Feature Story

Clearwater River links elite kayakers with grassroots paddle culture

 | October 26, 2020

“The Clearwater River is a culmination of an incredible amount of chutes, waterfalls, and rapids and is one of the great rivers of British Columbia. It’s one of the most exciting and dynamic tributaries of the entire Fraser River system.”

Peirce Huser and Jared Day play boating on the Clearwater River near pink mountain. Photo by Travis Aback

Clearwater, B.C. is home to one of the highest quality, big volume, free flowing, protected, and longest undammed whitewater rivers in North America, and maybe even the world, according to Doug Trotter, who has operated Interior Whitewater Expeditions (IWE) in Clearwater for over 50 years, and who was part of the original whitewater kayaking scene in the region.

“The Clearwater River is an anomaly,” he said: “We hire a lot of international guides and that’s a good measuring stick of what’s going on because they’ll raft the Clearwater River in the summer and usually head south in the winter and raft in Colombia or Australia or wherever and I have heard this 20 or 30 times; (the Clearwater River) is one of the great rivers.”

The torch of the legendary Clearwater kayaking scene has been passed on many times over the years and is now in the hands of Kenneth Mckay and his group of friends who include international competitive boater Peirce Huser, and TRU adventure guide alumni Travis Aback, Jared Day, and Lauren Turcott. They dubbed themselves Team Melon.

Turcott boosting Lee Falls below the famous Helmcken Falls. Photo taken by Travis Aback

Mckay is a Clearwater local who has been whitewater kayaking and rafting for over 10 years. He was first introduced to the sport after getting a job as a bus driver for IWE when he was 18 years old. Before then, Mckay was always nervous around the Clearwater River because he said he was brought up like other locals: to be scared of the river.

“In reality it’s actually a very good river to learn and to train on. There’s not a lot of rocks and a lot of the wood gets washed away (by the high volume of water). So there’s no hazard in that way, it’s warm water, and kind of friendly I guess you’d say,” Mckay explained. 

Progression 

At IWE he found himself surrounded by a group of world class kayakers, raft guides and avid expedition boaters. They taught him to paddle in a straight line and roll his kayak on the flat, warm waters of Dutch Lake in case he flipped while paddling on moving water, a typical progression for rookie whitewater boaters. 

Once Mckay learned the essentials, he said his co-workers “threw him to the wolves” and started progressing Mckay’s skills on the Clearwater River where he began moving through the different classes of rapids, which range from one to six.

Class six whitewater is essentially unrunnable. 

“If you go down you’re probably not going to make it,” Mckay explained. 

“An example of a class six on the Clearwater River would be Helmcken Falls, or the Kettle rapid at high (volume). Basically rapids are rated on the technicality and consequence of a rapid. A class five is very technical and has high consequences in there that could cause bodily harm or death. You need good skills to paddle class five,” said Mckay. 

Subsequent classes scale down, each one becoming less technical and less consequential than the last. Classes four and three require specific moves to avoid dangerous life and limb threatening hazards, while paddlers on classes one and two can pretty much paddle wherever they want.

Mckay styling ‘The Wall’ wave in the lower Clearwater River canyon. Photo taken by Travis Aback

Mckay has come a long way since sitting in a kayak for the first time and has worked his way through all five paddleable classes of rapids. With the support of Clearwater’s kayaking community he’s been able to greatly grow his skills and confidence and is now seen as a key member of the community.

Along the way Mckay met up-and-comer paddler Huser, who has been working hard building a reputation this season, getting first descents, paddling technical creeks, and styling big volume rapids.  

Huser, a 20-year-old natural resource science student at Thompson Rivers University (TRU), got his start in a whitewater kayak when he was only nine years old. He was introduced to the sport by his parents who taught him to roll his kayak in a backyard pool.

“Ever since that I kind of caught the bug. From 10 to like 16 years old I would probably go (kayaking) every weekend and on the odd weeknight in the spring, summer, and fall. I’d go with my dad and we’d go to rivers like the Adams, the Clearwater, and the Thompson,” he remembered.

When he was 17 years old Huser ran the class five rapid Bailey’s Chute for the first time, one of the most challenging rapids on the river at 50 cubic metres a second (CMS). This summer he returned and ran it at 250 CMS, the highest it has ever been run at. 

Peirce Huser and Jared Day simultaneously surfing the pink mountain wave on the Clearwater River. Photo by Travis Aback

Huser’s specialty is freestyle boating, a discipline of whitewater boating that he has practised for the majority of his kayaking career. It features kayakers surfing a wave on the river and doing tricks, explained Huser.

“We play on and surf this little feature called Pink Mountain on the Clearwater River,” Huser said, referring to a spot beside a large granite cliff with a pink hue. “It’s kind of like a little river wave . We surf that wave with our kayaks and do a variety of different tricks, whether it be a little spin or you get to throw a cartwheel, maybe get the bow of your kayak in the water and throw some ends. You can even do a front flip loop kind of thing.”

In 2016 Huser landed a spot on the Junior Canadian Freestyle national team, that same year he went on to compete in the Freestyle World Championships. In 2019 he moved onto the senior team and went to Spain where he placed 30th in the world.

“Out of all the Canadian boaters I came second (in the world championships), which is pretty good so that’s my little claim to fame right now,” Huser said.

Now, after competing in the world championships, Huser is still active in the sport. He is regularly pushing the limits closer to home and is more active than ever in the Clearwater kayaking scene. 

Leadership

Mckay and Huser now spend more than 150 days a year in their boats with friends of Team Melon.

Mckay’s house on the Clearwater river is a hub for the local paddling community. He referred to it as a “kayakers’ hostel” with an open door policy where Melon teammates rent rooms for cheap and where other kayakers can pitch tents. This makes it easier for other passionate boaters to focus on progressing their skills and pursuing their passion. The close proximity of the house to the river makes it convenient to run quick after work laps, considering it’s possible to take their boats out of the river and walk straight into Mckay’s backyard.

Team Melon’s motivation boils down to four key values: partnerships, exploration, progression and leadership.

Mckay explained his motivation for exploration and leadership came from IWE co-worker and mentor Adrian Kiernan, who was one of Mckay’s first paddling partners and strongly influenced him. Mckay would typically follow Kiernan’s lead while learning the intricacies of paddling.

On top of a mentor, Kiernan soon became one of Mckay’s best friends. They travelled the world together, visiting different whitewater kayaking and rafting destinations along the way.

Sadly, Kiernan lost his life while on a kayaking expedition in Nepal in 2018, leaving a gaping hole in the Clearwater kayaking community.

“Ever since losing him I’ve become more of a leader and a driver in lots of these kayak trips and expeditions, the same way he was for me,” said Mckay.

“That’s kind of what I strive for really. I want to try and do for the next generation what he and so many others did for me.”

Mckay

Huser is also passionate about exploration, eyeing up first descents of technical rapids that sometimes take multiple days to scope, hike in to and descend with Mckay and Day. 

Exploration

Their most recent mission was on the Azure River in early September, a class five river set deep in the backcountry of Wells Gray Provincial Park, which spills into Azure Lake and eventually into the mouth of the Clearwater River. They left late in the afternoon with their kayaks and started the 10 kilometre bushwack through thick tufts of devil’s club at what they called an absurdly slow pace.

“The first day we only made it a kilometre and a half and then set up camp,” remembered Huser. “The next day we got seven hours into it and maybe made it another kilometre and a half because the bush was ungodly thick and we were carrying really heavy kayaks, upwards of 80 pounds.”.

They made it one kilometre from McAndrews Lake which marks the halfway point of their approach when one member of their crew hyperextended their knee, prompting an evacuation.

“At about 3 p.m. we decided to turn around and try and get him out before dark…I tied one of my leashes to (him)to take some of the weight off his knee and we began the slow trek back down and made it to the vehicle just before dark. It was a little demoralizing at that point because we were even further behind schedule,” said Huser.

That night, they reorganized, restocked food and rechecked logistics. In the morning they trekked back five hours to their kayaks and the remaining two kilometres to Mcandrews Lake. On the third day the team woke up early and crushed the remaining five kilometres to the river head. 

“We finally got to the river around 2 p.m. and getting there was pretty surreal. I kept having devil’s club flash before my eyes and dreamt about it that night, it was messing with my head a little bit,” Huser said, laughing it off.

The three finally got on the river, which marked the beginning of the fourth-ever descent of the Azure, as Day and Mckay nabbed the third descent the previous year. That afternoon they kayaked ten significant rapids and waterfalls ranging from 10 to 30 feet high.

“It was really cool, we were able to run every one of those,” Huser said. 

The next objective was to paddle the remaining 23 kilometres of the river meet the jet boat they had scheduled, which would transport them 50 kilometres across Azure and Clearwater lakes, to the mouth of the Clearwater River.

“That next day was pretty challenging, I ran this sick 20 foot waterfall and it hasn’t even been done before. I ran it pretty clean and a first descent in there doesn’t hurt.”

One hundred feet past that waterfall, the river presented a horizon line hosting a double drop, totalling 70 feet of waterfall. Huser said it had a runnable line and has never been done before, but the team decided to opt out and portage around the feature as they weren’t able to mitigate enough of the risks considering the time crunch and remoteness of the river.

The final feature on the Azure was a canyon with a class six rapid which was totally unrunnable, so once again they had to hike their heavy gear around the steep section, thrashing through more thick vegetation..

“The devil’s club was a couple inches thick in diameter and there was so much of it. Everyone’s colour showed a little bit and some tempers flared,” reflected Huser.

Peirce Huser rappelling into the put in point for paddling access to the lower two kilometres of the Murtle river. Photo by Kenneth Mckay

That afternoon they paddled the rest of the river into Azure Lake, where they camped and waited for the jet boat to arrive the next morning.

“I love this style because I can feel like a modern day adventurer living from my kayak and travelling down unique rivers that are only experienced by (few) kayakers. It’s a place where I can forget about normal life and just kick it with close friends doing what we love while keeping life simple.”

Huser

“Sometimes I wonder if it’s all worth it, but it definitely was. The whitewater was super high quality and the river was world class. If it had road access people would be paddling that all the time, it was such a high calibre.”

Partnerships

In addition to regular exploration, Huser has caught the eye of both local and international businesses. 

Huser is an ambassador for Pink Mountain Imports, a staple in the Clearwater kayaking scene created by Maison and Riley Cavaliere. The Kamloops-based online gear retailer is named after the pink granite cliff on the Clearwater River. They sell whitewater kayaking gear and accessories while also focusing on promoting accessibility in the kayaking industry.

“We don’t require our ambassadors to send 100 foot waterfalls and post pictures of it…If they’re doing that, that’s unbelievable and of course we will give them all the support (we can),” Maison explained.

“We’d much rather see them supporting the community and pushing the sport of kayaking, not the sport of sending.”

Maison

When asked about pushing himself and the sport on behalf of his sponsors , Huser said he’s cautious, but excited.

“It’s important to ask myself the right questions before I drop into something, that’s really important to me. I make sure I want to run it for the right reasons. Like would you drop a waterfall just because you have a certain sticker on your boat or because the camera is rolling? (I also ask myself) what can go wrong?

Team Melon lowering their kayaks right below Helmcken falls. Photo by Kenneth Mckay

“I get really excited when I see a rapid that looks like it has potential. If (my) headspace is calm and cool, and I’m not so nervous while looking at it, I’ll feel like it’s the right time and place to run a rapid. I won’t hesitate to do it, because I’m not going to lie to you, there’s a certain rush and joy that comes with it, but the right time and having the right people around is key.” 

The vision for Pink Mountain Imports isn’t all about the gear, added Riley.

“We want to move beyond just selling items and material things to people and maybe go to festivals or host events and (introduce) more women into the sport by making it more accessible for everyone. Like one part of that is we try and not mark up our gear so much so that when people look at it, they’re like, ‘oh wow, that’s a good price.’”

The mission aligns with Team Melon’s usual vibe, which is welcoming and encourages people to get out there. 

Other than getting first and second descents, Mckay and the rest of Team Melon’s time is spent getting out with groups of old friends and new boaters to show them runs.

“It’s always nice to have some new people along, that always raises the stoke,” said Mckay.

One of Mckay’s favourite kayaking traditions has stood nearly a decade. He gets a large group together and does the Murtle waterfall mission, a class five rapid that flows into the Clearwater River. It’s a 75 kilometre paddling trip that eventually ends in Mckay’s backyard, which they did most recently at the end of August.

“That mission finishes on a spot called The Flower Pots. What we’ll do at the end of those missions is get up on those flower pots, which are basalt lava rock islands in the middle of the river that are cone shaped because the river slowly erodes the base. They have a bunch of lichen, moss, and trees growing off the top, and we’ll watch the spring salmon jump up the last drop of the Gatlin Gorge. It’s a really cool hang.”

The Murtle mission starts at the base of Helmcken Falls with a 30 foot waterfall called Lee Falls, which can be seen from the popular lookout. 

“We rappel in with our boats, paddle across the river, hike up to the base of Helmcken Falls, and put in to the top of the 30 foot waterfall above a class three boulder garden section. Once through that we get on to the Clearwater River and go to the end of Gatlin Gorge where the flower pots are,” explained Mckay

Although the paddling season in Clearwater is slowing down as the weather gets colder and the snow starts to fall, Team Melon has their sights aimed on a secret first descent for next season that they would not disclose to SPIN just yet.

In the meantime, McKay will be strapping on his skis to stay fit for paddling over the winter.

“The best thing for keeping the stoke is to get away from it for a bit, I find. It can be a long season if you’re boating every weekend. Sometimes you need a break, mostly on the mental side of things.”

Those interested in getting into the Clearwater kayaking scene, can look no further than Pink Mountain Imports for gearing up, contact IWE for rafting trips next season, and take part in the Clearwater Kayaking Festival in summer 2021. Information on the festival can be found on their event page on facebook.

To keep up with Team Melon and the rest of the Clearwater kayaking scene, follow their individual accounts on instagram. Pierce Huser can be found @peirce_huser, Kenneth Mckay @kennethmckay44, Jared Day @jaredgmday, Travis Aback @travaback, IWE @interior_whitewater_rafting, and Pink Mountain Imports @pinkmountainimports. 

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