White water madness

Guide Sam Penner steers a raft over the "Waterfall" on the Tutshi River. Photos by Jennifer Collins

Thrill-seekers take on British Columbia's Tutshi River


When it drips from bathroom faucets, water is docile, demure – domesticated.
When it prunes palms in hot tubs and pools, water is pacifying, rejuvenating – healing.
But when it carries boulders and humans weightless in its torrents, water is untamed, unpredictable – omnipotent.
From the South Klondike Highway, passersby can barely glimpse the Tutshi River as it pounds and froths against canyon walls 500 feet below.
Over the last few years, the Tutshi has grown in popularity among white water fans in Skagway and the world, owner of Skagway Float Tours Cris Siegel said.
With rapid names like the “Nozzle,” the “Drops,” “No Show Off” and “The Final Rinse,” the Tutshi seems to have earned it’s reputation as a harrowing ride.
“When I first saw the drops, I thought, how are we going to survive that?” Siegel said. “And right about the time you feel like, you can’t do this, is the time the guide says, ‘OK, let’s go.’”
Described by guide books as a “small technical river,” the Tutshi boasts class V-plus rapids on a scale of I to VI.
Ken Madsen, kayaker and author of “Paddling the Yukon: A guide to the rivers,” cautions daredevils in his book about the Tutshi rapids.
“When you head towards the drops, remember the definition of class V, especially the part about ‘significant hazard to life,’” he wrote.
Siegel organizes one to two groups per week, drives them to the beginning of the river trip, about 2 kilometers south of Log Cabin on the South Klondike Highway, and accompanies them on the water. The Tutshi rafting season runs from mid-July to mid-August.
Rafters paddle two “flat water” lakes and a pond before reaching the river. The white water portion of the trip takes two to two and a half hours, depending on how many times rafts are flipped.
Siegel contracts Whitehorse-based Tatshenshini Expediting to guide groups. Owner, Bob Daffe serves as a philosopher of river rafting.
“The most dangerous thing on the river is another guy,” he said, his Belgian accent muffled behind his beard.
However, Siegel’s wife Katie provided a different perspective. “Once you’ve been in the river a few times, you have a total respect for the river and the power of the water,” she said.
Three years ago, Katie bruised her tailbone when her raft caught on “Doc’s Rock,” a boulder that sticks out of the water and never has enough water to carry a raft over it. Katie was thrown out of the boat and injured during her swim.
“It’s funny because it feels like ... all the water from the river pulls you right towards it – like a vortex,” Siegel said, pondering the infamous obstacle.

Seconds later, the raft above flips and its occupants bob next to it until they are rescued.

“Doc’s Rock” was named for Dr. Robert Wintonyc and Dr. Roger Mitchell, who both tumbled over the rock while rafting with Daffe, when they first explored the Tutshi in the 1970s.
“I was planning on heading for an eddy and bounced off of it and upset and went swimming,” Whitehorse resident Wintonyc said.
In those days, Wintonyc said his only technique for escaping scrapes was to “paddle faster.” He didn’t know how to roll under the water and reemerge while still in his kayak, which Madsen’s guide book says is a required skill on the Tutshi.
Despite the dangers and lack of technique, Wintonyc said, “Fear wasn’t really part of it.”
He and Daffe explored the river by lowering their home-made kayaks down canyon walls and scouting and paddling in “bits and pieces.”
A bad shoulder keeps him from rafting now, but he said he has never sustained serious injuries on the Tutshi.
Siegel said Katie’s injury was one of the most serious in the three years he’s been taking groups on the Tutshi.
“I remember Bob (Daffe) once saying, ‘if you go swimming in the Tutshi, you may get jostled around a bit but it’s not like you’re going to die,’” she said.
But no one wants to go swimming in icy river rapids. Daffe’s best advice for not tipping is: “keep paddling.”
To keep his rafters motivated, Daffe’s voice raises to a controlled panic amidst the thunderous torrents when he shouts, “dig, dig, dig.” “Dig” is apparently the technical term for “paddle really hard.”
Despite guides’ urgings, rafts frequently upset on the river.
When Skagwayan Greg Kollach’s raft tipped, he ended up in a “hole” – a whirlpool.
“My body was drained, we went down half the falls just swimming,” he said.
Kollach escaped the whirlpool by diving under it, a technique he learned while surfing in Hawaii, but not before guide Scott Burrell jumped into the hole to get him out.
“I couldn’t believe he would risk his life like that,” Kollach said, stunned.
It’s all part of the job, Siegel said.
“Being a good river guide isn’t about how many times you flip your boat, it’s how well you compensate for your errors,” Siegel said.
Tatshenshini Expediting guides, the only company that guides Tutshi trips, are certified to commercially lead river rafting on British Columbia rivers.
British Columbia river rafters go through extensive training and take both written and field exams in safety and rafting techniques, said Martin Johansen of the B.C. Parks river rafting division.
Tatshenshini Expediting has been operating on other Yukon and upper British Columbia rivers for 12 years but only commercially on the Tutshi for three years. Tatshenshini Expediting provides wet suites and Czechoslovakian rafts, designed for narrow-banked rivers like the Tutshi.
When asked what stirred him to commercially guide the Tutshi, Daffe chuckled and responded, “When we met the Skagway people and we realized they were the only people we knew who were crazy enough to do it.”
Siegel, who has operated Skagway Float Tours for five years, said it’s usually summer residents who pay the $60 to hurdle themselves down the river.

Penner tests the air temperature shortly before a waterfall-induced swim.

“Locals are scared,” he said.
With stories of being sucked into whirlpools and tipping boats half the time they traverse the rapids, it’s hard to blame them.
But for many the Tutshi is a challenge, a fight to survive and a relief to come out the other side.
In physics, the force of gravity is measured at 9.8 m/s2. On the Tutshi River, it is measured by the muscle it takes to fight against current that rushes towards, “Doc’s rock.”
Gravity is measured in the tone of a guides voice as it raised to a frenzy above the torrents, commanding paddlers to “dig, dig, dig.”
More information and photographs of Tutshi excursions are available at www.skagwayfloat.com.