With negotiations between CP and the Province seemingly at a stalemate, and with the busiest months of the rafting season still to come, local guides are already feeling the crunch due to the loss of access to the Lower Canyon.
Guides at Golden’s two largest rafting companies, Alpine and Glacier, are paid per section rafted, meaning that the loss of the Lower Canyon has been a straight loss of 33 per cent of their wages with only the Upper and Middle portions of the canyon open for rafting.
The Kicking Horse is a famous stretch of whitewater, and the Lower Canyon is seen as the jewel in the crown for its continuous Class 4 and Class 4 plus rapids.
And this thrilling portion of the river doesn’t simply draw in tourists, but guides as well, who flock to the area to raft one of North America’s top rivers.
Many guides have worked their way up the ranks of Canada’s rivers in order to raft the Lower Canyon, only to have their season taken away from them due to the dispute.
Jeff Forbes, originally from Ontario, is in his third summer working for Alpine Rafting after working his way through the ranks of the Kananaskis River and the Bow River, as well as some rivers in Nepal.
“I trained for years to get here…If you have a job on the Kicking Horse River when the Lower Canyon’s in, that’ll get you on basically any river in the world. The Kicking Horse is a prestigious, world-renowned river,” Forbes said.
Glacier’s Mike Reeder, from Vanderhoof, works as a raft guide year-round by travelling to the Southern Hemisphere during the winter. The Kicking Horse’s uniqueness has drawn him back to Golden each of the past five summers.
“It’s got some really, really unique features about it, the main thing is that we’ve got some really good Class 4 and some of the hardest rafting you can do in Canada all summer long,” he explained.
Early in the year, when the water level is typically too high to run the lower, the middle portion of the canyon provides big thrills for guests. However, when the water level drops, the middle becomes a bit tamer and the lower takes over as everyone’s highlight of the trip.
“As the water drops we get to open up a new section of river and keep rafting really intense whitewater until the end of August,” Reeder said.
In a typical season, the Lower Canyon might not open until July, but with an early spring this year there have already been numerous days where the lower could have been rafted, if the access was there.
Isaac Kamink – with Glacier since 2003 – works as a ski guide and spent the winter hoping that an average snowpack would mean an early opening for the Lower Canyon this summer.
“I was thinking it could really work out well for the summer and then this happens,” Kamink said. “It’s kind of sad because this is the year you’d want to see big high water and then the (Lower) Canyon wouldn’t even be open anyway.”
Forbes says that with the benefit of hindsight he may not have come back for another year given how much the closure of the Lower Canyon has affected his wages. With his days typically wrapping up at 2:30 p.m. of late, Forbes says he will begin looking for a second job.
“We’re probably looking at at least one third cut,” he said, referring to his wages this year compared to last year. “It’s basically putting all of us in a position of going to a second job.”
Reeder and Kamink, senior guides with Glacier, don’t plan to pursue secondary employment but know of a few of their colleagues that will.
“I definitely know that some people came here from other rivers last year looking for a change of scenery and hoping to work on the Kicking Horse…they’re just not going to make anywhere near the money that they thought they were,” Reeder said.
“There’s a lot of people that will just leave or they’ll have to start working other jobs.”
All three guides said they likely wouldn’t return to raft the Kicking Horse in 2017 if the Lower Canyon situation remains unresolved.
“It’s kind of crazy to think about that because I’ve been here for quite a while and I really love the company that I work for and the people that I work with, but there’s a million other places to go in the world,” Reeder said.
Morale was high within both companies at the start of the season when it appeared that an agreement was in place, but as the issue has dragged on, guides have lost a lot of hope that anything will eventually be resolved this summer. Most are resigned to the fact that any trips they can do down the Lower Canyon this year will be a surprising bonus.
“We have to go on the assumption that CP has more power than God and they’re not going to let us down there,” Reeder said.