Rick Ripley of Spokane had a back seat to a week of jet-powered, white-knuckle, whitewater action starting in late June with a retired Lewiston jet boat builder.
Ripley, who recently retired from the Spokane Business Journal, had the privilege of joining a two-boat group led by Darell Bentz, 70, as he scouted the upper reaches of several remote British Columbia wild rivers in his 28 foot boat powered by twin V-8 engines.
Bentz and his brother Rusty, also on the trip, are said to have run their jet boats farther up the Skeena River than anyone else. They’ve pioneered Class 5 rapids in the Skeena region once considered impossible to run upstream in a jet boat.
On this trip, Bentz hoped to go even farther up through treacherous rock outcroppings and Class 5 rapids as well as exploring the Sustut, Babine and other rivers steelheaders recognize as fabled fishing waters.
But with flows high and muddy, and salmon not yet arrived, this was a boating adventure.
They put in on the Skeena River at Old Hazelton. Soon they passed Kispiox, the last village they’d see on the run.
“Logistics are a big issue here,” Ripley said. “The twin-engine jet boats burn 15 gallons of gasoline an hour, and as we came up the river, we dropped off a half-dozen five-gallon cans of fuel in five places an hour apart. The idea was to lighten the boats to take on the river’s tough rapids, and then pick up the gas on the way home.”
By end of their first day on the river, the two boats had traveled 146.5 miles upstream in nine river hours on to Suskeena Lodge on the Sustut. Only the two Bentz brothers had run up the Skeena that far prior to that day, but Bentz Boats customer Eldon Howard of Lewiston successfully followed Bentz’s lead to become No. 3.
After pumping 100 gallons of fuel into each boat, the group left June 29 down the Sustut and turned up the Skeena to head farther upstream, the key part of the trip.
Ripley said the whitewater was so rough and continuous he couldn’t keep his shirt tail tucked in as he stood holding onto the boat’s canopy frame.
Although rafters have floated the river from near its headwaters, Bentz said this was the first time a jet boat had run up that stretch.
“We’re a long ways from anywhere, and if we lose the boats, I’m not sure I could walk out,” Ripley said, noting that it would be a survival epic among swarms of mosquitoes plus wolves, moose and grizzly bears, one of which he photographed swimming across the river.
When he wasn’t obsessed with the rapids, Ripley said he noticed the glorious scenes of knife-edge ridges cutting through the sky toward distant peaks.
“The Skeena, though wide in most places, sometimes pinched down and rushed through rocky clefts so narrow it looked like there was too little room for the boat,” Ripley said. A guide on the local rivers remarked that he wouldn’t run some of those dangerous rapids himself.
The two boats ran past the Duti River, 51 miles upstream from the mouth of the Sustut and 186 miles from the boat ramp at Hazelton, before turning back.
The Bentzes had run 41 miles farther up the Skeena than either had before, and Ripley was on board for the low-key celebration over lunch on the riverbank.
Running aground and needing a tow off now and then was expected and experienced – the reason two boats are advisable for such trips, Ripley said.
He said he can’t remember a trip that delivered more adrenaline rushes.
The Babine is “rough, and the drops are steep, tight, and nasty,” he said before describing a high speed bump in turbulent water that knocked him off his feet.
He said he looked back just in time to see Jade Helmich, a Lewiston-area fisheries biologist who was videotaping the run, fall off the boat into the river headfirst. Somehow he managed to grab a railing with one hand and others were able to help him back in.
That may have been the luckiest moment of the trip.
“I don’t know how we’d have fished him out if he hadn’t caught hold of that railing,” Ripley said.