Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 21, 2017
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Shaken and Stirred

Fasten your seat belt for a wild ride in BC's Fraser Valley

"Paddle, paddle, forward, paddle," the guide hollers to the wet mass of bodies bobbing around in the rubber raft. We paddle. I paddle blind, engulfed in a wave of froth and then we're thumped from the rear by a wall of crashing water. We are manoeuvring our way through the Jaws of Death, a class IV rapid on BC's Thompson River. It's hard to believe that just yesterday we were cruising peacefully down this river.

My two-day whitewater rafting trip began with a three-hour drive from Vancouver to Ashcroft, in the Fraser Canyon. I was introduced to the basics of rafting at a spot where the Thompson River looks as placid as a puddle. Laura Daley, the Hyak Wilderness Adventures guide, gave my group some wise advice: "It's important to stay in the raft." Everyone laughed. Little did we know that this simple advice wasn't always so easy to follow.

Before boarding a rubber, man-powered vessel (some rafting companies have motor-powered rafts) that holds eight to 12 people, we're given paddling instructions and safety precautions. We learn the strokes: forward, reverse and draw, plus rescue procedures should someone fall overboard. Then, with life jackets over our bathing suits, and extra clothing and cameras in waterproof bags, we're off.

It's a piece of cake, a lazy meander along a route with jaw-dropping scenery. The Thompson slices through rugged granite canyons with intriguing stone columns called hoodoo formations. There is also softer, desert-like terrain where pine forests spangle rolling hillsides -- not surprising since the region where the Thompson meets the Fraser River, particularly around Lytton, often has Canada's hottest temperatures.

Everyone is in a jovial mood as we float gently while Laura has us practice newly-learned skills. The Thompson has some tricky whirlpools as well as some big water and British Columbia is known for its diverse and wild whitewater. The sport began in 1972 and has burgeoned to support dozens of companies running trips on some 30 rivers. Hyak Wilderness Adventures, a 21-year-old company, has welcomed more than 100,000 rafters on its trips. Rapids are rated on an international scale of difficulty from I to VI. No commercial rafting company plans trips on class VI as they're considered life-threatening.

Our first day is a morning float that eventually takes us under a railway trestle bridge to Black Canyon where we break for lunch. We clamber up warm, flat boulders to enjoy our meal. Hundreds of birds nesting on the shale wall across the river provide some unexpected entertainment. The sun is warm on this early summer day, several eagles soar above and we can hear the murmur of the water.

Wet and wild
That afternoon we ride the level II Martell Rapids and practice our techniques: we've been warned that tomorrow will bring challenges: the trip will cover 80 kilometres from Ashcroft to Lytton, descending 19 major rapids. As adventuresome as it is, Laura has had paddlers in their 70s (the oldest so far is her 73-year-old grandmother) and as young as seven. With safety in mind, this can be a sport for everyone who likes to get a bit wet.

I notice that Laura sometimes floats us sideways down the river which feels strange but gives her a good view of what's coming up. Then we paddle quickly to straighten the raft before we hit rapids. "Forward on the left, backwards on the right," Laura commands and while we like to think we respond instantly, sometimes there's a delay; even on these warm-up rapids, those in the front of the raft are soaked. We're all laughing and wet -- water fights are part of the rafting experience -- as we land on Fantasy Island, a pleasant woodsy island with rocky beaches just above Spences Bridge.

 

Three other rafts pull in as we set up our easy-to-assemble, two-person tents and, thanks to the inventive guides-turned-chefs, we are soon munching on yummy appetizers. The evening that follows is not your usual camp-out: there's steak and crab for dinner, then an astronomer pulls out his telescope to point out the wonders of the night sky and there's on-going entertainment from two stand-up comedians. The evening is wonderful, but it's the calm before the storm: tomorrow we'll be tested by the Thompson.

The river is fastest after spring run-off when the water rages at a pounding 2800 cubic-metres-per-second. It's early July and the Thompson doesn't disappoint. The river starts out calmly enough with some good practice whirlpools and minor rapids. Our guide has us sit according to comfort level and ability: the strongest and most confident paddlers in front; anyone with butterflies in the middle and the adventure-spirited riding the bucking bronco at the rear of the raft.

There are no jokes as we sit in silence receiving instructions for our first big whitewater, the Frog. Soon we are surrounded by swirling water and spray, we round a bend paddling like crazy to miss a massive boulder that sits dead centre. We're not alone, there are half-a-dozen other rafts and, at times, we have to wait our turn to make a manoeuver. It's exhilarating, it's fun and hey, we miss the boulder. We're pleased with ourselves but soon realize there are two people in the water just behind us. They aren't from our raft but we are the closest to them, so we test our rescue techniques and return them to their raft a little scared but none the worse for their unplanned dunk.

After a wild roller-coaster ride through a series of rapids, we're approaching the Jaws of Death, named for the large swirling eddies just after big whitewater. It was here, decades ago, that workmen fell to their death while building the trestle bridge 60 metres above. Before we have time to ponder this, we are in the Jaws. Truth is, what you really want to do is hang on for your life but you have to paddle, so you let go and paddle. In a split second, a young guy on our raft is in the raging water. He's smart: he hangs onto the raft and his dad has him back aboard in the blink of an eye.

As quickly as it became wild, the Thompson goes through another Jekyll-to-Hyde transformation, becoming lazy and slow as though it could never toss our raft around like a rubber duck. We float calmly towards Lytton, requiring only a few paddles to keep straight and steady. The sun warms our soaked bodies and a water fight breaks out. The jokes are back but they're a little less caustic. A few of us are giving thanks to the river gods that we survived the Jaws of Death.

 

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