Dean River

Northern British Columbia
Class: V
Character: Remote multi-day expedition with gorges and waterfalls
Paddlers: Jeff Hazboun, Kieran Delaney, Phil LaMarche, Robert Bart

By Robert Bart


Copyright © 2008, Oregon Kayaking and Robert Bart. No part of this page may be reproduced, linked, or copied without the express written permission of Robert Bart and the Oregon Kayaking webmaster.

For the past four hours I've been fidgeting and biting my nails, and I'm not even close to the river.

At this rate, I might not have any fingers left to grip my paddle. I am headed to the Dean River, a very remote, committing, class five river in Northern British Columbia, and I'm scared.

Every August die-hard kayakers make the pilgrimage to BC to pay homage and feed our never-ending addiction to class five whitewater. In August 2007, thanks to global climate change, BC was sitting on a record snow pack that had kept all of the rivers unusually high. After a week spent camping at the Whistler Dump and lapping the waterfalls on Callaghan Creek, my friends and I grew restless and went searching for a better fix.

I first heard about the Dean River in 2004 while paddling the three day Devil’s Canyon section of the Middle Feather River in California. The scant beta I had gathered was that it was five days of creeking, very remote but manageable B.C. class five ( That said, B.C. class five is at least a step harder than your typical class five ).

This year, however, the Dean was running twice its normal flow and no one knew if it would still be manageable or terrifying..

Prior to our trip I had spent weeks searching for information on the Dean. In spite of my efforts, I only had a couple emails, a weekly water graph, and a five paragraph trip report from the late 90’s. Other than this meager beta, we had learned from a conversation in the Whistler Dump parking lot that some of the best boaters in the world had done the Dean and found it ‘low and bony’.

With a little beer and machismo, we had convinced ourselves that if some of the best boaters in the world had found it bony, a group of mortals should be fine going into the Dean with at least twice the flow they had.

The one other piece of beta I had was that at low water all the rapids could be portaged, but that with more water they might not be. I decided to keep this tidbit to myself..

On paper our plan was pretty simple:

1. Drive to Nimpo Lake.
2. Catch a float plane 60 kilometers to Sigutlat Lake.
3. Paddle the Dean for five days.
4. Have a boat pick us up in the northern end of the Dean Channel and take us three hundred kilometers back to the dead-end town of Bella Coola.

On paper this looked easy enough, but I had been driving for eight hours due north and I was still not anywhere near Nimpo Lake. I kept telling myself that it was not irresponsible that I was starting a new job in seven days and I was putting on a five day river trip that was twenty hours away by car. However, I could hear my Mom’s voice in the back of my head telling me this was not a decision a responsible adult would make..

I tried not to listen to her. In the face of great logic, emotion and sarcasm are often your best friends. With that in mind I rationalized that if I was still stuck on the Dean Monday morning, things were probably much more serious than simply missing the first day of work. That made sense, I guess, so I went back to biting my nails.

I camped that night in a cold drizzle and awoke to the eerie call of a loon, a telltale sign of being a long way north. When I finally reached the tiny town of of Nimpo Lake I met up with Jeff Hazboun, Phil LaMarche and Kieran Delaney. We kicked gravel in the parking lot for a bit and made some jokes about camping in the rain for five days, then set out to find a pilot willing to fly us into Sigutlat Lake for less than fifteen hundred dollars.

The Dean starts out fairly mellow below Nimpo Lake..

Monopolies are a bitch. There was only one pilot in town, so we were forced to pay his price for the flight. To make matters worse, we were told we had to be ready in two hours. Packing for an overnighter typically takes a while, and someone usually forgets something. In our case we had no room for error and stress levels were pretty high. There was a lot of: "are you bring this", "who has the...", "do you think I will need a...", and.. "what are we going to eat for dinner tonight?"

It did not make matters any easier that there were a bunch of old guys milling around telling us stories of some guy who died trying to paddle the Dean. Great. Thanks.

Somehow we pulled it together and within an hour, our boats were being loaded on a plane.

Loading our boats on the float plane.

Now, all we had to do was set shuttle- which was three hours down the road. We vainly tried to charm the cute nineteen year old girl at the counter to drive Jeff’s car to Bella Coola for an eighteen pack of beer and forty dollars. But despite the best attempts of four dirty kayakers she was not impressed.

At one point in the conversation, she said: "You have a satellite phone, right? Just call me and I'll tell you if I did it or not."

Long pause.

"Yeah, um, sat phone, um, we don’t have one of those." She looked at us like we were stupid, crazy, or both and walked away.

There would be no shuttle.

Trying unsuccessfully to negotiate with a potential shuttle driver.

Two hours later we were airborne, skimming just above tree line to stay below the heavy clouds. The flight felt warm and scenic; we saw a moose and a pair of trumpeter swans.

Our pilots navigation system.. the paper map / dead reckoning method.

All too quickly we were landing in the cold, grey drizzle. The pilot dropped us on the edge of the lake, which was covered in willows, and we had to wade down the shore to find a place to camp. Phil asked the pilot if this would be considered 'the bush' to which he replied, "You don’t get any more bush than this." and then took off back to civilization. I tried not to watch him leave.

No one said anything about it, but I think we were all a little nervous about the bull we had just roped. Kieren, Jeff and I beat our way into the bushes to find a place to set up a tarp; within minutes we were all soaked. Phil said he was going to catch us dinner. He cast his line three times and then pulled out a nice 12-14 inch trout.

He smacked it over the head with a stick, and I gave him a big high five, smearing the blood from the trout onto both of our hands. It is amazing how quickly one goes primitive in the woods. We might be cold, wet, and stupid, but at least were going to feast on fresh trout.

We beat down a place in the bushes, rigged a tarp, found some dry wood and Jeff and Kieran somehow got a fire going. Every three minutes we would hear Phil whoop as he pulled in another fish. By the time we had things set up, he had landed six nice-sized fish. Things were looking up!

Trout for dinner!

That night, we skewered trout on willows and roasted them caveman-style on the open fire. The rain tapered off, and spirits began to lift. The next morning, we had ate a pot of half cooked bacon, had some black coffee and with the sun poking through the clouds began cruising down stream anxious to see what the Dean had to offer.

Jeff enjoying the fire that night.

The river drains directly out of the lake and for a while was wide open class two, which provided us with a great warm-up to adjust to boats with five days of gear. After a couple hours we came to a huge hundred foot cataract, which did not go. We portaged heavy boats around the cataract, stopping to pick handfuls of late season blueberries and continued downstream.

Portaging the cataract.

Below this cataract the character of the river changed dramatically to bedrock and we ran some small slides before coming to tricky 20 foot waterfall, with a log blocking most of the entrance. Jeff, Phil and I all ran this without incident. We had been trying to guess the flow of the river but after this rapid it became apparent that there was plenty of water in the river. We ran one more rapid, and confirmed that there was actually a lot of water in the river. Then, we hit the confluence of the Dean. Suddenly there was a whole bunch more water, and we were in a sheer-walled canyon.

We stopped for lunch and I walked around the corner to see the main Dean. Just upstream was a huge rapid. I could not see the top, but it dropped at least a hundred feet over four or five steps. Portaging looked really hard.

My anxiety level shot way up. "What if we run into something even harder downstream?" "Was this just the entry rapid?" "Would we still be able to portage with the flow we had?" I have run enough rivers to know that asking these questions does no good, so I put these worries in the back of my mind, and forced myself to eat salami and enjoy the confluence of two rivers in the middle of nowhere.

After a nice lunch in the sun we peeled into the proper Dean and found ourselves in the middle of a big river. We scouted a couple blind corners, ran some class four and eddied out above a huge horizon line. We all jump out to scout and saw a huge river wide sloping ledge with no good line. To make things more interesting, downstream the river pinched between two cliff walls and then roared over something big. All we could see was a huge curling wave that looked like it belonged in the ocean, and mist rising up below the drop. The water between the drops was fast class two, but it was pinched between two vertical walls and there was only a boiling one boat eddy along the right wall to catch before the drop. Miss this eddy and things were going to be real intense, real quick.

Jeff, confident as ever, seal launched from about fifteen feet up into the backwash of the hole we had just portaged, paddled over to the eddy and hopped out to scout. After a couple minutes he gave the death sign for the rapid below and I got even more nervous. The seal launch went right into the backwash of the hole and if you happened to flip you, would probably miss the eddy downstream.

I have paddled rivers all over the world, but right now I was about as scared as I had ever been. I watched Phil launched in, he went very deep, but came up paddling and caught the eddy without problems. I did not like the look of the seal launch and saw a little ledge close to the water, and with the help of a rope lowered my boat down and after some very cautious maneuvering on slippery rocks, got my skirt on and seal launched in and caught the eddy.

The intimidating seal launch between two huge drops..
The drop just downstream of this was unrunnable at this flow so missing the eddy below this seal launch was not an option.

With all of us on the same side of the river, we started to portage around the drop. At lower water it would have gone, but at our flow, it was a twenty footer that had a hole like a low head dam. There was no obvious way to enter the rapid it looked like you would probably die if you tried to run it.

Using ropes we got around the drop and I started downstream to scout. I had hurt my knee on the first portage and it was starting to throb. I knew that portaging much more might really hurt it. My apprehension increased as I knew I might be forced to run some big rapids that I might otherwise have portaged because of my knee.

We ran a couple big rapids and portaged a couple monsters. I started to get really good at sketchy seal launches into boiling cauldrons. After about three hours, we came to a sloping rock with a bit of sun, and I made the call to stop for camp. The others agreed. We were exhausted after only a mile or two of whitewater and it was about to get dark.

Day one on the Dean had started like a peaceful protest and end in a full blown riot.

Phil eating some unknown substance that night..

I went to sleep nervous and woke up scared.

Below our camp the river split in two, tore over a sloping twenty-five foot ledge, then thundered down through a tight canyon and then around the corner into the unknown. This would be breakfast. After many pep talks and at least six bowel movements for the team, we were ready for breakfast.

Five strokes out of the eddy, and we were falling down the sloping twenty-five footer with a crashing hole at the bottom. We all made it to the next eddy, but agreed it looked a lot smaller from camp. You can’t buy a cup of coffee this strong.

First thing in the morning, a big hole for breakfast.

Scouting a rapid on a creek that is fifty feet wide allows you to plan your route and see the size of things. But, the Dean was at least fifty yards wide and all the rapids were long and technical. The result was that it was really easy to get lost in the middle of a rapid, end up in the wrong spot, and take a horrendous beating.

We ran another rapid where the entire rapid pinched between two walls to form a big hole. When scouting Phil proclaimed: "I have surfed holes like that in my playboat." and I thought, "God I hate playboating." By the end of the rapid I had surfed holes like that in my creek boat and was starting to like playboating a little more.

The author running some relatively mellow stuff between the bigger drops on day two.

Right around the bend from camp was a twenty-five foot waterfall with a beefy technical lead in that dropped into a large pool - the first calm spot we had seen in some time. It was almost impossible to portage and Phil offered to probe it. He nailed the line and we all followed suit.

From here the river is a blur. The river maintained a relentless pace as it seemed like every corner dropped into a new gorge with big, intimidating rapids.

Almost everything was good to go except for two gorges with big waterfalls and even bigger holes. We had to use ropes on both portages but it was not too difficult. We were all way too gripped and focused on safety to think about taking a lot of pictures, so most of the rapids live on only in our minds.

Phil firing up a huge rapid that only he and Jeff ran. This rapid had about five holes this size, all in a row.
This was one of the bigger rapids I have ever seen someone run and they both made it looked very, very good.

By six o’clock we had lost our sun, and were still portaging around a fifteen foot waterfall with a horrible recycling eddy, and looking downstream the canyon walls seemed pretty vertical.

Not having any choice, and all feeling tired, we pushed through the portage and headed downstream. To our relief, the walls opened into big water class four. We had no idea where we were but camp was on all of our minds.

Nearing the end of day two on the Dean and the river was still very intense.
At this point we were wondering if we were going to find a place to camp.

Below one of the rapids rapid I smashed into a rock, and almost instantly felt my boat filling up with water. I started plugging every hole; four days of gear and a boat full of water is not easy to boof. We stopped and I found a three-inch crack in the bottom of my boat. Luckily I had brought the knives and duct tape. I did a quick duct tape patch and paddled down stream as fast as I could looking for a place to camp.

The river gods were with us and we found a camp not more than a hundred yards downstream. That night I patched my boat using hot knives, little pieces of plastic and duct tape. I have had to do this twice now on expeditions and felt pretty good that it would last the rest of the trip.

Not a good thing to see on a kayaking expedition..

Earlier in the day we had seen a huge mountain goat right on the water, and we kept joking about bears wandering into camp. I was going to sleep with my food next to my head, but Jeff convinced me to hang it in a tree instead. I was glad he did.

I woke up when I heard a stick break. I sort of thought that could be a bear but in my groggy state I convinced myself it wasn’t. Then I heard another stick break and forced my contacts to focus and saw a large black thing in a tree about thirty feet away. I blinked again and it moved. Yep, that confirmed it. "Hey guys, we have a bear in camp.." I said.

Kieran woke up and started banging his pot, which forced the bear further up the tree. It looked like a cub, and I started looking around for momma bear.

I grabbed my sandals just in case I had to outrun someone if the momma bear showed up and began to back away from the tree. Kieran, thinking he saw momma, started yelling at Phil, who was still stuck in his bivy bag. As Phil thrashed around the get free, what Kieran thought was momma bear continued moving around on the ground ten feet from Phil. I can still hear the Keiran’s British accent urgently telling Phil the momma bear is right next to him, but it turned out that the momma bear was just Jeff, who sort of looks like a bear..

And after realizing this we all had a pretty good laugh. The bear came down and ran off into the woods and we never saw the momma. A bear in camp is better than espresso to wake you up.

With the crew feeling good that we had not been attacked by an angry bear, and at least a hundred yards of class four visible from camp, we left Bear Camp in high spirits. We all wanted to believe we had made it out of the blind canyons and unportagable rapids, but we knew the last big rapid was a must-run thirty foot waterfall. After a couple hours we came to a big horizon line. After three days of paddling long complex rapids, this clean thirty footer just looked like low stress fun.

Kieran ran down the first and pitoned pretty hard half way down. When he got to the bottom he gave a thumbs down and pointed to his boat. He had put a gaping hole in it that I could see from above the drop. This could be a problem. Eventually we decided just to shove some foam in it, duct tape it and hope for the best. With two broken boats, and at least twenty five miles of whitewater to paddle in two days, we started moving downstream as quickly as we could.

Jeff running Salmon House Falls, which is the only final thirty footer.
Except at our high flow was more like twenty feet tall. This was the drop that signaled the end of the Canyon.

The Dean is a river unlike almost any other I have ever run; you start on a plateau surrounded by low-lying hills and finish in fiord lands of towering mountains rising up from the ocean. We had been in the depths of the Dean for three days and had barely seen the sun, but now as the river opened we began to see that we were in the middle of a massive mountain range.

Between the four of us we have seen most of the major mountain ranges in the world including the Rockies, Andes, Himalayas, and the Alps. We all agreed that these mountains were every bit as impressive and big as any we had ever seen. The volume of the Dean began to increase as glacial rivers dumped in from small rivers every couple miles, and the current moved us swiftly along. The water, which had started at almost sixty degrees, was quickly getting colder.

With the increased flow and decreased gradient the rapids turned into one long big water class three-four flush and the fun to stress ratio began to increase.

After a couple of hours of paddling we stopped and made camp on a rock outcropping right next to the river. We saw a couple bear tracks in the sand but figured we would be fine. That night, I slept on a flat rock right next to the river and watched the stars appear as I faded into sleep. This is what expedition boating is all about.

The next morning we set off at a fast pace, thinking that we could make it out a day early. The lower Dean is world famous for Steelhead fishing, and we saw a couple boats tied up along the shore and a few people fishing. After a couple hours our stomachs were starting to growl and we started imagining different types of food, steak, salmon, ribs... "Oh god, ribs would be good right now.."

In a flatter spot, we saw a fishing boat and a guide tending his fire. He called us over and we sat in our boats and talked for a bit. After a couple minutes he said, "It's too bad you were not an hour later or I could've given you some lunch." the guide said. "That’s okay, we have food." I replied glumly.

The guide thought for a second, then said: "Ah hell, we’ll just be a little thin on lunch today.." and with that, he reached into the cooler and grabbed a rack of ribs and cut three off for each of us.

There have never been four happier kayakers, sitting in their boats eating ribs. We devoured the meat while the guide took pictures of us chewing on the bones with BBQ sauce dripping down our faces. After we had thanked him profusely, he gave us each a homemade cookie, told us to stop in at the lodge a couple of miles downstream ( where the girls would pamper us even more! ), and sent us downstream.

As we floated through the mountains, we kept talking about how lucky we had been so far. Little did we know, our luck was about to improve. About the time our bellies had digested the ribs, we came to the fishing camp he had told us about. People who fish on the Dean pay thousands of dollars to be flown in by helicopter and expect to be pampered for the week they are there, so it was pretty nice.

Unannounced visitors are unheard of at the fishing camp but there we were, four hungry, smelly kayakers, ambling up the rock beach towards a set of beautiful wooden cabins. A pack of dogs came barking out to greet us, and we soon saw heads come poking out of the windows. From nowhere several women emerged, calling off the dogs and smiling at us, not exactly sure what to make of us.

A woman with flowing red hair walked up and we started making awkward small talk about what we were doing; where had we started, how high the river had been, etc. After a couple minutes she stopped and said, "So what do you want? How about some coffee, lunch, dessert?"

For a split second we all froze, until Phil our trusty probe took the lead and said, "That would be great." With that we were escorted inside, and placed in a row along a wooden table, in seconds hot coffee was being poured, cream and sugar were set in front of us, homemade bread, and thick slices of salami and cheese appeared, the whole thing was almost too surreal to believe.

Our new friends at the lodge.

Four days ago we were cooking fish on sticks over an open fire, and now suddenly we were trying to remember our manners and trying not fart while eating dinner. Once the food was brought out, the women filed out of the kitchen and sat across from us while we ate. I am still not sure what we said, but they seemed to hang on our every word, laughing at our stupid jokes and laughing at us while we tried to use silverware for the first time in four days. After the sandwiches were devoured, a huge spread of homemade desserts materialized, homemade orange-cardamom ice-cream, chocolate tort cake, cookies, and of course more coffee. Perfect. I no longer have illusions of heaven.

All too quickly, we had to venture back into the wild as the need to make downstream progress was still in all of our minds. We were a day ahead of schedule, but with an uncertain shuttle situation, and not knowing when our boat was going to pick us up, we knew we had to make some miles.

The weather was turning cold and a light rain had started to fall. But with the coffee and cake hitting our bloodstream, we were the happiest kayakers in the world. We started talking in strange voices and giggling like fools drunk on the sweet hardship of adventure. We knew there was one more canyon to run and then we were at the ocean.

There is a fisheries cabin at the mouth of the canyon, and the young kid who was working there for the summer led us on a sketchy climb up an old bridge abutment to scout the rapid. The rapid dropped a hundred fifty vertical feet in about four hundred yards. There was a clean line, but I knew I would not be running it. Jeff and Phil thought it looked good and decided to ferry across to scout their line. After close to an hour they both ran it, making it look doable, but also very big.

Afterwards, they both said it was one of the only rapids they had ever run where they wished they were not running it halfway down. Kieran and I hiked back to the cabin with the fisheries guy, who had volunteered to use the four-wheeler to portage our boats around the canyon for us.

We looked at us and said, "You guys can follow behind us on this one." Kieran and I looked at each other, shrugged and jumped on a sporty new four wheeler, neither of us mentioning the fact we had no idea how to drive it. We learned quick. Four miles later we were reunited with Jeff and Phil, who related their stories to us.

Our new portage vehicle..

The sun came out as we floated out of the Dean River and into the Dean Channel, fresh water mixing with salt water as the once-mighty river eased to a stop. Our journey had started in a lake and was ending in the ocean. As we left the river behind the last thing we saw was a huge Golden Eagle watching over the perfectly placid water. All around us mountains soared up into the sky, and the water reflected the images of hanging glaciers crouched in the rocky valleys above. We drifted in the channel for awhile, not sure of what to do now that the river had stopped flowing.

Finally we started paddling up the channel in hopes of finding a fishing village. While at the fishing camp we had left message with the boat company, but we had no idea if they would receive it in time to pick us up. Right about the time we began to comprehend that we were done with the river and now in the ocean, we heard the distant hum of an outboard engine. We waited and quickly saw the silver hull of a boat cruising towards us. We waved our arms and he turned our direction. We all started laughing. He cut the engine and I yelled, "How’s it going? Are you John?" "No." he replied. "But I work for John."


Sitting on the back of the boat, with the sun setting, and the wind whipping around us, Jeff stared into the distance at the mountains and said: "How can I go back to anything else now?"

I know exactly how he felt.

Motoring out the Dean Channel.

We still had to work out shuttle and I had a job to start in two days, but as usual it all came together. I make it home and start work the next day with a tired grin on my face that made all of my co-workers think I am just really excited to start my job.

They have no idea.

The flows spiked on us when we were in the canyon I would guess we had between 3,000 and 5,000 cfs in the gorge, which is very high water considering others have run this river at 500 cfs. By the time we got to the last rapid we were looking at anywhere from 10,000 to 15,000 cfs, estimated.

Beta from Culley:

This is the link to BC realtime river data Looking at Dean River below Twans Creek. You can look at two data categories for this gauge: real time data or historical data. You will probably want to switch the data parameter to discharge ( which is in cumecs and there are about 37 cfs to 1 cumec ).

After talking to Franz, he said they paddled the Dean in August of 1997. Looking at historical flows they appeared to have about 8 to 5 cumecs on the gauge Franz said the actually flow on the river ( below the confluence ) was about 500 cfs. That said the river is basalt gorge with a character like the White Salmon and we all know that run can be done with pretty minimal flows. It looks like a good flow and it seems you could get by with less water.

The other thing to keep in mind is that rain events appear to bring the river up quite a bit.

Beta from Franz, a Dean veteran:

The Dean is an awesome trip. Most of this is from memory but I can look at home and see what I have written down if you want more.

We drove to Anahim Lake and had a float plane take us to Sigutlat Lake. We had our vehicles shuttled to Bella Coola. I forget the name of the company but I might have that written down. Paddled down the outlet to the Dean, took two days.

The upper Dean is in a deep Basalt gorge. Vertical sides with lots of waterfalls and Class IV-V rapids. High water would mean many portages. We went in August. We never ran anything we were uncomfortable with. That is, we could portage anything we chose to. At high water that might not be the case. We had maybe 500 cfs at confluence.

The canyon reminded me a bit of the White Salmon in Southern Washington, the Sacramento Box in Northern California, or the Crooked in Central Oregon. It's quite dramatic. I have a picture on my web site. If you want more pictures, I could scan a few slides.

I think we spent four days on the Dean and eventually you come out of the gorge and it's Class I-III until you arrive at the big drop ( Class V ) just prior to the Dean Channel. This is completely different character from above. Big boulder bed drop like Sierra rivers. Maybe 2,500 cfs. The rapid almost dumps into the Channel. Paddle around the corner and you are at an airstrip.

We had a land plane from Bella Coola pick us up and bring us to Bella Coola.

Campsites are tight. No beaches, just squeeze in among trees.

Lots of no-seeums. Lots of bear scat. Saw some grizzlies from our plane but none bothered our camps. Warm and sunny but some rain.

Jon Turk lost his boat under an undercut and was lucky to have escaped himself. He hiked the harder sections and we carried him on a log we stretched across two kayaks on easy sections. It worked well and he actually was faster than us on some of the hard sections. But, this river has potential to be dangerous.

I was part of all the first descents on the Cotahuasi and can say if you boated that, you are ready for the Dean.