It was September of 2012 when I received a message from my good friend Chris: Was I interested in joining him and a group of friends to do some canyoneeering on Vancouver Island?
First, a brief explanation, of sorts. For those of you who have never heard of canyoneering, it’s a sport in which you don a wetsuit and dry pack and make your way down a creek canyon as best you can to hopefully emerge in one piece. I kid, really. Actually, it is generally a very safe pursuit when you consider that you make use of a plethora of mountaineering gear, if needed, and take all the necessary precautions while making said descents.
It didn’t take me long to answer in the affirmative. Chris had been telling me canyoneering tales for years and I’d been intrigued for quite some time. His description of the Looper Creek Canyon’s beautiful polished rock and verdant limestone gorge sounded fantastic to me, and so more plans were made.
Since Chris was on a tour of some Pacific Northwest canyons and already on Vancouver Island, I’d be taking the ferry over to Nanaimo to meet him in Departure Bay. Riding the boat with me was Vlad, a long time climbing partner of Chris whom I’d only had the chance to meet briefly before. Also in on the trip were Kevin and Francois, aka Fix, who were also on “The Island” and had been descending some other canyons there. The sun was just beginning to come up as my wife Jan dropped Vlad and me off at Horseshoe Bay. We were in luck, it looked as though it would be another warm and sunny day.
As the ferry steamed toward Nanaimo, Vlad and I sat out on the upper deck enjoying the scenery and sharing hiking stories. Soon the boat was docking, and we met Kevin and Fix on the other side. They were still recovering from the previous day’s adventure but other than lack of sleep they were none the worse for wear. I had known Kevin from sites online for years, so it seemed, strangely, as though we had already met. Fix, who was entirely new to me, was a real canyon enthusiast with a strong interest in photography and filming.
But, where was Chris? He’d left his transplanted home in Utah some days ago and as far as I knew had last been somewhere in Washington state. In another fifteen minutes, his well used Jeep Cherokee rolled into the parking lot and Vlad and I jumped in for the ride. With Fix and Kevin following in Kevin’s Jeep, we all set out for Lake Cowichan, where we would begin a long drive on logging roads bound for Looper Creek. “Don’t mind the dust, chips, the box of blueberries and whatever else you find.” Chris warned, jokingly. “Just move whatever so you can sit down!” Many shenanigans were shared along the way; this was to be the sixth canyon in six days for Chris, one of his busier weeks ever.
We continued to Lake Cowichan where there was a stop to fuel up, and then hit the logging roads for at least another fifty kilometres. Finally, Chris pulled over abruptly at an inconspicuous looking bridge. We walked over and stood about for a minute. “Well, that’s the canyon down there,” Chris said. I peered down into the deep gorge, but I couldn’t see much of anything in the midday shadows.
Seconds later Kevin and Fix arrived and the next half hour was taken up with both idle banter and the important task of outfitting everyone with the necessary gear for the trip. Then there was an important discussion regarding the possible technical challenges. In canyoneering, teamwork is paramount, because once you’re in the canyon, you’re pretty much committed and it can often be difficult to reverse your direction. Since this was summer, high water flows were not expected. If we were lucky, the whole trek might be able to be done in wetsuits and of course the mandatory climbing helmets, but nevertheless we would be ready for anything!
I was of two worlds on this trip. Firstly, I was the oldest person in group, but secondly, I was also the least experienced, as this was to be my first canyon. Since Chris has been one of my best mates for years and I’d heard so many stories, I did have a good idea of what to expect, however. As for the others, Vlad had been in a number of canyons with Chris, while Kevin and Fix were both seasoned veterans.
Once we had packed up, it was time to make our way up the logging spur near the bridge for about a kilometre and a half to where we would drop in to the canyon. Being the ever eager rookie, I’d already put on my wetsuit and tied it off at the waist for the walk uphill. The result of that was an uncomfortable stroll in the hot sun, though I was glad to have the leggings on when we bushwhacked down into the gorge.
No sooner had Fix led the way down the steep, brushy slope, than we were all on the banks of Looper Creek. Huge Bigleaf Maple trees towered above us as the creek ambled quietly by. I could tell almost immediately that this was a special place, quite unlike any I had been before. As a youngster one of my favourite things to do was to find a creek and explore it, so this seemed like another chapter of my youth, in a sense.
We walked onward through the waters, descending, almost imperceptibly at first. The mood was light and there was no shortage of humour from everyone.
Pretty soon we reached a clearing with deep emerald pools and a series of small cascades, so it looked as though we’d now be doing some swimming. It was there that everyone else got into their wetsuits.
I also got a tutorial on how to stash your camera in a dry bag. Kevin and I were using waterproof digital cameras whereas Chris and Fix had digital SLRs. They had ample suggestions about how best to keep your camera dry but that was something that was brand new to me!
We moved on, walking through narrows, hopping on rocks, and swimming through pools. It was just a lot of good clean fun! There was plenty to see along the way.
Canyoneering is a very unique experience. I found it similar in spirit to exploring forests, one of my favourite pursuits, in that you envelop yourself in the surroundings. The walls help to enhance that feeling. It is very different from mountaineering, my other passion, where you may begin in forest but you work your way ever upward into the open terrain of the alpine. Each pursuit has its own enticing qualities, I believe.
There was but one demanding section, as depicted below, near a confluence of huge fallen trees. Chris had thought we might need to break out the harnesses and rappel down to the waters below, but as it turned out it was able to be circumvented using a simple hand line. For good measure, though, Chris and Kevin took the time to practice setting up some gear. The rest of us were either taking photos or clowning about, and jumping into pools!
The sun made occasional appearances too, wherever an opportunity presented itself.
The canyon was a place of truly phantasmal beauty, and it seemed that everywhere one looked caused the fascination to grow stronger.
There were the walls. Sheer, unyielding, granite, limestone. Sometimes they were smooth and polished, other times rough, even somewhat sinister, and enclosing.
Then there were the fallen trees, interlocked to create obtructions, or perfectly placed to aid our path. It rather reminded me a life sized version of the kids game “Kerplunk”, as we manoeuvred our way over, under, down, and around their hulking skeletons. Whenever it seemed we had reached an impasse, nature seemed to provide some avenue of escape.
The vegetation too, was everywhere and conspicuous. Every available space for growth was exploited, wherever possible, and sometimes where improbable.
Last but far from least were the pools. Clear, green, shimmering, sometimes travertine. Some were shallow, others deep. Some you walked, some you swam, others you floated through.
I learned a lot about photography in watery conditions on this trek. Each person had their own way of landing shots and a system of setting up for the ideal image. Even if you brought a waterproof camera, as I did, you still have to keep water off the lens!
The journey continued on down the gorge. Eventually, we arrived at the crux of the trip, a large pool surrounded by rock walls that canyoneers sometimes wryly refer to as a “keeper pothole”. The name derives from the fact that they can sometimes recquire a grappling hook to escape. This one had no such issues, though I scuffled briefly because for whatever reason my hands had gone numb. Here’s a short video Kevin took of the resulting shenanigans, where, if you ask me, Vlad steals the show by repeatedly leaping in and climbing out again.
After a few more laughs and a lot more photographs we moved on again. Just when it seemed the trek might never end, or simply wasn’t meant to end, we reached the grand finale.
Suddenly, the creek virtually vanished, its flow now subterranean. Our path bent sharply to the right, then to the left before the water reappeared in a succession of swims that finished in a cavern like chamber underneath the bridge we had begun at. It was high above us, and partially obscured. From the road above one could never have known that such magic was so well hidden from sight!
We lingered there as long as we could, reflecting on the day. I later discovered that my friend Karsten K. had once rappelled off the bridge to the place we now stood admiring. Now that is what I call making an entrance! This is Karsten, below, after that rappel into the gorge. Check out his Flickr photo site by clicking on the photo, it’s well worth the time!
We left reluctantly, scouting for the exit trail nearby. It was well rigged with a series of ropes to aid us in our ascent. In another ten minutes we were at the trucks, sharing the stoke of a truly unique adventure. Amid all the camaraderie, a few beers were drank, thanks to Kevin, and we stowed away a lot of wet gear for the ensuing ride homeward.
We then parted company with Fix and Kevin, who were bound for Duke Point, and set out for Departure Bay. The ride back on the ferry featured an epic sunset to craft the ideal ending to what was, in every way, a near perfect day.
If ever you’re looking for a unique experience, I highly recommend you give canyoneering a go. You won’t regret it! My only misgiving was that I had waited so long to try it myself!