The River Report - Elk, Bull, Spillimacheen

The River Report - Elk, Bull, Spillimacheen

Simon Coward
13 minute read

by Brandon Willms

The River Report

Elk, Bull, Spillimacheen

Hey gang,

I’m checking in again after another fun little road trip into the east Kootenays. I believe my mindset has finished the complete transformation to paddling and I am now hungry for rivers. My coworker, Tim Shaw and I had a good chunk of time to fill so we saddled up my gas guzzling Dakota and once again aimed for Fernie and the mighty Elk. These last three months have been the longest period of time that Tim has gone without kayaking since he learned how. Coming from a never ending season in New Zealand, he is not used to the winter cycle of next to no kayaking that us Albertans have to endure every year. Needless to say, he was excited to get out in his creekboat again and as I experienced last week, the Elk is a wonderful spot to do that. Having also arranged to paddle a fun grade II section of the Bull with some friends, and whispers in the air that Spillimacheen might be at a runnable level, the stoke was high!

Tim in the heart of the Middle Elk Canyon. I noticed this angle on I run I did last week and decided to paddle ahead a few rapids to get the shot.

April 16

We had a blast on our first lap on the Elk, with the usual wobbles and interesting moments. Sunday was a balmy one and our spirits were high after the first run, so I managed to convince Tim to drag his boat above Leap of Faith and after a bit of discussion, we chose to fire it up. We used the same sneaky ledge me and Glen had utilised the week prior. It certainly helps with the nerves, knowing you don’t have to face the daunting seal launch eddy. Since I ran the falls at the exact same flow last week, I had a good idea of what to expect and this really helped me plan my moves. “paddle less aggressively on the approach; finesse my way over the curler; slow down before the lip; lean just a little forward before the lip; edge and reach out to the left side with my paddle in a skulling control/brace into the buffer at the lip; lean the rest of the way forward and flatten the boat as I feel myself transitioning into the verticle realm; center my body weight and paddle in front of me; slowly tuck my paddle to the right once fully verticle; hold that position till impact.” With this plan solidly in my head, I was able to pull off what I feel is my best line on Leap of Faith so far! It’s very exciting to play around with different ways of running big waterfalls and knowing that Leap of Faith is a relatively forgiving height allows you to do it without too much fear of hurting yourself.

Tim got to run the Leap for his first time and things went great for him. Similar to many of my previous runs, he had trouble reducing his speed before the lip, and this sent him into a big boof without even taking a stroke. No matter, at this level, the falls are soft enough that a boof is totally cool and he kept his head well protected, so he came flying out of the bottom and we both shared some hooting and hollering. We finished the day with a bomb run down the middle, which was still as spectacular as ever. This being my sixth lap on the river so far this season, I was starting to think that my body was handling the hike out better and faster, but then Tim and his Gazelle legs blew by me and practically ran to the top!



April 17

We woke up at 7 am, (pretty early for a paddling trip this time of year), and had an incredible breakfast (also sponsored by dumpster x). We got on the water just after nine and paddled the middle (my 7th lap) pretty much without stopping. It was another warm day and a great way to wake us up. Our goal was to meet with our friends Tanya Chisholm and Ehren Wilson at noon, and go for a paddle on the Bull. These folks have been improving their paddling a lot as of late and it was time that they run some new rivers without following others lines. So the idea was that Tim and I would paddle along for fun and as back up for them. They would go first down everything. The section of the Upper Bull that we decided to run is perfect for this kind of scenario. There is lots of different lines possible on most of the rapids, very few hazards to avoid, and the character and volume is very similar to the Kananaskis, which is what Tanya and Ehren are most familiar with. The section that we paddled was about a 7.5 km stretch above the bridge over the bull river. The class III section described in Paddling ABC starts just below the bridge. After paddling this section, it is clear to me that we should do a separate entry in Paddling ABC for it, as I think it is a wonderful grade II run that beginners should be aware of, especially because it is such a pleasure to run so early in the year. There also looks to be more rapids to run further upstream, so stay tuned on that, I will post something on it if I get a chance to paddle it.    

Tanya about to take the lead down 7 km of wonderful grade II on the Bull!

River Report – Bull River (Training Section)

Location: Bull River, BC

Our Water Level: 1.6m or 32cms on the Bull River Near Wardner Gauge

Grade (at this level): II(II+)

Character (at this level): Medium volume river running; wide open boulder strewn rapids; a few bedrock rapids and wave trains; crisp river features and midstream eddys; read and run; scoutable, portageable; hazards are mostly off to the side and out of main flow.

Directions: Follow Paddling ABC’s directions to the takeout of the grade III section. From there carry on 1.5 km up the Bull River FSR until you reach a bridge over the Bull (described in Paddling ABC as the “Bull River (Gorge)”. You will see class III rapids below the bridge. This was our take-out. To get to our put-in, go up the Bull River FSR another 7.5 km. You will have crossed one bridge over a tributary creek around 4.5 km’s up which would work as an alternate put-in, but we went up to the second tributary bridge, which was well worth the extra 3km.

Run Spotlight: (The part of the show where we discover the good, the gross and the glorious parts of the river through trial and error/success!)

        • Tanya got to experience a full river without a big obnoxious kayak in front of her spoiling all of the lines like a bad movie trailer! In all honesty, there can’t be enough said for getting out front when you are learning. It is super important to look further downstream than what is right in front of you and plan your next moves on the go. Experimenting with and mentally noting what a feature or rapid looks like, how you think it will affect your boat and finally how it actually affects your boat is crucial to any kayaker’s progression. Being in front is the best way to force yourself to do this, but it needs to happen on a grade that you feel comfortable with. If you are happy following someone down class II, and want to move to the next step, the Bull is a great river to come lead.
        • Ehren had an absolute blast hitting rocks, little boofs, little surfs and tagging midstream eddys on this run. There are so many, it is a great spot to practice moving around the river using midstream features.
        • Tim paddled most of the river backwards.
        • Tim flipped, I saw it ;)
        • Although I can’t distinguish too many of the rapids, I do remember one somewhere in the middle of the run that is steeper than most and had a significant gorge feel to it. Tanya went right through the guts of a hole at the bottom which most of the water fed through. She rocked it though and came through upright with speed looking a little shocked but happy afterwards.

April 18

Tim and I camped the night with Ben Wright at the Spillimacheen Campsite which is on crown land just up the road from the BC Hydro gate at the put-in. Ben had paddled Spilli a couple times the day before and had experienced a wide range of water levels. Spillimacheen, like the Elk is another run affected by a Run of River dam project. Ben said that their morning lap was on the high side, however on their second lap, the run was low. BC Hydro must have flushed some extra water through during the morning. So we went to sleep wondering what kind of river we were going to get in the morning. Part of me was hoping for low water, as I wanted to get redemption on L-Drop, a sweet but difficult rapid that I have literally butted heads with in the past. Part of me wanted high water, because the rest of the run is more padded and challenging. Either way, we were excited.

Again, we opted for an early 7 o’clock wake up as Ben and I both had places to be that afternoon. There had been a slight rain during the night and our gear was still wet, so as I woke up I dreaded putting my cold wet gear on. The weather gave us a pleasant surprise when the Sun came out around 8 and warmed everything up nicely. We checked the level, which was low, drove our shuttle, geared up and hopped on for my first proper creeking of the season.

Tim having a sweet line on "Happy Ending". This has got to be one of the most photographed waterfalls in the Rockies. The morning sunlight sure helped make this particular one a banger!

River Report – Spillimacheen River (Gorge)

Location: Spillimacheen, BC

Our water level: 0.445m or 11.5 cms on the Spillimacheen River Near Spillimacheen Gauge. It looked as though the dam was diverting water around 2-4cms, but we don’t know for sure. I would guess there was approximately 9cms in the section, which is considered quite low.

Grade (at this level): V-(V)

Character (at this level): Low Volume Creeking; channelized bedrock rapids, slides and falls; irregular, sharp and uneven sedimentary bedrock; pool drop with lots of eddys and slackwater; boulder garden rapids are low/manky/high pin potential (still very navigable); sticky holes above some hard features and powerful recirculation in some of the main drops; scoutable; portaging is challenging to not viable although the hardest rapid is portageable; deep inescapable gorge; must-run rapids;

Run Spotlight:

  • Astro Lube is one of the most notable rapids at this level. It is a fairly manky looking 10m slide that has many nasty flakes/steps/juts of rock and piton rocks. In reality the line of choice for us doesn’t actually change from higher water. We all had decently smooth lines down the right side of the main slide. There is a fine ‘thread the needle between two rooster tails” line, but it usually goes quite well if you make it. We scouted our lead in and used a small midstream eddy right above the lip to stop ourselves and get positioned before entering the slide. I have seen many people end up getting pushed into the right hand wall at the base of the slide in the past. At this level it could happen, but the current is not moving as fast or as powerful, and it should be quite manageable.
  • I got temporarily pinned in the entrance of the boulder garden above “reach around”. It was relatively minor, and I weaseled my way out quickly, but there are certainly lots of ways it could happen at this level. Stay cautious and look out for each other.
  • “Reach around” was an incredibly fun rapid at this level. It always catches me off guard how steep the whole thing is, but can be a super fun series of moves! We truck and trailered this rapid with Ben in the lead and he got offline above the second last drop, which looked a little hectic, but he held it together and boofed the left side of reach around.
  • “Two in the Pink” is a somewhat funky series of ledges and rumor has it that there could be a chunk of wood in the right side of the last drop. We opted to boof the middle, which is funky but works.
  • “One in the Stink” or “L-drop” as it is called is an intimidating line with a nasty shallow pocket hole above it and a right hand turn to boof on the lip. I have been surfed in the hole above it in the past and that ended with me running L-drop on my head (broke my helmet). So with that history behind me, I contemplated the line for a bit. Tim and Ben both decided they didn’t feel it, so they ran safety for me. I came in very confident and determined to clear the first hole, which I did! So much so that when I boofed the main drop I ended up bumping into a rock/ice shelf on the far river left side. This was also not ideal and I was stuck for a second right on the edge of the recirculation. Thankfully, I managed to paddle away without getting pulled back into the falls. So, not quite the redemption I was looking for, but a bit closer anyways.
  • We all had somewhat funky lines on the 7m freefall “Happy Ending”. It is difficult to boof as it gets low and rock shelves become exposed. Tim had the best line between us and was the only one to come out of it upright.

First photo: The rapid called "Birth Canal" with the horizon of "Astro Lube" in the background.

Second photo: "Astro Lube". These rapids are very difficult to portage. 

So another run in the books, I made haste getting back to Calgary, but not before dropping off Tim at the put-in of the middle kickinghorse. It was running at about 11cms and was mostly clear of snow. I have not paddled it at that level, but Tim let me know later that he had fun and the middle is so low that it is starting to approach the grade III realm. This could be of interest to some of you out there who, like us, have the no kayaking blues and are looking for any stretch of whitewater we can float our boat down. Things are certainly starting to happen in BC and it shouldn’t be long now before things are moving in Alberta too!

That’s all I got for now. Till next time…….stay classy?

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