For many students, the weekend is more than a chance to party, hang out with friends and catch up on schoolwork. It is an opportunity to explore the Cascade Mountains, the San Juan Islands and the Chuckanut forest. For juniors William Griffith and Marty Smith, this weekend turned into a spontaneous exploration of an unknown corner of British Columbia.
“Leading up to the weekend we couldn’t decide what to do,” said Griffith. “The Nooksack River, which is our go-to backyard run, was far too low to be able to paddle. So we packed up our gear and headed north to Pemberton, B.C.”
Seventy miles into British Columbia in Squamish, William and Smith met up with professional photographers and videographers Steve Rogers and Tim Loubier to document the trip.
“We’ve worked with Steve and Tim multiple times before to shoot different rivers up here in British Columbia. For a while they have been trying to convince us to look into paddling Salal Creek, and now we finally had our chance,” said Smith.
Salal Creek is a low volume and steep tributary of the Lillooet River that runs through a band of granite rock, creating a whitewater kayaker’s dream. No one had yet paddled Salal Creek, but after hearing about its potential Griffith and Smith decided they had to see it for themselves.
From Squamish they would continue north on Canadian Highway 99 and once to Pemberton would follow logging roads upstream along the Lillooet River for 30 kilometers.
The road ended at the confluence of Salal Creek and the Lillooet River. From here the team had to hike upstream with their kayaks on their shoulders for about twenty minutes.
“As soon as I got my first glimpse of the creek I knew that we were going to be in for a good time. The walls on either side of the drainage were steep, tall and intimidating, and from where we stood we could make out two distinct waterfalls. We estimated the first drop to be about 40 feet tall and the second to be around 20 feet,” explained Griffith.
After much evaluation Griffith decided that he wanted to run both waterfalls, while Smith opted to run only the lower 20 footer. However, before they could get inside their kayaks the pair had to devise a plan as to how they would access the waterfalls, 60 feet below the rim of the gorge.
The duo came equipped with ropes and climbing gear. Both Griffith and Smith are experienced climbers, but neither of them had ever combined climbing with kayaking.
Griffith was the first to descend into the river. He rappelled down to a small rock ledge just above the waterfall and Smith lowered himself down to the pool between the two drops to set up safety.
“It was cool getting to look up the gorge and see Griffth right at the top of that waterfall,” said Smith. “He’s likely the first person to have ever stood right there.”
Once Smith was in position to set safety and Rogers and Loubier had their angles set it was all up to Griffith.
“Every waterfall is different, and to plan out your line is like solving a puzzle. This one had a gnarly lead-in rapid that I wasn’t able to run, so my only option was to seal launch from the rock ledge directly into the lip of the waterfall. I was definitely a bit nervous,” admitted Griffith.
Without further thought, Griffith dropped into the creek and took a few paddle strokes towards the top of the waterfall.
“At the lip I was focused on setting my boat to a vertical angle. If I was to land flat the impact could be painful. Once I began freefalling everything seemed to slow down. As I fell, I leaned forward to prepare for the hit.”
Griffith stayed on line as planned, submerged deep into the pool below and resurfaced with a grin on his face. He and Smith celebrated shortly then continued downstream to the next waterfall.
“I was so stoked to have had a good line off of the first drop, but still had to stay focused for the second one,” Griffith recalls.
The second drop was more straight forward than the first and after a quick scout Griffith and Smith gave it a go. Both of their lines went smoothly. The team had now successfully completed the first descent of lower Salal Creek.
“Driving all the way up to Pemberton was well worth the experience. We got to paddle some fun technical drops and visit one of the most spectacular places I have ever seen,” shared Smith.
Upon their successful descent the pair decided to call the canyon ‘Goose Butter Gorge,’ because of the smooth way the creek moved through the granite rock. Both Griffith and Smith plan on returning to British Columbia soon to explore more unknown rivers.