feature 231 

Yahooing the Green and Birkenhead Rivers By G.D. Maxwell On the way to Green Lake, there's a hill. It's not much of a hill, but then this isn't much of a school bus either. As we slowed and ground our way towards the top, I couldn't help being reminded of a roller coaster engaging its drive chain and being pulled slowly, inexorably, toward the drop of death, the start of the ride. For 12 of us, the ride started not at the top of this hill but a minute or two away, at the boat launch on Green Lake. A quick poll revealed none of us had done this white water thing before and at least a few of us were there on a dare, having been either egged on by spouses and children or risen to the old school yard challenge: "Wassa matta, ya chicken?" While we waited for the guides from Whistler River Adventures to unload the boats, our driver demonstrated how to wear a life jacket so tightly we couldn't breathe but could be hoisted back into the raft by the lapels should we fall out. To counter this ominous thought, he reminded us how safe rafts were and how airtight the waiver we'd all signed was. Of course, his reassurances would have been more effective if a raft launched a few minutes earlier by another company hadn't chosen that exact moment to do a slow-motion rollover and spill its occupants into the frigid water of Green Lake. Even in the wetsuits we wore, I knew I didn't want to swim in Green Lake. Laird, our guide and comic for the trip, quickly pointed out they — the now-thrashing swimmers, formerly rafters — must have flipped the raft on purpose, maybe to cool off, maybe to demonstrate how easy it is to get back in if you fall out. I pondered his comment for a moment while a squadron of pigs flew by and decided it didn't seem that unreasonable, notwithstanding the forced edge his voice seemed to have taken on. Certainly no less reasonable than a realtor in Florida telling me the sinkhole opening up in the back yard of a house we'd just looked at would make a nice pool. No one backed out though, and we were soon paddling over the spot where the other rafters had been swimming. During this part of the trip, Laird went over the fundamentals of river rafting: left is left; right is right; move in means toward the centre of the raft, not in the water; and the scotch is in the first aid kit. We practised left is left and right is right, we moved in to the centre of the raft, but we didn't have time to pass around the scotch. The current grabbed us and we were vortexed into the river. The mouth of Green River is the drop of death on this ride. It starts narrow and fast and hits you with rapids right away. Sliding into the first hole, we were all so tensed up you could smell lactic acid. This was, of course, the opposite of how we should have been, which is to say relaxed. When the raft rolled easily over the first set of standing waves and nobody pitched out, we unlocked our muscles and started breathing again. By the second patch of white water, we were seasoned pros, yahooing our way through and looking for bigger water. It came soon enough. All that snow you see on Wedge Mountain melts into Wedge Creek, which, in turn, rolls into Green River at a point the guides endearingly refer to as Avalanche. As soon as we saw it — some time after we heard it coming — the yahoos all froze in mid yah and some serious second thoughts arose. Too late. We were committed, in it and through it before the fear manifested itself in any way more embarrassing than screaming and crying we didn't want to die. There is, below Avalanche, an eddy, a backswirl of relatively calm water. It has conveniently been placed there to allow intrepid rafters a safe haven to pull over, get out, and bail several hundred gallons of ice-cold water that came into the raft while traversing Avalanche. This is a good thing. Having survived Avalanche in style — I thought it was style until I saw the pictures — our group was emboldened. Hell, we were ready to take on Nairn Falls, which is, fortunately, considerably further than the end of the trip. A few minutes later, after almost an hour in the water, our trip, like any roller coaster ride, ended too soon. I was hooked; I wanted to go again. My chance came a few days later. Brian Leighton, the owner of Whistler River Adventures and my neighbour at work, asked me when, not if, I was going on the Birkenhead River trip. Brian has a cute way of putting things, ask anyone who works for him. That's how, on a wickedly hot day, I found myself standing by the side of the Birkenhead, listening to the same how-to-wear-your-life-jacket instructions, and sweating to death in a wetsuit along with 20 other people. It smelled like rubber day at the fat farm. Some things were different though. The life jackets attach more securely, they're bigger, and the rafts have seats for the guides and big, fixed oars. Clearly, the Birkenhead, being a bigger river, demands more robust equipment and a serious attitude. The company fortunately provides the former, but I was definitely in trouble, being incapable of the latter. Had I not been approaching core meltdown, I might have been worried. As it turns out, there's no time for worry on the Birkenhead. Unlike the Green, where you get to anticipate its roller coaster ride, entering the Birkenhead is like coming out of the chute on a spirited horse at a rodeo. As soon as Lise Anne, our guide, managed to get the raft away from the shore, the river was bucking us through a long section of standing waves. On the Green River, everybody paddles the raft. On the Birkenhead, the corner positions paddle, everybody else rides. The best ride on the Birkenhead is the centre-rear position. Everything that happens in the front is accentuated and multiplied by the time the back of the raft catches up to it. Centre-rear is a seriously yahoo place to be and the Birkenhead is a many yahoo river. It is also a three-bail river ride. That's bailing out the raft, not bailing out of the raft. At one of the bail-out points — I know it's confusing — I lost the centre-rear spot and pulled paddle duty on a front corner. This change of position coincided with the onset of the most yahoo section of the river. As much fun as the centre-rear spot is, there's a lot to be said for the front seat on a hot day. Entering a hole big enough to make us lose sight of the raft ahead, front seat riders get hit with a wall of water. This is a good place to refrain from yahooing, though fortunately, the water tastes pretty good if you forget. The main similarity between the two river trips is the disappointment as the ride nears its end. When Lise Anne told us our takeout point was coming up, there was some grumbling about a mutiny. That's when I found out what else those fixed oars are good for; the last hundred yards of the trip is a good float in or out of the raft. After better than an hour-and-a-half on the Birkenhead the trip still ended too soon. It left me a river junkie, craving more. Brian, my new pusher, says he might let me go on the Elaho/Squamish River trip they started running late last month. After what's been described as a fun-filled trip with Billy and the Village People, rafting starts on the Elaho at Mile 40, north of Squamish. Just below the put-in, the river constricts into a field of standing waves. About the time you feel comfortable with those, there's a stretch of Class 4 rapids just around the bend. These are, of course, bigger on the yahoo scale than anything the other two rivers have to offer, but you'd expect that from a river flowing at roughly 10 times the volume. After two hours of big water and bigger thrills, you'll need a break. How about a barbecue salmon lunch? Some salad with that? Maybe dessert? Don't eat too much, there's an endless stretch of rough water ahead. Yahooing on a full stomach can dampen your enthusiasm, make the magnificent scenery less beautiful and numb your senses. Then again, that may be the effect of the icy cold Squamish joining the Elaho. You'll get your rhythm back in the two hours it takes to complete the trip. You'll also get lots of great rapids, glistening glaciers, high rock walls and, yes Virginia, a tremendous stretch of unlogged countryside. But look quick; this last item is subject to change any time now. Take-out is at Mile 26 and you may finally have gotten enough white water thrills for one day. After a stop at the Mile 19 store for some ice cream, the road show discos its way back to Whistler. On the way back to town, I'm afraid that nagging, empty feeling just might start growing inside. Yeah, four hours on the river is a nice stretch but, after all, tomorrow's another day Scarlett. What happens then? Brian's got a three-day Thompson River trip in this month's goodies bag. Maybe if I'm really good...


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