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Travel

Sep 19, 2018

The Top 5 Whitewater Kayaking Destinations in North America

The five whitewater kayaking destinations in North America, that every paddler should have on their list.

WRITTEN BY

Brooke Hess

As a member of the U.S. Freestyle Kayak Team, I have been fortunate to paddle rivers all over the world. I have paddled in Europe, Africa, South America, New Zealand, and all over North America. Some of my favorite paddling destinations have been the White Nile River in Uganda, and the Kaituna River in New Zealand. If you get a chance to visit either of those places (especially before the White Nile is dammed next month), I highly recommend it. However, if you are on a budget and can’t afford flights out of North America, or if you live elsewhere and are planning your first paddling trip to North America, here are five destinations that should be on your list!

OTTAWA RIVER, ONTARIO

Big waves, warm water, low consequence.

Brooke Hess kayaks Minibus Wave. High water on the Ottawa. Photo: Andrea Polgar.

Whether you are a beginner, an elite freestyle kayaker, or just looking to run some big volume whitewater and surf some fun waves, you can always find something fun to do on the Ottawa.

Spring melt on the Ottawa provides massive rapids and big waves. Buseater and Coliseum rapids are perfect for elite freestyle kayakers looking to step up their game and test themselves in big water. And with the Gatineau and Rouge Rivers close by, there is plenty to choose from in terms of both river running and freestyle. Be aware though, spring in Ontario and Quebec is cold, and the whitewater isn’t easy. Only go at this time of year if you are 100% confident you won’t swim. And, in case mistakes happen (which they do… we are only human), make sure your drysuit is in good shape and you are fit enough to hold on if you are getting beatdown!

In case cold water, icy banks, and big volume grade 5 rapids aren’t your idea of a perfect kayaking vacation, just wait until summer! August on the Ottawa is the perfect combination of exciting (yet low-consequence) whitewater, big surf waves, small surf waves, warm water, and good weather. Imagine surfing on the world-famous Garburator Wave in a t-shirt, then paddling 50 meters downstream to a perfect sandy beach for a mid-day picnic with your friends, and capping off the day with a beautiful river run straight to your campsite!

SLAVE RIVER, NORTHWEST TERRITORIES 

Like the Ottawa, but bigger.

Leif Anderson going big on Rockem’ Sockem Wave, Slave River. Photo: Natalie Anderson

Located in Fort Smith, Northwest Territories, the Slave River is not often listed as a world-class paddling destination due to the amount of driving required to get there. But don’t let this deter you, the Slave River is epic!

The river is three kilometers wide, hosting four different sets of rapids. Due to the massive width of the river, each set of rapids has multiple (more than 5) different channels. Each channel within a set of rapids is the length of a full-day river run. This means, (if I did my math correct), there are at least twenty different river runs to explore on the Slave River. All within ten minutes driving distance of each other. And this number doesn’t even include the smaller side channels, or runs where you combine multiple different channels in one run! This allows any paddler, no matter their skill level, numerous options to choose from. There are grade 1 floats, perfect for canoeists. There are grade 2 options, perfect for beginner kayakers. There are grade 3 rapids with world-class surf waves. And there are grade 4 and 5 rapids that have the potential to intimidate even the world’s most elite kayakers. In addition to the amazing river running, the Slave River offers epic surf waves for anyone from beginner to elite freestyle kayakers.

WHITE SALMON, WASHINGTON

If you love beautiful places.

Darr Soli paddles the Little White Salmon River. Photo: Leif Anderson.

If you are a whitewater kayaker of any sort, I am sure you have heard of the Little White Salmon River. It is a classic grade 5 creek that professional kayakers travel from all over the world to paddle. It is also potentially the most videoed section of whitewater in the world. I have never paddled the Little White Salmon River, but I have seen so much GoPro footage of it on the internet, I am pretty sure I know most of the lines.

What I bet you don’t know, is that in White Salmon, Washington, where the Little White Salmon River is located, there are also numerous other grade 2, 3, and 4 rivers. In fact, the White Salmon River alone has a grade 2 stretch, a grade 3 stretch, a grade 4 stretch, and a grade 5 stretch. Whether you are a beginner kayaker, an intermediate kayaker, an advanced kayaker, or a professional kayaker, there are multiple beautiful, moss-covered, basalt-laden rivers for any skill level in and around White Salmon.

IDAHO

Wilderness, hot springs, big water.

The Lochsa River, designated as a National Wild and Scenic River, flows through the Clearwater National Forest. U.S. Forest Service Northern Region photo.

I don’t have the words to describe how wonderful Idaho is. I grew up two hours from the Lochsa River, spending weekends camping in the woods without cell service. It was my first ever taste of big water and I was hooked from the very start. If you like big water river runs in remote locations without cell service, Idaho is where you should go. If you like multi-day kayak trips through remote wilderness, with sandy beach campsites and hot springs, Idaho is your place. Basically, if you like whitewater and are not a complete weirdo, you will love Idaho.

You have the Selway River, the Lochsa River, the Clearwater River, the South Fork Payette, the North Fork Payette, the Middle Fork Salmon, the Main Salmon, the South Salmon… I could go on. So many remote rivers with beautiful surroundings, I don’t even think I need to say more.

SKOOKUMCHUCK, BRITISH COLUMBIA

Starfish, seals, sea lions, salty water.

Emily Lussin kayaking at her home wave, Skookumchuck. Photo: Brooke Hess.

Skookumchuck is different. It is unlike any other kayaking destination. Skookumchuck is located on the Sunshine Coast of British Columbia, in the Sechelt Inlet. Yes, Inlet… not river. Skookumchuck is a tidal rapid, formed by the tides as ocean water moves in and out of the Inlet over a rock shelf. The salty water flows over the rock shelf and forms a picture-perfect, glassy, green surf wave. If there was a contest for smoothest kayaking wave in the world, Skook would win.

Despite how epic the kayaking wave is at Skook, I don’t think that is what makes the place so special. To access the wave, you hike four kilometers through a dense rainforest, with green moss and vines hanging everywhere. It feels as if you are hiking through a magic forest with fairies and unicorns. Something you would see in a Disney movie. Sitting in the eddy waiting for your turn on the wave, you will be mesmerized by the purple and orange starfish scattered all over the rocks. Not to mention the sea urchins, barnacles, sea anemones, and seals everywhere!

On my most recent Skook trip, I watched two sea lions play in the whirlpools behind the wave for thirty minutes. I then proceeded to make excuses for why I didn’t want to get back in my kayak until the sea lions were gone (I was scared)… but nonetheless it was one of the best days of kayaking I have ever had. I have even heard of people seeing whales breaching on the other side of the Inlet while someone is kayaking on the wave. The entire setting of Skookumchuck is magical. Even if you consider yourself more of a river runner than a freestyle kayaker, a trip to Skook should still be on your list.

 

Cover Photo: Leif Anderson.

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Travel

Dec 03, 2018

Fly Fishing: My Wild Escape

A physically challenging activity that demands patience and skill, but also takes you deep into nature to some of the world's most beautiful places.

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WRITTEN BY

Svenja Wegfahrt

Being born in the Italian Alps, I had an early connection to nature at its best. Playing around in various mountain streams close to my grandma’s hometown 900m above sea level shaped my early connection to the joys of an outdoor life. Later on, I lived in countries like Kenya, Portugal, Pakistan and the Philippines where I gained my passion for traveling and exploring nature. For me, fly fishing is a combination of the two and in a busy corporate work life as a Senior Key Account Manager, I find my mental escape in it. Many of my friends, colleagues and family members could not really imagine me standing in ice-cold water, wearing wading clothes while pouring rain drops down my chin.

Targeting a Baracuda in Los Roques: After spotting a nice Baracuda in the crystal clear waters of Los Roques, Venezuela, every move has to be extremely accurate and quick to make the fish take the bait “fly“, imitating a small fish. Photo by Alexander Keus, Fly Fishing Nation Media, @theflyfishingnation

It all started a few years ago when I met Friedrich, a passionate fly fisher. He convinced me to join him on one of his trips and handed me a rod. At the beginning, I was not sure what to think about fly fishing. In the end, the uniqueness of exploring nature in this special way and the adrenaline rush while fighting a fish made me change my mind. Little by little, I started being interested in the subject and learned to love fish as fascinating creatures. Sometimes, taking a wild fish to prepare a delicious meal at home can be very special, but most of the time fish are caught and released. This is a common practice in the fly fishing scene, as many fishermen are keen on conservation and protection of the waters. Many streams are just too sensitive to take all fish caught, one can ruin a stream within years if not sustainably harvested. There are ways to handle caught fish with special care, for instance barbless hooks or rubber landing nets, in order not to harm the fish. In one of my favorite trout streams, some of the big fish have been caught several times over the years and even have been given nicknames. When handled with care, a fish is able to recover minutes after being released. We heard that once a friend caught a brown trout, released it, and caught the same fish 15 minutes later.

Ghosts of the Flats: Bonefish are called “Ghosts of the flats“ for a reason. These amazingly strong creatures are hard to see in the turquoise waters of Los Roques, Venezuela. The fight is incredibly strong with a lot of line pulled from your reel. Photo by Friedrich Flach

Fly fishing as we know it today has its origins in Great Britain. As a special form of angling, the lure within this technique is always some kind of “fly“. The traditional flies from former days in Great Britain were mainly insects, tied with hair, fur and feathers. They float on the surface of the water to imitate prey for fish species like trout and grayling. The fly itself is too light in weight to be casted with a conventional fishing rod. To cast a fly, additional weight is needed, which is integrated in the fly line – a special rod and reel setup is required. With the technological development over the past years it’s now possible to catch almost any fish species with a fly rod. Together with traditional insect flies, we nowadays have many more fly patterns, such as baitfish, crabs, shrimps or even mice. All of them follow one rule; they are tied with a variety of different materials and are always artificial lures. When I find the time, mostly off-season during long winter evenings, I tie my own flies. Tying a fly requires between 2 minutes and up to an hour, depending on the type of fly. It’s a highly technical, but creative activity, that many describe as a hobby by its own. There are hundreds of books, youtube tutorials and even courses one can learn and get inspiration from.

Yellow Mayfly after Hatch in Scotland: A yellow mayfly during a big hatch at Spey River in Scotland. In spring and during the insect hatches, these flies are one of the major prey sources for various river inhabitants. Photo by Friedrich Flach

One of the challenges is to pick the right fly in the right situation. However, there is more to it than just picking the right imitation of an insect. Weather circumstances such as wind speed and directions, water and air temperatures, possible current and water speed are all factors that need to be considered at the end of the day. Different seasons require different spots and different species require different techniques. For me, the real secret in fly fishing is to understand nature and its circle of life and to act accordingly when fishing. I guess no human being is able to grasp it all, but my goal is to get a better understanding year after year. I love learning from nature, it makes you humble. For me it is a never-ending fascination – the wonders of nature.

Brown Trout from Western Germany: A beautiful brown trout from the western part of Germany could not resist Svenjas nymphs imitation fly. Many insects spend more time underwater before they hatch on the water surface to begin their life in the air. Photo by Friedrich Flach

When people are made aware of my passion, I often hear the same reaction; “What, you fish???” Yes, I do. Most people have the same perception of fishing. Sitting in a camping chair and staring onto the water for hours and hours, waiting for something to happen. That is not fly fishing, not at all. In fact, the thrill and adrenaline rush of a decent fish taking your fly is amongst the most exciting moments I have ever experienced. In addition, it seems that nobody has a clue about the activity really involved in fly fishing. There are times where I easily walk 15km in a fishing day, partly wading through water. It is not as static as people think; I am pretty sure many more people would fly fish if they knew what an exhausting workout it is. It is a combination of a well-timed cast and an accurate loop, as the fly rod curves itself in the air before the line gently touches the water. Repeating this a hundred times a day while concentrating on the hunt can be really challenging. Going home without one single fish after a three day trip can be frustrating and disappointing at times. Just like one of my guides once said: “It’s called fishing, not catching“.

North American Beauty: Another famous representative of the trout family – a rainbow trout in its full beauty. Originally from North America, rainbow trouts can nowadays be found in many European rivers. Photo by Friedrich Flach

Photography is something that is strongly related with my fishing experience. It’s these special moments you want to capture on camera. At first, when I started fishing, I had no experience with photography. As I joined more and more fishing trips around the world, I often had to take photos of my fellow fishing buddies and felt horrible every time I did not get the perfect shot. Sometimes, it feels like the picture of the fish is the most important thing. If you do not get the trophy shot, it’s a bit like you never caught the fish. This feeling kept me going and learning from my fishing mates. Looking at the pictures keeps my memories alive and motivates me to experience new and exciting places.

Where it all Began: A wild mountain stream in the Italian Alps, close to the hometown of my family. I caught my very first brown trout in this little stream and I therefore have a special connection to this magical place. Photo by Friedrich Flach

Glistening sunlight reflects on the water’s surface, where insects are dancing in the late hours of the day. The trees are moving in the rhythm of the wind, there is no noise except for the current of the river. It is MAGIC. For me, this is a form of meditation. Fly fishing is about the connection with the underwater ecosystem, a way of completely disconnecting from my everyday life. Having a busy job and a fast-paced schedule during weekdays, this is my way to unwind. Thoughts of a worried mind get replaced by thrilling thoughts about my next cast, while watching the fly drift over the surface, waiting to be taken by a hungry fish.

People might not realize that I sometimes walk 15km a day while fly fishing. Photo by Friedrich Flach

One of the most exciting aspects about fly fishing is that there are always new destinations to discover. Whether you are passionate about freshwater or saltwater fishing, or whether you want to stay in camps in remote locations or in luxurious lodges, there is a great variety of destinations you can pick from. I have always traveled to tropical destinations during my childhood, however, fly fishing made me discover some untouched hidden secrets. It is the pristine beauty of fly fishing destinations that you get to appreciate, places you would have never seen without this activity. Not only can you choose between different fish species you want to catch, but you can also expand the fishing season with a trip to saltwater destinations, for instance. Many atolls, tropical coastlines and sandy beaches offer miles of shallow water as feeding ground to various fish species. These are called “flats“ and are a prime environment for saltwater fly fishing. Flats fishing has become my favorite discipline when it comes to fly fishing abroad. There is something about the crystal-clear water when the skiff is approaching a group of tailing permit or feeding bonefish which I am fascinated about. These two species are amongst the most sought-after, as the permit is known to be one of the hardest fish to catch on a fly and bonefish are amongst the strongest fighters. It is that moment I had been anticipating for weeks and that makes the hours tying flies and flying around the globe worthwhile.

The fly fishing community can be described as something intimate. When two passionate fly fishers meet each other, there is a special connection between them from the very first second. You can talk for hours to a non-fishing person and he will not understand you. When meeting another fisherman it is different, he knows about your passion and the way you think. For most buddies I have met so far, fly fishing is not just a hobby, they almost get offended by this term. It seems to be more like a lifestyle and influences their whole way of living. For me, it is inspiring to connect to other fly fishers and learn from them. I like it when people do things with fervor.

If you got excited about fly fishing and want to give it a try, I recommend looking for a fly fishing course nearby or contacting your local fly fishing shop. The course will give you first essential introductions and hopefully a spark of passion for this wonderful activity.

In case you would like to get more inspirations about fly fishing or to get in touch with Svenja Wegfahrt, please follow her Instagram account @outoftheflybox.

Cover Photo: Summer Sunset at the German Coast: Casting a fly at the beautiful German Baltic Sea coast for sea trout. During mild summer evenings and at night, sea trouts feed at the shoreline and are more active than during daytime. By Friedrich Flach

 

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