Friday, September 7, 2012

Callaghan Creek, BC (8.27.12)

My wife, Emily, and I have been going to British Columbia, specially the Squamish/Whistler area, for our last seven anniversaries to mountain bike and/or hike. Being a whitewater kayaker I knew from both stories and seeing the many vehicles with boats strapped to them, that this area was also one of the top destinations in the world for boating, with creeks and rivers that challenge even the top paddlers in the world. I had also heard/read that the runs are typically a half to a full step up from what their rating would suggest. With knowing all of the above, I've been hungry for the chance to run some of these creeks, but hoped to get some local guidance as well -- this year, I would be fortunate to get both!

Now the end of August, it was time once again for our yearly pilgrimage to the land of Labatt beer and poutine. Since this is our anniversary trip, I was stoked that Emily was fine with me getting in a day of boating. Furthermore, my buddy Joe had met a fellow boater Adam Frey, from Chilliwack ( BC), and passed along his contact info to me, knowing that I wanted to do some kayaking up there. When I contacted Adam, he seem just as excited to show me a few of their rivers as I was to get on them -- now that's what I call hospitality!

The plan was to hit the water on Monday, the third day of our vacation. I really wanted to get on a couple of the classics, with most of my focus on Callaghan Creek. Since it was short and close to some other runs, Adam suggested that we do the Triple Crown -- The Callaghan, the Upper Cheakamus, and the Soo. The thought was that they would probably be a bit low by that time, but still be plenty fun. I didn't know much about the Soo, but I knew the Upper Cheak was also a total classic. I was pretty fired up that I was finally going to hit some BC creeks.

While sitting in camp in Squamish, after a great day of mountain biking with Em, I shot Adam a text to confirm plans. We decided to meet at the take-out to the Upper Cheak, since Adam and crew were camped out there. Following directions from a couple of guidebooks, I found the take-out without too much effort. When I rolled into the parking lot, I could see a few vehicles with boats on top, so I knew I was in the right place. As I pulled into a spot next to a jeep, a guy with a big smile on his face greeted me. I told him I was looking for a guy named Adam, to which he responded, "That's me." After exchanging pleasantries, he ran off to grab some coffee and I decided to walk down and check out the river.

Ready to get my boat on!

After my quick photo shoot, I walked back to the parking lot and met the other two that would be boating with us that day, Mike Grant and Alison Homer. Since they still needed to cook up some breakfast we had some time to BS and get to know each other a little bit. Alison was only planning to do one run that day and she really wanted to do the Callaghan, so we decided to hit that one first. Once everyone was ready, they broke camp and we headed toward to our destination.

The first thing we did when we pulled into the take-out parking lot (Cal-Cheak Campground) was walk down to the water to check the level. Using a rock in the river, Adam confirmed that the water was definitely low, but said that he had done it lower and it would still be good fun. Since I was on vacation I really wasn’t too concerned about having perfect flow, I was just looking forward to getting in my boat, with great weather and people to do it with. With that we loaded everything up on two cars and headed up the gravel road toward the put-in. After a couple of unmarked turns along the way, we parked the car, where I was told it was only a short hike down to the creek. While getting changed, we had a great setting of wildflowers in the foreground and mountains in the back, including the Black Tusk, one of the iconic peaks in Southwest BC. After we geared up, we scrambled down to the water using a partially developed path through the brush.

Checking the level at the take-out

Wildflowers and sunny skies at the put-in

A view of the Black Tusk from the put-in

Under the warm sunny sky, the milky turquoise water (from glacier melt) beckoned to me. I quickly snapped on my skirt and slid in to answer its call. The first couple of rapids we ran were fun, but definitely would have benefited from a little more water. Before long we pulled into an eddy, where Adam indicated that we would probably need to portage a drop just downstream. Basically, this drop is a ~10’ broken ledge with a sticky hole that feeds into a cave on the left, which has supposedly dished out some pretty nasty swims. As I understand it, it should be run river-right or portaged; since getting right at this low flow wasn’t much of an option, we all opted for the latter. Although the portage was pretty straightforward, the rocks were damn slippery and the seal launch had some rocks in the landing to be aware of. We all made it past without issue and continued downstream.

Alison seal launches around the broken ledge

The next notable drop was a pretty trashy boulder garden, which we all ran starting right and finishing left. Once we were all below the boulder garden, Adam let us know the next drop was the lead-in to the 15’ falls. Since there were some exposed guard rocks somewhat blocking the river-left eddy above the falls, we hiked down from further up to give it a scout.

Some mank below the portage

Looking at the entrance to the first falls

Scouting the falls itself required a walk (or crawl) along a log between shore and a rock outcropping in the middle of the river. From here the line was clearly visible, using the center chute. The lead-in consisted of a shallow/slow moving rock garden before flowing through a couple small curlers just above the lip of the falls. After the vertical plunge the creek split around another pile of rocks, with a generous eddy on the left and above the next drop. Since Adam knew the line well he didn’t even bother to scout, but did wait so I could setup for some shots at the lip. As soon as I gave him the thumbs up he headed down. Lining up well coming into the drop, he pulled a good boof stroke off the lip, landing nicely below before eddying out.

Adam digs in at the lip of the 15'er

Since I also wanted to get some shots from below, I asked Mike to give me a few minutes to run it and setup. My line went fairly well, although I didn’t get as good of a stroke as I had hoped for, but the auto-boof shape of the lip and getting forward allowed me to land nice and flat. Mike came down shortly after and also had a good line. After we had all regrouped below the 15'er, we started our next leg of the journey.

Mike with a nice line off the 15'er

The entrance to the next drop

At this point I knew that we were only one class IV away from the crown jewel of the run, the 20+’er. The drop between the falls actually ended up being pretty damn fun, which we blasted down on the right through some beefed up hydraulics. The run-out dropped over a river-wide ledge hole that supposedly gets pretty sticky with higher flows. Just below this ledge, we eddied out river-right to give the big one a scout.

What lay in front of us was one of the most perfect waterfalls I’ve seen, and to me it looked to be about 25'. A straightforward lead-in, a sloping delayed boof face, and a soft boily landing pad at the bottom. Don’t get me wrong, I like a more complex multi-move drop as much as the next guy, but sometimes it’s nice to have a gimmy to throw a big boof off of. The only downside to this drop is that you only get one shot, as hiking back up would require ropes and be a major undertaking. With the sun beating down on us as well as the veil of the falls, I could have hung out for a while, but was also eager to fire it off. Mike said he wanted to give'er first, so I grabbed my camera and setup for some shots. Before long he was paddling around in the calm water above the lip. As he paddled over the lip he setup for the ol’ Oregon Tuck and went deep. After about a three count he resurfaced and rolled up, paddling into the pool below to wait for the rest of us. Alison wanted to go next and also planned to go with a tuck, which she did in great form! Stoked with her line, she joined Mike in the eddy with a big smile on her face.

Mike probing the big falls while Alison and Adam look on

Alison drops in with a nice line (photo by Adam Frey)

I asked Adam if he minded taking over the camera while I took my turn, which he graciously accepted. Knowing I only had one shot on this drop, I really wanted to boof the hell out of it, and hoped I wouldn't blow it. Looking at the drop, dropping in center-left with a delayed right stroke seemed like just the ticket. After sliding into the creek and splashing some water on my face, I practiced the line in my head before paddling toward the lip. As I rolled over the edge, I dug in and then concentrated on getting over the front of my boat. Although the landing felt pretty soft it was still enough of a hit to knock my head-cam out of alignment. I had been wanting to run that drop for years now, and was pretty happy with my line. Before long, Adam came over the lip with a nice line as well, making it 4 for 4 for our group.

The author takes his turn, going for the boof. (photo by Adam Frey)

The falls from below

 Below the falls the river continued through boogie water and boulder gardens, both of which would have been more fun with some additional flow. Most of the time was spent trying to find the cleanest line through each rapid. I briefly pinned more than once and at one point I got stuck pretty bad. While trying to free myself, I flipped and ran a small ledge on my head -- luckily I only took a couple small licks before rolling back up.

We soon reached the next major drop on the run, "ODB". Marked by a large logjam on the right just above it, the creek constricts against the left wall and through a steep chute with a large rock right in the middle of it. At higher flow this drop cleans up quite a bit and becomes much more runnable. At this level the rock was pretty exposed and running it certainly didn't look appealing to me. Everyone else agreed and we made the easy, yet slippery, portage down the right side rock shelf.


Making the portage around ODB

The easy portage route at ODB

Once past ODB, there were a couple of smaller rapids before the next big one, “Island”. As the name would suggest, the creek cuts around an island, with the main line down the left side. Since I wanted to take pictures, I jumped out on river-left to setup and take a look. Essentially, the creek dropped over what appeared to be a pile of rocks and exited through a hole at the bottom. With the level we had, the hole looked pretty benign, but I can imagine it would get pretty sticky with a lot more water. Since I had the best vantage point of the drop, I gave the others the thumbs up that it was good to go, and then got out my camera to document their lines. Everyone came through about as expected, blasting through the bottom hole without issue. After packing up my gear, I dropped in with about the same line as the others.

Some boogie water below ODB

Adam pointing out some lines for the crew

Looking down into Island

Mike, halfway down Island

Alison fires it up

Adam blasts through the bottom hole at Island

With all the big drops out of the way and only a short distance to the take-out, we relaxed and reflected on our trip down the Callaghan. Before taking off, Adam showed me what the locals use to gauge the water level for the run, a stepped cement platform under the 99 bridge. As expected the level was sitting right at the “low” reading, which seemed to align with my assessment. That said, even at this flow, it’s still super fun, especially the two waterfalls.

The improvised gauge

After taking off, we headed over to the Upper Cheakamus for a quick lap. The water level on this run was much nicer, and what the locals would probably consider a medium to medium-low (2.44 on the “Cheakamus above Miller Creek” gauge, here). This run was amazing, albeit short, and we pretty much rallied the whole run with only one stop at Triple Drop so I could take a quick peek. There aren't a whole lot of eddies, or need to eddy out, it's basically continuous class III/IV, with the only real hole being the second tier on Triple Drop. Since we were moving so fast, I didn’t even bother to take photos, but I did take a few during my brief scout of the bottom ¼ mile that morning -- here they are:

Well, it’s probably pretty obvious that I would have liked more water in the Callaghan, and at the flow we had, I’m not quite sure I’d call it a classic. However, it was still a fantastic run with really good folks, which I hope to do more boating with in the future. Further, the big falls completely met expectations, and I was stoked I got a decent line off of it. I think with more flow it would definitely be a classic, and I probably would have fired up the first ledge (assuming it would have opened the right line) and ODB (assuming it cleaned up a bit). The run as a whole reminded me a lot of The Green Truss (WA), with the level about 2’ on Husum the gauge.

As for the Upper Cheak, wow, what a great run, which totally exceeded my expectations. Once again, we pretty much blasted through most of the run without stopping, so it went pretty quick. I wish we would have gotten in one more lap, but I really needed to get back to camp in Squamish and eat dinner with Em. Before parting ways with my fellow boaters, we made a quick stop for some beers at Whistler Brewing, in Function Junction. Big thanks to Adam and crew for showing me some local flavor, I’m definitely looking forward to see what else BC has to offer, as well as returning the favor!

The head-cam footage from our run:

POV - Callaghan Creek, BC from Nate Pfeifer on Vimeo.


  1. Great TR, Nate. Thanks for taking the time to compile and post it.

    Refreshing to find this sort of thing without the brobrah sickter gnar mentality that's usually attached.

    More please.

  2. Thanks! More is definitely on the way!

  3. Certainly hope you didn't drink Labatts with the great suds available by Howe Sound Brewing in Squamish ;-)

    PS. Great pics!

  4. Thanks!
    I actually brought up a bunch a "good" beer from Oregon -- unfortunately you're beer prices would send me to the poor house after a night out... =)
    I have been to Howe Sound a few times and rather liked it. I also really like Whistler Brewing in Function Junction quite a bit.