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Squamish River paints a new picture

Rafting guides face new challenges following winter season of change
Nature Creates new challenges

Mother Nature can be cruel sometimes. Take the example of Capricorn Creek on Mount Meager or Cataline Creek at Lillooet Lake Estates. Both creeks have been in the news recently for putting people at risk from debris-flow damage.

But sometimes the changes wrought by nature can create whole new adventures, as rafting guide Jake Freese has discovered on the local Squamish River, a Class IV waterway — the make-up of the Squamish is dramatically different this season compared to last year because of big rain events.

"There's an impressive 20-foot (six-metre) wall of rock at the Steamroller rapid, that wasn't there last year," says Freese in a press release. "These big rain falls are destructive events and often significantly change parts of the river. Usually, over the course of the spring melt the river gets reset to something like its previous course — but not this year."

From a rafting perspective, the river is presenting new adventures, new challenges and new risks.

Speaking from his home base at Sunwolf, where the Cheekye River flows into the Cheakamus River, just upstream from the confluence of the Cheakamus and the Squamish River, Freese says a few large boulders crashed down into sections of the Squamish River rafting course during the offseason. The first rafting trips of this season produced some big surprises for the rafting guides.

A set of rapids called 50/50 was so-named because a series of rocks once split the river evenly. The off-season changes have shifted the percentage to something more resembling an 80/20 split. Freese chuckles at the suggestion that maybe the name should change now that it isn't an even split down the centre of the riverbed.

"At the bottom of this left channel of 50-50 there's now this insane feature that we have to go around," he says. "That hasn't got a name yet so maybe it will be called something different by the end of this season."

Freese explains much of the change in the river is a result of a single, big storm at the end of August. More than 70mm of rain fell in one overnight period. Rock, mud and debris from the slopes below the Tantalus Range made its way into the mountain streams and settled in the Squamish River to create the new challenges.

"Features in the river are created by what's underneath, so if you put different amounts of rock in there it creates different features. We've had changes all the way down to the lower section," says Freese.

"What used to be a big section, Steamroller, started with this crashing hole called Freight Train," Freese says with excitement audible in his voice as he emphasizes the names of the features. "You could only put a boat through there some of the time."

At times, it just couldn't be done. There's now a big rollercoaster rock ride right down the middle.

"We used to have a photographer who'd take a photo of you going into that section. The rock he sat on is now under 30 feet (nine metres) of rock and mud so it's like a narrow canyon."

Freese is excited about the changes. He's keen to show first-time customers, and repeat rafters alike, the exciting new features on the river.

Jeff Fisher, president of Sqomish Forestry, looks at the Upper Squamish Valley through a different lens. He says change has been a constant in the area for the last 10,000 years. The changes in the mountain valleys cause him and his company constant headaches and raftfulls of money. Sqomish Forestry maintains the forestry roads in the valley.

"Mud Creek blows out somewhat regularly," says Fisher with a hint of frustration in his voice.

Terminal Creek also wipes out the mainline road occasionally. Terminal and Mud Creek pass under the road through large culverts. The creeks bring volcanic soils down from Mount Cayley, blowing out the culverts on the way down, and then deposit the mud, rocks and wood debris into the Squamish River.

"In the last 10 years we've probably spent a couple hundred-thousand dollars repairing the mainline due to river erosion," says Fisher.

Sqomish Forestry and the provincial government figure out together who pays how much for the repair work needed to allow the logging to continue and so nature lovers can continue to raft, kayak, camp, hike and recreate in many other ways in the upper reaches of the Squamish Valley.

The logging company doesn't harvest trees in the flood plain, so only the transportation end of the logging operation is impacted when violent storms roll in. Some years, says Fisher, there's little to no damage while in other years culverts need to be replaced four times in a 12-month period.

For the most part it is the same with the rafting community.

When the conditions permit, Freese and the other raft guides who run the Squamish River shuttle their customers to the rafting-entry spot on the river and paddle their way down with their wide-eyed, thrill-seeking customers enjoying the scenery, holding tight when the command is given and paddling hard through the rapids.

This year, the summer adventure seekers on the river are likely going to be thankful for the new obstacles nature has fashioned — rockslide-inducing rainstorms have cranked up the fun factor for rafters.