“There are many ways to salvation, and one of them is to follow a river.”
I have spent the last two decades chasing various whitewater dreams. These dreams started out innocently enough with my goal to become a good enough kayaker that I could work as a safety kayaker for the local raft company in Aspen, CO. Then I wanted to kayak the Grand Canyon of the Colorado River—a totally reasonable objective. But after meeting Don and starting with Small World Adventures, my goals got a little more complicated: Kayak all the famous multi-day high sierra runs in California, kayak the Amazon River from source to sea (well, this was really Midge’s dream, but I sort of co-opted it once I started down the river), write my name in the book of legends on the Bashkaus River in Siberia, and kayak the Grand Canyon of the Stikine—the Everest of rivers.
After becoming the first woman to kayak the entire Amazon River, I learned that the feeling of satisfaction after big adventures is surprisingly fleeting. Yet, something in my brain still believed that if I accomplished all my kayaking goals (the list kept growing), I’d feel content with my kayaking career. I’d feel that I had enough significant accomplishments under my belt that I’d be ready to move on to the next chapter of my life. That was supposed to be the exact feeling I had, in fact, when I got to the take out of the Stikine at Telegraph Creek.
I had dreamt about the nerve-wracking drive north, rolling slowly over the Stikine River where the Cassiar Highway crosses it, hanging a hard left down to the beach and launching my kayak ever since I first started kayaking. It took me well over a decade of training to build up my skills to the point where I could even consider attempting this river. Then, a string of injuries and uncooperative water levels led me to believe I would never gaze up at the impossibly tight canyon walls from the bottom of the Stikine River. Year after year of training and prepping for the class V+ big water with strength training and breath-holding exercises ended in frustration after I broke my ribs, injured my neck, or the river never got low enough. As Midge had obsessed about the Amazon, I obsessed about the Stikine.
In August of 2016—19 years after I started kayaking— it all came together. Don and I were fit from a month-long paddling trip in Russia, we had free time, and the river was a perfect level. We drove the forty hours to the bridge and put on, just the two of us. I worried that if we waited for others to show up we might miss our window (both our weather window and our mental window). We both decided we felt comfortable just the two of us out there, despite the added risks that going as a team of two posed. Knowing we couldn’t make any mistakes, I was forced into a hyper-focused mode that concentrated all my energies into each paddle stroke. It worked.
It took me a few rapids to get used to the push and the power of the river, but before too long I was in a groove. Entry Falls reminded me to relax and to use the water to my advantage rather than fighting it. Three Goats went well and we were having fun in the “boogie water” in between. We ran the entrance to Pass Fail which was huge, but good, and then scouted the crux of the rapid. While scouting, we discovered that there was a log in the Fail slot. Failure was not an option. The Pass move looked doable, but there was a lot of water pushing towards failure. There was a “sneak” but it had a complicated entrance to one of the stickier looking holes on the river. Not wanting to give into hubris, we decided it was safest to walk around the first half of Pass Fail and then put back in for the exit. Directly afterwards, we ran the main line at Wasson’s and made it to the camp at Site Zed feeling energized.
I felt good, I felt like I belonged there.
We had the camp to ourselves and I sat on a high perch above the river in disbelief that I was seeing this for myself. The river was as big and hard as I expected. The cliff walls were taller and much more intimidating then I’d imagined. The mountain goats were more agile than I thought possible.
We walked Site Zed and before too long on day 2 we were entering the Narrows. I remember being so in awe that I tried to will my brain to capture the scene perfectly. I wanted to hold onto the image and never let it fade or diminish. Of course, this is impossible as memory is a fragile thing, but I didn’t want the feeling of being at the bottom of that river canyon to leave me.
We got to the new rapid (new in 2015) and scouted and ran while a mountain goat looked on from high up on the river left cliff. For the next hour or so, we enjoyed lots of what would be named, big rapids elsewhere, but are just the in between stuff on the Stikine. When we got to the Wall, I mantled out of my kayak on river left to take a look while Don looked after my kayak. The line looked different from what Don had described to me from his first run of the Stikine in 2014. There was a huge hole in the middle of the river, just right of center. The entrance was the same as it had been for Don—entering left-ish and then driving right, but then we needed to drive back to the left to miss the massive hole. Don was skeptical of my report having just seen it for himself 2 years ago, but he agreed to follow me down and was quite happy he had once he saw the hole!
We had Wolf-Track camp all to ourselves and tried to soak in everything we were experiencing. It can be frustrating when you want to absorb every part of an experience, but your brain is incapable of doing it.
We had a wonderful day 3, highlighted by V-Drive. I drove hard down the ramp and made it through the first feature upright, and just as my brain was shouting, “You’ve done it!” I was violently flipped over and shoved against the river left wall. I took a small beating on the wall as I washed downstream along it, but then rolled up in time to look back up at the unbelievably steep rapid I’d just paddled. There are still a lot of rapids below V-drive and it was a fun paddle out. I still felt totally incredulous at the fact that I, little Diminutive Darcy Gaechter, had actually just paddled the Stikine.
I have immense respect for those who went before me on the Stikine and pioneered this run. And hats off to Benny Marr and Aniol Serrasoles for kayaking the Stikine twice in one day! This totally blows my mind, you guys are amazing.
The trip was perfect.
We didn’t see another person on the river. Paddling the Grand Canyon of the Stikine was one of the best experiences of my entire life. But that feeling of deep gratification, so deep that it flooded me with the satisfaction to leave my sport behind, never came. I may have been disappointed in this, but I wasn’t surprised. At forty years old, I’ve finally accepted that ultimate contentedness is never going to happen. Pursuing it feels good enough though, so now I’ve resigned myself to doing it for the chase.
Haruki Murakami explains this feeling perfectly in his book, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. “And I hope that, over time, as one race follows another, in the end I’ll reach a place I’m content with. Or maybe just catch a glimpse of it. (Yes, that’s a more appropriate way of putting it).”
We are all, I suppose, confined to specific destinies and mine seems to be chasing rivers. I’m honored to take my place as the 4th woman to paddle the Grand Canyon of the Stikine. Nikki Kelly was the first, Nouria Newman the second, and Natalie Kramer-Anderson the third.
Being just the two of us, we didn’t get much footage, but I love the late Adrian Kiernan’s video of the run. He did such a great job of capturing the specialness of the place. We miss you Adrian.
Thanks for reading! Don and I head south in tomorrow and we are excited to start another season at Small World Adventures. We are thankful to be able to have these outside adventures in order to keep us fit for the Ecuador guiding season.