Riverboarding's a wild high on Capilano River rapids
For years, paddlers in stubby, lightweight kayaks referred to as playboats have had the Capilano River pretty much to themselves. This summer, they’re going to have to make room for newcomers in the pool. Bodyboarders—known as hydrospeeders in Europe, where the sport of running rivers while clutching foam boards first appeared in the late 1970s—are coming.
Last year, North Shore local Skye MacLeod decided it was time to introduce river lovers to bodyboarding on the Capilano, a 10-kilometre stretch of wilderness waterway that marks the boundary between West and North Vancouver, much of which is bordered by Capilano River Regional Park. MacLeod started Capilano Riverboarding after returning to Vancouver from Thailand with his wife, Mai, to raise their two preschool-age sons.
“Everywhere I travelled, I ran rivers,” the SFU communications and rhetoric instructor explained to the Georgia Straight as he prepared to lead a quartet of boarders downstream. “I’ve always bodyboarded. One day it occurred to me that if you can ride waves in the ocean, why not rapids in rivers?”
Before leaving Vancouver for an extended stay in Central America and Asia, MacLeod spent his childhood exploring the Capilano Canyon. “My grandfather and father used to take me along the trails in the park that lead down to the river. This was—and still is—my playground.” The West Vancouver Secondary grad added that he came from an outdoors family. “We ran, hiked, and walked everywhere. Being so close to home, I loved having nature in my back yard.”
As for his favourite part of the park, MacLeod allowed that it wasn’t the canyon that captured his heart so much as the view from the shore beside the Cleveland Dam, looking across Capilano Lake at the Lions. “Other than the more recent bylaws about where you can and can’t have your dog off-leash, the park hasn’t changed much at all,” he observed. “More people have found out about it, but at its heart, Capilano still remains a neighbourhood park. The canyon itself is timeless. When boarding on the river, you feel very small, with a new perspective on how great it is to find wilderness like this so close to the city. It’s a spiritual feeling, riding the rapids through the steep walls. And people I guide through here really get it, especially when they float in a calm section after being totally focused on navigating a stretch of rapids.”
As he prepared to plunge into the Capilano below the federal salmon hatchery, Keith Freeman told the Straight that he’d been casting around to try something different. “This is harder than it looks. I’ve done some surfing and bodyboarding, but never in snowmelt,” he said with a smile while appraising the white water. “With riverboarding, you hop in, the roar of the water fills your ears, and suddenly you’re just goin’!”
The 37-year-old food-industry worker added: “One of the most important lessons I’ve learned is to keep your legs up to avoid hitting rocks. Also, if you lose your board, get it back in a hurry. Hold on and enjoy the ride.” (To avoid becoming separated from their boards, riverboarders loop a short leash tethered to the nose of the bodyboard around one wrist.) Aglow with new-convert fervour, Freeman described riverboarding as “the most fun you can have outside, rain or sun”.
Aside from the board, a helmet, a wet suit, a life vest, booties, and gloves are essential gear. In shallow waters, such as those encountered in stretches of the Capilano, shin guards, as well as knee, thigh, and elbow pads offer extra protection against boulder whacks. “Not only is riverboarding a blast,” MacLeod said, “it’s also the best workout you’ll ever have. It primarily increases fitness endurance. Do it and do it often is the best way to get in shape in a water workout. When it comes to swimming, a whole different fitness is required.”
The 48-year-old contended that riverboarding is likely the hardest exercise most people have done. “You use every part of your body, from your ankles to your arms to your shoulders—everything. You also have to be smart enough to know when to quit. Ninety minutes in the river is exhausting. Like skiing, you have to decide when enough’s enough. You take a risk when you’re in the water, and you have to be smart. When energy levels are zapped, a quick thrust to get around an obstacle is just not there.”
With runoff from a deep snow pack still in progress, water levels in the Capilano will likely remain high for some weeks to come. A good place to view action on the river is the Cable Pool viewpoint beside the hatchery parking lot. One look will confirm the truth of MacLeod’s parting words: “Getting ready to jump in is daunting. There’s no time to tread water as you go from zero to 60 in a millisecond. Of course, this being the North Shore, everything we create over here is in the crucible of new and cool.”
Access: For details on Capilano Riverboarding, visit their website. Capilano River Regional Park’s hatchery entrance is located on the west side of Capilano Road in North Vancouver, 10 kilometres from downtown Vancouver. To reach the park by bus, take #236 Grouse Mountain from Lonsdale Quay. For timetables, call TransLink at 604-953-3333 or visit the Translink website.