Between falls the river was often more like a lake.
Packrafting down Monkman Creek in front of mountains we had explored the day before.

Introduction

My friend Ben Brochu and I have had some “interesting” trips together. Most notably our “5-day” Wood River Expedition turned into an 11-day survival trek. After that experience, we went home and spent the winter scheming on Facebook for the 2016 summer. Usually Ben, the optimist, would suggest a route. As the realist (or pessimist if you ask Ben) I would look at Google Earth and raise concerns about miles of Devil’s Club or killer rapids. So when Ben texted me that he and two other guys had lined up a brand new¬†“epic” trip in Monkman Provincial Park, British Columbia, I probably should have thought about what I was getting into. But I was up for some excitement so I joined the trip.

Summary

  • While scaling Paxton Peak I nearly fell off a cliff on two different occasions.
  • Ben Scholten discovered two caves
  • We packrafted down Monkman Creek and portaged around a dozen waterfalls
  • Ben Scholten ran a Class III+ to Class IV rapid on his first try.
  • I took a nasty swim
monkmo
The rough plan for our trip was to hike into the mountains and climb Paxton Peak. After that, we would use packrafts to go back out on Monkman Creek.

Narrative

Day 1: The Hike In

Day 1 was more of an evening hike. Ben and I carpooled and met Ben Scholten and Tim Siemens in the town of Tumbler Ridge. We threw our gear into Ben Scholten’s truck and began the drive to the trailhead.

We took advantage of the long summer days to hike late into the evening. Ben B. reminded me that he brought me on the trip he could blame me for everything that went wrong. I threatened to make a GoPro video of nothing but Ben mistakes as revenge.

Day 2: The Hike to Hugh Lake

The plan for Day 2 was to get up to Monkman Lake and leave our rafts there. After that, we hoped to get as close to the base of Paxton Peak as possible before we camped.

monkman-trip-504
We got a lazy camp from Trot Camp in the morning. Left to right Ben B., Ben S., and Tim. After teasing me about being late Ben B. discovered that his new gators were on wrong. Needless to say, I gave him a hard time about that.

 

We hid our rafting gear at Monkman Lake then headed for the high country. After slogging through some of the nastiest mosquitoes I’ve ever seen we reached the alpine zone and a breeze kept most of the bugs off. Ben was trying out his new Seek Outside Unaweep pack. I was using another MYOG pack based on a Seek Outside frame and hipbelt.

 

The trail more or less ended at treeline. From there we followed an off-trail route along a ridge. Our objective was to traverse across a couple ridges then camp at Hugh Lake. That would be a scenic location and a good basecamp to summit Paxton Peak.

 

We passed several scenic lakes along the way. I looked at the snowfields and seriously wondered whether we’d find a route up Paxton Peak through that.

 

We camped in a thick sub-alpine forest above Huge Lake. There was talk of swimming in the lake but a cold thunderstorm blew in and put a stop to that. This trip was a chance to try out my new Six Moons Designs Deschutes Tarp. With the rain pouring down it turned out to more cramped than my old DuoMid but much better than my old cat tarp. Not bad for a 7oz shelter.

 

While Ben S. was researching this trip he’d stumbled across a Paxton Peak outdoor store in the US. They’d sponsored us with T-shirts, some snacks, and s’mores. When it began to rain we huddled under Ben’s hammock tarp and ate the s’mores cold.

Day 3: Paxton Peak

Our goal for Day 3 was to summit Paxton Peak. We weren’t sure if there was an ideal route to the summit or how we’d deal with the unmelted snow. Adding to the complication was the fact that clouds were covering Paxton Peak so we couldn’t visually plan a route. We planned to just wing it using Ben Scholten’s route finding skills and Ben Brochu’s GPS topo maps. Tim woke up feeling bad, so he decided to backtrack down to Monkman Lake and wait for us there. About halfway up Paxton Peak, I wondered if I should have gone with him. The climb would end up being the most difficult part of the trip.

It was here that I decided I did not like my Altra Lone Peak 2.5s at all. After traversing a steep snow slope my foot slipped and I began sliding towards Ben B. who was standing on the edge of a rock ledge about 2 feet wide. Ben reached for me and my first instinct was to grab his hand. My next thought was that I might just pull him down with me. I managed to land on the ledge on all fours. It hurt smacking my knees on the rock but I stopped and was able to get around the ledge safely. It was not a confidence booster, to say the least.

 

After some hiking, we arrived at the base of Paxton Peak in a cold drizzle. Clouds covered the top of the mountain so we couldn’t really see where we were headed. The GPS said we were only 500 meters from the summit. It would be a very long 500 meters.

 

The first part of the climb was up a steep talus field. Here again, I hated my shoes. They seemed to slip and slider around in places that were not really that steep.

 

After the talus field, the mountain rose up in steep cliffs.

 

When we came to some cliffs that we couldn’t safely climb we began working our way sideways on small ledges. We fell into a routine with Ben B. using his GPS to set an overall “macro route” and Ben S. using his excellent climbing skills to pick the “micro-route” around individual obstacles. Not having a mountaineering background I tried not to fall off anything.

 

A lot of the climbing was at the edge of my comfort zone and I finally got into trouble. Ben B. climbed up a rock crack with no problem. I followed without really planning a route and suddenly a handhold broke off in my hand. I couldn’t reach any more solid holds with my hands and my feet couldn’t find a good place to step up on. After trying to talk me up Ben S. asked if I could stay where I was for a bit. He then climbed up another route and tossed his river rescue rope down to me. After he hauled up my pack I used the rope to get over the bad part and we were on our way again.

 

The summit was covered in fog so there wasn’t much of a view. We quickly pulled off our raincoats for a summit shot in our Paxton Peak shirts and headed back down into the clouds.

 

The route down was slightly better than going up. We managed to avoid the spot where I got stuck so there was no need to rappel down using our throw ropes. At one point the clouds cleared just enough that we could see our route ahead.

 

The final climb down was complicated by a couple steep snowfields that we had to work our way around. Eventually, we reached the base of Paxton Peak and began following a series of ridges back toward Monkman Lake.

 

Near a high pass, we found grizzly tracks in the snow. Ben B. joked about tracking it down and wrestling it with my knife. He was carrying a tiny keychain knife on the trip. After struggling to start a fire on the Wood River I had started to carry a medium sized sheath knife in my pack in case I needed to split soggy wood for a fire.

 

Ben S. has a hobby of exploring caves and on the way down he gave us a crash course in how to located caves by looking at the geology of an area. He discovered two small caves on the way. Ben B. named the first one Hungry Man Cave and I suggested we keep the theme going and call the next one Thirsty Man Cave.

 

The sun set as we hiked down the trail to Monman Lake. There were no good campsites along the way so we finished the hike out to Monkman Lake with headlamps. We woke Tim up when we got there and finally crawled into bed sometime after midnight.

Day 4: Exploring the Monkman Cascades

The plan for Day 4 and 5 was to packraft down Monkman Creek to a spot close to where we’d left Ben Scholten’s truck. Ben B. thought it looked fairly beginner friendly with the exception of some waterfalls. Tim and Ben S. had experience in canoes but neither had used a packraft so we were hoping there wasn’t a ton of whitewater on the way out. I was hoping there would be at least some water to try my new Kokopelli raft out in.

day-4-10
Monkman Lake gave Ben S. and Tim a chance to get familiar with their borrowed packrafts before the real fun began. We knew there were 24 marked “drops” along the way. Some were waterfalls some might be falls or rapids. This meant we’d have to be extra careful about where we paddled.

 

As we neared a “drop” marked on Ben’s GPS¬†we heard a roar and pulled over to scout. Sure enough it was a beautiful but un-runnable waterfall. We packed up for the first of many portages. As first the portages were fairly simple bushwhacks.

 

As we went farther downstream the falls got bigger and the portages got more complicated. Sometimes we formed human chains to pass our rafts down cliffs. Everyone except Tim had a packraft with a cargo zipper. This turned out to be a big help for portaging. We could simply pick up our rafts and carry them around things without having to take our packs off the bow.

 

The reward after portaging was being able to paddle right up to amazing waterfalls and get views that a hiker would never get.

 

As the sun went down we decided to make camp while there was still some sun to dry our gear out. Ben grabbed an especially scenic spot for his hammock.

 

In the morning we packed our rafts up and portaged them down a boulder field past a huge waterfall. The spray soaked us even this far away from the falls. Ben B. got in close to the falls and was almost flipped by a strong current.

 

After the first couple waterfalls, Monkman Creek dropped into a gorge and things got steeper. One portage involved going down this giant set of “stairs” formed by rock layers.

 

I thought this was an especially cool waterfall because water had made a hole through a large boulder in the center of the falls.

 

In the gorge, the river was a bit faster and there were a few actual rapids to run.

 

Towards then end, some of the drops were actually rapids. Some were too big to run but one looked doable but it was tricky looking. After some scouting Ben S. decided to run it. There was a tricky maneuver to get around a rock wall and the turn for a ledge drop. He nailed it perfectly; not bad for a guy who had only been in a packraft for two days.

 

I followed Ben and got through the worst of the rapid fine, but I didn’t turn fast enough for the ledge at the end. I hit it sideways and flipped over. The swim wasn’t too bad but I¬†tore the skin off my knuckles swimming after my raft. Fortunately, there was a calm lake before the next set of drops. Of course Ben could now accuse me of holding everyone up (again).

 

As it was getting late we saw another rapid coming up. Ben S. and I ran ahead to scout it out. No one part of the rapid was especially bad but it was complicated enough to be a bit concerning. On the other hand, I didn’t want to portage it. After scouting it really carefully we went back and reported to the others. After running it successfully I felt a bit “redeemed” after my swim. Soon we were hiking back to the truck. I teased Ben about being the last one ready. The joke was on me because I suddenly discovered some stuff I’d left on the ground so in the end, I was last.

 

day-5-72
I was a scuffed up and a dirty mess¬†when we got back to the truck but I was happy to celebrate another great trip with a cold s’more.

Video

YouTube video

Gear Notes

Packing

Ben S. and Tim used old MEC Packs. Ben B. used a Seek Outside Unaweep 6300. My pack was a MYOG design that used the Unaweep frame and hipbelt. I liked it okay, but I liked the look of Ben’s Unaweep even better. The Unaweep was a few inches wider at the bottom. All other things being equal that allowed Ben to have more of his weight and bulk a bit lower down. After this trip, I ordered a Unaweep 6300 pack bag to go on my frame.

We all used a variety of dry bags. Since I was putting my stuff in the packraft’s tubes I didn’t need to worry as much about totally waterproofing my stuff. I used two large dry bags to organize my stuff into roughly equal loads so it would be balanced on either side of the raft.

Sleeping Gear

I tried out an Enlightened Equipment quilt with water-resistant down for the first time. It seemed to work a lot better than my old quilt. The sizing was a bit more generous so I was able to go without a bivy.

I also tried out my Six Moons Designs Deschutes Tarp for the first time on this trip. On that rainy night at Hugh Lake I would have preferred a bit more space but other than that I was happy with it.

Ben S. used a hammock and a really long tarp he’d picked up at a garage sale. The extra length made it a nice place for us to eat dinner when it rained. Ben B. used a hammock and an Arrowhead Silnylon Tarp. If I recall he told me the hammock and tarp combo weighed about 20 oz. (not counting the underquilt), so it was heavier than my 7oz tarp plus 8oz pad but he said it was very comfortable. Tim used an old Gore-Tex bivy and no sleeping pad. He figured his -20 sleeping bag put enough insulation between him and the ground.

Shoes

I decided I really, really did not like my Altra Lone Peak 2.5s on this trip. I liked them even less when the began to fall apart on another short trip in Wyoming. The issue was that the sole didn’t grip rocks well and the shoes had such a sloppy fit my feet would twist around in them at bad times. I had much better luck later on with the Lone Peak 3.0s, but they were not available on this trip. On my next trip with Ben B., I used a pair of Asolo Plasmic hiking shoes with a sticky Vibram sole and a more secure fit. The difference was huge. I felt way more confident on slippery scree slopes and rocks.

Clothing

Normally I wear a thin button up long sleeve shirt for buggy places like the northern Rockies. On this trip, I experimented with a Patagonia Midweight baselayer and was pretty happy with it. Bugs could bite through it so a few times I wore a wind shirt. That was hot however so I often just sprayed my shoulders with a bit of 100% DEET and that solved the problem.

I also used a fleece instead of a puffy jacket with a synthetic puffy vest in case I needed additional warmth. I don’t recall ever needing the vest on this trip. With the sun up till around 10 PM, I was usually in my sleeping bag before it cooled down. On the other hand, the fleece was nice and warm to put on over my damp clothes after a day of paddling.

Rafting

Ben S. and I used decked Kokepelli Nirvana rafts. They are bit heavier than other rafts but the whitewater performance is excellent. I’m also a fan of the double chamber design. Ben B. used a prototype self-bailing Nirvana. Tim used a Feathercraft BayLee. Everyone except Tim was using a raft with a cargo zipper. This improved performance in whitewater and it also made portaging easier. We could just throw the rafts over our shoulders and go. With no cargo zipper, it is typically necessary to take your pack off the front for a long portage. The downside is putting all that weight inside a raft makes it easier to puncture it if you drop your raft something sharp.

With the exception of the one rapid where I swam the rafts didn’t get a real whitewater work out. It would have been possible to do this trip with lighter, less capable rafts. But I prefer “too much” raft to “not enough” raft in situations like that. As far as we knew Monkman Creek had not been run so there was plenty of uncertainty even with detailed maps and Google Earth images.

Lessons Learned

My little swim was more embarrassing than dangerous because there was a nice lake below the rapid where I could catch all my stuff and get organized again. As a general rule though Ben and I both recommend caution in such situations. It only takes one mistake to turn a fun rapid into a dangerous situation.