White Water and White Knuckles

November 16th, 2010  |  Published in Adventure  |  7 Comments

For Traveler Magazine

Question: How do two ‘girlfriends’ celebrate their 60th birthdays?

Answer: Well it obviously has to be naked bungy jumping or whitewater rafting. Given our age, the latter seemed a kinder option for all involved.

When it comes to slamming into 2 storey waves and getting sucked down, chewed up and spit out of thundering overfalls, whirlpools and rapids, one really neat place to do it is on the Fraser Canyon route in British Columbia. Here, near Lytton, where the Thompson and the Fraser Rivers clash and riot, is the fastest, wildest, most temperamental white water you ever saw.

When driving this scenic section of the Trans Canada Highway, one of the first things you’ll notice is the proliferation of White Water Rafting billboards by the sides of the highway. How to decide which one to try?

We settled on Kumsheen, meeting of the waters, for several reasons. Firstly, it’s a resort, so we could carry on our annual tradition of celebrating our birthdays and friendship with five-star lodging, and epicurean meals and wine, while we scared ourselves speechless. Most the outfits along the river offer rafting and that’s it. Why raft when you can resort? Secondly, Kumsheen has been around forever, since 1973 in fact, when no-one had even heard of rafting these brawling rivers, and Bernie Fandrich, a teacher at Langara College in Vancouver, took on the Thompson with one little raft transported atop his VW camper. He charged $8 per person, and at the end of the summer, $1000 richer, he altered his life. At another bend in the river, he also altered his marital status, finding the perfect partner in Lorna, herself a white water enthusiast. A trained nurse, she had come to Kumsheen for a rafting holiday, little knowing what her future held. Bernie and Lorna have since raised a daughter and two sons who are all in the business, own a thriving resort and campsite on expansive lands on the river as well as choice properties in the surrounding area, and employ a youthful, dynamic staff of 50, making Kumsheen the largest employer in the Lytton area. Not bad for a business that can only operate from May 1 to September 30.

There’s a third reason, too, their safety record. Our guide, Rob, assured us before motoring us off into mayhem, that the 220,000 thrill seekers they’ve taken out in 34 years have all been fine. Make that 219,998. Two people did go for a surprise swim, but both of them were quickly hauled out of the river. I was also reassured to learn there’s a backup inflatable that always accompanies the rafters. The fact that the parents of students from 17 regional high schools annually entrust their teenagers to Kumsheen, didn’t hurt either.

Okay, there’s a fourth reason. I’d already heard that Bernie and Lorna were very sticky about the B.C. licensed guides they hired; even then giving them an additional 2-weeks’ training. After all, guiding here is not a cruise not the river. As Bernie puts it:

The Thompson River’s rapids between Spences Bridge and Lytton are legendary. Monstrous waves, whirlpools and boils challenge river runners during high water in May and June. Later in the summer the river warms and becomes more technical with large, rolling waves and steep drops, and pools between the rapids.

And wouldn’t you know we’d be there in early June, when the Thompson was higher than anyone could remember and the river seemed to be drag racing with the freight trains hurtling down the canyon alongside us.

It’s Monday, nine a.m. and I am trying to get the toast down. We’ll need to meet our guide in half an hour, meet our fellow rafters, and get into our wetsuits. It’s a little dull and drizzly but I have been assured I’ll get drenched rain or shine.

It’s ten, and we are on our way, a ten minute trip to the ‘put in’ spot near Spences Bridge, two pickups hauling 22’ Pontoon rafts, especially designed by Bernie for running the Thompson and Fraser rivers, Although these sturdy vessels can take from 18 – 22 people, today there are only four of us. My buddy, Heather, small but tough; myself, big but a blubberer; and one of Kumsheen’s chefs, Jonathan, along with his friend, a tour guide, also Jonathan. (They became known as O Johnny and Johnny E.)

After a confidence-building safety briefing on board which included instructions on how to catch the towrope if we found ourselves in the Thompson, what to do if the boat flipped with us under it, and how to hang on, we pushed out into the obese river. My throat was dry with dread. What good were my prayer beads when I had to hang on for dear life? I needed gum.

A flea on a very irritated elephant, we raced and bucked our way toward Lytton, 25 miles downriver. Between us and the resort’s hot tub were 25 rapids. I didn’t ask for details but somehow suspected the worst would come after our lunch stop, having recalled something that Bernie had told me earlier: … the rapids – especially those in the Devil’s Gorge between Spences Bridge and Lytton – are always challenging for the guide and thrilling for the rafter.

Apparently, as one of the first people to raft the area, he got the sadistic pleasure of naming most of the rapids: Washing Machine, Witch’s Cauldron, Devil’s Kitchen, Jaws of Death.

I had thought initially I could pass the terrifying time by counting down the rapids: 25-24-23-22, but somewhere after the first two, with their rearing crests and their blasts of icy water, I forgot about that and started experimenting with whether it was better not to look, or to look and scream.

I’ll get you hangin’ on now, Tod would lazily drawl, while – with a glint in his eye – he would steer the bucking raft into the wildest water in the current stretch of rapids. Worse yet, just as soon as he could see I had unbent the last of my 10 fingers from my traumatized grip on the rope, he would bully the boat around and force the howling engine to press upriver so that we could run ‘em again. Save your gas, I tried whispering, please don’t feel there’s a need to… And he would smile sweetly and reply: I’ll get you hangin on now. He only did this on a select few of the 25 rapids, the ones that felt like we were slamming into Everest on a bad day. In between kamikaze charges into the white water, Rob would switch off the engine, chatting and joking, throwing in some history, and pointing out interesting sights along the way, like the bleached bones of a rafter who forgot to hang on, and the rattlesnake bridge. Why wasn’t this relaxing, looking up at the incredible scenery, the eagles, the ospreys, the trains rolling past with the engineers waving and blowing their horns, while the current swiped us quickly toward the jagged rocks, sideways? Why couldn’t I unwind a little more when Rob cut the engine and climbed unto his precarious perch, teetering over the side as he told us what horrors awaited us around the next bend?

The lunch spot loomed. We pulled onshore and dripped our way across the highway to a mirage, a verdant little slice of picnic paradise owned by Bernie and Lorna, where a warm and welcoming historic building laden with lunch goodies and hot drinks, awaited us. We munched out on the deck within earshot of nearby Nicomen Falls.

All too soon, lunch was over, and the ‘fun part’ was about to begin. The next section contained 15 rapids, in addition to the four fondly named by Bernie. Somewhere in this section, just past the Jaws of Death, I believe, I passed beyond terror into the realm of insanity; I started having fun. I still don’t know how anyone can head into such a boiling cauldron and get out in one piece. How did we do that? I’m going to have to go back and find out. Maybe our 65th birthdays? Maybe the 5-day trip?

Sidebar:

There’s really only one thing you need to know. www.kumsheen.com. How to get there, what to bring, trips available, power and paddle rafting, history, accommodation details, and what life insurance to buy, is all on this terrific site. Or call 1-800-663-6667.

Responses

  1. Cynthia Collingwood says:

    June 17th, 2011at 12:43 pm(#)

    60’s I cant believe it.

  2. Liquid Lifestyles says:

    June 23rd, 2011at 3:29 pm(#)

    For your 61st birthday come conquer the rapids on the Clearwater River with Liquid Lifestlyes!

  3. Lawrence says:

    April 23rd, 2012at 4:08 pm(#)

    Wow Cherie,

    This website of yours is fantastic! This whitewater birthday adventure with Heather is too much fun, good on ya!
    I am going to spend some hours exploring your website.

    Hugs brother Lawrence

  4. Cherie says:

    April 23rd, 2012at 5:33 pm(#)

    Thanks so much for checking out my website and for your comments; I’m flattered!

  5. Moises Bush says:

    June 9th, 2013at 11:37 pm(#)

    and is one of the earliest locations settled by non-natives in the Southern Interior of British Columbia , having been founded during the Fraser Canyon Gold Rush of 1858–59, when it was originally known as “The Forks”. The community includes both the Village of Lytton and the surrounding Indian Reserves of the Lytton Indian Band , whose name for the community is Camchin , also spelled Kumsheen (“river meeting”).

  6. Cherie says:

    June 19th, 2013at 10:07 am(#)

    Thanks for the informative historical addition.

  7. evapor says:

    June 28th, 2013at 3:30 am(#)

    May I just say what a relief to uncover somebody that truly knows what they are discussing on the net. You certainly know how to bring a problem to light and make it important. A lot more people must read this and understand this side of your story. I was surprised you’re not more popular because you surely have the gift.

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