Night of the Rising River
by Dan Lewis, Tofino
We were on the north side of the Brooks Peninsula and the weather reports
began calling for gale-force southeasterlies. These things happen when
you paddle down the West Coast of Vancouver Island in September. So
Bonny and I decided to head up East Creek and wait out the storm.
East Creek is a pristine valley of more than 5000 hectares. By pristine
I mean no roads, no logging. Wild. It's one of the few remaining
un-protected pristine valleys on Vancouver Island. Not because most
of them have been protected—in fact, most of them have been logged.
So we looked forward to poking up the creek aways, setting up a base
camp, and spending a few days exploring the ancient rainforest.
Like many West Coast rivers, the first mile was uneventful. Moving
water, yes, but flatwater nonetheless. Class One on a scale that
ends at Six. Main hazard: strainers (trees that have fallen into the
with the butt still up on the banks), log-jams, and bridge foundations.
Even on seemingly mild creeks, the current can push you up against
any of these traps and pin you there helplessly.
Of course, we had helmets, and the necessary river training and experience
required to negotiate these potential pitfalls. We paddled upriver,
hugging the shore and using the back-eddies. We rounded the last
bend and saw a huge log-jam spanning the creek.
I looked carefully at this log jam, and noticed there was a way through.
You had to duck right down on your deck, and squeeze through. I was
aware that this manoeuvre would be more difficult when done from upstream,
and would be impossible if the water level rose more than an inch or
two. On the other hand, a huge gravel bar beckoned us just upstream
of the jam-the most idyllic campsite we'd seen for days. Weighing
the risks and benefits, we decided to go for it. What the hell-live
wild or die!
Successfully passing the jam, we set up camp as it began to rain.
On my second and third trips to carry gear up from the boat, I noticed
that the stern was being lifted by the water so quickly that it was
in danger of floating free. I pulled the boat up further, thinking
how odd this was to encounter such a familiar situation (it reminded
me of the tide rising and lifting a boat) in a non-tidal environment.
Our deceptively appealing campsite. As we cooked supper under the
tarp, it became apparent that the river was rising rapidly, faster
should. By the time supper was finished we were becoming alarmed
as our once-spacious gravel bar was reduced to a much more humble proposition.
By bedtime it was becoming clear that if the trend continued, our
campsite would be covered by the deluge. Trying not to panic, we came
a plan. There was a stick in the river which we would watch as a gauge.
We agreed that if that stick went underwater, we would switch to Plan
b. (We didn't have a Plan b, but knowing when we would switch
was somehow reassuring.) Besides, we were tired, and just wanted to
go to sleep and forget this whole crazy scene.
Shortly after retiring, I poked my head out the tent door to monitor
the river level. It took a while to register that the rooster tail
ten feet out from the bank was being caused by water rushing over
the stick, which was now underwater
Clearly, paddling the now flooding river into the log-jam was not
an option. The micro-gap we had squeezed through on our way up the
was long gone, buried beneath tons of moving water. We had discovered
shortly before bed-time on a preliminary scouting mission, that there
was a flood-channel a short distance back in the woods behind our
campsite. It was full of raging water. Essentially we were on an island,
the waters rising rapidly all around us in the dark.
We had no illusions about the likelihood of the whole valley floor
going under. In my time as a fisheries research technician, I had seen
just that happen more than once in the Clayoquot Valley, a pristine
un-protected watershed here in Clayoquot Sound. They don't call
it a flood-plain for nothing! We realised that our best option might
be to climb a tree, and if possible pull our kayaks and gear up after
us. Reluctantly we concluded that it would be wise to be pro-active,
rather than just lie there awaiting our doom. So we climbed out of
bed, and began the task of stuffing bags, stowing the tent, and re-loading
our kayaks. When we were done, the river still hadn't quite flooded
our site and we had a good six feet to the water's edge. We started
to feel our first glimmer of hope, even as the storm raged through
the tree-tops surrounding us. Maybe we would survive the night after
As we huddled under the tarp, we began to crave creature comforts.
If we didn't feel quite ready to set the tent up again, perhaps
we could at least have... a cup of tea! Picture this dialogue: "Let's
have a cup of tea." "Okay, I'll get a fire lit" (we
were too hard-core in those days to carry a stove). "Where is
the tea pot?" "It's in my bow, I shoved it in there
first" (our kayaks didn't have bulkheads, which meant the
whole bow would have to be emptied out to get at the teapot).
Within an hour, we had a fire lit, and hot cups of tea warmed our
hands. At some point in the wee hours, the rain let up and it became
that the river level was dropping. Fast. After watching for another
hour, it became clear that we could set the tent back up again, catch
some sleep, and with luck make our escape the next day.
When we finally awoke, we watched the river drop before our eyes
as if someone had pulled the plug. In fact, it dropped so much, that
desire to explore this wild rainforest valley overcame our drive to
survive. We decided to forego our window of opportunity to escape while
the river was down. Instead we'd relax, catch up on our sleep,
and spend the next day exploring. After all, the storm was predicted
to rage for another 24 hours.
You know what happens next, right? Sure enough, it started to rain
again, and the river began to rise rapidly, darkness and floodwaters
once again blocking off our escape. We were less freaked out the
second time, and managed to get through the night without breaking
Next morning the waters dropped. This time we wasted no time debating.
This wonderful valley would have to wait. We hope it won't be
destroyed by clearcutting before we have a chance to return (road-building
is currently underway in the upper valley this year, and Weyerhaueser
plans to log the lower valley.
Lessons learned? I still wonder if the ocean tide didn't have
something to do with our ordeal, even though we were a mile or more
from the saltchuck. Perhaps with the amount of rainfall in this early
fall storm, the high tide slowed the rate of drainage, backing the
water up to our campsite.
One thing for sure—there are always a lot of surprises in store
for even the best prepared paddler.
Dan Lewis lives in Clayoquot Sound where he operates Rainforest Kayak
Adventures with Bonny Glambeck. Phone him at 1-877-422-WILD, email
at firstname.lastname@example.org or check out his website at www.rainforestkayak.com
Tofino seakayaking veteran Dan Lewis writes about the perils of changing weather on kayak trips in Clayoquot Sound.