“BC Class III” – Thompson River

The Thompson River in British Columbia is the largest tributary of the Fraser River. It is frequently paddled at flows of 250-600 cms (~12,400 CFS – 21,200 cfs). That’s a lot of water! It’s important to make this flow conversion from cubic meters per second to cubic feet per second if you’re not used to cms. Being that I moved to the PNW from the Southeast U.S., it was quite a transition from paddling “big water” runs like the Gauley River of West Virginia (usually 2,800 cfs) to paddling the Thompson River at 16,000 cfs. Thankfully, I was fortunate to paddle the Rio San Pedro while down in Chile, helping me to understand a bit more about big water paddling.

During the drive up to the Thompson River, I was astonished by the beauty of the Fraser River Valley. The Thompson is a 4.5 hour drive (give or take time during the border crossing). This was easily one of the most gorgeous drives I’ve ever done, and I was able to do it as an up-and-back day trip. It would probably be better to do it as a weekend trip, but sometimes day trips can be a whole lot of fun.

The term I heard to describe rivers like the Thompson River and Chilliwack River is “BC Class III”. Being a newbie to the Pacific Northwest, I pretty much think of BC paddling as the rivers near Whistler (Callaghan, Soo, and Cheakamus) and the Stikine. So I always expect BC rivers to be more volume, technical, and challenging than their rating. Obviously, this is completely inaccurate, but like I said, I am a newbie to the PNW and didn’t know the area. There is plenty of paddling for all skill levels in B.C. and not just class V paddlers. So load up your boat, grab a passport, and head on up.

The whitewater of the Thompson River is like nothing I’ve experienced on one river. I’ve experienced strong swirly eddy lines while at the U.S. National Whitewater Center in Charlotte, North Carolina. I’ve experienced whirlpools on the Rio San Pedro in Chile. I’ve experienced reactionary waves while paddling the rock gardens in Baja and the Grey Dogs tidal race in Scotland. And then I’ve paddled some pretty dynamic big water rapids while paddling the Middle and Lower Gauley River at 8,000+ cfs. All of these features were present on the Thompson.

My chosen craft for the Thompson was the Jackson Kayak Antix. I’ve learned that I feel more in control on big water runs in a shorter boat with a bit of play. The Antix surfs incredibly well, which is an important thing to consider when heading up to the Thompson. There are some wonderful opportunities to surf some glassy waves (the Frog), but you also need a kayak that can plow through whirlpools and very strong eddy lines. There were several instances of me trying to punch an eddy line on the Thompson, and feeling like I hit a brick wall. A MixMaster or Rockstar could also be a lot of fun on the Thompson, but you’d need to be okay with a bit of down time and a whole lot of stern squirts (which a lot of folks buy those boats for ). I am 6’0’’ and 185 lbs and I find the Large Antix to be the perfect boat for me with this kind of paddling.

After finishing up my first ever lap of the Thompson River, I was grinning from ear to ear. It was very fun, super smooth, and kept me on the edge of my seat the entire time. The run ended in one of the most fun wave train rapids I’ve ever experienced. If you’re looking to practice your kick flip, this is the place to do it. Whirlpools would form under my boat rather than off in the distance so that I could anticipate them. The same could be said about the reactionary waves. Waves would crash against the canyon walls and reflect back at different angles while I was paddling. With strong currents like this, it was a firm reminder how strong nature can be.

Safety needs to be a top priority on rivers like the Thompson River. With so much cold water flowing through, swims will be longer and eddies aren’t a comfortable place to be swimming, as they are swirly and the eddy lines often have whirlpools. So, if one of your friends is swimming either help with a deep water rescue (go ahead and YouTube it) or get them on the back deck of your kayak and paddle them to shore while others in your crew help with their kayak. The deep water rescue is similar to a rescue you’d find in sea kayaking, so I encourage you to practice this at your next pool session. Also, it’s important to wear a personal flotation device (PFD) with adequate flotation (not that one you’ve been paddling in for 10+ years) and have a boat with stern float bags.

If you’re looking for a fun day of big water paddling, I highly recommend taking a Jackson whitewater kayak (any of them) up to British Columbia for a day of paddling on the Thompson River. But be sure to have a solid group with you, a reliable Eskimo roll, and class III-IV paddling skills. Be safe and have fun!

I’ve included two photos from the Fraser River Valley.

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