June 8, 2010

"(Floating) down the river, your hand in mine"

Perhaps it was the bright promise of a sunny day waking me up this morning at 5 a.m. after so many gloomy, soggy mornings of rain, which made me think of this time of the spring, eighteen years ago. Or maybe it is due to the fact that my husband and I pulled out the map of British Columbia and Alberta to plan the routes we would take for our trip to see family in July. Either way, by 6 a.m. I was recalling with great fondness that first picture postcard summer of our adventure as a married couple.

My husband, half way through his studies in Outdoor Recreation at Capilano University in Vancouver, was offered a summer job as a river rafting guide with an outfit at Panorama Resort near the quaint and beautiful East Kootenay town of Invermere. Panorama is essentially a ski resort, but in a bid to be viable year round, offered reasons to visit in the off-season, too: great mountain bike trails, a swimming pool and tennis courts, and river-rafting on the rapids of the small and mighty Toby creek. A few days after our wedding in my hometown of Nelson, my husband and I filled our Toyota hatchback with the necessities of life and off we went amid cries of 'Good Luck!' and 'Let us know how it goes!' from family and friends.

Previous to our move to Panorama, I had been in touch with the good folks at Pinelogs Cultural Center, a converted historical log estate on the shores of Lake Windemere, and had been promised a job at the center. Upon our arrival, and after several phone calls, it became clear that, funding being what it was, my job would be a volunteer position. Pinelogs was at least a twenty minute drive down the mountain from Panorama, and often longer due to cattle on the road stalling the traffic with almost zero response to the blaring horns and shouts of drivers. As a newlywed with a husband returning to college in the fall, I could not afford to volunteer when it would cost me gas money, so after a short time of wondering what to do I fell back on my food service experience and applied for a seating host position in the Toby Creek Lodge Restaurant. I got the j with an introduction from the manager to the staff of, "And this one's got a brain in her head, so don't mess around". An auspicious beginning.

Fortunately, my husband and I were given staff accomodation in one of the condominiums at the resort so our living expenses were little. We shared the condo with two other rafting guides - Derek, a friendly and very handsome young classmate of my husband's, and Finn, an Australian with a love for The Bottle and a rather surly disposition much of the time. He was the rafting crew leader, however, and it was important to keep on his good side. He was sometimes a benevolent roommate, and I remember his cauliflower cheese pie and his barbecued leg of lamb very well. So, my summer, besides keeping house with three men consisted of lounging by the pool - I remember reading The Razor's Edge by Somerset Maughm - cycling or going for drives on the dirt roads up behind the resort, throwing meals together with little talent in the kitchen as of yet, cheering at the TV during The French Open and Wimbledon tennis tournaments with the boys, attempting to play tennis with my sporty new husband, and seating guests (and clowning around with waiters) in the restaurant in the evenings. One night, early on in my hostess carreer and after the restaurant was closed, I sat down to the grand piano by the bar where the wait-staff were counting their tips and calculating my share. I began to play 'Fur Elise' by Beethoven, which I had known by heart for years. The staff must have enjoyed my music, for after that they told me if I played for them every night they would increase my share of the tips. It became a very satisfactory arrangement, as we paid all our expenses with the extra money and saved our paychecks for the coming year back in Vancouver.

One of the great bonuses of my husband working as a raft guide for that company, was the 'free' trip for both of us, which we rather optomistically gave the name of 'honeymoon,' rafting for a week on the Tatshenshini and Alsek Rivers in the Yukon Territory, to take place in the latter part of June. Clients payed $2600.00 each for a guided trip down those rivers, plus their air fare and accomodation in Whitehorse before and after the trip. We only had to get ourselves to and from Whitehorse, which we did in our car, driving twelve hours a day for three days through some of the wildest, most beautiful country I have ever seen. Wildlife appeared by the roadsides at regular intervals - grizzly bears, moose, deer, black bears, birds of prey, etc. We had been given the loan of a good 35 mm camera, bought several rolls of film and took along our little point-and-shoot for backup.

After a day or two of sightseeing in Whitehorse - a city of approximately 15,000 people and with, I counted, 28 bars - the voyage down the rivers began at Haines Junction. The two guides of the two large rafts pointed out the river being twice its normal volume, telling us the first leg of the trip would be a quick one. We geared up in personal floatation devices, warm, waterproof clothing, and helmets. Everyone was given a paddle and directions in the vein of 'do what you're told if you want to survive'. The large rubber rafts, holding seven people each, rocketed along on the swollen river, and when we came to some narrows held in by sharp, rocky cliffs, it took everyone's work to keep the rafts on course. Our raft guide, Jim, kept us well away from the rocks and we got through the narrows just fine. Not so for the other boat, which bounced off a sharp rock on the cliff and gained a puncture in it's sidewall for its trouble. My husband spent the rest of our 'free' honeymoon rising each of the six days at dawn to pump up the punctured boat that had been slowly, sadly, deflating during the night.

Interestingly, many of the participants on the trip were over sixty-five. One, a retired teacher and former mountain climber named Gertrude, was eighty-two. All of the retirees, (except the coiffed lady in the high-heeled rubber boots) hated people fussing over them, but all welcomed my, and my husband's help in setting up their tents and making camp each day. Luckily for us all, the weather was basically cooperative, and after that first day in the rapids, our trip consisted of calm days of floating downstream in our rafts, enjoying the opportunity to get to know each other, learning about the flora and fauna from Sid, our knowledgeable naturalist who was brought along for his expertise, and paddling when necessary. We spent our evenings around a campfire, after an excellent dinner (the food was almost the best part of the trip, and being mainly cooked over a fire was generally given the adjectives 'Cajun' or 'blackened' when served with a grin by our fearless leader Jim), talking about the day's grizzly, moose, and arctic tern sightings.

Late in the trip we left the Tatshenshini River and joined the Alsek River, ending up at Alsek Lake. I will never forget the sight of that lake once the dense fog finally lifted in the morning. The beach, filled with clumps of unusual wild flowers gave way to a glassy blue lake with a backdrop of the Alsek Glacier. The lake was filled with huge, solid masses of blue icebergs which calved off the glacier at regular, crashing intervals. We paddled out to the icebergs, landing on one deemed fairly safe from tipping by our guides and the group's cameras were put to work. My husband took roll after roll of film at the lake and I, armed as it were with the point and shoot, took one roll. It was very good that I did, for after the trip was over and we were developing our film, it became evident that something had gone wrong in the borrowed camera - none of the pictures turned out, at all. The photos from the little camera turned out just fine, fortunately, although our entire collection consisted of only three rolls of photos from six absolutely glorious days of that once in a lifetime experience. Ah well, everybody knows that the best pictures are the ones we keep in our memories anyway.

Since rivers lead ultimately to ocean, our trip ended at Dry Bay, Alaska, where we crawled out of our rafts, faces burnt and lips blistered by the reflected sun of six days on the water. We boarded Lady Lou, a reclaimed WWII bomber painted with Lady Lou herself high-kicking the Can-Can on its side. The interior of the plane was pretty basic, fitted like a bus, so I was astonished to be offered a drink and cookies by the well-dressed flight attendant who had to shout to be heard over the roaring engine and who exibited great skill at keeping her balance as the plane charged along with typically northern spirit. We soared over the mountains, retracing our route down the rivers, taking half an hour to return to the spot we left six days earlier. What a relief it was to shower and shampoo in the hotel room that two of the clients so kindly offered to share with us for our last night all together. We dined that evening in the nicest little restaurant - all relieved to be going home to our own beds and bathrooms, but full of the wonderful week's experience on the rivers. We talked and laughed like we'd known each other forever, but that is the way it is with people we might never see again. There was nothing to lose in bonding for a week, because what we took away was so much bigger than that. The people part is mixed up forever with the scenery, the small hardships of camping in the wild, and the animals we were so blessed to see - a multi sensory experience to add to the store of memories of a young, married couple like us.

The same could be said about that entire summer of 1992. I never saw any of those people again, not Andy the waiter who was so much fun to work with, not Finn nor any of the others - though I did see Derek once at a college function several months later. Perhaps we will stop in Invermere this summer and show it to our kids. I'm certain it has changed - I know Panorama Resort has grown a lot. We have changed, too, of course - eighteen years, several moves and four children later.


  1. A beautiful post Rebecca, full of glimpses into your life and characters. The description of the wilderness relays it's scale incredibly well - driving 3 days for 12 hours at a time - compared to the small island I live on.

    Thanks for posting. I thoroughly enjoyed reading.


  2. There are aspects of this story that are Ripe for a good teasing. But you have written so beautifully that I cannot.

  3. Al: Thanks, Al. I'm very glad you enjoyed this longer than usual post!

    Vince: Oh, go on, I can take it - I was the youngest of six, two of whom were obnoxious (thought lovable) brothers. And thank-you :)

  4. Wow - I travelled in Western Canada a long time ago. I visited Edmonton, Banff, Whitehorse, Prince George, and all sorts of places some of whose names I've forgotten, and then travelled by Greyhound into Alaska. I sailed down the Inside Passage and landed in Prince Rupert I think. I then travelled down to Vancouver. At the start of the trip I flew from London to Winnipeg and then took a fantastic train trip for two days through Manitoba up to Churchill on the Hudson Bay. That trip, taken on my own, was one of the highlights of my life. I'm so envious that you live in such a beautiful part of the world. Just reading this post brought that trip back to life for me. Thanks.

  5. Enthralling story of a great adventure. The river trip sounds absolutely breathtaking. I, too, read The Razor's Edge and enjoyed that novel very much.

  6. Lovely memories. You have had an interesting life. Make sure you kids know that, okay. I don't want them taking you for granted as just their "boring mom." Or, let them. They'll feel bad about it when they, and everyone else, reads your book.

  7. Kate: That's fantastic! We took that Inside Passage ferry route when my first daughter was a baby. We went from Port Hardy north to Prince Rupert where my eldest sister lives (and writes for the newspaper). There was a storm near the Queen Charlottes and I we were all seasick, but it was still a wonderful adventure. I am so glad your memories of Canada are so good. Did you see the Churchill polar bears?

    Paul: I was thinking about all the books I had read that summer and that one stands out as a good one. I also read every novel by Constance Beresford Howe that was in the Invermere library.

    Tracey: You are very kind, but 'boring' is not an adjective my children would give me, for better or for worse. I just asked my 13 year old daughter to describe me in a few words. This is what she said: 'happy, silly, kind of goofy.' And my son said, 'well, you are not boring 'cause you're always doing something.' So there you go.

  8. isn't the ability to reminisce wonderful? those places in your mind that time never touches are the best.


I'd love to hear your thoughts. Thanks!