Travel + Leisure - April 2006

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travelleisure4-06

THE WHITE STUFF

By Elizabeth Gilbert

Rosemary-scented leg of lamb. Subtle Pinot Noirs. Sunset massages beside British Columbia's Chilko Lake. If this is what you call adventure, says Elizabeth Gilbert, sign her up. Wait-did someone mention Class Five white-water rapids?

Fact of life: We hear what we want to hear. So When I first-heard about this multisport adventure vacation in the Canadian wilderness, which included such exciting pursuits as kayaking, horseback riding, fly-fishing, white-water rafting, and heli-hiking, as well as relaxing spa activities, all I really heard was the word spa.

And quite honestly, that's why I wanted to go. Because spa, of course, is one of those magic modern consumer words like organic, carb-free, liberty-words that, it seems, any American will pay any price for these days. Yes, I thought, I would very much like to go and spend a week draped in terry cloth, sampling an array of green-tea facials, freshwater-kelp pedicures, and aromatherapy steam baths at a lovely spa, which rhymes with ahhh.

I kind of forgot about all the other challenges I would be expected to face on this wilderness va¬cation, and I particularly neglected to consider the realities of Class Five white-water rafting down British Columbia's riotous, whiplash-inducing Chilko River. Which doesn't rhyme with any-thing, mind you, except, perhaps, I'm gonna die!

Brian McCutcheon invented this trip, and he began taking groups of eight last year, Canadian, rugged, friendly (or maybe that's all redundant), Brian comes from a long line of wilderness experts. In 1985 he founded Rivers and Oceans (though it's now called ROAM, for Rivers Oceans & Mountains), a California-based adventure-travel company dedicated to guiding the curious and the brave through some of the most exciting topography in the world. To date he has success-fully led about a million people through white water adventures without killing anyone. Or at least that's the number I made up, in order to reassure myself as we careened downstream through the Chilko rapids.

First, a little geographical background. Chilko Lake, which adjoins the Chilko River, is some-thing you could never find in the overdeveloped United States: a 55-mile-long, 1,000-foot-deep, clear-as-truth miracle of glacial runoff, buried deep in the mountains that we call the Cascades and the Canadians call the Coastal Range. The only building near this place is the lodge, right at the juncture of Chilko Lake and the Chilko River, which contains the longest stretch of commercially navigable white-water rapids anywhere in North America-as well as trout the size of a Saint Bernard, if you like fishing.

To get here, you must fly in a private plane from Vancouver over wilderness that you cannot see the end of-staggering mountain ranges, eternal glaciers, epic pine forests, mythic water-falls, lakes so pale and blue they look like miniature tropical seas. (Stick a toe in, of course, and the temperature will quickly remind you that you're in Canada, not the Caribbean.) Chilko Lake Lodge is intentionally not a very easy place to get to-the descent from the sky toward the tiny landing strip is an exciting game called Do You Really Trust Your Pilot?- but once here, you are dearly spoiled, with a hot tub and a sauna and tennis courts and excellent wines and meals that include lamb, veal, boar, duck, mahi-mahi, and various other choice meats served in delicate reductions. Wolfie Heinz, the robust, Flemingwayesque German owner, spares himself no culinary inconvenience to please his guests, and has been known to helicopter himself over to a local glacier just to collect the world's purest ice for cocktails. "You have not lived," Wolfe claims. "Until you've tried twenty-five-year-old scotch served over ten-thousand-year-old ice."

So it's top-shelf living indeed, which is all very nice. But - lest we forget (and I did forget) - this is also a wilderness adventure. Which I am reminded of when, on the first day, Brian sits us all down and outlines the week's activities; white-water rafting, horseback riding, kayaking, heli-hiking...etc., etc. Now, I have been an active person in my time, but it's been a long while. So I start looking around at the other guests on the trip, to gauge how physically prepared they seem for these vigorous endeavors. To tell you the truth, they all seem really, really prepared.

Every ROAM tour is different, of course, with participants ranging from outdoorsy families to energetic retirees, but on this trip, the group is made up of a handful of slim, strong, flat-bellied, professional Canadian women in their thirties and forties-women who, I discover after a little interviewing, are all avid runners, hikers, world-class kayakers, championship swimmers, etc. Now very nervous indeed (my recent physical activities include such pursuits as reading, reading in the bathtub, reading in the bathtub with a cup of tea...), I sidle up to the most gentle-looking of these women and ask, "Are you a particularly active person?" Sweetly, she admits that she is not. I exhale with relief. "Although," she adds, "I do compete in triathlons. But I'm not very good." How reassuring.

I turn my attention back to Brian, our intrepid guide, who is saying something equally reassur¬ing about the grizzly hear population. "Bears shouldn't be a problem," he explains, "because the anatomy of their jaws renders them physiologically incapable of putting your entire skull in their mouths." After a heat, he concludes. "Seriously, though, worst-case scenario with a bear, just drop down and play dead."
No, worst-case scenario with a bear: Drop down and be dead.

He then tells us that the river we will be rafting this week is categorized as Class Four in dangerousness, with some sections that are Class Five. I'm the only one who asks how many classes there are. "Six," says Brian. "Gentle moving current is considered Class One. Class Six is Niagara."

"But maybe the Canadian Class Five isn't quite as high as the American Class Five?" I ask hopefully. "Given the exchange rate?"
Sensing my concern, Brian says, "Don't worry, you'll love it. And you'll be safe."
I don't believe him. But here's the thing: it's gorgeous here. I mean, British Columbia is gorgeous as I have rarely seen gorgeous in all my life. (As Brian says, "After The Lord of the Rings, everyone went all googie over New Zealand's landscapes, but they've got just a tiny fragment down there of what we've got up here.") And I've never had the opportunity to try half these activities before - there just aren't a lot of helicopter-hiking outfits in Philadelphia, you know-so I decide to dive into all of this stuff full force.

Flash forward to six days later; I can barely walk for sore muscles. But, in the very worthy meanwhile, I have:
1. Kayaked across Lake Chilko and floated along its shoreline, watching the silhouettes of the deer shifting through the trees, discovering one of the most meditative forms of movement I've ever experienced;
2. Ridden my horse through the forest, galloping from the sparkled light of dense woods to golden open meadows to the surreal world of a brûlée, or charcoal landscape, the remnants of a recent spectacular forest fire;
3. Hiked across some of the most remote mountain ridges in North America, where my group was dropped off by a nice man in a helicopter, who flew us to the highest peak and then left us to weave our way along the mountain crest, past downy clouds, noble glaciers, and a dazzling beauty pageant of local wildflowers (a visiting botanist once counted 47 varieties);
4. Practiced meditation every morning and yoga every evening on a floating dock, under the tutelage of Laurie Knox, who is also a Chinese-medicine expert and professional masseuse;
5. Enjoyed a couple of really superb massages;
6. Ate the best food I've had in years;
And, of course...
7. Tried my hand at treacherous Class Five white-water rafting.

Before this week, my lifetime career of river running consisted of an inner tube, a floating cooler, and a sun hat. All I could hope was that all the other challenging things I had done in the past would somehow collectively add up to an ability to handle this one (i.e., rowing on the high school crew team + being a diner waitress + living in India = a person ready to face Class Five white water). In the end, though, it was glorious, and of course, Brian was right: I loved it. Nothing I'd worried about actually happened. What did happen was a few extraordinary hours of intensely concentrated thrill. Indeed, it was like a combination of everything difficult I've ever done, but it was also a combination of everything wonderful I've ever done (i.e., falling in love + riding horses at full gallop + living in India = something like Class Five white water...but only if you do it all in two hours).

The distillation of physical effort is matched only by the eye-grabbing beauty of the canyons you are shooting. As you plow over another thrashing waterfall, a bald eagle is lunging down from the cliffs above your right shoulder and the salmon are spawning beneath you and the bears are too busy fishing along the shores to notice your bullet-like passage. Mouth and lungs fill with water and air. You soar, shout, drive, dive. You are one with the river and your arteries are cleansed by adrenaline and you feel the raging power of nature.

Then - and this is the really pleasant bit - you fly straight back to the lodge in a helicopter and get to sit in a hot tub with a glass of Pinot Noir all evening, slowly digesting the tender, rosemary-scented leg of lamb you have just enjoyed during your delightful sunset-and-conversation-rich dinner. In other words, you engage intimately with some of the planet's most exhilarating natu¬ral wonders in a nearly inaccessible pristine en¬vironment without being asked to endure five minutes of physical discomfort; you don't even have to uncork your own wine bottles, folks - they'll do it for you! And if there are any purists out there who worry that this is a commodification of the wilderness and an artificially consumer-centric presentation of nature, I'd be happy to discuss this with you. Meet me in the hot tub. Bring your own cocktail. We can talk about it all night, under the brilliance of 10,000 stars.

Elizabeth Gilbert's latest book is the travel memoir Eat, Pray, Love (Viking).


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