Ben Brochu, Paddles Fortress Lake, Wood River Packrafting Trip Luke Schmidt
Ben Brochu paddles across Fortress Lake toward the Wood River.  It’s likely no one had floated it before.

I’ve had my share of scary experiences in the backcountry but floating the Wood River in British Columbia was the first time in the wild I thought I was about to die. It was supposed to be an easy 5-day packrafting trip with stops periodically for hiking up to glaciers and for fishing. Instead, it became something closer to a real life version of a survival show.

The Wood River is a tributary of the Columbia River and flows out of Fortress Lake in the Canadian Province of British Columbia. Its upper reaches, our destination, are found in Hamber Provincial Park. We’d traverse through Hamber Provincial Park and exit via Jasper National Park for our trekking and packrafting expedition.

The plan fell apart when we encountered unmapped gorges, experienced terrible bushwhacking, and lost our rafts and gear in a nasty rapid. The trip was supposed to take five days, but we finished in “a mere 11 days,” according to my friend Ben Brochu.  He’s an optimist.

When it ended, we called it “the best trip that we’ll never do again.”  Never before was I so hungry, cold, or tired in the wilderness.

Map, Hike Fortress Lake, Descend Wood River, Cross Mountains, Descend Whirpool River, Wood River Packrafting Trip Luke Schmidt
We planned to hike to Fortress Lake, descend the Wood River in packrafts, cross the mountains, and then packraft down the Whirlpool into Jasper National Park. We thought it would take five days, and we even considered making a side trip up to one of the glaciers.

First Sign of Trouble

Wood River Gorge, Wood River Packrafting Trip Luke Schmidt
The Wood River blasts through an unrunnable gorge. We decided to hike around it.

I first realized that we might be in trouble when Ben and I saw the Wood River cutting through a massive and unrunnable gorge on our fourth day. We’d expected to float this section after portaging a waterfall. This gorge hadn’t showed up on the topo maps or Google Earth. We knew there would be two waterfalls and some rapids on the Wood River, but we had them on Ben’s GPS and thought portaging them would be relatively easy. Now all of that had changed.

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