Northern British Columbia’s Finlay River is seriously testing our skill and experience. Good thing Tony Shaw, my 70-year-old bowman and friend, has plenty of both. A legendary B.C. paddler with a sly sense of humor, huge heart and diminutive voyageur build, he has dreamed of this trip for over four decades.
The Finlay is at record-breaking high flows for September, making the beta gleaned from the few written sources on the route—one being Finlay’s River by R.M. Patterson, the book that inspired Shaw’s dream to paddle the Finlay—almost useless. Reef Canyon in 2011 looks nothing like the photo in the insert.
We see why the river got its reputation of being too difficult to travel, experiencing our own versions of passages from HBC explorer Samuel Black’s 1824 journal and R.G. Swannell’s 1914 survey notes. Black’s guide breaks down at the sight of more endless rapids; fl at ground is non-existent in the gorges and Swannell’s surveyors bivouac tied to trees.
When we scramble up the base of crumbling 100-meter cliff s to try and scout blind corners, my legs shake. Shaw is in awe, “Imagine, Black running these canyons in a birchbark canoe!”
It’s one thing to be a very good canoeist and it is another to be a very good person when the going gets tough. Literally carrying his weight on portages, joking and smiling, Shaw’s inextinguishable enthusiasm and thankfulness for being on the river inspires our team. No surprise he’s participated on numerous boards and committees over his long career, including the Recreational Canoeing Association of British Columbia and Paddle Canada. He’s also raised six kids, three adopted, and spent decades as a schoolteacher and canoe instructor.
Like R.M. Patterson, the author and explorer who ignited Shaw’s fascination with the Finlay, Shaw moved to Canada from England in search of adventure. He fell in love with canoeing northern rivers in 1967 while teaching near the Yukon border in Lower Post, B.C. Eventually, he set up Red Goat Lodge and outfitted Stikine River canoe trips for the likes of Pierre Trudeau. Both Patterson and Shaw retired on Vancouver Island and even met there in 1983.
Yet Patterson’s Finlay’s River, his last book, published in 1968, is really an account of others’ journeys on the Finlay. Even Swannell never paddled the entire river. But we are getting close. Shaw and I run Old Man Rapids perfectly; it’s the last whitewater of the trip.
Construction of the massive W.A.C. Bennett Dam was completed the same year Finlay’s River was printed, flooding much of Deserter’s Canyon beneath the sprawling waters of Williston Lake. When we reach this last historic landmark, Shaw’s eyes fill up.
After 43 years of dreaming and 257 kilometers of paddling and portaging, he struggles to describe how it feels to fi nally run the Finlay. “Elated. Sad. To live this moment, how I feel is beyond description.”
This story originally appeared in the Early Summer 2012 issue of Canoeroots & Family Camping. Read the entire issue here.