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Family Travel Ink
Canada: Rafting with Canadian River Expeditions in B.C.
Trips by raft, sailboat, helicopter, yacht, and even train through the northern and southern interiors of British Columbia, Queen Charlotte Islands or along rivers in the Yukon
Canadian River Expeditions, founded by John Mikes, was Canada’s first river rafting outfitter. Since 1972, the owners and outdoorspeople who guide the trips have hosted people from 30 countries, 49 states and all Canadian provinces, including many families. Floating down a wilderness river offers extraordinary opportunities for kids to view wildlife such as bald eagles, black bears or mountain sheep and quietly explore otherwise inaccessible environments.
Though the company, now operated by John’s son, Johnny Mikes Jr., calls itself Canadian River Expeditions, families will find themselves traveling by raft, floatplane, sailboat, helicopter and even train. The rugged trip to Lancaster Sound off Baffin Island in Canada’s eastern Arctic even has guests traveling by dog team. Wilderness, rather than whitewater, tends to be the focus. Families may worry that they are not experienced trippers. Relax. The only prerequisite is a kid or adult willing to camp out for a few days and enjoy some of the finest scenery in the world. Kids love the variety of activity and the whitewater and guides make a special effort to involve kids in all aspects of the trip, even the technical side of rafting if they are interested.
What age is best for a trip like this? The trips are truly great for kids eight to 12, those who are excited about being away from the television for a week of nature watching. But younger and older can be fine too. As Liz Askey points out, “we’ve had six-year-olds who have been fabulous and 14-year-olds who were reluctant to be dragged away from their friends. It sometimes takes a few days for them to lose the “attitude” but once they do, they have a fabulous experience.”
Although the company offers about a dozen different routes, probably the best trip for first-timers is the new six-day adventure offering a portion of the 11-day Best of British Columbia expedition. This trip on the Chilcotin and Fraser Rivers is not only more accessible but it also offers the best climate of any multi-day river trip in southern Canada. Get ready to spot low-gliding blue herons, ospreys, mountain sheep, deer and startled bears. The highlight for one group was sighting a cougar, but in general, here’s what families can expect during their six-day float trip.
Day One: The trip starts in Williams Lake, B.C. Families can fly, drive or take the train or bus (about an 8-hour trip) up from Vancouver. From “Willy’s Puddle,” buses will transport families through the grasslands and forests of Chilcotin country to the turquoise waters of the Chilcotin River. There, the rafts are waiting. CRE uses 22-ft. long “Grand Canyon style” rigs, suitable for the smaller Chilcotin River and big enough for safety on the huge Fraser. Each boat is equipped with oars and a motor, though the traveling is silent most of the time for the eight passengers, the boatman and the assistant guide. After a quick bite of lunch—possibly smoked salmon, plus breads, cold cuts and fruit—the rafting begins through the scenic canyons and hills of the Goosenecks down to a two-night camp on the edge of Big Creek Ecological Reserve. Here, families layover to hike, fish or relax at this beautiful sunny spot that’s a favorite with guests. It is set in an open forest of young firs with a high basalt cliff echoing the sound of the rushing water. Red-tailed hawks soar overhead. Big Creek itself is a small trout stream, its warmer waters forming a gentle succession of quiet pools—perfect for an evening dip.
Day Three: More challenging water awaits along Big Creek Rapids, Deux Teton Rapids (named for two rather prominent rocks) and Farwell Canyon, the site of a native fishery. Kids can examine faint rock paintings still preserved in the dry, desert climate. The rapids on this day build in size and Farwell is the first taste of big whitewater. Families finally bed down opposite the Chilcotin-Fraser Junction Bighorn Sheep Reserve. The river canyons are sheep country so sheep sightings are guaranteed. Recent groups have encountered bunches of full curl rams and also had to chase off an overly inquisitive young black bear. This camp has a big sandy beach for swimming and good walking trails.
Day Four: Splash through the last few miles of the Chilcotin River into the mighty Fraser where the turquoise waters of the Chilcotin are quickly swallowed up by the brown silt of the huge rushing river. As the province’s largest and longest river, the Fraser flows from the Rocky Mountains through the heartland of the province to the sea. Get ready to see salmon? It is recognized as the most productive salmon fishery in the world and is considered an important place in First Nations history. The Fraser commonly runs 10 times the maximum flow of the Colorado so motors are turned on to safely navigate the large whirlpools and rushing waters. Camp is at Pulpit Rock near Gang Ranch, the largest in area in the world, surpassing even the King Ranch in Texas. Stop at the remains of miners’ shacks dating back to the Gold Rush or try your hand at panning for gold. With a little patience, kids will often come up with a few flecks of gold dust.
Day Five: Drift past the hoodoos (eroded sandstone pillars akin to the sculptures in Utah’s Bryce Canyon) to the rapids of French Bar Canyon —the first of the really big Fraser rapids—and the remnants of pioneer ranches to the final camp. Before putting up tents, groups can stop at the old homesteads at Watson Bar and have a bath under the natural jacuzzi of a small waterfall.
Day Six: It’s time to get up early, and run the best whitewater rapids of the Fraser ending up just a few miles above the town of Lillooet, Mile Zero of the old Cariboo Gold Road. Check out the interesting little museum telling the story of the prospectors who set out to find their fortunes. Then it’s time to take the train to Vancouver for a relaxing wind down through the mountains and lakes of the coast Range past Whistler and the Cheakamus Canyon. By that time, the kids’ journals should be filled with interesting wildlife sightings, new experiences and the request, “Can we do that again?”
Tips: It really helps to prepare kids for what they are going to see. One family took the pre-trip wildlife list and researched all the animals they might see. Another family booked on the Tatshenshini and Alsek river trip spent six months building a 3D model of the topography of the area. It became a family project. When those kids arrived, they were the highlight for the rest of the group. As there is quite a bit of free time, it’s also good to bring along journals so the kids can make notes or draw pictures of what they’ve encountered and a camera to record scenery and events.
Getting There: Canadian River Expeditions, P.O. Box 1023, Whistler, B.C., VON 1BO; 604/ 938-6651 or 800/ 898-7238, FAX 604/ 938-6621; email: firstname.lastname@example.org. The rafting season runs from the third week in June until the last week of August, ideal timing for bug-free travel.
What it costs: The 6-day Chilcotin-Fraser trip costs $1425 (20 percent less for kids) which includes transportation, food, beer and wine and juice, guiding services and group equipment. Camping gear (tent, sleeping bag and mattress) can be rented for $85. Because there’s no place to buy anything along the river, you only need enough money to buy an ice cream or a drink in Lillooet at the end of the trip. The outfitters provide enough food and more along the way.
What to bring: Canadian River Expeditions sends a thorough suggested equipment list that includes cutlery, thick wool socks and many optionals like a small musical instrument. Each guest is supplied with a large waterproof duffle bag and a life jacket designed and approved for river use.
Details: Should a child should happen to fall and twist an ankle, help can be summoned either along the river or via helicopter. Guides are skilled outdoorsmen and women who are trained in first aid and licensed to lead groups.
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