Rapid Transit--A White Water Highway in the Pemberton
By Tracey Rayson
Refusing to be underestimated, the river performs
with a true, ice-blue, arrogance. Rapid upon rapid
ascends and assaults my cheek with a punishing slap.
These continuous and quick breaking rapids are the
snarling jaws of the river's contemptuous smirk. "White
water commands respect" I think and within moments
of turning the other cheek--it had definitely
"Right back, left back," hollers Carsten Podehl, our
Whistler River Adventures guide. "Forward hard!"
These paddle commands govern us to navigate the clear
waters of the Birkenhead, a roaring class III river
positioned at the base of Mount Currie, 181 km
northwest of Vancouver. The river snakes through old growth
forest in the steep-walled alpine setting of the
Pemberton Valley, until it outflows on the
northwestern shore of Lillooet Lake.
Our groups converge on the bank of the Birkenhead for
a briefing on safety, technical skills and daunting
hazards. "There are three safe places to be in a
river," suggests Carsten. "Hanging onto the raft,
swimming to shore, and away from a log jam." A woman
gestures to a gnarled trunk jutting from the
riverbank, her throat tight with anxiety. "If I were
to fall out of the raft, I would instinctively grab
hold of that branch and pull myself to safety." Her
reasoning is a common misconception and a potentially
deadly choice. "This is why it's important to
understand and identify the hazards," reiterates
Carsten, "that kind of rational has serious
consequences on a river."
These tricky obstacles can be surmounted once they're
recognized. He continues to explain how one may become
tangled in tree roots (strainers), sucked into a hole
(swirling vortexes), or trapped under a log jam. An
experienced guide will provide this information to
clients, not to instill fear, but rather to teach them about
the legitimate hazards of running a river.
The river classification system encompasses an
understanding of paddling ability, water level and
degree of difficulty. Class I (easy), class
II(novice), class III (intermediate), class IV
(difficult sections), class V (expert) and class VI
(violent & unnavigable). The class III rating of the
Birkenhead justifies its hefty and powerful rapids,
although the intensity is short lived and there are
sections where bursts of rapids streamline into
stretches of calm. The thrill is a satisfying rush and
confidence comes in the knowledge that the risk of
injury, if tossed out of the raft, is moderately low.
This is not to say that the Birkenhead doesn't pack a
punch. Its unsuspecting waves will wallop you with
the vengeance of a sharp backhand, if you don't
respect it's potential.
We are the last of three rafts to launch, and I'm
quite certain our group is less confident than the
others. To ease the apprehension, Carsten delivers
a continuous flow of white water schtick and river
banter. "Don't worry. It'll be a smooth ride until we
hit the waterfall!" His tongue-in-cheek humour keeps
the mood light and entertaining. Concerns are quickly
replaced with positive morale as we flawlessly
maneuver our raft into swift eddies.
Positioned in the front of the raft, my
initiation into white water occurs in a split second
splash. Thwack! A wall of white water and agitated
rapids boomerang off my body. I am completely
drenched. No mercy. No grace. Only authority. It's as
though I've been subjected to the concentrated jet from
a fireman's hose. My cheeks ache- but not from the
ambush of forbidding liquid figures storming my face- rather
from laughing, squealing and whooping yelps, as
if I were a cowboy breaking a wild horse. Adrenalin I
discover, arrives on a wave; fast and inconspicuous.
My foot secure in the toe cup, affords me the
leverage to lean over the side of the raft. In this
position, I execute a deep sweeping stroke into a
series of swirling rapids and standing waves. Though blinded
momentarily, I ignore its moxie. Diligently, I attack
rapids that brake abruptly--their crests tumbling down
their slopes. "Com'on you guys--forward hard,
dig-dig-dig!" barks Carsten. My white knuckles speak
volumes. My fate could change before the rapid does.
Our paddle techniques propel us across an alternative
route of rapids, evading a perilous log jam and
potential suction hole.
Expertise and experience notwithstanding, in a
contest of wills between our fearless guide and the
tempestuous rapids, the river is boss. Situated in the
rear, Carsten labours with the river rather than
against it, applying both mind and muscle. The secret
of effective and safe river running hinges on specific
criteria. Scouting a river is a must, (a technique
applied when guides survey potential hazards and daily
changes in a river). Reading rivers is serious work.
Knowing water, currents, cause and effect principles,
time, conditions and movement are essential tools.
Whistler River Adventures guides are government
certified, with no less than 100 hours of training on
the river, all holding a typical length of guide
service ranging between five and ten years.
Perpetual white crests ripple over each other in a
hypnotic rhythm, drawing me into deep thought. Trading
glances with the swollen face of the river, I am
subjected to a curiosity about those who make their
living in such watery nirvana. "It's a different
challenge everyday. It's exciting and when my blood
pressure rises, it's not from the stress of crunching
numbers behind a desk all day--it's more real than
That," confesses an avid river runner. I agree.
The achievement of both serenity and success is rare
in the 9-5 world, but it is definitely an abundant dividend
of time spent on a river.
The water continues to churn three-metre high swells,
pinballing our raft and skipping us like a stone.
After a brief respite, the river persists in its furious
pace as we plunge through frothing mania, exasperated
but exhilarated. Our final triumph leaves behind a
whimpering rapid, having been conquered and left to
explode back onto itself in a chaos of foam. Our group
now baptized in the holier-than-thou water, returns
victorious, having earned our rite of passage among
the would be river rats.
If you go:
Whistler River Adventures is located at the Whistler
Village Gondola Base office,
Whistler, B.C. (604) 932-3532 or 1 (888)-932-3532. Box
202, Whistler B.C. Canada. V0N 1B0.
www.whistler-river-adv.com or email:
Operating from their Adventure Ranch Base in
Pemberton, a 25-minute drive north of Whistler on Hwy.
99. From Vancouver, transportation is available from
West Coast City and Nature Sightseeing Ltd. Free
shuttle from the airport. For reservations and rates
Whistler River Adventures offers rafting trips down
the Birkenhead, the Green River and the Elaho/Squamish
River ranging in class from II to IV. Trips range from
$59 Cdn per person for a two hour round trip to $129
Cdn per person for a full day. All trips include
wetsuit, booties, life jacket, helmets and
transportation from Whistler Village.
Additional Whitewater rafting outfitters:
Chilliwack River Rafting Adventures. 1-604-824-0334
Fraser River Raft Expeditions. 1-800-363-RAFT
Hyak Wilderness Adventures. 1-800-663- RAFT