I fancy my boof pretty solid. Leif says my boof is weak. Maybe it’s somewhere in between. Maybe I was comin off the couch. Maybe I was comin off not just the proverbial “couch,” but the, not sleepin with the wife cause I’m on baby duty half the night real deal, “couch in my living room.” So maybe my boof could’ve been stronger, but it was not weak. At least not as weak as Leif’s…
Anyway, where were we, and how does the story begin? It begins with a certain pal by the name of Todd. TG for short. Sometime ago he began making regular pilgrimages across the Juan de Fuca Strait to a place we’ve come to refer to affectionately as Vantasy Isle. Recently he’s been wearing a shirt that reads “kayaking is gay.” Probably cause he busted his wing (again) running a waterfall of the large variety with what appeared to be perfect form. When you get as old as his graying ass, surfing just seems more soulful. Maybe it has more soul. Or maybe it’s just laid back soul, like Al Green or Cee Lo, and kayaking soul is like Jimi Hendrix or Jack White. That can of course be reversed if you’re board surfing at Mavericks and kayak surfing at Pipeline on the Lochsa.
Since he broke his wing, and really even before that, kayak exploration had been taking a backseat to the art of the cutback in a 5mm wetsuit. But with the allure of the Island and the good times that seem to emanate from a TG led visit to the Northwest, he was in. As long as we made it a multisport sojourn and took over some of the logistics. No problem. Let’s do this.
Port Renfrew was the destination, the weather was looking more than favorable and after a detour through the heart of Bellingham, we were riding the ferry and sneaking Kokanees (Canadian for beer) onto the deck and gathering beta from our contacts on the island. Lens Creek would be in, Todd had run it before and it sounded classic. We landed at Schwartz Bay, drove out to the west coast and found ourselves in some very fine digs. We rented a condo that would have been pretty pimp in a Colorado ski town, much less in a small fishing village on Vancouver Island, a Vantasy indeed.
We awoke to bluebird skies and Fred needing to fix his boat. We scrambled up a killer breakfast using TG’s little ladies eggs (read backyard hens) and took in the views of the bay where there were some nice looking knee high waves rolling in. When Fred finally got his shit together, we loaded up and headed a few miles up the San Juan River drainage to the take-out for Lens Creek. Port Renfrew is strategically located along on a beautiful bay where two large, very kayakable drainages confluence and then empty into the bay right there. There’s river mouth surfing and kayaking on both drainages and many of their tributaries.
TG's hens make a damn good scramble
Level looked good at the bridge and we headed upstream to meet a new friend from up island, David Prothero. Some late night texting as we drove across the island the night before led to a rendezvous at the put-in for Lens. David had run the creek one year earlier and this made everyone feel a little less anxious. Tales of a must run real deal rapid and a dicey waterfall portage should’ve been weighing heavily on the crew, but bright sunshine and crystal green water at the put-in bridge brought huge smiles and back flips instead.
As we paddled into the first gorge the water level seemed perfect. Bobbing and weaving through fun, non-threatening rapids signaled that the second gorge would also be a go. Too much water and the first gorge becomes pushy and threatening and running the second gorge becomes non-recommended. Todd and crew had run the second gorge at high water and reported good conditions, however the second gorge would be much more locked in and that was four years prior. Changes to the riverbed or wood situation could certainly create problems and being the first group to run the creek after this winter’s storms, it seemed prudent to be in there at “exploratory” flow levels, i.e. not super high.
We encountered some really fun drops and made short work of the first gorge. It almost seemed too easy and, this seems to happen frequently, but I started to think about how fast we were going to blast the creek and how it’s always easier than people make it out to be when they try to scare you. We paddled a few more quality drops and then we got to Stairway to Hell. It looked big and steep as I stepped out of my boat, and I could tell it went into a walled in section about two thirds of the way through the rapid. The entrance looked awesome, with a couple of ten footish drops back to back along the right wall. I think that was the stairway, cause all hell broke loose downstream as the water cascaded into a huge boulder on the left shore and bounced back into a stout hole that fed diagonally into a sieved out rock pile on the left. The clean route was through the hole and down the right side of the sieve pile through about ten more feet of gradient that looked at best, “bouncy.”
Todd looked at it and immediately knew it had changed. I guess on his first trip you had to run the top section but the huge boulder causing the uncomfortable looking middle part of the drop wasn’t there and, though it still dropped a ton of gradient, there was a straightforward line. The rock now caused the rapid to be more challenging and potentially dangerous, but also opened up a portage route down the left, which we all decided to take advantage of. You still had to seal launch in and run the last third of the rapid under a huge old growth trunk and through a large hole into the unknown. This seemed like a good place for lunch.
Lunch was pretty easy going and we were all smiles making good time and generally just feeling the stoke of being on the island. David fired off first and did a huge stern squirt through the hole then went upside down and around the corner. “Hmmm. I guess I’ll go next,” I volunteered.
I paddled hard into the hole, squirted but managed to stay upright and landed in the eddy with a grin next to David. We were in beautiful chasm, totally walled in looking back upstream at a fairy book scene. Pure beauty. I glanced over my shoulder and noticed the next rapid looked pretty walled in and must run as well, but we had an amazing corridor of flat water between it, and us, so I just turned back to watch the rest of the crew fire through the hole.
The eddy started to get tight after the next couple paddlers came through so David peeled out to check out the next drop. Leif and Todd followed suit and got out in a micro eddy at the lip on the right. Fred caught an eddy lower down in the flat-water corridor and Austin and I stayed in the eddy high up just below the Stairway. We could plainly see all three of them out on a rock hemming and hawing, leaning forward for a closer look and then leaning back for long moments of contemplation, the entire time never once looking back at the three of us treading water in the chasm.
David finally got in his boat, button hooked out of the eddy and disappeared into the drop. “OK, so I guess it goes…”
Fred dropped down to the eddy, got the beta without scouting and peeled out. Leif went next and I moved down to the eddy at the lip. Todd had a concerned look on his face. “Leif just got handed, I’m freakin out, it’s just straight down the guts and then down the left wall but you got to get out so I can go next.”
“Alright, he’s geekin out here, I’ll just let him go then give Austin the beta,” I thought to myself.
TG peeled out stroking for his life, boofed the shit out of the top drop but landed slightly off balance on a funky curling boil hole seam thing and started to hold onto a brace for dear life. He subbed through another curling hole, came air squirting out of it mostly upside down, bounced off the left cliff, fell into a slot upside down and disappeared into what looked to be a shallow and steep run-out.
Deep breath. Austin pulled into the micro-eddy. I shook my head. “You don’t want to look.” From the eddy you could see enough and I told him just to punch the first hole down the middle with right angle and hold on down the left. He grappled a bit but made it through upright, which gave me a bit more confidence. Left alone, walled in, I paused to look back upstream at the enchanting chasm and I remembered why we came into this imposing place in the first place. The challenge, the beauty, the teamwork and the feeling of making it out the other side are unmistakable. Now all I had to do was make it out the other side.
A wave of relief washed over me as I cleared the first curler and began to hang on through the rest of the drop. In the guts is the only way I can describe that drop and maybe that should be its name form here on out. I guess it had changed some since TG’s last visit as well.
In the heart of the gorge time seemed to slow way down. We ran a couple clean ledges then portaged the top of another sieve laden rock pile with a much more dubious line than Stairway and put back in for the must run bottom portion. Turned out to be an o.k. drop and the next major horizon we snuck down the left with a low volume curling ten foot glory boof.
Immediately another horizon followed and I stayed in my boat while a couple of the bros hopped out for a look. Scouting was proving difficult and portaging looked once again like it was not really an option. Apparently the view of the preferred channel was obstructed so Leif swam out to a rock in the middle of the creek. He signaled that there was wood but it was a perfect boof. One large trunk lying vertically in the top drop on the left and then a “stick” in the right part of the second drop. “O.K. O.K. already. So it goes? Get me out of this gorge already!”
I went first, sailed off the first ledge and landed moving left. As I looked up at the second drop I noticed that the stick was more of a rootball forming a sieve and that it was blocking a solid half at least of the second ledge. Not much to do at that point but charge the hole on the left. It worked and everybody else made it through safely. “Well that was kind of gnarly, what’s next?”
Turns out the dicey waterfall portage was directly below. The waterfall was maybe 40 feet and was on a big elbow, turning 90 degrees to the left and dropping into another walled in gorge. The waterfall dropped left but a good portion of the water dropped right into a terrible looking sieve that was essentially part of the right cliff wall. With a stout class V lead-in and a ten-footer right above the lip, it was a pretty easy choice to opt for the sketchy climb to throw’n’go, the only other option. We took turns lowering the boats and then climbing around a small spire down to a ledge only about 25 feet off the deck. Unfortunately the deck consisted of the boxed in hole at the base of the waterfall with a pretty tight, maybe ten-foot wide landing zone into the meat of the boil.
David jumped first and came up stroking hard into an eddy on the left. We proceeded to rope all of the gear down to him using a two-rope system. He had one rope, we had the other, the gear rode in the middle. This is a great system for lowering gear, especially when there is some horizontal distance involved. Todd was set to jump next. He got hooked into the same system, despite my unfortunately somewhat meager protests and went for it. He came up stroking for the eddy but something was very wrong. We just let go of the rope on our end and as he came into the eddy he began peeling loops of rope from around his neck. Not one, not two, but count them, three loops came off from around his neck! Jesus.
Needless to say nobody else jumped with ropes attached and though everyone got into the eddy eventually, there were definitely some sketchy resurfacing moments, especially for Austin who came up way too close for comfort to the right wall. The reward for the portage – a four-tiered string of five to ten-foot boofs down the left side of the last rapid in the gorge – the most classic rapid on the entire run. The walls opened up and we preceded into a most spectacular paddle-out through an amazing stand of old growth rainforest.
With our adrenaline glands maxed out on day one, but with still some daylight remaining, we made plans for an exploratory 3rd or 4th or some other low number descent of the San Juan River the next day. Well, we had good intentions but after driving around for a few hours we couldn’t even find the river and we decided to bail on our rendezvous and just go run a short but classic section of Harris Creek and then head to the beach for some surf.
The Lens was definitely the highlight of the kayak portion of the trip but Austin and I both got on five personal first descents over a six-day trip and got to explore the ocean and beaches on the island as well. TG went surfing for the rest of the trip after the Lens and can you blame him. The next time I’ve got three loops of rope around my neck coming out of jumping into the walled in base of waterfall in an inescapable gorge I may take some time off to go surfing too – he’ll be back though, he’ll be back.