A turbulent road trip through the Canadian wilds of my childhood with my son

Doug McKinlay
·9-min read
Doug McKinlay and his son Charlie enjoyed running the Nahatlatch River rapids
Doug McKinlay and his son Charlie enjoyed running the Nahatlatch River rapids

This might be my worst nightmare. I'm clinging to my son's leg, knuckles white from clutching at the spongy fabric of his wetsuit as another wave of icy water lashes our raft and propels us ever closer to the Jaws of Death. I'll do anything to prevent us going overboard. It's not just being plunged into the turbulent white water; it's the fear that, if I let go, his mother will kill me.

As father-son expeditions go, rarely can you find an adventure with more bonding potential than tackling the wilds of Canada, especially in the province of British Columbia. It's the western-most province of the country and covers more than 350,000 square miles, much of its mountainous terrain unchanged from the days when the first humans walked across the land bridge from Asia some 16,000 years ago.

White-water rafting on the Nahatlatch River in BC's Fraser Canyon, I reckoned, would be the highlight of the trip with my 12-year-old son, Charlie. The aim was to give him his first taste of the country where I grew up, wrenching him from his beloved PlayStation and instilling in him the sense of adventure I felt as a 13-year-old on my first hikes.

Taking a route through the Rocky Mountains from Calgary to the Pacific Ocean, then heading north to Whistler, I pictured us building campfires, tackling the hiking trails among the peaks of the Rockies and navigating spindly train trestles by bike in Myra Canyon. Charlie was in for a shock.

Beautiful scenes of Emerald Lake near Fernie, British Columbia
Beautiful scenes of Emerald Lake near Fernie, British Columbia

Fernie, our first overnight stop, is in the East Kootenay region of the Rocky Mountains and is the quintessential chocolate-box mountain town, maintaining much of its rustic frontier charm. We've been driving six hours, and we're looking forward to exploring. The last time I came here was on a post-high school Rockies road trip with some buddies in a rusty green Ford F150 pick-up truck. Our digs are in the Snow Creek Cabin at the Fernie Alpine Resort, a log cabin set deep in the forest. The large wrap-around deck, complete with hot tub, is the perfect spot to contemplate the last of the day's light and appreciate the all-enveloping quietness.

Next day, we venture up the Lizard Range, taking the Elk Chair, a four-person ski lift providing summer access to the far reaches of the peaks. The skies are blue, with just a wisp of cloud; the air has that snap of elevation, a crispness that can only come from some of the cleanest air on the planet. Charlie is all questions and curiosity, running ahead, through alpine meadows, to climb the steepest parts of the Boom Trail.

Like every good road trip, there are frequent stops. North America is renowned for its roadside attractions, and we soon encounter a 10ft-high statue of Sasquatch – the legendary Wildman of the Woods – which merits an impromptu photograph. And earlier at Sparwood, we find what's billed as the world's biggest dump truck, the 22ft high Terex 33-19 Titan, now preserved as a static tourist attraction.

The good humour that has carried us for the past few hundred miles is starting to show some cracks by the afternoon of the third day. Charlie is fed up with sitting in the car, and when we miss the ferry across Kootenay Lake, causing a two-hour delay to our next overnight stop, tempers flare. When we arrive at Ainsworth Hot Springs, it's dark and we've missed the chance to soak in its famed mineral waters.

Charlie riding the Kokanee Mountain Zipline
Charlie riding the Kokanee Mountain Zipline

Since nothing revives the soul so completely as defying death, the next day we bounce along dirt logging roads to the remote Kokanee Mountain Zipline. The company hosts fully-guided tours of Kokanee Mountain through a spider's web of cables that hang 660ft above thickly forested valleys. Each line gets progressively longer and faster. It takes some coaxing for Jane, my partner, to leap from the wooden deck into the abyss. Charlie does little to calm her nerves, by twisting himself upside down in his harness to take on Tunnel Vision, the longest and fastest line – a mere half-mile cruise at 90mph. "It's like being a bird," he shouts across the valley. "I'm seeing what a bird sees."

After the Rockies, we hit the Southern Interior region of the province and a half-day's drive into Canada's only desert in the Thompson-Okanagan. We crank down the windows to feel the warm breeze as we sail through pale-yellow grasslands and undulating hills. Our target is Nk'Mip (in-ka-meep), on the shores of Osoyoos Lake, the lakeside town that marks the southern end of the Okanagan Valley in Canada and the beginning of BC's wine country.

On arrival, Jane all but sprints to the winery for a tasting tour, while Charlie and I take off on a jet ski across the waters of Osoyoos Lake. This stretch of the Okanagan Valley, at around 125 miles long and 12 miles wide, has drawn Canadian holidaymakers since the 1950s, especially from the cooler and wetter Pacific Coast. Every summer for most of my formative years, my dad would load the family into whatever ugly gas-guzzling monster car he had and head east from the coast for two weeks of summer sun and sibling rivalry.

Charlie now has a taste for adventure. As we reach REO Rafting on the Nahatlatch River in the Fraser Canyon, Jane is unnerved by the roar of the river that drowns out conversation in our safari tent – but as we set off for our white water rafting training session, Charlie is undeterred. Fed by snow and ice melt from the surrounding peaks and glaciers of the Coast and Lillooet Mountain ranges, the river is made up of 24 class-3-to-4+ rapids (think double-black-diamond ski runs in terms of difficulty), with – as Matt, our guide, helpfully imparts – names like Lose Yer Lunch, the Eliminator and Meatgrinder. The closest experience Charlie has had is a week-long summer sailing course on man-made Danson Lake in London, so I'm a little worried.

Charlie at Upper Joffre Lake
Charlie at Upper Joffre Lake

First up is Meatgrinder, one of the most fearsome rapids on the course. We hit it like a train wreck, the front of the raft pushed high and then dragged low, water pouring uncontrollably over the sides. Matt is shouting paddling instructions that none of us can hear. Next up is an escalator of rapids: Big Bob, Pinball, Eliminator and then Jaws of Death.

We bounce along from boulder to boulder, slammed by big water as we paddle hard to control our raft. Everyone is whooping and hollering as the boat is all but swallowed by the Jaws of Death, dragging and spinning the raft out of control. "Get down now!" shouts Matt. We drop our paddles and grab the safety line that circles the craft, powerless against the grip of the water. I feel like I'm being tugged down a plughole. Time seems to stand still, like we're stuck inside one of Charlie's video games. We aren't going anywhere, then in the snap of a finger Matt skilfully manoeuvres the raft away from the hold of the vortex. I relax my grip on Charlie's leg and glance over. Has he been scarred for life? Have I crushed any sense of adventure he might have? Instead, a manic grin develops on his face. "That was amazing," he shouts over the roar of the water. "Can we go again?" He's having the time of his life.

As we prepare for the last leg of our journey, there is still one last place I want to take Charlie. As a teenager growing up in Vancouver, I was obsessed with the mountains, having hiked and camped along many of the trails of southwest BC. I relished being out in the bush, hiking beneath a canopy of giant Western red cedar, Sitka spruce and Douglas fir, sharing the trail with only porcupines, skunks, wolves and those bears, of course.

I've picked the Joffre Lakes Trail, just north of Whistler, as our last opportunity for some Charlie and dad time, alone in one of the most beautiful spots in the province; three glacier-fed lakes with a colour of blue I can't properly describe. The last time I was here I was on my own and only saw three other hikers, but – evidently – times change.

The Big Orange Bridge at Nelson is reflected in the Kootenay River
The Big Orange Bridge at Nelson is reflected in the Kootenay River

Determined to leave the day trippers behind, we push past the first lake to Middle Joffre, the second of the three, its vibrant aquamarine colour showing itself between the trees. The backdrop is the jagged glacial peaks on Mount Matier rising over dense forest. On the way to Upper Joffre we pass cascading waterfalls and gingerly balance our way across half-submerged logs fording a rushing creek before reaching the lake.

It may not be the Joffre of my teenage years, but it doesn't matter. To be out here with my son, marvelling at the glory of the landscape, together in silence: this is the trip I imagined.

Charlie may only be 12, but there's a young adolescent fighting to get out – soon that cheeky little boy will be gone forever and, difficult as it may be, I need to let go a little, let him find his own way and just enjoy the ride with him. Still, we'll always have British Columbia.

Canadian Sky Holidays (01342 331796; canadiansky.co.uk) offers a 14-night self-drive family holiday to British Columbia, visiting the Kootenay Rockies, Thompson Okanagan, Whistler and Vancouver from £2,299 per person, based on a family of three travelling. The price includes hotel accommodation, flights and SUV hire. Departs October 1 2021.