Wildwater, desert dreams and the Canadian inferiority complex

The Chilko-Chilcotin-Fraser river corridor is one of North America’s best-kept secrets – and not for good reason.

The Chilko River features the longest stretch of commercially operated whitewater in the North America. In fact, only the Futaleufu in South America and the Klinaklini (the Chilko’s nearby cousin) in British Columbia can rival it for continuous excitement.

The Chilcotin offers a relaxed pace while it wends its way through the Chilcotin grasslands before squeezing back into some dramatic granite canyons above Big Creek. The largest rapids on the chain are on the Chilcotin as you challenge Farwell and Big John canyons before oozing out onto the massive volumes of the Fraser.

Although a handful of whitewater enthusiasts and “B Grade” movie buffs may recognize the White Mile as home to a tragic series of deaths in 1986, the Chilko has never really achieved the notoriety.

ROAM outfitted more trips in 2006 than all the other Chilko outfitters combined. This made up a massive total of approximately 300 paddlers. Yes, I said 300. Despite being a perfectly circuitous waterway – the Chilko flowing into the Chilcotin, which flows into the Fraser – the Chilko River system is still in relative obscurity.

It’s all a bit perplexing.

People wait in line for years and often decades to run a trip down the Colorado River through Grand Canyon. A little closer to the home, and often compared to the Chilko by people “in the know”, the Middle Fork of the Salmon River in Idaho sees more than 10,000 visitors annually.

The Chilko has impressive water from May through September, while the Middle Fork volumes peak for a few weeks in June. Part of the Frank Church Wilderness of No Return, touted as one of the USA’s best protected wilderness areas, the Middle Fork has lodges, airstrips and no shortage of demand.

Now that’s not to say the Middle Fork is not an amazing river trip – because it is. It offers visitors, 100 miles and 100 rapids – nothing to sneer at – not to mention hot springs, nice walks and cool native art. And the Main Salmon features warm late season waters and big volume rapids with sandy beaches. Its just that the Chilko, which is a puddle-jumper flight from Vancouver and has high water all season, has been lying quietly for three decades of commercial rafting history, waiting its proverbial turn.

Perhaps it is just part of the Canadian culture to simply ignore the fact we have one of the best river trips in the world. Or maybe we are too polite or even afraid to speak up. Not even Tourism British Columbia – who many years ago chastised me for sending them photos (from the Chilcotin) that they thought were from Arizona – has failed to recognize the significance of Chilko River or Chilko Lake for that matter. I guess they were still trying to shake the nasty Mounted Police stereotype that plagued us for years. As it turns out – the headwaters of the Chilko River has an old Mounties outpost!

So…maybe we’ll never reach our “true potential”, but I am one Canadian who is willing to speak up but just as happy to enjoy it the way it is.