Getting dropped off in the middle of nowhere, early in the morning. Waving goodbye and turning around, looking ahead into the unknown. This is my favorite type of start, an omen to the best kind of adventures.
This one, as many other, came from Arran’s brilliant mind and his wanderings on Google Earth: “Ok Joane, you want to go packrafting, I found a good one for this weekend! It’s a bushwhack that is hopefully not too deadly, then a river that is hopefully paddlable, and then lots and lots of flat water”. This autumn warm and sunny spell came as a blessing, as we wanted to squeeze in another hike-and-packraft mission this year, so there was no reason not to go for it.
It is 7am and we are on the Mamquam logging road, almost as far as one can go on four wheels from Squamish. We have 2 days to get to Vancouver, in three parts : a bushwhack over the hills for 6 km, the Indian river to paddle for 15 km, and 20 km of Indian Arm to sloggle (it’s like a slog, but with paddles). The sun is rising. We ‘ve still got a few kilometers to cover on the logging road. the way is clear and quick,
until it’s not.
This seems like the right moment to leave the alder mess and head up the hill directly south. Indian River is 6 km ahead. The hike up is awful, steep, and prickly at the start: devil’s club and salmonberry leave us no rest. Each of us slips and disappears into holes a few times. But as we slowly gain elevation into a less steep, more blueberry-type undergrowth, things get better. The top of the hill is an anti-climax, but our reward is on the other side: two lovely ponds.
There is a second slope to walk up. It leads to a long meadowy ridge, made surprisingly enjoyable by wildlife trails, despite the inevitable whack on the legs from stiff bushes. Not ideal for our already scratched skin. The warmth of the sun, the colours around, and nice views over Red Mountain on one side and Meslilooet on the other finish convincing us that our route over the hills was the right choice, the obvious alternative being a 30-km lower-elevation logging road going from Squamish to Indian Arm and full of 4x4s and ATVs.
We follow the ridge to its very end. Part II is in view!
The descent starts steep. We get cliffed out a couple of times, and finally reach logging roads long gone wild. Better to ignore the aldery switchbacks and head straight down the hill. The forest, after a short prickly unpleasant section, opens up into enjoyable, quite open mature stands. We are in elk territory.
Contrary to our expectation, travel gets easier as we hike downhill. We alternate between cruising on an ancient logging road ( now just a flat and more open strip of forest in the forest) and marching through a largely absent undergrowth among huge cedar stumps.
This leads us to the river in less time than expected. The whole hike, however, took us a full day. It is 5 pm. We scout around, assess the river, and bad news: it is too shallow to paddle. As we set up camp on the riverbank and settle around the fire, dusk and doubts jointly start wrapping us around.
“What if we cannot paddle at all on this river? What is preferable: bailing on the 30-km logging road back to Squamish, or trying too hard, portaging and walking most of the 15km to the sea for the whole day and then, sea-paddling for 20 km well into the night?”, we ponder over a delicious tunisian couscous dinner.
“We’ve wanted to try our packrafts on flat water for a while, right? We’ll learn something. – But is a 20-km paddle ideal for the test? – We may find motorboats to take us if we’re too slow. -Let’s not count on that” we keep arguing over chocolate and whiskey.
The next morning is as gorgeous as a fall morning can be and takes our doubts away. The excitement of the adventure takes over. “Let’s go!”
We walk along the river on an impeccable logging road until we’ve passed the impassable
and until the depth of the river has become acceptable. We blow our packrafts up and put our sprayskirts on, stoked about the 8 km left to paddle downstream.
The next two hours are bliss: A gorgeous river with stunning colours and wildlife all over: hundreds of chum salmons flick and zoom under our boats while families of eagles are on watch on every single tree that dominates the bank; an otter dives in from a dead stump; as we get closer to the sea, gulls fight over dead salmon while seals jump around chasing the live ones.
As we reach Indian Arm at 2pm, we don‘t hesitate long. With only a short glimpse at the line of 4x4s parked there ready to give us an easy ride back to Squamish, we keep paddling into the sea, trying to mentally prepare for the long sloggle down the fjord.
Packrafts are amazing: they can go down the roughest whitewater and, as we discover, they are also quite easy to steer on dead flat water. In the absence of wind or current, they are actually suitable for it, although much less efficient than sea kayaks.
If you are used to sea kayaks and you find yourself packrafting along in the quiet sounds, there is a chance you’ll sink into despair a few times, as you give it all you can to stay at a 90-year old walking pace. Like me at km 6 or 7. My shoulders hurt, I am trying to stay “in the zone”, but I start freaking out instead. “Arran!! ARRAN! STOP!! LOOK! We’re not moving, we’re NOT moving AT ALL. We’ll never get there.” Arran extracts himself from his sunset contemplations and looks at me slightly confused: “Uh? Really? I mean… look at these cliffs back there: I am sure we passed them a few minutes ago…” I manage to calm down. “Okay. But at this pace we’ll still be paddling in complete darkness with our freezing cold bum soaking in a puddle at midnight.”
This fortunately did not happen. We paddled into the night and started getting cold for sure, but we hit the Deep Cove marina at 7.30pm. The sloggle had lasted 5.5 hours. We stepped into civilization in search of greasy food and a dry bed. We were wet and hungry, but inside us lied the warm and fuzzy feel of a successful adventure.