Glacier Raft Company in Golden, British Columbia, has been in service for 35 years, winding down the rapids of the Kicking Horse River by using an old Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) railroad crossing to access their drop-in points.
All that changed last year. Despite years of legal use permitted by an agreement signed between Glacier and CPR, an inspection by CPR brought the crossing’s safety newly into question. After CPR, government agencies and Glacier failed to reach a mutually agreeable decision over liability for the crossing, the railway determined that, effective May 2016, the rafting company could no longer allow customers to cross at that location.
But never underestimate the ingenuity of stifled adventurers. “The idea of using helicopters came from one of our longtime guides and a local heli pilot, Isaac and Dirk,” says Ryan Johannesen, one of the owners of Glacier Raft Company. “We’re having a beer, chatting about our access issues with the lower canyon, and the idea to fly the rafts and guests down there came up.”
It is not unusual for helicopters to be used in the backcountry, especially in the winter. Heli-skiing as a sport is widely thought to have been invented just down the road in the Bugaboos. “B.C. is all about seeing the backcountry, the mountains, lakes, river. Getting to remote locations. Being in nature,” says Johannesen. Helicopters have been a part of that for decades.
Next, numbers had to be crunched. “We spent some time working it out,” says Johannesen. “How would it work? How much would it cost? Would people be into it? Can we fly rafts? … After a couple of weeks, we had it dialed in and [were] ready take customers into the lower canyon. We were pretty excited.”
On a typical day, the rafts are long-lined — a long synthetic rope usually made of Dyneema fiber or cable is attached to the helicopter and then to the object needing to be transported — by Alpine Helicopters up the river to the drop-ins. The guests are then flown up. You can do a full day for $240 or half day for $215. This includes all the gear needed to raft, a picnic lunch and a cold one at the end of the day.
The reason Glacier made such an effort to raft in the lower canyon of the Kicking Horse River is that it is a unique part of the water. “It has over 3 kilometers (0.62 miles) of continuous Class IV rapids, tight and high canyon walls and you get to end it all by rafting through the town of Golden at the end,” says Johannesen. “It’s a section of river that always needs to be accessible.”
Using the helis makes for a one-of-a-kind experience for Glacier’s guests. “You get a heli flight down a cool canyon, and [you’re] rafting a very exclusive and exciting part of the river,” says Johannesen. “It’s the ultimate adventure.”
Although the lower canyon is pretty wild, especially when there is high water, the rest of the Kicking Horse River is also a thrill, with many rapids. After each section, the rafts get pulled off and the age and ability of the guests determine if they do the next section.
The upper and middle canyons of the river are good for all age groups, according to Johannesen. “At high water, the middle canyon is huge!” he says. “I think that’s why the river is so well known. It’s pretty much the perfect river to raft.”
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