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The Drifters

By Roger Piantadosi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 9, 1997; Page E01


I wish you were here, because otherwise this is going to be a lot to carry home by myself.

That's what I'm thinking as I lean back against a long-fallen spruce beside this organically iced, cappuccino-colored tributary of the Sheslay River in a remote and narrow valley more than a hundred miles due east of Juneau, Alaska -- a corner of northwestern British Columbia covered more often by deep snow than guide books. The late-summer air smells faintly of wet earth and wood smoke, and I can feel the afternoon sun on my eyelids, a welcome counterpoint to the liquefied glacier running over my feet.

Okay, so it isn't truly you I'm wishing were here but rather my born-to-be-outdoors wife -- mostly so she could have this experience for herself. Otherwise, I'm thinking, I'll be expected to carry back alone everything we miss at home, back in comfortable Middle-Ground Zero, Maryland: all the everyday extremes, the routinely magnificent dawns and unpredictable Gaian mood swings that are still perfectly legal in this part of Canada.

All that I have to transport this stuff back in, of course, are words. And what's out here was definitely not made to fit into such lightweight manmade gear.

I mean, it sounds simple to say the water at my feet is about 40 degrees, the air at my head closer to 80 and the rainbow that has suddenly materialized across the Sheslay River maybe 20 miles across.

It seems melodramatic, on the other hand, to mention that six of our party might easily have died when one of our river rafts overturned in a freaky hydraulic not halfway through our journey, in what turns out to be the only serious mishap our decade-old rafting company has ever had -- but no one died or was injured. The fact is, after the cold and shock wore off and everyone had pulled together (literally, and in a less obvious but more important way) to retrieve the raft and its gear and to comfort the reluctant swimmers, not only did the six seem more alive for the rest of the trip, but so did everyone, and everything.

And, sitting here with my feet in a frigid little river named Tatsatua, I can tell you I've never felt more happily at rest in my entire life. But this is intrinsically related to having been, an hour earlier, trudging arduously down from the magical lunchtime view on a knoll halfway up 5,000-foot Goat's Haunt, some newborn blisters competing for attention with a slightly sprained gluteus as we bushwhacked our way down the bear trail through a thick spruce bottomland.

Over the course of 12 days at the end of August, about two dozen of us -- 14 men, eight women, three children -- rafted, camped and hiked through an area known as the Taku River watershed, a 4.5-million-acre, Massachusetts-size chunk of completely wild, salmon-rich, bear-ruled boreal forest and temperate rain forest near the border British Columbia shares with Alaska's Pacific Coast panhandle.

It is overwhelmingly expansive, formidable and lovely country -- a more fit topography for the discovery of such qualities in oneself, and one's companions, than one might realize -- if one was going thinking mostly of the vistas and the food.

Guided with quiet good sense -- and good humor and, yes, awesome camp cooking -- by Vancouver-based River League owner Ian Kean, his partner Patricia Thomson and their bright and tireless crew of five, every one of us on the trek knowingly violated whatever contractual agreements we'd signed back home to spend our lifetimes close to schools, shopping and cellular telephones. For nearly two weeks, we let our lives be dictated, shaped and eventually enriched by the unpredictable winds, jagged horizon, luminous skies and unbroken, largely vertical miles of spruce and aspen. These winding river valleys are little known outside the Taku River Tlingit nation that once called them home (and still does, pending treaty negotiations, though its people don't live here as much as prefer each summer to walk in -- yes, walk, more than 50 miles, from the village of Atlin -- to hunt and fish for winter sustenance, and to reacquaint themselves with the area's harsh mystique).

By the time you read this, cold and snow and a complete lack of sidewalks will have closed these valleys to all but the wolves, the hibernating bears and a few brave bald eagles and hardy (or foolhardy) adventurers or poachers until next summer. In the meantime (and speaking of inadequate words), the term "ecotourism" will most likely persist as one of travel's most meaningless catch-alls -- until, that is, the traveler actually puts down the brochures and admirable intentions, and goes. If you are that traveler -- and if you find yourself, as I did, on one of the River League's annual summer rafting expeditions through wildest British Columbia -- you will indeed have the term defined for you in such detail as will take your breath away.

Not to mention, more significantly, your brain.

Up here the fastest route to utter brain lock is also the only way out of this maze: a river. On this trip, cold opaque water hurtles beneath you for the better part of 10 days and about 150 river miles, throttled in a couple of spots into briefly thunderous Class 3 and 4 rapids, as it drains countless intersecting valleys in this seasonally snowbound and otherwise wet country. The rivers -- the Sheslay, Inklin, Yeth, Taku and dozens of nameless tributaries -- fold this way and that all day long, and sometimes they even double back at night through the few remembered dreams allotted to those of us unaccustomed to the after-dark comfort and safety of ripstop nylon.

So. Initially, you try a number of ways to stem the massive frontal-lobe flooding that rises from the endless wet roar, the omnipresence (though largely imagined danger) of both grizzly and black bears, and the forced intimacy with two dozen people you just met. Maybe you do this by hyperventilating aboard the rafts and around the nightly campfire, or by gluing your eye to a viewfinder, or taping your collection of mountain sage and dogbane leaves to the pages of a journal. You can postpone the inevitable for three or four days.

Eventually, though, you give up. You just can't deal with everything there is to worry about, fear or miss -- so . . . you stop. And suddenly, magically, you are forced to be where you are -- because you're not, without a lot of help, going anywhere else.

At this point, real live spontaneous ecotourism begins.

It seems much longer than four days ago that we gamely boarded those Cherokee six-seaters (which in Juneau you can almost flag down like taxis) and passed mile upon mile of mist-shrouded coastal mountains to reach these greener, broader peaks and silver-bottomed switchback valleys. I remember looking down during that plane ride -- my first time in a craft small enough to leak rainwater on my neck, just like my Geo. I looked straight down into a blue-green lake on top of a mountain and thought, Hey, that can't be real. Then, when we finally banked steeply into a flat, brushy valley and the landing gear knocked over what sounded like a small tree as we touched down, it all became real. A little too real, at first.

It had rained off and on while Patricia, the former provincial-park naturalist whose red hair and sparkly pale eyes are similarly intense, walked us from the airstrip through the adjacent abandoned fishing camp, stopping often to identify scrabbly flora, moose tracks and telltale scat (berries -- bear; fur -- wolf). Eventually we'd reached the large clearing where lunch -- a soon-to-be-familiar spread of cold cuts and sliced breads, peanut butter and jams, cheeses, pickles, sliced onions and tomatoes, plus cookies -- had been set up by guides Richard Nash, Jamie Wigmore, Paul Bosnich and our Tlingit apprentice guides, 18-year-old Dustan Jack and 16-year-old Jerry Jack, cousins immediately distinguished by their long, gleaming-black ponytails. Our first lunch in the wild was self-served under a huge blue tarp suspended on oars, while the crew got busy packing everyone's gear into four yellow rafts.

Later, we had all squirmed attentively on a loamy riverbank through a serious mosquito attack while we listened to an even more serious rafting and wildlife safety talk by Ian -- who didn't seem to notice the bugs wheeling around his bearlike figure, and was already looking sort of comfortably unkempt and visibly free of the awkwardness I'd noticed in him at the motel in Juneau the night before. I dimly understood then that the clumsiness was a symptom of a longstanding allergy to walls.

But I understand it better now. Today, four days into mostly flat water and in an ever-improving series of nightly beachfront resorts-without-walls, even the most fluorescent-lit and air-conditioned among us is finding it noticeably easier to breathe.

Half the group on today's hike had continued on to the top of Goat's Haunt -- where they could catch their breath and contemplate a sublime 50-mile spread of river, mountain and sky. The rest of us had gone about halfway up, and thus returned an hour or two earlier; the lull around camp upon our return seemed an opportune time for my first wilderness bath.

It was easy: Full immersion. Soap. Full immersion. Towel.

Screaming seemed to help.

The screaming amused the two youngest of our group, 9-year-old Sam -- the tireless son of Toronto lawyer-fisherman Gary and schoolteacher Sue -- and 10-year-old Sterling, a similarly fearless one who came from Edmonton with his tall and understatement-inclined brother Landon, 13, and their patient, droll dad, Darrell. After the yelping and scrubbing ended, they went happily back to work on the rock-pile bridge they were building across the swift but small Tatsatua to the "kitchen" area, a campfire and a circle of makeshift benches out on the flat gravel bar at the edge of the confluence.

My shouting failed, luckily, to disturb our most senior camper, napping in her tent just upstream -- 77-year-old Maggie, a New Yorker with the broad vowels and unwavering graciousness of her native South Carolina, and a veteran traveler whose most recent trip was aboard an Arctic freighter. Maggie came up here with her granddaughter Katie, a Connecticut 28-year-old whose restaurant-business background explained her tendency to grab ropes, oars, frying pans and anything else lacking a steady hand -- and also why she, of course, was on today's longer hike.

When I was dry and feeling surprisingly excellent, Janet, a native San Diegan transplanted to Vancouver, dropped by to chat and deliver aspirin; her husband, Alistair, a playfully straight-shooting and almost annoyingly hardy Scotsman, was also on the longer hike. I had forgotten how I'd bleated for an aspirin during the steepest part of the hike down, accepting them with thanks though I no longer needed them.

"What do you have to trade for aspirin?" Janet had asked up on the mountain, turning around to give me an almost-serious look as we passed through a close-to-vertical cathedral of aspen.

"I have no idea," I huffed. "What do you need?"

She thought for a moment. Someone ahead of her released a branch that she half caught in her hand before it whacked her in the head.

"You know, what I'd really like right now," she said, turning back downhill, "is a margarita."

Up ahead at that moment, guide Richard -- tall, cheerfully wry, English, carrying one of the River League's two still never-used shotguns -- whooped loudly, routinely giving our presence away to any refrigerator-size forest dwellers who might be in the neighborhood, most of whom are more wary of you than you are of them and dangerous only if surprised. We moved on, surprising no one.

Shortly after the second hiking group returned and that ancient drift of campers toward a night fire had pretty much occurred, there was one surprise left. Alistair was telling me of his plan, about a third completed, to hike every 3,000-foot mountain in Scotland before he dies, when Janet rushed over and tugged our arms to follow her to the large jug usually filled with a mix of river water and Kool-Aid. Nearby, various talented part-time chefs with full-time jobs as river guides were perspiring cheerfully over the fire, toasting tortillas and sauteeing something reddish-brown. Janet pointed to the jug. It held a familiar greenish liquid, ice, limes and a ladle.

Margaritas. To go with the burritos.

"I'm going to have to be careful what I wish for," Janet said, reaching for the ladle.

The next morning, the sky grayed, the Sheslay narrowed and sped up, and we looked forward to the big whitewater day of an otherwise beigewater trip. By midday our four rafts reached Box Canyon, a sharp right through a narrow gorge with a significant drop and two or three big standing waves right at the turn. About 200 yards shy of it, we pulled out of the current and tied up the rafts so that all but one of the guides could hike ahead to check out the run. The sun came out, and inside a bulky thermal T-shirt, life jacket and rain gear, I began to sweat in earnest.

We sat quietly, briefly following the flight of a familiar white-tipped bullet across the water that was headed for one of the nearly 40 bald eagle nests we would see along the river. I was sharing Ian's raft today with Maggie, Katie and Michael, a stout, 30ish financial adviser from the north of England with a devilish wit and a firm commitment to both early-morning salmon fishing and late-night sing-alongs.

Half the guides returned; Richard told us that Ian, Jamie and Dustan would stay up at the cliffside lookout to watch the first two rafts go through; they'd be back in about 15 minutes to take the last two. In the distance, we watched first Richard and then Patricia each push to the same point and then pause, turning slowly into the chute, and then zoom, paddling furiously, down and out of sight.

Not 15 minutes but closer to 90 seconds later, the three other guides came crashing through the woods to the rafts, grim and breathless.

The second raft had strayed too close to the canyon wall and caught a protrusion, pushing the raft edge down into the current, which boiled up enough instant force at the opposite end to flip the raft over. The rafters were in the water before they knew what hit them.

No one but Ian spoke into the sudden airborne electric charge, and he barked precise, absolutely vivid commands, planting himself in the rower's seat and us back in the current in about 15 seconds, and shifting, with the sheer force of his voice, Maggie to the center of the front bay and Dustan to the free paddle next to me.

"You're going to paddle for me like you never paddled before," he said, pulling powerfully away from the bank, "and you're going to pull as hard as you can until I tell you to stop!"

I recall no thoughts of personal safety, and I remember nothing of the rapid, so focused was I on my paddle and its purchase on roiling water. I remember reaching once to draw and and hitting just air -- though all I could sense in front of me was a wall of water. I recall hitting the flat water that spilled into a steep, scree-sided eddy coming out of the turn, and being hit by a much warmer wave -- of relief -- at seeing all six occupants safely on solid ground.

Patricia, kneeling erect next to Janet atop a 20-foot flat-topped rock outcrop that also seemed to have trapped the overturned raft, patted the top of her head with her palm: the signal for all safe and accounted for.

The other four -- Jerry, shaking but coherent; unflappable Alistair; Allan, a comfortably outdoorsy lawyer who heads the Vancouver-based environmental group B.C. Wild, and his equally surefooted, graceful-under-duress wife, Linda -- had made it to the slack water on the outside of the canyon's second, wider curve, and were able to climb the crumbly scree and catch both their breath and some welcome rays. We paddled straight to them and followed Ian's orders to either stay with them or follow him the few yards downriver where the errant raft was held fast against the bank by the current, bottomed-up halfway between the bank and the outcrop on which Patricia and Janet waited.

Richard's lead raft carried not only his first-time adventure-touring parents, David and Liz from Kent, England, but his girlfriend, Cathy, a tall and outgoing Australian; he had pulled off around the bend and hiked back upriver to see what had happened. The first thing Ian did was send Dustan back down the bank to let the lead rafters know everyone was safe, and then he and the others leaned into a complex and ingenious rescue.

Some of the crew brought Patricia and the shivering Janet off the outcrop in an improvised rope-drawn ferry using Paul's inflatable sea kayak, delivering Janet to a tearful embrace with her husband on the bank, and then to a blanket and dry clothes. Patricia, looking forlorn but stoic, leapt into the cleanup fray. The harnessed, heroically sure-handed Jamie and Paul, belayed by others on the bank, scrambled across the overturned raft to secure it in place with carabiners and lines.

Eventually the strongest were gathered up to try, with ropes and brute force, to right the raft -- presumably weighing more than a ton with its steel frame innards, a quarter of our food and our gear-filled, supposedly waterproof river bags still strapped to it and hanging upside-down in the current. In the end, though, the same force that sucked us in spit us back out.

Jarred by our otherwise futile efforts to lift its outer edge, the raft began to shift sideways in the current, and then to spin, the tension on the ropes raising up the very edge we'd been trying to lift. If we pulled hard one more time, it seemed, the current would act as a lever, pushing the bottom in the opposite direction, righting the raft. We hollered and sweated and sank deeper into the scree.

It landed with a huge, satisfying whomp.

"Unbelievable," Linda would say later at camp, as every available branch and sunny patch of ground was covered with wet clothing by those whose river bags happened to be aboard the raft -- which, amazingly, lost almost no equipment. "Watching you all do that was just . . . beyond words."

Two hours after Box Canyon, we reached the second rapid of the day -- and the last real white water of the trip. It was a simpler, straight drop, but any who wanted to walk around it were given that option.

The six who had been on Patricia's raft earlier made a point of choosing not to walk.

And by the time we pulled up to make camp on a wide, treeless expanse of smooth rocks surrounded on all sides by the clear-running Nahlin River, something had shifted among us, and was reflected somehow in the profile Mother Nature chose to hold in the light from that day on.

That night, in our huge rock-bottomed, mountain-sided bowl, the sky was cloudless for the first time, and the brightest stars seemed more than reward enough for the hardest of days. But then the Northern Lights began.

For me to describe what such green, rose and yellow waves of ionized atmosphere look like when they ooze and flutter across a field of white dots on a deep purple sky, well -- yeah, forget it. It's like telling someone who hasn't tried chocolate what it tastes like.

In all honesty, as the sun repeatedly shone every day in this normally rainy region, the rest of the trip was like that: inexplicable.

How can I describe properly, for instance, our group's other Sam, a 65-year-old cigar-smoking, head-shaving, semi-retired Wyoming pathologist and anything-but-retiring raconteur? Watching his fully pitched, well-used tent roll slowly downriver on top of a swift current, blown there by the 50 mph gusts that appeared one evening as we set up camp, he shrugged. "I guess it was time for that tent to go," he said and stomped off, humming to himself.

How do I illustrate what it feels like, further down the Taku, to whoop and duck through a riverside rain-forest tangle of alder and devil's club (named for the shape of its frond and the personality of its spiked stems)? Or to ford a glacial waist-high stream a half-dozen times by clinging to a smiling but solid human chain of river guides? (One of them, the evermore John Cleese-like Richard, commented unforgettably on the water temperature that day by simply tilting his head and piping up in polite British, "Excuse me -- has anyone seen my testicles?")

It is equally impossible to fully limn the climax of that hike -- the rocky, sun-dappled bottom of a narrow, 1,600-foot waterfall that Jerry, the son of his tribe's chief, had told us was a sacred, storied place among the Tlingit -- his tribe's ancient warriors came here in the dead of winter to build their strength by standing beneath its icy water.

"It's an honor for me to dip my head and shoulders in these falls," the suddenly wet-haired Jerry shouted above the high rumble, the space around him filled with wildflowers and spray-fed rainbows; he seemed somehow taller. "It's an honor for me to be here." His smile was shy as he paused, but his voice came out strong: "And it's an honor for all of you to be here."

Without words or advance planning, a ragged line suddenly began to form -- and Jerry, seeing what was happening, climbed back over to the base of the falls and gleefully helped lift a succession of newly soaked, non-Tlingit warriors off the designated baptism boulder.

I don't remember the walk back to the rafts.

I have a dim memory of our next-to-last campfire; of leaning in or laughing till it hurt while each of us read or recited or sang a uniquely personal verse; of Michael devising a complicated, hilarious Monty Python-like sing-along titled "I'm a River Guide and I'm Okay"; of not wanting the night to end.

I vaguely recall standing atop a glacier on our last day, carted there by the fishing boat that met us a few miles from the Alaska border, and sitting in the boat while Ian explained how, the way he and many others see it, a proposed mineral mine and adjacent road through the Taku valley to Atlin would begin an inevitable decline into civilization of the untamed country we'd just been through.

I remember waiting for a flight connection in Seattle and being confused, and then offended, when two women sitting behind me whined loudly to each other for 30 straight minutes about what so-and-so said to such-and such.

I wish they were there.

The River League leads 10 wilderness rafting trips on British Columbia rivers every June through August. (The Taku trips begin and end in Juneau, Alaska, others in either Terrace or Dease Lake, B.C., both being on Air Canada's routes from Vancouver and other Canadian hubs.) Prices for the seven- to 12-day trips range from $1,740 to $2,120 per person (not including air fare, or first- and last-night hotel stays). For detailed information on next year's trips (often sold out by spring) or group rates, write to River League, 1112 Broughton St., Suite 201, Vancouver, B.C., Canada V6G 2A8, call 1-800-440-1322 or send e-mail to A Web page devoted to conservation efforts in the Taku basin, which is not part of any national or provincial parks, can be found at

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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