Cascade River, Class: Unknown

My Canadian Rockies Whitewater guidebooks are in rough shape. The covers are delaminating, the corners are abused, a mildewed crust of dried salad dressing stains one of the spines and the desiccated corpses of mosquitoes litter the pages describing good spring runs.

Any paddler who lives along the peaks separating Alberta from British Columbia knows about these books. They are river-running bibles. Split into two volumes covering 250 river runs, the obsessively detailed descriptions have eliminated any need for local river exploration. Helpful as the books may be, they have taken the adventure of paddling new rivers and run it through a printing press 5,000 times.

“Adventure,” writes Rockies guidebook author Stuart Smith “is a quality inherent to the process [of discovery], one that loses much of its appeal when someone else tells you how to do it or ad nauseam describes how it was done before.”

Easy for him to say after detailing every riffle in every rapid in the Rockies. “To be honest,” he claims, “I dislike guidebooks!” Those 650 pages must have been painful.

Paddling around Banff usually means choosing between a handful of standard runs like the Kicking Horse, Pipestone, Upper Bow and Kananaskis. Exploration is not really a part of the paddling ethic here anymore. Few people even bother looking for new runs since the guidebooks were released in the mid-1990s. Want to try a different river? Go to the library and look one up.

Now the frontier of exploration lies on the West Coast. With so much water and so many logging roads being hacked out of the bush, new runs are routinely opened. Guess where Smith lives now?

Today’s paddlers are moved by written words on a page, and end up doing only what has already been done. But it’s hard to blame paddlers for being followers when it seems our predecessors have been everywhere. The put-ins and take-outs may change from time to time, certain features might become more popular and there may be some new wood that finds its way into a local favourite, but there’s nothing really new out there.

Or is there?

“Ray, there’s nothing new around here. At least nothing that’s not full of wood—and I don’t do wood,” said Bruce, my devil-on-the shoulder friend after I told him that I may have found a nearby river not in a guidebook. Bruce, the wry skeptic, didn’t believe there could be anything worthwhile that had escaped attention.

It looked possible from studying the map. I had scoured the local topo maps and hit upon the Cascade River. I counted its contour lines, did some rough calculations and even dug up a flow history. It looked good. And it was only 15 minutes away from my house! But I second guessed myself too. It was just too close to town to have slipped under the radar. Back to the maps to see where I might have gone wrong (I did, after all, fail grade 11 math).

Again, it looked like the lengthy Cascade, which begins deep in the Banff wilderness, drops at a respectable gradient when squished tightly between two mountains for its final six kilometres. 

My veins were coursing in anticipation of verifying this in three dimensions.

On my next day off, I hopped on my mountain bike and rode a popular stretch of singletrack, a few minutes east of Banff’s townsite. It darts and dives over roots and rocks along the shore of the dammed Lake Minnewanka. After following a side track from the mouth of the river I caught a disappointing glimpse of a flooded canyon and retreated back to the trail. Further on the sound of falling water drew me back through the trees to the river. Scrambling along the angled limestone slabs I stumbled across five good drops one on top of the other.

The power of the river pulled me upstream. Around every bend I found another good chunk of whitewater. These sets weren’t just the makings of a legitimate river run, but a great one.

Since it was August, river levels were too low and wouldn’t come up until next spring. So I had to sit impatiently on this new run all winter. I prayed for enough snow in the upper reaches of the Cascade to supply good flow.

I told no one.

When winter finally released its full nelson hold on the Rockies, it was time to convince a crew to haul their plastic five and a half kilometres to the put-in at the Cascade River Bridge. From my map work, I knew it was a pretty easy walk up an old overgrown fire road. But it was still a trek shouldering a boat and gear, something few 21st century paddlers seem comfortable with.

I called Chris and gave him the sell: “Never paddled it, don’t know what the water levels are, don’t know if it will be a good run, but how about hauling your creeker five klicks up a trail with me?” Chris didn’t seem to care about the hike, or about anything really, except paddling. He was in.

“There’s nothing new around here that’s not full of wood. And I don’t do wood.” Bruce’s words echoed in my head. I called him up anyway. “Sure,” came his surprising reply. Though he was not generally a gambling man, Bruce was still keen on arcane river adventures.

“Besides, I want to lose 30 pounds this summer,” he said. 

That evening Bruce and I stayed up late to fashion crude kayak-carrying devices out of old backpacks and cam straps. Chris sat at home drinking beer. He would drag his boat.

At the trailhead, Chris waited while Bruce and I continued to fiddle with our backpack rigs. When we reached the Cascade Bridge two hours later, all three of us were dragging our boats.

“This is the calm section,” I pleaded as they peered in silent dejection at a listless straightaway. We were exhausted and had been abused by thousands of insects along the way. I sensed my crew was on the verge of mutiny. “I swear it’s going to get wild soon,” I reassured them, based on what, I wasn’t sure. Bruce plunged his face into the invisibly clear water and drank like an elephant. 

The big melt hadn’t flooded the river yet, but—to my relief—the river began to wind itself up soon after we put in.

A bend in the river marked the first rapid, maybe a class III. We mashed through. The Cascade continued to pick up intensity, flowing from easy class II and III to more frequent and more challenging III’s, at least that’s what I guessed a guidebook would say.

After a couple of hours of scouting and running new set after new set, the river widened into a jumbled boulder garden before disappearing into a narrow slot around a blind corner. This was the entrance to the canyon and our first big test. Being in uncharted territory, our first task was to name the set. We called it the Hydrator, in honour of Bruce who was constantly pulling over to relieve himself.

It wasn’t overly treacherous compared to sets we had done on familiar runs, but with no Linus-blanket guidebook to clutch and a rain shower upping the forebodance factor, we were nervous about judging the grade for ourselves.

We deliberated, assessed the flow, judged consequences and picked a line. As the current drew me toward the horizon, I reassured myself that I was up to what waited below. Somewhere under my PFD I felt a tug-o-war between confidence and doubt. I closed my eyes and went for it. When I saw the light and pulled into the bottom eddy a buzz of self-reliance added to the usual rush of looking up at a completed run.

Evening was wrapping around us four superb drops later as we flushed under the Stewart Canyon Bridge and into Lake Minnewanka. The rains pulled back as the last light burned through the black clouds that straggled behind.

We had just paddled something that wasn’t in a guidebook. It had escaped the attention of even the local expe- dition paddlers that have scoured the earth for new runs. Much to Bruce’s surprise, there had been no wood.

In the following month of high water, local paddlers followed our steps up the fire road. The Cascade even dished out a bit of carnage, proving—in a harsh way—the run’s worth. A few nasty swims (this ain’t no pool drop affair) and a dangerous pin in the Hydrator (the crux, a class IV rapid, probably) have proved that the Cascade is no easy float through the mountains.

It’s no Tsang-Po either, but it’s still something that belongs in a guidebook. Eventually word came out that Stuart Smith had been there before us, but had left it out of his book due to space restrictions. I don’t know how or why it missed the cut but, looking back on my rediscovery, I’m glad it did.

My guidebook will continue to deteriorate from heavy use, but now every time I see the contoured lines of a topo map I wonder how many other rivers are out there flowing right under our noses, waiting to be explored if we’d just take those noses out of our guidebooks once in a while. 

Screen_Shot_2016-01-15_at_10.23.04_AM.pngThis article first appeared in the Summer 2005 issue of Rapid Magazine. For more great content, subscribe to Rapid’s print and digital editions here


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