Three Days Down the Kootenay

by Laird Roberts

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    Erwin Oertli, a river guide and the oarsman for our raft, gripped the handles of long, wooden oars in knotted fists. The muscles in his arms tightened. There was a growing roar of fast water on rock. The current carried the raft around a bend toward a steep precipice of water. Oertli dropped the tip of an oar and pulled. The raft straightened. The air grew dense, cold, and wet with mist. He turned, smiling.

    “This is a good one.” His voice was nearly drowned in the roar.

    “It’s the only bad place on the whole river.”

    The veins in his neck stood out.

    “There are two rocks.”

    The sound of the water changed from a roar to thunder.

    “The first one is right in the head of the rapids in the roughest water. It’s not hard to miss, but the second rock comes up fast right behind it. You have to row left to miss the first and then hard to the right to miss the second one.”

    The river dropped suddenly in front of the raft, looking more like a waterfall than a rapid. The front of the raft hung suspended in wet air and dropped, suddenly, breathlessly, angling down toward the river.

    Screams mixed with the explosive sound of the river. Hands grasped desperately to a cord of rope that ran around the inside of the raft.

    The raft hit the water, crashing. An engulfing wave, fringed with a thousand sparkling fragments that felt like ice, came up and over and into the raft from all sides, blotting out the blue sky, submerging it. It rose suddenly into the sun, on a high wave mountain, water running off the black rubber sides, and fell again, into an impossible depth, plunging down a steep canyon of water on a roller coaster ride. The water was a gray silk in the waves, and near the crests, edged with sky, it rose up like a white cambric lace.

    Oertli, standing, hit the oars hard. The raft moved across the water, turning. He relaxed. The raft rifled past a grizzly turbulence where a boulder, covered with foam and spilling water, back-eddied a whirlpool.

    He hit the oars a second time, hard, pulling and leaning, handling the raft with the skill of a master craftsman. The raft moved across the current, and the second rock, also hidden below a mound of the Kootenay’s gray water, swept safely behind.

    When we were through the rapids, he leaned back and smiled.

    “Good one, huh?”

    No one disagreed.

    Oertli turned and looked back at the rapids. Another raft, the last of seven, was moving toward the head of the rapids. Oertli rowed to the slow water on the inside of a bend. He waved his arms at the other raft.

    “Left, left,” he shouted.

    His arms were wet, shining in the bright sunlight.

    “He’s rowed here before a couple of times, but that’s a tricky spot. I told him about the two rocks. I hope he remembers.”

    He wiped his hands on his legs.

    “We’ll watch in case they run into trouble,” he said.

    The other raft rose and dropped suddenly, vanishing below waves and then rising up again.

    “He’s missed the first rock.”

    Oertli stood on the supply box in the middle of the raft waving.

    “Right, right,” he shouted. He stopped and stood silent. “He can’t hear me. He’s not rowing.”

    A wave suddenly sprayed up in front of the other raft. Jerking back, it stopped, pinned against the rock. Water foamed around it in a wild swirl, tipping it forward. The current caught it, turned it, and pulled It from the rock and down the river, safe.

    “Someone’s in the water,” Oertli yelled.

    A small orange figure bobbed in front of the raft in white water.

    “Row toward her,” Oertli yelled.

    Small forms on the raft moved frantically. Out of control in the turbulence, the raft came sideways down the rapids, and the distance between it and the girl in the water grew as the river swept her downstream.

    Oertli grabbed the oars again and rowed toward the shore.

    “We’ll stop and pick her up when she comes by. If we pick her up now, she’ll be fine. She has her life jacket on, but the water’s cold.”

    The shore came up fast.

    “Doug, jump out and brake the raft with the rope when we get to the shore. The current’s strong here.”

    Doug jumped into the water next to the shore, holding the rope, and fell. He braced himself. The rope grew taut and jerked him down into the water. He stood, getting his footing on slick rocks, then fell again.

    The raft slowed and swung in against the shore. Doug stood and brought the raft to a stop.

    “Get ready to push off when I say,” Oertli said. “This is why I make sure right at the first that everyone has a life jacket on and buckled. This is a good river. It’s safe, but you can never be too careful.”

    He looked up the river. The girl was coming down fast.

    “Get ready,” Oertli shouted.

    The girl drifted closer.

    “Now!” he yelled, grabbing the oars.

    Doug pushed the raft into the current and jumped in. Pumping the oars in a rhythmic motion, Oertli brought the raft to the middle of the river. The girl drifted even with the raft about ten feet away. Someone threw her a rope. Oertli hit the water hard with the oars. The raft moved next to the girl and several hands pulled her from the water.

    “Are you all right?” Oertli asked.

    The girl nodded.

    She was clenching her fists tight to her body, shivering. Water dripped from her hair down her face.

    “Cold?” Oertli asked.

    She nodded again.

    “We’ll fix that,” he said.

    “Doug, we’re going to pull in and stop.”

    He pulled out a pile of waterproof bags and undid the straps on one. He unpacked a heavy wool sweater, a pair of pants, and a thick, down jacket.

    “When we get to the shore, go back in the trees and put these on,” he said.

    A few minutes later the girl returned.

    “Are you okay now?”

    She nodded.

    “Warm enough?” Oertli asked smiling.

    She managed a smile and nodded.

    “I keep several sets of warm clothes just for this.”

    He rowed to the fast current and leaned back, tipping his head up toward the sun. It was bright and hung low in the sky.

    “We’ll be in camp in about an hour,” he said.

    The river eddied fast and smooth around the raft and was a muddy gray color. The air was cool and smelled of snow. It was early spring, May 20. In Canada that’s a holiday celebrating Queen Victoria’s birthday, and for the LDS Branch in Banff, Alberta Province, it’s time for the annual trip down the Kootenay River.

    Erwin Oertli is a member of the Banff Branch. He is also a professional river guide who has a government concession to run raft trips in Canada, and on the same weekend each spring he invites the entire Banff Branch, all interested families, on a three-day raft trip down the Kootenay River. He also invites several nonmember friends.

    “It’s the best way I know of to introduce them to the Church,” he explained.

    The trip began early Saturday morning. The rafts were unloaded on the river bank, inflated, and lifted into the water. Under Brother Oertli’s direction, metal platforms were placed in the rafts and lashed to the sides. Each family loaded and secured its food, supplies, and equipment onto the platforms. Brother Oertli gave final instructions on safety, the river, and handling the rafts. The river runners then buckled on life jackets, and at last the first raft was launched.

    The first section of the river was fast and smooth. This gave the oarsmen a chance to get the feel of their rafts. The river reflected gray and liquid silver in the bright sun.

    At noon the rafts were beached and Brother Oertli led the group up an old mining road to a ridge that overlooks the river. Below them the Kootenay snaked its way through the high Rocky Mountains of British Columbia. The tops of the mountains were still iced with snow. The long, ivory fingers of glaciers twisted down the slopes of the higher peaks.

    After lunch the rafts were launched again. The river dropped faster now, turning sharply around the high slopes that walled it in. These rough-cut river canyons are bordered with stands of columnlike lodge pole pines. There were several sections of rough, white water, but by evening, with the exception of the girl who fell in, the rafts made it to the campsite with little trouble.

    Equipment was unloaded and the rafts were pulled onto the shore and tipped over, allowing the water to drain out. In the blue-gray light of evening, tents were set up near a line of jagged pines that shouldered the beach. Fires were built, and the sounds of laughter and voices mixed with the savory aroma of burning pine and of frying steaks and potatoes.

    The following morning a testimony meeting, held in the pines, was directed by Harlen Cahoon, a counselor in the Banff Branch presidency. In the meeting nearly everyone from the branch stood and expressed the strong feeling of closeness they felt for each other and for their Father in Heaven.

    Brother Cahoon later explained that the testimony meeting on the trip was something everyone looked forward to every year.

    “It’s the highlight of the trip,” he said.

    After the meeting some of the families spent the afternoon hiking to a ridge that overlooked the river, while others sat by the river or in the shadows of pines, enjoying a steady flow of conversation. Fires were built with wood gathered the night before, and dutch ovens filled with chicken were buried in hot coals for dinner.

    Toward evening, high-piled clouds drifted across the sky and the mountain peaks were fogged with gray-white wisps. Rain fell lightly, cooling the earth and scenting the air with the pleasant smells of wet leaves, pine, and aspen. The sky partially cleared as night came.

    A cream-white moon, full and large, rose above the river, flooding it with shimmering, silver light that danced on the waves. A large bonfire was built on the beach. The group gathered around its warmth, watching fiery sparks sail up with the moon and the stars. Their soft singing filled the night air.

    The next day, late in the afternoon, it was over. Under a fierce barrage of water fighting, the rafts glided into shore where the river intersected a road. The rafts were pulled onto the bank, deflated, and rolled up. Equipment was loaded into waiting cars and trucks, a prayer of thanks was said, and everyone drove for home feeling warm from the sun and from the closeness they felt for each other. Looking forward to the next trip, they left the Kootenay.

    Photos by Laird Roberts