Running the rapids of the Kicking Horse

By Ryan Laverty

Standing in my rainsuit, soaked from head to toe, I had a hard time agreeing with Tim, one of our bush-dwelling hosts, when he philosophized: "There is no such thing as bad weather, just bad preparation for it."

On a normal Friday night, city dwellers like us would kick back at a friend’s place or head to the pub for conversation and pints. Instead, I found myself in the heart of the Kootenays, standing around a fire because my chair was already too wet to sit in. The rush of getting out of the city was quickly washed away by the punishing downpour and all we really wanted to do was retire to the comfort of our tents. However, the comfort was short-lived when pooling water penetrated our groundsheet and we found ourselves lying in a puddle, soaked once again.

Why would a bunch of University of Calgary students subject themselves to such a debacle? It’s not as if we were Kinesiology students involved in an outdoor pursuits class, or as our guide Kyle put it: "Gym students with a major in camping." We did it to find an adrenaline rush the next morning, when we would brave the rapids of the Kicking Horse River.

The morning brought marginally better weather. However, as we headed down to the Canadian Whitewater Adventure Company’s launch point, with gray skies abound and cold wind at our backs, I began to question once again why we were about to subject ourselves to 3 C water and conditions wild enough to kill a person. The answer escaped us, but nobody was about to be the one to back out.

Instead, we readied ourselves for the inevitable. After straping on the company-issued wetsuits and spray jackets we mentally prepared ourselves for the fact that we were going to freeze.

Dirk, the fearless leader of the river guides gave us a brief but informative safety instruction on the hazards we would face and what to do in case of an emergency. When the meeting finally broke we piled into the rafts and began our journey.

Whether through bravery or stupidity–I am still unsure–I volunteered to sit at the bow of the boat in the "popcorn" position. The reason it is known as the popcorn position is because you have very little to hold on to. If you hit a rapid in the wrong spot you get popped like a kernel, and likely land in the raging waters.

The first part of the trip was calm. It was a time to fraternize with the other imbeciles who decided to take a trip down a river which up until the previous week, had been completely frozen. It was time to go over any last instructions the guide had for the crew. After about 45 minutes of social cruising, we embarked upon the first traces of whitewater. And while we were very aware of the water’s temperature, nothing could prepare us for the initial shock of being slapped across the face by a freezing blast from the river.

The ensuing three hours took us through Class 3 and Class 4 rapids. It soaked every last one of us. The weather didn’t change much over the course of the trip but we weren’t cold. The adrenaline and the constant effort expended to power the boats over steep gradient drops, past enormous rocks, and through tight bottlenecks kept us warm for the majority of the ride. Slowly we forgot about the temperature and began to concentrate on the form the water took.

The experience proved to be worthwhile. The combination of fear and excitement were the answer to a seemingly boring first month of spring. White-water rafting unites the minds and bodies of individuals and challenges the power of nature. It is a natural high paralleled by other extreme sports like skydiving and rock climbing. It is also a great way to stay active and enjoy the beauty of the outdoors.

So, if you can handle destitution and pain, rafting may just be the best sport you do all summer. My advice: wait until July, when the air temperature is warmer than the water.

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