Power of Rivers
Dec 01, 2016
By Kara Pitman
Our 18-foot raft plunges towards a 4 meter vertical wall of muddy water. I white-knuckle my paddle, holding on for dear life. Behind me I hear our oarsman barking ‘all forward - paddle, paddle, paddle!’. I blatantly ignore the orders, shrink into the boat and cry out profanities. I can’t feel my legs, and my heart pulses so vigorously that I imagine my PFD is bulging with every beat. Our raft slams against the wall of water, wallows, and emerges through the bucking waves. We are jarred by the impact and drenched by shockingly cold water that crashes down over our heads. I feel relieved that the boat is still upright and that we are still in it, but soon logic vanishes from my thought path, and fear takes over. To follow were tears and a flurry of thoughts planning my escape. How can I get out of travelling the next 50 kilometers of river slated with Class IV rapids swollen from the torrential downpour we had the 24 hours prior? What would the group think of me if I ditched them? Would they finish the sampling for me? Could a helicopter land on a gravel bar to pick me up? How far is the nearest road, could I hike to it? Would I get attacked by a bear if I did?
With river travel the moment you put your raft in the water, no matter the conditions or if they change, you’re committed. Conditions changed during my field work on the Babine River when 50 mm of rain fell in less than 24 hours resulting in a rushing flooded river. When I was in the project development phase, the complicated logistics of this research project seemed thrilling. My take was “Great! I’ve always wanted an excuse to raft this notoriously stunning river”. I overstated my confidence associated with whitewater travel, and didn’t fully understand what Class IV rapids looked like. To me Class IV rapids are terrifying, they look like they could swallow rafts whole. But to my repeated surprise, our raft remained afloat and crew emerged from every one of those rapids with expressions of pride and adrenaline, while I alone felt panic and fear. I have accepted that while I’m not one for being ‘in’ these conditions, I find the reaction rivers have to changes in weather and climate fascinating. I thought I would be putting out temperature loggers, looking at numbers and graphs, then doing spatial analyses. While I am still doing those things, the reality of climate variability crashed down with icy power and sent me crying to the bottom of the boat.
In the end, I pulled myself together with the help from my crew, finished the raft trip, and successfully downloaded and redeployed my temperature loggers. While I might steer away from exposing myself to any more ‘extreme science’, I will forever respect the power of rivers.
A big thank you to Gitxsan and Lake Babine Nations for permitting access to your territories to conduct our research, and thank you Skeena Watershed Conservation Coalation for your supply of expedition gear, rafts and guides. This project would not have been possible without your support.