Rafting on Squamish’s Elaho River

Wake up to an exhilarating whitewater ride, a delectable salmon BBQ and the unspoiled beauty of Squamish's Tantalus mountains

Credit: Kevin Su / Kevin Su Photography

Smiles are plastered on our faces as we hit a wave head-on along the Elaho River in Squamish

Take an exhilarating ride in a magestic setting of towering glaciers, rainbow falls and rushing whitewater where the waves of the Elaho collide with the Squamish river

It was my first rafting trip in over a decade, and I couldn’t stop fretting about getting wet. At 9:15 on a Saturday morning, the skies were threatening to open up over Brackendale’s Sunwolf Centre as Bob, one of two guides for this trip, told us that the rainfall had led to very high water levels on the Elaho river, so high they had almost cancelled our trip. So high it would probably be an exciting (read: rough) ride. The excitement in the air was palpable, but my nerves were all atremble.

About an hour later, suited up and ready to ride, we bumped along the gravel road toward our launching spot in a yellow school bus laden with rafts and paddles, and the raindrops started to fall. Wrapped in layers of neoprene, I wasn’t at risk of getting too wet, and the 90-minute bus ride served to distract me from the rain as our guides told adventure stories of their global sun-chasing travels. They were fountains of information about the river, its currents, the flora and fauna, and even the type of wind (Squamish is the Coast Salish word for up-current). And of course, every bump in the road was accented by tales of close calls and misadventures. The closer we got, the more my nerves trembled.

The sun came out at the requisite safety briefing, when we were shown how to paddle, hang on to the raft, and swim back to the raft in the unlikely event we were thrown overboard—an event I was determined to avoid.

Getting Wet is Not an Option on the Elaho

We had our safety briefing alongside the Sunwolf bus and launched the rafts into the frigid waters of the Elaho River (Image: Kevin Su)

Our group split into two—six people in our raft, and eight people in the other. Our guide, Ryan, took the helm at the back of the boat as we clambered on-board and found our spots. “Where am I least likely to fall out of the boat?” I asked, and Ryan laughed. “Stick close to the back,” he responded, so I settled in next to him at the back of the boat and shoved my foot under a tethered rope to anchor myself. I was acutely aware that the river water, though supplemented by warm rain, was fed mainly by the glaciers towereing above us. And at a very frigid 3 degrees, even the first splash of water on my bare hand sent icicles down my spine.

The put-in point was at a calm spot in the river, but we quickly set off toward the first rapid, named Cheeseball. It’s a relatively gentle introduction to what was coming, and helped us get our rafting legs just in time for the Reflections Waves, a series of three huge waves where the river hits a vertical wall of rock and gets pushed back onto itself. Ryan calls out commands rapid-fire: paddle, stop! Paddle, stop! And then we come to Devil’s Elbow, a 120-degree turn to the right that involves a lot of frantic paddling to avoid hitting the side of the cliff. The storm before the calm.

Brave rafters scale the rock to make a 40-foot plunge into frigid water (Image: Kevin Su)

As we steer our boat left into a quiet eddy, Ryan utters the unimaginable: “anyone want to go for a swim?” A 40-foot cliff jump tempts most of the rafters in the other boat. But our boat is more timid, and only one member of our group climbs out to scale the rock and make the jump. I’m clad in so many layers of warmth – farmer john wetsuit, long-sleeved running top, neoprene jacket and booties, fleece hoodie and rain jacket—I can’t even fathom the thought of going in with all that bulk.

Sunwolf’s Salmon BBQ

Barbecued salmon warms our bellies before we face more giant rapids after lunch (Image: Kevin Su)

Plus, we’re headed toward our lunch spot and I’ve got food on my mind. Sunwolf provides a delicious barbecue lunch and our next stop along the banks of the river is to pick up the food. Then we float past the point where the Squamish River joins the Elaho and over to an island where we disembark for a leisurely lunch consisting of barbecued salmon, Caesar salad, tabouleh, veggies and dip, and the best, most decadent brownies I’ve ever tasted, made from scratch at Fergie’s Café, located at the Sunwolf Centre. I make a mental note to check them out when we get back as we climb back into the boat, refueled and ready for the second half.

After lunch the whitewater really kicks in, and we hit rapid after rapid as Ryan calls them out by name: House Rock, Playground, Cheeky Monkey, Little Steamroller, and the biggest rapid of the day, Steamroller. The names get more daunting as we go along: Wu-Tang, which you have to hit straight on or face flipping, 50/50, Tombstone and Widow Maker. Despite the names, we survive, unscathed (and me mostly dry) and finish with a scenic float overshadowed by the breathtaking Butterfly Falls and the many hanging glaciers and of the Tantalus Mountains.

We make our way back to Sunwolf Centre, exhilarated, and set up camp in one of its 10 rustic cabins, outfitted with hardwood floors, handmade pine furniture, a gas fireplace and ensuite shower room. We’re lulled to sleep by the gushing sounds of the river outside our window, and the next morning, I catch up with Sunwolf’s owners, Jess and Jake Freese, who came to Canada from Essex, England, eight years ago in search of a simpler life, closer to nature. After several years as rafting guides in Whistler, they bought Sunwolf, which at the time was just cabins, and launched its popular rafting tours last year.

Sunwolf owners Jake and Jess are all smiles and stories over a delicious breakfast at Fergie’s Cafe (Image: Lisa Manfield)

In addition to rafting, they offer river fishing and eagle floats in the winter, and Sunwolf has become a popular spot to camp out in a log cabin, which they’ve been fixing up since they bought the place in 2010. Over delicious Eggs Bennys and tales of their own sun-seeking adventures, they invite us to come back in November for the eagle float, and another peek at life on the river.