Follow the experiences of a whitewater kayaker and an Alaskan bush pilot during a whitewater expedition in Southern Alaska, as similarities in their respective passions emerge in pursuit of exploring three unrun rivers.
After decades of work, American Whitewater succeeded in opening access to Yosemite National Park for paddlers. The park hosts a number of rivers ranging from Class I floats to multi-day Class V+ epics, including the Merced River above Nevada Falls. On June 1st, 2015, South African professional paddler Steve Fisher took the first steps in paddlers’ collective dream to paddle this long forbidden fruit. With him was Pat Keller, the southeastern expedition and waterfall guru. Both paddlers have made careers out of charging into the hardest, most remote whitewater expeditions they can find and completing them with style and grace. I joined them with a film crew to document the trip.
We approached the river from Tuolomne Pass, hiking 17 miles through alpine meadows, past icy cold lakes, and into the headwaters of the river. At the end of the first day, after hiking with a loaded boat on his back for nine miles up and over a 10,000 ft pass, Keller was still keen to explore. We scrambled up to a rocky point overlooking the Merced River valley, staring in awe at the massive snow covered peaks surrounding us. In the distance, I could just make out the trail the crew would be hiking the following day. I knew I needed a shot of that from this vantage point. The following day we completed our hike, arriving at camp thoroughly exhausted, but eager to see what the river had in store for us.
An early start on day three got the team into the action right away. The Merced River is truly a gem with crystal clear water, massive slides, a handful of stout boulder gardens, and truly unbelievable scenery. With heavy rains on the afternoon of the second day, tension reached a pinnacle as we waited to see what the river would do. The window for approachable flows is quite narrow, even just a little more water than what we had could make the holes at the bottom of some of the bigger rapids absolutely monstrous, and too little water would easily result in a portage fest around boulder fields. The river actually continued to drop, leaving just enough water for Fisher and Keller to complete the epic first descent of this amazing river. All that was left was a seven mile hike to the valley floor around the nearly 600 foot Nevada Falls and the 300 + foot Vernal Falls.
Scott Martin is an internationally published photographer who studied at the Cape Town School of Photography. For more of his work, check out https://www.scottmartinimages.com/.
There are few places left in the world which are truly wild. Where vast expanses of unexplored land lay wild, still occupied and ruled by the flora and fauna that call it home. When we think of these sorts of lands, these far-off corners of our uber-connected modern world, our minds typically drift to mythical mountain ranges, remote desert oasis, deep gorges, and canyons tucked away in the world’s largest mountains. You don’t usually think of anywhere in eastern North America.
But if you start driving north, up through the United States and into Canada…up past Quebec City and take a ferry to a far corner of the continent where paved roads are still just beginning to make an appearance. If you keep driving, you will eventually reach the end of the road. At this stage, you would be in Labrador.
The region’s vast wilderness and plentiful caribou, deer, and small game populations, along with an abundance of coastal wildlife such as seal, whale, walrus, and fish were the perfect environment for the indigenous peoples of the Innu and Inuit. Basque whalers were next to follow, and started the influx of western cultures. Moravian missionaries began to set up communities along the inhospitable coastline of the region, establishing the region enough for British fishermen to arrive.
Today, the region’s natural resources are still the main draw for the few workers of the region (in 2015, Labrador’s unemployment rate was over double the Canadian average). From the iron-ore mines of the interior, to the rapidly expanding production of hydroelectric power harnessed from the Churchill River, it would seem that the fruits of nature are the only thing keeping Labrador’s economic heartbeat alive.
Those same natural resources that some see in the name of economic benefit are also what prompted a group of five kayakers to make the drive north to this wildly untouched wilderness, in search of unexplored rivers.
Sometimes, when I’m procrastinating at work or have some free time and am tired of watching kayaking videos online, I like to scheme up ways to actually go kayaking.
A few years ago, my girlfriend Maeve and I took a road trip around eastern Canada. While there, I saw a picture of a huge glacial valley in one of Canada’s newest national parks up in Nunavuk and thought there must be unexplored whitewater up there. When I got home, I started looking around Nunavuk and Baffin Island for good looking rivers on Google Earth. Most of the rivers were either flat or vertical and not much in-between, and I quickly realized we could go anywhere on earth for less than it would cost to get up there. I started looking a bit farther south.
I had seen a picture of Churchill Falls in an old American Whitewater Journal and figured where there are giant waterfalls, there must be whitewater, so I started looking into the area. I was in search for new fly-in multi-day river trips like those which have gained popularity in Quebec; rivers such as the Romaine or the Petite Mecitna. Instead, I ended up finding a corridor along the Churchill River where a number of rivers and creeks fall off a lake-y plateau into the Churchill River about 1,500 feet below.
Conveniently, the only road in the entire province passed either over or nearby most of these tributaries, and there conveniently happened to be an online stream gauge for the Pinus River nearby. This gauge allowed me to guesstimate early summer as the time with flows that seemed about right for that sized river. I was guessing around 30 cms on that river would be good.
This past spring, the stars aligned and I found four suckers willing to drive 48 hours off into the unknown, in some part of Canada no one has ever heard of.
The fisherman, dressed in rubber waters with a collared shirt rolled up to the elbows, stood bent over in the arctic waters of the North West River. This is the literal end of the road on the eastern seaboard of North America, and the scene was about exactly what you’d expect. A soft rain fell in about 45 degree (Fahrenheit) temperatures, signifying a great day for outdoor activity in Labrador. The fisherman had a halo of bloody water floating around his ankles as he skillfully dissected one of the larger fish I’d ever seen in my life.
We had spent the better part of the previous day asking every boat owner in town if we could get picked up at the mouth of the Cape Caribou River in about 3-4 days, so as I approached the man, I tried to play it cool. I didn’t want to seem too desperate. We wanted to paddle this unknown stretch of river, without battling coastal headwinds for the 20-30+ miles back to town.
“Wow, heck of a catch” I said as calmly and conversational as possible.
“Yeah, not too bad.” he said in the unassuming and understated manner you come to expect from some of the toughest cultures left in our growingly “squishy” global culture.
“What kind of fish is that?” I asked, still perplexed by its behemoth size.
“Oh mate, this is a baby seal. Where you from?”
I’d blown my cover, and my jaw dropped. Before I knew it, I got a history lesson in the history of hunting seals, the placement of an embargo, and a lecture on a rather predictable opinion of the organization Greenpeace.
We’d found our man.
Over the years, I’ve learned that the best experiences come from entering situations with as little expectation as possible. If you open yourself up to an option, idea or opportunity, often you will emerge transformed, changed by the experience which has swept you away. But when sliding into a tributary of a stream titled the Unknown River, it’s hard to control the excitement of entering the unknown.
As our small tributary dumped our team out into the current of the Unknown River proper, an exploding plume of mist burst upwards, breaking the soft mist of the clouds which almost constantly fall onto the land and waters of Labrador. Horizonlines, as they are called within the river-running community, are a sure sign of excitement when looking downstream on any body of water. The fall of water off a ledge of any height is exactly the sort of river feature we had traveled to Labrador to experience, however the size of this plume exploding into the air, suggested it might be too high to experience from within our small plastic kayaks.
The team has a moment of indecision, the vegetation on the bank of the river was uninviting, with densely packed and thorn-covered vines guarding what appeared to otherwise be an enchanting forest. Half the team went towards the thorns, half went to opposite bank, and I continued downstream, hypnotized by the mammoth horizonline and thundering roar of what could only be assumed to be a large feature at this point.
. What lay downstream creating that roar and explosion of water over the horizonline? Which side of the river would be best to have a look at whatever it was? If we couldn’t go over it in our kayaks, how would we get around it, and how long would it take? We only had enough food packed within our kayaks for a few days. If we spent an entire day trying to get around this one particular spot on the river, would the rest of the river grant us safe passage, or would it too be filled with similarly dangerous obstacles, forcing us to make slower progress with our heavy boats on our shoulders?
It was these very questions that led us to Labrador. Nothing was known. Nothing could be predicted. As I continued walking through this forest dreamscape on my own, I slowly began to hear the roar of the river again. A little further and the moss began to get deeper. So deep in fact that it felt like I was trudging through the fresh snow of a blizzard without snowshoes. Each step sinking up to my knees. Just as my body began sweating inside my well-insulated drysuit to the point that it felt like a sauna, through a small window in the trees to my left appeared the sight of all that noise. A waterfall. Pouring over a cliff with the intensity of a landslide, and the height of a small skyscraper.
I stood, panting, exhausted, incredulous, and in awe.