If you've been keeping up with "The Season" at Arcteryx.com you already know about the flood. The latest "webisode" (web+episode) shows you one of the most uncomfortable nights of my life. I guess technically, it was early that morning when it all went down.
You know the ending if you watched the clip... lets go to how we got ourselves into that mess in the first place. I think it gives insight into what was at stake on this trip. For that, we have to jump back a few years to when Bryan Smith planted the seed in the crew's minds after wrapping production on Pacific Horizons.
Energized by the possibilities of a new world of tidal race surfing opening up before us; we were eager to see what else the rugged West coast of Canada had to offer. The Butze Wave is no secret. The whitewater paddlers in the area have been shredding that spot for years. Bryan caught wind of it's name through the community and even spent some time in the nearest town on a previous trip up North.
"...Prince Rupert boys...I hear there's a monster wave up there" he said. We sort of knew where the wave lived, that's the easy part. When, is the real question. If you spend the time, money, and effort necessary to pull off that sort of trip you don't want to be skunked by a feature playing peak-a-bo because of the wrong water levels. Especially when tides are so "easily predicted."
Now we have to jump ahead about a year, to the depths of another dreary Portland winter day in 2008 when I started making phone calls hunting for beta on "The Butze."
I started by calling water taxis advertising their services in the Prince Rupert Area. Who knows the sea better than someone who works on it daily? Plus, they make a great platform to capture the seemingly impossible shots Bryan pulls off from the water. Hoping for a clue as to when the best waves form on the tidal feature, I asked what time of the year seemed the most dangerous for a water taxi. I now know you can just ask what are the best times to "view the overfalls."
I needed to start checking tides to find the biggest exchanges during daylight hours. It's too far away to miss seeing the full glory of The Butze. We wanted Spring tides, the biggest of the year, but not just that. Water taxis are great for general knowledge about the currents but we needed to find out what made for the best ride with the sea kayaks. Ebb or Flood? Get it wrong at some races like "Skooks" and no waves form when the current is going one direction while the other direction sets up pure perfection.
The first water taxi driver I got on the phone told me exactly who I needed to talk to. "The owner of the Cowpuccino's Coffee House knows all the kayakers in town," he said. We had a chat and I ended up with an e-mail address of a buddy who could help us.
Within a day or two he got back to me with a couple options and all the beta we needed to make the call. We were planning to spend longer than a week camping on the popular island camp spot right in the rapids to watch the cycle build and dissapate. The nitty gritty details didn't matter so much in the early planning stages. We would be guaranteed a shot at the goods because we would be able to watch it day and night.
Basically, we were finally there...within striking distance of our goal after spending our third (and worst) night in-a-row at ferry terminals. I was so excited to get away from civilization and into the zone.
from that last post:
"...The next morning we launched and paddled into the zone. On the paddle up we approached what we thought might be the first set of rapids. As we drew near we realized that what we were seeing was actually huge piles of foam floating head high on the water’s surface. Whatever stirred up this much foam must be powerful. It should have served as a clue to what was to come, but we thought little of it at the time."
We made the paddle from the ferry terminal to the rapid and arrived just after low slack. Bryan had written down some tide info for our arrival day using the Fisheries and Ocaens Canada website.
Times and Heights for High and Low Tides
We were all a little disappointed in ourselves having realized that no one else on the team had bothered to write down tides for the week, but a list minute check of the posted tides down at the docks we launched from seemed to confirm what Bryan had written down:
3/22 High 7.0 m @ 3pm 3/23 Next high: 2:03am 5.9 m
(oops, right heights but he switched the days)
We approached the zone with caution as we searched for the island camp spot the locals told us was there. A small wave was already taking shape, but the scene was mellow. It was a beautiful sunny day, and we hadn't a care in the world...We had made it. We quickly spotted the biggest of the islands in the center of the channel. We made our way to the front side, hopped out and had a scout and to watch the big flood.
A barnacle ripped from the rocks by strong tidal currents.
The island camp spot seemed obvious. We found a well used fire ring made of stones on a grassy knoll near a benchmark with coordinates ingrained on it. We noticed some old tide pools just below the grassy knoll, but they hadn't been flushed in a long time. Nick and Dave had a good walk around the island and determined that the grassy knoll although not ideal, must be what the locals had spoke of.
You can see the the first flood of the day has already formed up behind us. It was fairly mellow, not like twelve hours later during the second flood.
According to our hand written note, we thought we would soon find out. In reality, we were about to witness the lower of the two high tides in that cycle. The high high tide would actually be at 2:03am (3/23) and over a meter higher. Having watched what we thought was the highest water level of the trip fall short of our grassy knoll at lunch, we surfed, sunned, and napped all afternoon.
The crew all stashed gear in various caches around the knoll and settled in for a fun but wet week. Rain was in the forecast. Nick and Dave had a sweet stash spot for their gear just over from our tent spot in a little nook. Phil and Bryan had their gear on the high center of the knoll. All but two of the boats were tied securely to a bank of trees on the island. The other two were high and dry up by the tents.
I watched low slack after the others went to bed, and was dozing off when the water slowly began to fill the channel back in. I slipped into bed around eleven after wrapping all my gear into a sort of tarp burrito by Bryan's tent. All the excitement, travel, and subsequent sleep depravation was taking it's toll. I was looking forward to sleeping somewhere besides a ferry terminal. As I drifted off between Dave and Nick I could hear the rain begin to fall. I remember noting that my rain gear was already right by my side for the morning. It was going to rain all night long.
I remember half waking up to Dave White complaining about his side feeling wet. I sort of moved over to give him more room and drifted back off. At about 2 or 2:15am we all noticed we were really wet. I reached down to feel my part of the tent floor and my hand plunged into the floor of the tent without finding the ground. We could hear Bryan a few feet away coming to the same conclusion...We were FLOATING!!!!!
We opened our tent door. It faced upstream in a perfect way as to catch the incoming current which threatened to pull our sleeping pads right out from under us. The new moon night looked black and featureless. All that could be seen was water EVERYWHERE. Water ripping through the trees! Water separating us from the boats! Water washing ALL of our equipment away!!
Nick and Dave were out of the tent in a flash sporting only boxers. They went to check the gear nook. The nook was fully under water. Nick dove down deep but it was empty, completely empty.
I threw on my rain gear and pfd. Dave found something to wear, but Nick had nothing and was instantly overcome by a severe hypothermic reaction. I ran to my gear burrito and started pulling out my extra layers, neo shorts and my drytop. Once Nick had those on, I remembered his first aid kit had a foil emergency blanket too. Bryan and Phil's boats were moments from floating away. Having both his drysuit and boat put Bryan in the best position to scout our options.
We noted the time, took inventory, and decided that we needed to get off that knoll NOW or risk being swept into the darkness. We knew we had to get Nick to high ground fast, then start sorting out stoves, sleeping bags, emergency shelters, and any other hypothermia remedy we could think of. Most of Dave's belongings had been swept away including his drysuit, but he did everything he could to save everyone elses stuff. He helped us start making a plan.
A narrow channel of current now cut us off from the rest of the island and most of the boats which were flipped and tangled in the trees. Bryan managed to get across to find a small shelf of cedar roots to pile gear on that was well above the water on the highest part of the island. He dropped off the first load and returned to what was left of our camp.
The plan would be to evac the grass knoll one cockpit full o' gear at a time. Nick and I came across on the next load with some survival gear for him including a bivy and the only dry sleeping bag. Once I hit the steep bank and climbed over some downed trees I found a path way up to the high spot on the island where we could wait out the flood.
Dave White and Phil kept filling the cockpit with flooded gear that was floating by, Bryan would ferry the boat loads to me. I pulled the boats over the down trees and unloaded them as fast as possible so Bryan could take it back Dave and Phil for a re-load. In between return trips I would run gear up to the new high camp and check on Nick.
We must have made 20 trips like that until everything we could salvage was secure at the new camp which we dubbed Ewok village. We completed the task just in time to watch the biggest ebb of the week take all the water back out to sea and the sun begin to rise. (about 3:20am).
We had some serious stock to take. We knew we were down a pfd, a helmet, and two drysuits. Nick was hangin in there, but was hurting for sure. We lost tons of personal gear, a camera lens, the list goes on and on. We knew we had most of the crew, boats, the cameras, and a bottle of Jameson still in our favor. We managed to keep a fire lit despite the constant rain.
Dave White (left) Bryan Smith (right) tough it out the rest of the night, high atop the island in "Ewok Village"
Moral was at an all time low and sleep exhaustion was at an all time high. It was cold, raining hard, and the tidal feature that we were there to surf was turning into the biggest pour-over I had ever seen. At the height of that morning ebb you could feel the island tremble. "It's like watching a woman give birth. It's a beautiful thing, but the sight of it makes me feel a little sick."
This was the view of the main channel some time after max ebb. Nick Jacob and Dave White discuss options
This deal was a couple years in the making, we had traveled thousands of miles, there was a film project on the line, and it was all slipping away because of a little switch of a couple numbers on the tide info we were using. We all decided that we had gotten lucky. Another few minutes in the tents and we would have lost much much more.
When the current show signs of slowing, we staged our boats to ride the ebb back to P.R.
We decided to head back into Prince Rupert to re-group. We were down for sure, but not necessarily out. After all, we all still had passports, contact lenses, boats, gear, and cameras. We were down a couple drysuits, and lots of personal effects, and EVERYTHING was soaked, but with enough whiskey and change for the dryer at the local laundromat we could be back in business.
The view of one of Prince Rupert's finer B&B's right on the water.
Bryan Smith on the Docks in Prince Rupert.
Phil Tifo, the trip photographer walkin the strip. "Is that a liquor store over there?"
Keep watching the season to find out how The Butze story concludes and don't forget to help spread the word. Send this link to all your friends! www.arcteryx.com