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Toughman River

Bruce Kirkby

Far off – across hundreds of kilometres of stunted spruce, rolling bog and desolate mountain peaks – lay the goal that had reunited us again: the Hess River, dotted along its entire length with challenging rapids.
Six of us stood shoulder to shoulder, awaiting the floatplane on a rickety dock in northern Yukon. The last time we’d all gathered had been as gangly youths, spouting downy fluff on our faces – full of bravado. A decade and a half had passed since that screaming, drunken crescendo to engineering school. A time when beer for breakfast didn’t raise eyebrows; long before jobs, stress, heartache, coffee, booze, and time had all left their mark on each and every one of us. We carried the history with us now: spare tires, baggy eyes and – oh god it was true – even a few grey hairs.

Far off – across hundreds of kilometres of stunted spruce, rolling bog and desolate mountain peaks – lay the goal that had reunited us again: the Hess River. Dotted along its entire length with challenging rapids, the Hess has been lauded by legendary paddler Ken Madsen as ‘the Rolls Royce of Yukon Rivers.’ Having explored just about every last trickle, torrent, and puddle in the Territory, Ken should know.

The whitewater on this isolated river is generally regarded as the upper limit of what a fully-loaded expedition canoe can handle, and Madsen, in a typically understated manner, describes the Hess as ‘a suitable challenge for experienced wilderness paddlers.’ Oddly, he doesn’t mention anything about university reunions, an opportunity to hone long-forgotten paddling skills, or mid-life crises. We were six men, standing together on a rickety dock, in six completely different worlds.

Big Al was fretting. Seriously fretting. He’d been gutted since laying eyes on the horrendous pile of gear we’d brought. Now the quiet miner appeared to be mentally loading our three canoes with varying combinations of boxes, bags and coolers, yet always coming to the same conclusion: it all couldn’t possibly fit.

Booger on the other hand, the one responsible for us all being there, was well into his fifth beer and had long since ceased giving a shit about anything. Ditto for his younger brother, who in recent years had moved to the Yukon, thrown himself headlong into a homesteading lifestyle, and in the process developed an eerie resemblance to Charlie Manson.

The Rocket Scientist was still somewhat shaken after leaving his wife and two boys behind for the first time in eleven years. Apparently he’d left his appetite in Toronto too, and had done little more than pick at food since arriving the day before. But this was nothing compared to Nurm. Nurm – the man to talk to if you ever need industrial safety gear in Sudbury – was plain and simply crapping his pants.

The planning for any major journey traverses several distinct phases. First, that brief yet terribly exciting, moment of commitment. Despite a million promises to the contrary, you’ve let life drape its heavy arm around your shoulders again. Then comes a spark, an unexpected glimmer of hope, an enticing idea that surfaces between friends, over beers, in a changing room after hockey, while walking the dogs – it doesn’t matter where. The point is, without serious consideration, sensing only the potential for excitement and adventure, you unreservedly and eagerly say YES.

Next comes an extended period of over-planning, over-analysis and worry. You begin acting like a chipmunk, scurrying out to sporting good stores, building a nest of new gear in one corner of your living room. Lists grow like weeds. Spreadsheets are created, comparing things like the weight and battery life of headlamps. This can be especially bad amongst six engineers. Worse yet if one happens to be a rocket scientist.

The last phase is thankfully quick. For our group it began as we stood shoulder to shoulder on that rickety dock, watching the Turbo Otter coast towards us. With it came the dawning of a simple, yet powerful awareness: the very last chance to bail out was at hand.

Arriving by float plane - The Yukon. Photo by Bruce KirkbyCamping by the River Hess, Yukon. Photo by Bruce Kirkby
Rising in the Selwyn Mountains, the headwaters of the Hess lie a stone’s throw (well, perhaps a howitzer’s shot) from the origins of the area’s three most well known rivers: the Wind, Snake, and Bonnet Plume. While these three blue fingers stretch northwards – part of the great Peel River drainage – the Hess alone cuts south, into a gauntlet of peaks and canyons.
Given the popularity of northern paddling, you might expect to find the river crawling with boaters, but surprisingly, the opposite is true. Few boaters have heard of the Hess. Fewer still have paddled it. Each and every summer, hundreds of paddlers depart from that same rickety float plane dock, destined for the Wind, Snake, or Bonnet Plume. Yet years will pass without a single attempt of the Hess.

When I began searching for information, several experienced Yukon paddlers were actually stumped. ‘What? Where?’ A few shook their heads. ‘No way. Not for me.’ Google yielded just a single trip report, in German, alongside a handful of faded snapshots. I suppose that’s what whispers of kick-ass whitewater will do for a river tucked in the middle of nowhere: build a mystery.

Booger woke me in a panic that first night. It was three in the morning and still bright outside our tent. Clearly he had been up for some time, tearing apart food barrels. ‘Have you seen the white bag?’ Booger hissed through the fly.

After the floatplane disgorged us on the edge of (aptly named) Porter Puddle, we began to portage the gear and canoes towards a distant dent in the alpine tundra, where the first dribbles of the Hess gathered and began gurgling downhill. Quickly lost in head-high willows, we ran out of energy near midnight and flopped down where we stood. Amidst that horror of swearing, sweat, and torn shins, I could not recall seeing a white bag.

‘For Chrissakes!’ yelled Booger. It seemed, he had forgotten all our hard liquor in the trunk of his car. We now faced a 14 day wilderness trip with just three bag-in-a-box wines. Poor Boog. He would suffer the loss more acutely than the rest. After a tough day, there was nothing he loved more than pouring a round of very stiff drinks. As he resumed his furious but ill-fated search, I lay awake, wondering if the lapse might be fortuitous. Not only would the rest of us be spared the inevitable hangovers, but our load had just become lighter.

That was pretty needed; after all, we were carrying a farcical burden of food and was entirely my fault. Months earlier, I offered to organise the meals. As a long-time guide on northern raft trips, it’s something I do all the time. No big deal. Everyone happily agreed.

So it was, in the days before our crew arrived in Whitehorse, that I grabbed the standard commercial packing list – designed for an opulent day-long rafting spread – and headed to the Northern Store. Eight shopping carts later I had the makings of steaks, salmon, eggs benny, cinnamon buns, Waldorf salad, roasted hams and a whole lot more. Perhaps I should mention I had only been on one multi-day canoe trip previously, a decade previously.

Back at base, with much cramming and jamming, I managed to stuff the food into four plastic wannigans, two barrels, two dry bags, and a large steel-belted cooler. At the dock, Big Al, raised in true Algonquin-esque lightweight tradition, was deeply troubled. The Rocket Scientist too. Nurm was silent, his thoughts elsewhere. But what could we do now? Leave behind one of the containers? All the meat? All the deserts? ‘Bring everything,’ Booger hollered from where he was watering the bushes. ‘Anything that doesn’t fit in, we’ll eat or burn.’ Charlie Manson, who loves hunting only marginally more than eating, whole-heartedly agreed.

Few boaters have heard of the Hess. Fewer still have paddled it. Each and every summer, hundreds of paddlers depart from that same rickety float plane dock, destined for the Wind, Snake, or Bonnet Plume. Yet years will pass without a single attempt of the Hess.
Camping by the River Hess, Yukon. Photo by Bruce KirkbyThe River Hess, Yukon. Photo by Bruce KirkbyBruce-Kirkby-River-Hess-09The River Hess, Yukon. Photo by Bruce Kirkby
We launched the canoes in an ankle deep trickle, barely 10ft across. For the next three days the youthful Hess meandered south through a wide valley, trickling over beaver dams and burbling with tiny riffles. Occasionally the banks pressed so close that it was a challenge to squeeze our canoes through, but the awareness we would travel this river from the source right to where it disgorged into the Stewart, offered a sense of completeness I’d never known before.

Apart from the constant jumping in and out, and dragging of boats through shallows and over rocks, the first days were easy and sunny. The majority of our discussion focused on which canoe carried the most weight. Everyone thought they’d been shafted, and soon six grown men were arguing over who should carry the toilet paper.

‘You take it.’ ‘No, you take it. We can’t fit another thing. Look at our freeboard (amount of gunwale showing above water). We’ll sink.’ Eventually someone stuffed the bag behind Big Al’s seat when he wasn’t looking.

In our own tipsy green canoe, Booger and I struggled. We’d known each other forever, or so it seemed, and had paddled whitewater for almost as long, although always in kayaks or rafts, never before co-piloting the same boat. The beauty of tandem canoeing is that two – working as a team – can create magic, guiding a big boat gracefully through waves and drops. But two working at cross purposes usually means a quick swim. And, as we were discovering, Booger and I paddle whitewater in a fundamentally different manner.

the wilderness surrounding the Hess defies comprehension. In our 14 day, 500km journey, we would encounter no other soul. We would pass no roads, no clear cuts, no seismic lines, no sign of man at all. From where we stood, untouched tracks of northern boreal forest stretched in all directions.
As a commercial guide, I habitually stick to the safest line. Booger, on the other hand, aims straight for the biggest wave he can spot. His skills are unquestionable, and he is at home on Class V water. For years I’d watched him in awe; often escaping mishap by the skin of his teeth, always roaring with laughter.
‘Easy line on the left,’ I suggested as we drifted towards a drop, and began drawing the nose towards the gentle water.

‘Screw that.’ Booger barked, prying his end the other way, directing us straight towards a jumble of rocks. While these little rapids were nothing to worry about, in the big stuff ahead our actions would need to be perfectly coordinated. In spirit of preparation, I suggested practicing a back ferry (traversing an eddy with the stern pointed upstream, paddling backwards) to round the next, benign corner. ‘Sure,’ Booger agreed.

Moments later, our canoe crashed sideways into the bank, took on water, and very nearly flipped. Booger and I both grabbed the gunwales and stared at each other with shock. ‘Kirkby, I know this might sound crazy,’ he leaned forward and whispered, ‘but you are gonna have to explain what a back ferry is.’ This from a man who had spent fifteen years paddling some of the hardest rivers in the world! Bill Mason – the granddaddy of all back ferries, bless his soul – must have been rolling in his grave.

Soon enough the easy days ended. The Hess pressed up against the towering glacial bulk of Keele Peak – the highest Yukon peak outside Kluane National Park – and swung west. Soon creek after creek came crashing down willowy hillsides, adding their load of cold, silty water to a quickly swelling river. Our descent from the highlands had begun.

Eminent novelist Margaret Atwood once wrote that we measure everything by its size in relation to our bodies. By that test, the wilderness surrounding the Hess defies comprehension. In our 14 day, 500km journey, we would encounter no other soul. We would pass no roads, no clear cuts, no seismic lines, no sign of man at all. From where we stood, untouched tracks of northern boreal forest stretched in all directions. The sense of isolation was immense, as was the sense of vulnerability.
Breakfast on day four was a quiet, subdued affair. For half an hour, Nurm stared at a smoked salmon and cream cheese bagel, eventually tossing it in the embers. ‘Still can’t eat,’ he muttered, sucking on his daily ration of a half cigarette. ‘And I haven’t taken a crap for days.’

Stale neoprene and choking drytops were dragged on; spray decks secured, spare paddles checked, and helmets retrieved. Ahead, according to Madsen’s book, lay a continuous 12km long boulder garden ahead, with stretches approaching class IV. In his own words: ‘A screw up in this non-stop section could be serious’

Feeling our way cautiously downstream, hopping from eddy to eddy, we stopped to scout when the first waves appeared on the horizon. The drop looked straightforward. Charlie and the Rocket Scientist won a game of rock-paper-scissors, and ran first. ‘Watch and learn you geezers,’ Mr. Manson yelled as they pushed off. The rest of us followed closely behind. Directly round the next corner lay another rapid. Then another. Stop, scout, run, catch the next eddy; the routine was soon automatic. With each passing kilometre, the pace and power of the rapids built. Concentration grew consuming. Time blurred. Under layers of neoprene, sweat went unnoticed.

Rapids on the River Hess, YukonRapids on the River Hess, YukonRapids on the River Hess, YukonBruce-Kirkby-River-Hess-13
Dark clouds were spilling over the western horizon when we reached the first really ugly section. A mess of boulders, foam and exploding waves stretched downstream for as far as the eye could see. Consensus was we’d have to ‘line’ it – in other words, while standing on shore, we’d use ropes to carefully guide our unmanned canoes through the gauntlet. Booger looked disappointed. Upon returning to the boat, his eyes lit up suddenly. ‘Any chance you wanna run it?’

‘No way!’ I shook my head.

Clambering over slippery, flood-smoothed boulders, we inched downstream, struggling to keep the ropes taut and the boats under control. Occasionally we jumped in to ferry the canoes to the opposite shore, or paddle a short section, but quickly we were on the lines again. Hours passed.

Eventually we found ourselves facing a drop so big and nasty, its waters so fast and violent, that I wasn’t sure we could line the boats through it. Did we need to unload everything and portage?
Big Al was unequivocal: it was possible. He wanted to line. Nurm, his bowman, wasn’t so sure. After a brief discussion, Nurm silently headed downstream with the stern rope in hand, looking white. The rest of us gathered close, ready to lend a hand if need be.

Big Al eased the laden boat from shore and slowly let the bow line play from his hands. For a moment, the red canoe balanced gracefully on the brink of the drop. Then it eased over the lip and slid calmly through the waves below. We all breathed a sigh of relief.

The boat had almost reached calmer waters when the nose got away from Al. It only drifted six inches out into the thundering current, but that was all it took. In a flash the rope was torn from his hands, and the loaded canoe swung sideways, into the meat of the rapid. Praise Nurm. With closed eyes and bent back, he somehow managed to hold on to the stern line, while being bounced and dragged across rocks. The canoe whipped around in a viscous pendulum, and then slammed ashore; safe, and more importantly, sound.

Now what?

Amazingly, Big Al suggested lining the other two canoes. Even more amazingly, in our low-blood sugar stupor, no one disagreed. Charlie’s canoe went next. Gently it went over the lip, through the worst of the turmoil, and then BOOM. Same thing; the nose got away. This time Nurm couldn’t hold it. The canoe capsized and drifted away, the green hull bobbing through foam and waves. A short distance downstream another ugly drop awaited, bigger than the last, which would undoubtedly dash the boat, and everything aboard, to smithereens. The Rocket Scientist let out one heck of a cry.

I happened to be the only one downstream, busily taking photographs – and all that remained between the escaping boat and certain catastrophe. Several things flashed through my mind as I tossed down my camera and sprinted towards the river. First: the trip was clearly over. Second: the canoe would be obliterated. And third: we would probably survive, but the 500km hike back to civilisation, in clogs, would not be pleasant.

Splashing into the icy water – up to my knees, my nuts, and finally my shoulders – I was swept off my feet. I swam for all I was worth, and the canoe was tantalisingly close. That’s when I heard the rapids, also alarmingly close. Immediately, thoughts of rescuing the boat were abandoned, and I began flailing back towards shore. I had been the last hope and I’d failed.

For some unknown and miraculous reason, the canoe followed closely behind me. If you were watching from a distance, you might have even thought I was pulling it with a rope but I wasn’t. I crawled ashore, coughing and dejected. Seconds later, the canoe’s heavy hull crunched into my calf from behind. Startled, I reached down and emerged from the water with the stern line in my hand.
‘Holy shit, you saved our asses brother,’ hollered Booger as he raced towards me. I almost spoke up, tried to explain, but why shatter perfection.

After portaging the final boat, we set our tents right there, on the river’s bank, squeezed between massive boulders. Nurm smoked an emergency cigarette. The Rocket Scientist brought out wallet-sized pictures of his boys. Manson practiced throwing his knife into a stump.
That night the rains set in. We awoke to find water lapping against our sleeping bags, and the river, up several feet, a swollen, muddy mess.

Downstream lay more frightening cataracts, each capable of shredding a canoe to matchsticks, so when the word ‘portage’ arose around the breakfast fire, there where no cries or complaining. Instead, we silently began humping coolers, boxes and canoes into the forest. Following moose trails across a boggy headland, bug nets firmly on our faces, we found the rapids eased – just a bit – downstream. It was exactly what we needed; something to repair our shattered confidence. Charlie Manson and the Rocket Scientist ran first, bounding down the central wave train and slicing into an eddy below. Whoops of delight echoed upstream, followed by a paddle held straight up, signalling: ‘All’s good, follow us.’

And down we went. Six tense men. Rapid after rapid. Cold waves crashed over the decks, and the canoes – soon half full of water – steered like container ships until bailed. Glare from the afternoon sun made rocks and drops hard to spot. Booger and I now communicated incessantly. See the rock on river left? Got it. Go hard, now!

Sometimes Booger spotted obstructions before me, and without pausing to look, I would pull for all I was worth in whatever direction he yelled. Other times, I was forced to instantaneous decisions from the bow, and behind me, I could feel Booger reacting in tune. The canoe felt light and fast. We covered only 12km that afternoon, none of them easy. By the time our tents were up and dinner cooking, something had changed. We drifted to sleep with anticipation instead of worry; the Hess no longer felt like an adversary.

As stormy weather passed, and the river grew lazy, we drifted shirtless in the sun. At Emerald Canyon, our canoes drifted silently past a white wolf, watching us motionless from the shore. Less than a kilometre later, four peregrine falcons attacked a shrieking grey owl. Woodland caribou regularly appeared along gravel-banks, and paddles held overhead as faux antlers brought the inquisitive animals prancing closer.

Canyons rose before us, sheer walls constraining turquoise waters, but everything was read-and-run; easy waves and fun splashes. The single most significant rapid of the entire journey – a final kiss before the Hess disgorged into the sanguine Stewart – waited on the border between two topographic maps, and was marked on neither. But there was no mistaking its roar as we approached.
Of a different flavour than anything we’d yet encountered, the rapid appeared suited for rafts, not canoes, comprising of high volume, big waves, and pushy water. Our group spent hours speculating how a canoe might navigate the maze of obstacles, but there appeared to be no easy line. Everyone else would portage, but Booger and I decided to run.

Silently we walked back to our canoe, securing the gear without a word. Then we stood shoulder to shoulder on the rocky shore, and with eyes closed, talked our way down the rapid: Start high and left. Aim for the curling wave. Brace. Angle to the right. Wait for the window of calmer water… and go hard now. Eddy out. Bail if needed. Peel out. I could see it all perfectly. Finally we shook hands, hugged so hard I almost lost my breath, and jumped in. We dumped of course.

We ran the tongue perfectly, hit the eddy we planned on, peeled out but didn’t lean enough, and in the blink of an eye, flipped. Pushed deep under water, for the longest time there was just silence, and bubbles. At last surfacing, sound and light rushed back. Overhead, I saw a throw bag arching through the blue sky. A yellow rope landed within reach. Then Nurm began hooting and dancing and signalling a touchdown like a NFL official. We later learned it had been the Rocket Scientist’s third throw; the first two missing miserably. Moments later Booger and I crawled ashore, humbled.

‘It could go either way,’ Nurm announced as we floated down the lazy Stewart River, three canoes rafted together, a tarp held up as makeshift sail. ‘Honestly, I haven’t felt healthier for years. Maybe you guys have really changed me? Maybe it’ll be gym memberships and organic food when I get home. But you know how things go. Life is busy. Sudbury is dark in the winter. I got a feeling, sooner or later, I’ll be back to the smoke and booze.’

‘No Nurm,’ The Rocket Scientist moaned, ballcap over his face, almost asleep. ‘This was a clean break. Don’t go back to that shit.’ Big Al wanted to know what was next. ‘The Queen Charlottes? Or what about Labrador? Is everyone in for next summer?’ ‘Of course,’ we all promised – knowing in the same breath it would likely never come true.

Then, with new-found muscles and vigour, we paddled – all the way back to that rickety float plane dock in Mayo. The Turbo Otter was gone. So were the crowds waiting to fly into Snake, Wind, and Bonnet Plume. Yellow leaves shimmered on shoreline cottonwoods, and atop high ridges, kinnikinnick flamed orange and red.

The sound of CNN and war in Israel leaked from a nearby house. Charlie Manson loaded his pickup in a rush, late for a moose hunt. Booger found the white bag in his truck, and poured everyone a Big-Gulp sized drink, enough to make up for fourteen lost days.

Bruce Kirkby

Bruce Kirkby has travelled to over 80 countries, with more than 2000 days of expedition travel. His journeys include the first modern crossing of Arabia’s Empty Quarter by camel, a descent of Ethiopia’s Blue Nile Gorge by raft, sea kayak traverse of Borneo’s northern coast, and a 37-day trans-Iceland trek.

A correspondent for The Globe and Mail, author of two bestselling books, and a multi-National Magazine Award winner, Bruce’s writing has appeared in The New York Times, EnRoute, Huffington Post, Explore and Canadian Geographic.

His photographic clients — both commercial and editorial – include Patagonia, Lululemon, Time, Outside, NG Adventure and MacLean’s. Winner of a prestigious Western Magazine Award, his photography was selected by National Geographic as among “the most compelling adventure images of the decade.”

Twitter: @bruce_kirkby
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