A narrow gorge locked in by 2,500-foot walls, forests too dense to scout, a lost kayak, food shortages. These are just some of the challenges kayaker Chris Korbulic and his team of Eric Parker, Todd Wells, and Galen Volckhausen faced trying to complete the first descent of a wild river hidden in plain sight.
“This Bishop River is really alluring because it’s so close to a major urban area, Vancouver, British Columbia, yet people knew very little about it,” says Korbulic. “It’s a good reminder that it’s still possible to get out and experience these really exceptional wild places. They’re not all gone.” It took two attempts, but the team was triumphant.
Find out what happened in the interview below and in the upcoming film.
You’ve been kayaking all over the world. What drew you to the Bishop River?
Chris Korbulic: The Bishop is really alluring because it is among all of these other pretty well-known rivers, and it’s so close to a major urban area, Vancouver, British Columbia, and yet people knew very little about it.
Kayakers have been running rivers all around it for the past 10, 15, 20 years, in some cases. There had only been one previous attempt on the Bishop, which was the summer before we tried it the first time. It ended up with the group portaging basically everything for about five days. They didn’t even see most of the river. So, it really left a lot of unknowns in the canyon.
Also everything in the Coast Range—the mountains and the landscape—is just spectacular. And the Bishop cuts through one of the most impressive parts of the range. I was really interested do a crossing of the whole Coast Range from the Bishop Glacier all the way out to the ocean.
How close is the lake that is the source of the Bishop?
Chris Korbulic: It’s about 100 miles from downtown Vancouver.
That’s not very far. The whole expedition was not a lot of distance in total. How did it break down?
Chris Korbulic: It’s probably 100 miles driving from Vancouver to where we got in the float plane. We then flew an hour to land in the glacial lake. We then paddled a mile across the lake. From there is was 25 miles down the steep part of the river, then 20 miles out to the ocean, followed by a five-hour motor boat ride out to Vancouver Island.
Back to Bishop Lake. Tell us about the ice!
Chris Korbulic: Yeah, that was just amazing. That was on the lake that we flew into and put in at. I guess when we were flying in, the ice on the lake was a hazard and kind of hard to deal with. But actually, the pilot that flew us in this last time, had been flying in the area for the last 20 years. He told us that they’ve only been able to land on that lake for the last three or four years in a float plane. Previously the glacier had been too far. The lake hadn’t been big enough, and it would always have too much ice in it. This year, you could land a 747 on floats in there. It’s a very big lake now.
That’s pretty cool. What made Bishop River extra challenging?
Chris Korbulic: The gorges along the river are the biggest challenge. Scouting from satellite images, which is the best way that we can scout, before actually getting to a place, didn’t reveal much of anything. So we didn’t know anything about the gorges, except that they dropped very significantly, over pretty short distances, which typically means there are going to be some really big features in the river that we won’t be able to paddle our kayaks down.
The nature of the gorges is very tight and tall and deep, and the forest surrounding the gorges is very thick. It just, once we were on the ground, made it really hard to see inside to canyons to see the whitewater.
How deep were those canyons?
Chris Korbulic: Some of the walls were like El Cap. They were like 2,500 feet.
Oh, wow! And how many gorges were there?
Chris Korbulic: We broke it down into four separate gorges. Basically, the second and third gorges were one, but there was just one place in between, or one place in that gorge where it was easy to exit. So, we kind of broke that down into calling it two separate gorges. Because other than that one spot, there were few to no places that we could get out of the river.
I know you’ve dealt with that before. I bet having experience helped in those situations.
Chris Korbulic: Oh, my gosh. If you looked at a section of river in a gorge like that, and had never gone through it before, then I don’t think you would even be able to consider sitting in your kayak, to try to paddle through it.
That 25-mile steep part of the river, is there portaging in there, too?
Oh, yeah. Not 100 percent of the gorges are runnable. With that combination of gradient and volume and the wildness, the remote place, that kind of exposure, we just can’t be in our kayaks through, for the whole river. Some parts of it are definitely just too dangerous. There was still quite a bit of portaging.
So, when you guys finally got to the sea, did you celebrate?
Chris Korbulic: Yeah. It’s always kind of a strange feeling, getting to the end of a descent like that. When you’re in there, it’s amazing and hard and dangerous. You go in with the goal of just getting out, and getting out safely. Then, when you’re out, all you want to do is go back to the top, and experience it all over again. There is definitely some celebration, but there’s also kind of a feeling of missing it, like you want to keep experiencing that kind of thing.
How long did it take for you guys to do the full descent?
Chris Korbulic: Our first attempt took nine days. And then, our more recent one, October 2017, took five days.
You learned something from the first time.
Chris Korbulic: Yes, exactly.
What were the significant differences between your two attempts?
Chris Korbulic: The first one, obviously, we didn’t know anything about the river. Everything came at us totally new, and we just had to figure out every little step of the way. So, it really slowed our progress. There were a couple of days that we would make less than a kilometer of downstream progress, because we would scout so much, and then we would get in our boats, and paddle down to one more spot. Then, scout again further downstream, and just not have enough time in the day to keep paddling.
On that first trip, we only planned for seven days, so we got pretty light on food. Todd, one of the other guys, dropped his boat in the river, so that meant that we lost a third of our food. He lost his camping gear, sleeping bag, dry clothes, and everything. We were nearing the end of the trip, and then we suddenly had all of our equipment and food cut by a third.
What did you decide to do at that point?
Chris Korbulic: Todd hiked out, from there. It was going to be like 25 more miles walking out, he decided to call in a rescue, and he didn’t have much food. There were grizzly bears out there and had hurt his ankle, so it probably was the safest decision.
That’s always is hard.
Chris Korbulic: But on the second trip, obviously, we knew a lot more about what was coming on the river, so we could really cut down on scouting time, and looking for places to camp. We just had prior experience in this location, so we knew a lot more about what was coming, and we could focus more on seeing the things that we had not seen, on the previous descent, like seeing parts of the river inside a couple of those gorges, and paddling a couple parts of the gorges that we didn’t before.
Why do you need to go back?
Chris Korbulic: To me, I guess there are just some places that are very personally appealing. It was still just this blank spot on the paddling map. Nobody knew what was in there. It goes through the heart of some of the highest peaks in British Columbia’s Coast Range, and it just looked like a really incredible landscape to go be a part of, for a little bit.
So, you were like “I’ve got to go back and finish this.”
Chris Korbulic: Exactly. It was easy to want to go back and see more of it, and kind of experience it in a better way than we had. Well, I guess not “experience it in a better way,” because dealing with the unknowns of a first descent, to me, is one of the best ways to experience a wild place like that.
But then, having something crappy happen, like Todd’s boat dropping into the river, put a damper on how the trip ended. So, I definitely just really wanted to go back and finish what we had started, in a better way.
Did the boat falling into the river mess up the team dynamics?
Chris Korbulic: No, actually. We just knew what we needed to do. We saw what happened, and we were pretty much all on the same page of what needed to go down, or what we needed to do, and how to keep everybody safe. It certainly wasn’t comfortable, but there was no pointing fingers. We actually dealt with it really well. Somehow, Todd even stayed warm, bundled in our extra down jackets, and all of our layers and everything.
That’s awesome. You passed through starkly contrasting forests, from old growth to clear-cut. Did that make an impression on you?
Chris Korbulic: Absolutely. That was one of the most dramatic things on that river. That we could travel a relatively short distance and go from this incredible majestic old-growth forest into these big, nasty old clear-cuts and second-growth, and maybe even some third-growth forests. Just such a stark difference between the old growth and what we have extracted resources from.
That happens everywhere, almost. But what I really like about the Bishop is that it is really close, and relatively accessible. It’s a good reminder that it’s still possible to get out and experience these really exceptional places. They’re not all gone.