Shrouded in darkness and legend The Grand Canyon of the Stikine River lies over 1500 miles north of the US/Canada border. A journey not only of great length, but also deep commitment, must be made to reach this place. A wild untamed river in an even wilder environment makes the pilgrimage to the Stikine a soulful and addicting habit, and most people who have tasted its fruits have returned again and again. Since the first attempt in 1981, very few brave groups of kayakers attempted this river for many years. The canyon has humbled the sport’s most talented paddlers, but each year has seen its progression. In 2004, Nikki Kelly became the first woman to ever complete the run. In 2005, John Grace, Toby McDermott and Daniel Delavergne paddled the canyon in a day. As the so-called “envelope” was being pushed, the Stikine River saw more visitors than ever before in the years between 2008-2010. In 2011, a massive snow pack and record precipitation kept the river too high for any descents, fueling the fire for Stikine addicts and aspiring initiates alike.
In 2012, or let it be know as “The Year of the Stikine”, the river saw more traffic than any previous year to date. Over 35 people paddled this class V+ wilderness run. The season started early when Ben Luck and Xavier Eagle paddled the run in May completing the first spring descent. When the standard Stikine season began in August, warm temperatures and dry weather meant the river’s normally unpredictable window became a graph you could be certain to trust. Group after group completed the river, returning with happy tales of beautiful weather and amazing big water adventures.
Jules Domine, Xavier Eagle, Kurt Braunlich and Ben Luck took the first run of the season, and Jules and Ben rolled straight into a one-day, 7-hour descent the following day. A few days later the Bomb Flow boys entered the canyon. Composed of seven ultra-talented kayakers, the crew had no problem reaching Site Zed. There, the unexpected happened when Ben Marr took on the first descent of this monster, becoming the first person to make a complete run of the Stikine.
While a single run for the season was plenty for most, other teams, like Ryan Casey, Brian Ward, Cooper Lambla, Ben Hathorne, John Grace, Todd Wells and Erik Boomer, stuck around and lapped the canyon multiple times.
September saw the return of Stikine legend Doug Ammons, paddling the river with Jeff West. They were both planning for several descents. On their first run, Doug had a hard time on Pass or Fail, hitting the Fail slot and getting worked on the left undercut wall. Getting stuck there for an extended period of time, he had to pull the handle. Losing his boat, Doug had to be rescued by another Stikine legend, Jim R. the heli pilot. Jeff then completed the rest of the run on his own.
A couple of days later, Stikine history was made for a second time in the season when a team of Creature Craft put on the river. Taking four days to complete the run, and perhaps having more than their share of carnage, they still ran every rapid in the canyon and made it out safely. At Site Zed, Jeff West passed the Creature Craft crew, in an attempt on the first-ever one-day solo run. West had been planning for it and he had gained confidence after his partial solo descent.
Sadly, somewhere in the extremely walled-in section of the day two narrows, Jeff West gave his last paddle stroke. The Creature Crafters found him lying on shore at “Garden of God” a day later. The Grand Canyon of the Stikine will forever keep the secret, but Jeff was a passionate and prepared elite paddler, attempting something he had wanted for a long time that was well in his range. This was the first death in the Stikine’s long history with whitewater kayaking and it is a reminder of the true grit and mystery of this river. Rest in peace Jeff.
In 2012, the Grand Canyon of the Stikine saw the first spring descent, the first descent of Site Z, the first death of a kayaker between its walls, the first completed descent by inflatable, the most descents in one season by one paddler and more crews than ever before. Yet, despite the continued progression of our sport, the Stikine still reminds us of the skill and passion of the paddlers who came before us. To this day it remains one of the toughest, most intimidating, and dangerous rivers to be paddled. Will there ever be a more symbolic and legendary river? Perhaps not. One thing is for certain: with its rich history, wild remoteness, total unpredictability, and raw power, the Grand Canyon of the Stikine will always change the lives of those who paddle it. As Willie Kern said after a high water descent, “Nothing has changed, but everything is different.”