Monday, September 13, 2010

The Elk River: The Rapids

After Damant Lake, the last of the large lakes on the Elk River, the descent off the Precambrian shield begins in earnest. The elevation at Damant Lake is 390 meters above sea level, and where the Elk River enters the Thelon River the elevation is 300 meters. In the 120 km, therefore, from Damant Lake to Granite Falls (where the two rivers meet),the drop in elevation is 90 meters or 295 feet! Forty meters of that drop occurs in the last 5 km. There was some serious white water paddling to be done.

For our group the rapids presented a particular challenge. None of us was prepared for the what lay ahead, least of all my travelling partners, whom as I have already stated had no white water experience. We agreed after the first set of rapids that we would scout everything and that if any one of us felt uneasy about running we would track or portage.

I have provided as good a description of the rapids as I could from my trip journal on the Wilderness Canoe Association website ( As the route description notes, there were a few days where river travel was quite difficult and we ended up walking the through the safe water close to shore, a technique called tracking. This was difficult for me because I am not the most agile guy around. All of us found these days strenuous given the amount of hiking we did to scout the river, and given the amount of lifting the fully loaded canoes.

The days of tracking were contrasted with days when we were able to paddle 30 or so km with little difficulty through easy rapids and swifts. By about the 9th day, however, we began to worry whether we would be able to make Warden's Grove, the end point of our trip on the Thelon, by August 30th. This created some pressure to push ourselves when we could and we envisioned having to work this hard for every inch of ground even when we reached the Thelon.

The Dump at the Narrows
The Elk started to get tricky very shortly after leaving Damant Lake. The day we left Damant we were successful in running the class I and the swifts and our confidence was given a boost.

On day two things got somewhat trickier. Taras and I were the first to attempt to run a class I+ set of rapids. We had scouted the rapids and had a pretty good idea of how to approach them with a slight shift to the right after which there was an easy draw to the left. All went according to plan for the first 100 meters; I was in the bow and was able to draw right around the first submerged boulder. As is typical of guys who haven't paddled together before in white water, there were communication problems which in very short order created havoc. Before we knew it, the water was pulling us onto an submerged boulder on our right. My attempted correction, - a draw to the left- without Taras working with me, meant that we broadsided the boulder and were dumped into the river for a 400 meter swim through fast current.

We managed to recover our gear, except for Taras' fishing rod and tackle. And after changing into dry clothes we set out again. Needless to say, we were far more cautious with the rest of the rapids and made sure we tied the gear in the canoes, something we had neglected to do up to this point. In looking back on the incident I made a mental note that it is necessary when canoeing with novices to fully review the role of stern and bow paddlers. People who have only done flat water canoeing are under the impression that steering of the canoe is the job of the sternsman. And in flat water this is the case. But in white water the bowsman often sees obstacles well in advance and acts to correct the course; the sternsman then acts to move the canoe sideways in the direction set from the bow.

Unexpected Guests
On the morning of July 20th, as we ate our breakfast, we were hailed from the river by a pair of paddlers. The canoe was well fitted with deck covers and a spray skirt. The canoeists were Rob Kesselring and his friend Peter. Rob and Peter were attempting to complete a 1400 km trip across the subarctic to Baker Lake. They had to end their trip at Beverley Lake - impressive none-the-less.

The Unmarked Rapids, and Then the Falls
The drop in the last 5 km of the Elk River is about 40 meters. The majority of this drop is through Granite Falls. There is, however, about 2 km of class III+ rapids that are not marked on the topo maps. We wisely pulled out of the river upon hearing the roar and chose to portage this set. It is my opinion that Bill Layman really underestimated this set of rapids in his write up and I am doubtful they could be run in an open canoe. Check them out for yourself below.

Granite Falls is really quite a spectacular piece of real estate. I has 8 or more steps and runs over pink and red granite through a narrow gorge. I have included the video of one of the last steps on this blog. After these falls the Elk joins the flow of the mighty Thelon.

Next: The mighty Thelon - river of fish

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