May 12, 2014

Floating Down the River, Your Hand in Mine

My husband, half way through his two-year Outdoor Recreation program at Capilano University in Vancouver, was offered a summer job as a river rafting guide 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 May 16th 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.

Beautiful Invermere (not my photo)

Previous to our move to Panorama, I had been in touch with the good folks at Pynelogs 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 had been reduced to a volunteer position. Pynelogs was at least a twenty minute drive down the mountain from Panorama and was often longer due to cattle on the road stalling the traffic and giving 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 job and was introduced to the staff by the manager: "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 modest. 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 days, 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, as of yet, little talent in the kitchen, cheering at the TV with the guys during The French Open and Wimbledon tennis tournaments, 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 career, 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 my husband and  I were able to live mainly on my tips and save our paychecks for the coming year back in Vancouver.

One of the great bonuses of my husband working as a raft guide was the free trip for both of us - which we rather optomistically called our 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.

Grizzly bears by the road in Jasper National Park

A church in the lovely Hazeltons

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. Our two guides, Jim and Brian, told us the first leg of the trip would be a quick one with the river presently swelled with the runoff to twice its normal volume. We geared up in personal flotation 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 its sidewall. 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.

Several 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 our 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 Cannings, our knowledgeable naturalist who was brought along for his expertise, and paddling when necessary. After an excellent dinner each night (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), we spent our evenings around the campfire talking about the day's grizzly, moose, and Arctic Tern sightings.

Brian's boat

Moody skies

One of our tent cities

Views from a hike

Our boat's fearless leader Jim

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 wildflowers 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. Perhaps my insistence on taking photos on the little camera showed some foresight, for after the trip was over and we were developing our film, it became evident that something had gone wrong with the borrowed camera - none of the pictures turned out. The photos from the little camera turned out better than expected, although our entire collection consisted of only three rolls of photos from twelve absolutely glorious days of that once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Alsek Lake in the fog

Alsek lake, fog lifted, flowers abundant

Amazing icebergs

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 fairly 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 had 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 my husband and I for our last night as a group. We dined that evening in Whitehorse' 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. 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.

Our wonderful group of explorers, my husband and I
 in the back row,
second and third in from the left

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. Eighteen years later we stopped in Invermere on a summer holiday and showed it to our kids. The town was even more developed than it had been in 1992 when the lake was completely surrounded by summer homes built by wealthy Albertans. I am sure Panorama Resort has grown a lot since then as well. We have changed, too, of course - twenty-two years, several moves and four children later.

Recently, I went through the entire box of photos from our trip. We had been invited to a party where each guest was asked to bring a show of just ten slides. I spread all the photos out on the floor trying to remember their exact order. I chose eighteen, which my daughter helped me to scan. Then, I chose the final ten for the party. As I went through the photos, I remembered I had kept a journal on the trip. I re-read the journal and relived my honeymoon, recalling little sensory experiences and feeling so grateful that I had those memories, those photos and that written account to go back to every now and then when I wanted to relive that adventurous time in my life when my husband and I were just starting our own journey together down the curving, varied, beautiful river of life.


  1. How fun! Great pics. Nice way to spend the honeymoon, before the kids and all that responsibility. Although, taking customers out on a rafting trip could entail some responsibility. Go Gertrude!

    1. Gertrude was amazing! She was quiet and humble but we managed to learn from her that she, the daughter of grocers, had moved to Canada from England (where mountain climbing was an upper classman's sport) made many first ascents in our Coast Mountains. And yes! I had a baby a year later :)

  2. This is great Mom! Wish I could have come along, but at the same time I wasn't born yet! Who knows, maybe one day I'll call up Jim to take me rafting ;)

    1. I wonder if Jim has retired...? He was so great.
      I'm glad you enjoyed the post, sweetie.

  3. Hi dear. Mom here. What a great post....and what a wonderful memory to treasure. Thanks for sharing!

  4. beautiful! what lovely memories to have in your heart.


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