Rafters drink up Thompson River’s delights

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      Just before I start gulping river water and stop thinking clearly and my whole world turns upside down and inside out, I have one clear thought: so this is what it feels like to be in a washing machine.

      For all the river rafting I’ve done, no guide has ever offered me the chance to experience rapids from outside the raft. So when Dre Voros, my Kumsheen Rafting Resort guide, asks if anyone would like to swim the Washing Machine rapid on B.C.’s Thompson River near Lytton, I jump at the opportunity. Literally jump, right into the cold, churning river.

      My husband and two teenage sons leap in beside me (further proof that adrenaline junkie-ness is hereditary). Voros yells for us to space out along a rope that’s attached to the raft, keep our feet pointed downriver, and inhale only when we’re in the troughs of the swells.

      Nice theory, difficult execution. We manage to grab the rope but end up pinballing off each other, bobbing and spinning and whooping our way through the white water. It’s impossible to keep our mouths shut (what with all the whooping), and we end up gargling significant amounts of water.

      When the river smoothes out, we kick our way to the side of the raft and, with the help of fellow rafters who haul on the tops of our life jackets, clamber inside. My older son, Shane, turns to me, a huge grin plastered on his face. “How sweet was that?” he says.

      Pretty darn sweet.

      Truth is, I was once a bit of a river babe. Small bikinis, big water, bronzed boatmen, I wanted them all. Wherever I travelled—New Zealand, Tasmania, the Grand Canyon, Quebec, and all around beautiful B.C.—I searched out commercial rafting trips. This river, the Thompson, was one of my favourites. But life changed, and once I had kids, my time on rivers faded.

      That was until the day I realized my sons were almost teenagers, old enough to hang on to a safety rope—and to deal with the watery consequences if they didn’t. I could begin introducing them to the bounty of B.C. river rafting and, eventually, to the Thompson.

      Our first excursions on the Campbell and Squamish rivers were little more than scenic float trips with a few riffles thrown in for effect. The greatest challenge was keeping our younger son Spence’s hands and feet warm. Confidence grew and, shortly after the boys’ 12th and 14th birthdays, we graduated to a daylong paddle trip on the Chilcotin River starting near Williams Lake.

      The Chilcotin, a sea-foam-green river (thanks to glacial silt), cuts through a semiarid desert landscape and offers gentle stretches of water punctuated by roller-coaster ripples and big fat waves. My sons held their own on the trip, listening to the instructions of our boatman (yes, he was bronzed) and paddling like crazy to help keep our raft on-course as we ripped through the frothing water of Hanceville and Farwell Canyons. They also held their own at the riverside lunch, scarfing down sandwiches and umpteen helpings of “river cheesecake”—chocolate chip cookies slathered with cream cheese and strawberry jam.

      Thanks to the culinary and aquatic highs of our Chilcotin adventure, both boys learned a valuable rafting lesson—that exceptional rafting is even better with great grub.

      It’s not surprising, then, that after our excellent day rafting the Thompson River (including our swim through the Washing Machine), my now 14- and 16-year-old sons order big, gourmet burgers at the rafting resort’s restaurant.

      That a rafting company would have a resort with a full-service restaurant—never mind tent-style canvas cabins and tepees, both with real beds and linens; gear and change rooms; and a hot tub and pool—is a testament to how much B.C. rafting has evolved since my river-babe days. I remember pulling off my wet gear on the sidewalk outside the Lytton Hotel pub when I rafted the Thompson years ago; there was no hint of riverside accommodation or fancy changing facilities. We’d just drive up from Vancouver in the morning, raft all day, do a quick change on the sidewalk, and drive home that night. (Okay, maybe we enjoyed a beverage or two at the pub as well.)

      Kumsheen uses both paddle and power rafts to carry guests down B.C.’s most popular rafting route, a 40-kilometre stretch of the Thompson River from Spences Bridge to Lytton. There are over 25 rapids sporting goofy names like the Frog, Witch’s Cauldron, and the Garburator. Motorists on Highway 1 pull over to watch rafts negotiate the most furious section, Devil’s Gorge.

      We enjoy two days of rafting, the first on a nine-metre-long power raft that features two pontoons on a metal frame, a wood floor, and an outboard motor. Because riders do nothing more than hold on and get soaked, the power raft is a good choice for first-timers and children. I like the amount of splash (much more than with a paddle raft), and the fact that the guide can steer back upriver for another run at choice rapids.

      I’m not as excited about sharing the raft with 21 other people, although guide Andrew Hoar keeps us switching places so that, according to him, “Everyone can enjoy equal-opportunity soaking.” Kumsheen uses power rafts exclusively during high water flow on the Thompson (during May and June), and for all trips on the mighty Fraser (which meets the Thompson at Lytton), where greater stability, buoyancy, and manoeuvrability are critical.

      Our second day, we ride paddle rafts. These smaller inflatable boats carry up to 12 people, who paddle together as a team. The guide sits at the back barking orders (“Paddle left, paddle right, back-paddle now!”) and steering with either a paddle or two oars. I prefer this smaller group, the quiet (no noisy motor), and the feeling of accomplishment that comes with contributing to the ride.

      And what a ride it is. The highlight is Devil’s Gorge and its 18 frothing, rolling rapids. By the time we splash past the tall, jagged black rock in Cutting Board rapid; get smothered by a big, fat green wave in the Devil’s Kitchen; and buck and hammer through the Jaws of Death, I’m ready to agree with Hoar’s assessment of this series of rapids. “Really,” he tells me with mock drama, “you could add ”˜of death’ to any of the names.”

      Later that night, while devouring prosciutto-wrapped pork loin and baked salmon at the restaurant, we talk about how early explorers in canoes must have faced a great deal of drama navigating B.C.’s wild rivers. This year marks the 200th anniversary of Simon Fraser’s first descent of the river that bears his name, and we ponder what it was like for him to plunge into the churning white water without the aid of maps or prior experience on that river.

      “Must have been pretty tough,” says Shane, reflecting on Fraser’s accomplishment.

      And then, remembering an important rafting lesson, he adds, “I wonder what he ate.”

      Access: The writer and her family stayed as guests of Kumsheen Rafting Resort, located just north of Lytton, which is three hours from Vancouver on Highway 1. A full day of paddle or power rafting on the Thompson River with Kumsheen Rafting costs $145 for adults, $115 for youth aged 10 to 16. The five-night Family With Teens Vacation package costs $420 per cabin or tepee. The add-on meal and activity package costs $595 per person and includes rock climbing, rappelling, mountain biking, and of course rafting. The minimum age/weight for power rafting the Thompson is 10 years/60 pounds; for paddle rafting, it’s 12 years/90 pounds. For more information, see www.kumsheen.com/.