience the canyon at a range of flows with safe passage.  

Hardly a day goes by without me dreaming of being back up there: driving across that bridge, hearing my tires buzz on its deck, sliding into the river, and being back within those canyon walls.  The Stikine is more incredible then I could have ever dreamed.  I know without a shadow of doubt that as long as I am alive I will be spending time there as long as I can.

- James

James's Paddling Kit:


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