There’s nothing like the feeling of floating down the river with friends for the first paddle after a long winter, am I right? Especially true this year for me, I was ecstatic to get on the water during May long weekend for my first paddle, and first outing with friends, in months.
Little Buffalo River is the first whitewater run to start flowing in Northwest Territories, usually from mid to late May. I’ve ran it at least 6 times from 2015-2017, but in the past few years I couldn’t get any of the more experienced boaters to come along and I hadn’t felt comfortable leading this trip, until this year. Even though the Little Buffalo run from below the falls is only a short class 1+ series of riffles, the spring water is icy cold and the surrounding forests are scarred by wildfires, which means there are usually newly fallen trees and risk of strainers and entrapment hazards. The river turns into a narrow canyon below the falls, which is also busy bear country, and with a 45 min drive from the nearest town there is the remote wilderness factor too.
Even though I was itching to go paddle, I thought long and hard about safety for
this trip. The group included 3 other beginner-intermediate kayakers, 1 whitewater canoeist and a new friend from work who had already paddled it just the week before on his SUP. We met above the canyon for a safety talk and he gave us beta from his previous run. No jams, no strainers, just a couple of logs that were easy to avoid. Despite this good news, I reminded everyone that this could have changed in the last week, so we established a buddy system and talked about what to do if there was a swimmer. I had all of my rescue gear with me in my boat and PFD, and readied myself mentally, in case I had to use my swiftwater rescue training in real life.
Safety talk done and geared up, we carried our boats one-by-one down the steep sandstone and limestone canyon with an old fire hose tied off to assist the descent. I felt sorry for the guy lugging down his fat whitewater canoe this point… I paddled in my tiny play boat to make this part easier! The SUP lead the way downstream and I followed at the back as the designated sweeper, yet no one swam. The river was beautiful and clean, but starting to get noticeably shallow in some parts. It was over all too soon so we ran it again, stopping to play a bit more, practice eddy turns and rolls. A perfect day.
I added our classic Little Buffalo River trip “Below the Falls” to PaddlingMaps.com today, so if you’re interested, soon you can check it out online (pending approval). If you’re a local interested in learning more about paddling in this region, feel free to contact me and I can give you the scoop on our local whitewater routes, programs and news about our 2020 paddling season. As you can imagine, things will be different this year, particularly our ability to share and rent gear will be impacted.
If you’re feeling inspired to get geared up and start getting out on the water with your own equipment, I recommend talking with someone experienced in your craft of choice (whitewater kayak, SUP, canoe, etc.). Aquabatics got me started, and they can get anyone off to a good start on the river with their variety of gear selection, guidance, and much more to support the paddling community. We’re like a big extended family. So get out there (safely), and take some pictures to share the stoke with the rest of us!