“Left paddle. Left paddle. Left paddle! LEFT PADDLE!…STOP! OK, great!”
Even though her windpipes were getting a workout from shouting out commands as our group of six frantically paddled around churning rapids, our bubbly guide Sarin never wiped the smile off of her face as we navigated down the winding Tatshenshini River. Despite the grey sky overhead and the fact that my feet had gone numb from the glacier-fed water that had pooled into my booties, there was no denying how stunning our surroundings were.
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We’d arrived at the Tatshenshini Expediting headquarters (if you want to call old school buses converted into storage rooms ‘headquarters’) an hour earlier, which are located near Haines Junction right on the border between the Yukon and B.C. After filling out the waivers and signing our lives away, we squeezed into the spandex-tight wet suits designed to keep away the chill of the water, tightly buckled our lifejackets and helmets and grabbed a paddle. At the time, I had no idea how much we’d be using it.
A quick safety demonstration including helpful tips such as “what to do when you fall out of a boat and get caught in a rapid” and “why you don’t want to drown” was up next, and just like that we found ourselves hauling a big yellow raft into the ice cold water and hopping in.
For a brief, blissful moment as we headed off, the sun emerged through the clouds and we silently floated along a stretch of water that more closely resembled a lake. The only sound came from the paddles of the lead boat gliding through the water, and mountains covered in bright foliage rose up around us. We even spotted a majestic bald eagle soaring overhead, and were told that spawning salmon are also a common sight.
Then in an instant, it all changed. Our first set of rapids.
Foolishly thinking that I would get to enjoy the scenery while OTHER people navigated the waves, I was quickly snapped back to reality as Sarin shouted from her perch at the stern, “OK, right side, paddle!” The type of gal who clearly takes no prisoners, she lightly tapped me on the shoulder, reminding me to actually use the paddle designed to get us home in one piece instead of just sitting there taking pictures. Sometimes travel writing is hard work.
The first few sets of rapids weren’t too bad—enough to get us city folk excited without overturning the boat. We did get hung up on the odd rock however, especially the dark ones that seemed to emerge in front of us out of nowhere despite Serene’s watchful gaze. Depending on the season it’s not a common occurrence, but when the water level is low as it was this July day, the rocks can literally be a pain in the butt. Sarin would expertly order us to hop around to different spots in the boat to redistribute the weight, sometimes having to jump out into the freezing, churning water to free our craft.
We pulled off the river about an hour in for a quick lunch stop, and I took advantage of the open fire that was heating a pot of water to try and dry off my soaking gloves, which were doing nothing to keep me warm. Our group was joined by half a dozen young adventurers who were a week into a water guiding and rescue course, charting the same path as us in inflatable canoes and kayaks. The build-your-own sandwich station was a hit, and after filling up and capping it off with dark chocolate and coffee we were off again, taking on the Tatshenshini River.
The second half of the day proved much more challenging, yet memorable. This is where the real rapids were. Tatshenshini has up to Class Four rapids, with names such as “Rock Gardens” and “Twin Holes.” The next few hours were filled with a mix of watching the rest of our group in the slimmer kayaks and canoes expertly navigate the churning water, cheering at each successful completion, and Sarin coaching us on how to tackle the hazards up ahead in our bulky boat.
“We’re going to aim for that bank on the far left and paddle as hard as we possibly can, OK?” she’d say, in between entertaining us with stories of her travels through Argentina and what compels one to become a river guide in the first place. We’d dutifully try our best to steer the boat in the right direction, sometimes ending up floating sideways or backwards, but never feeling like we were in any danger.
Despite some dicey moments getting hung up on boulders as the powerful water threatened to upend us, Sarin was the only one who ever did end up going overboard, after losing her balance when the stern suddenly skyrocketed upward when we hit a rapid head-on. True to form she hauled herself back inside in an instant, laughing the whole time. Just a typical day for a river guide.
Meantime I had a death grip on the foot hold on the bottom of the boat, determined to stay as dry as humanly possible as I’d already lost the feeling in my feet. My hands weren’t far behind, not helped by the fact that my right hand keep getting sprayed by the glacier-fed water as I constantly dipped my paddle into the river. On a warmer day it would have been welcome, but with the temperature hovering near 16 degrees it was all I could do to not constantly think about getting back on dry land so I could park myself in front of the car heater.
Despite the chilly ride down, there was no denying the exhilaration of getting tossed around by the rapids, the great company and the beauty of our surroundings. For any thrill seeker wanting to experience a part of the Yukon that can only be seen by water, a day spent whitewater rafting along the Tatshenshini River is highly-recommended.
Just be sure to time your trip for a warm day.
Cost: $135 per person, which includes lunch and equipment rental.
Duration: Four to five hours, including a stop for lunch.
Getting there: The upper Tatshenshini is on Haines Road, which is a scenic 2 ½ to three hour drive from Whitehorse. Transportation from Whitehorse can be arranged by Tatshenshini Expediting at a cost of $50 per person. The river is also less than two hours from Haines, Alaska.
What to bring: Wool socks are key, as they provide a much-needed layer of protection and help retain heat, and a change of clothes is also required.
Those wanting to capture memories of their day on the water should bring a waterproof camera or GoPro, but keep in mind it can be tough to get shots as a lot of paddling is involved. Fortunately, Tatshenshini Expeditions posts photos of each tour on their Facebook page for everyone to enjoy.
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Globe Guide experienced the Tatshenshini River in partnership with Travel Yukon. As always, hosts have no editorial influence over articles.