About an hour and a half west of Banff, Golden, British Columbia could very well be considered the adventure capital of the Canadian Rockies. While the town itself is a much smaller, more laid-back alternative to Banff, it has no shortage of opportunities for adrenaline-pumping outdoor recreation. Tucked between the Columbia and Rocky Mountain Ranges, Golden offers activities to suit any thrill-seeker: skydiving, paragliding, skiing, hiking, heli-skiing, mountain biking, and whitewater rafting.
The town of 4,000 sits along the banks of the Kicking Horse River, one of the premier recreational waterways in Canada and one that is celebrated for its world-class whitewater. With the river ranging from gentle class I/II rapids to a 4-km stretch of class IV whitewater, there are rafting excursions that every new or seasoned rafter can enjoy. What’s more, if you’re looking to kick your river journey up a notch, you can even opt for the ultimate adventure – heli-rafting.
Choosing a company
A few companies offer heli-rafting tours along the Kicking Horse: Glacier Raft Company, Wet N’ Wild, and Alpine Rafting. All offer the same general itinerary and pricing, which includes a full day of rafting, BBQ lunch, and short helicopter ride that zips you over to the Lower Canyon for some class IV fun. Rates from each outfitter for the 2022 season are $449 CAD per person. While all three companies seem to have good reviews, we ultimately went with Glacier Raft Company, the ones who pioneered heli-rafting in Golden. This year, Glacier Raft celebrated 40 years in business while I celebrated my 40th birthday. It seemed like the perfect match.
Why choose Glacier Raft?
It felt like this adventure was a long time coming. Back in 2005, I planned a rafting trip up in Maine for me and Stephan and his dad and stepmom. We’d only been dating for about a year, and I thought it would be a fun little get-to-know-you adventure. The day we were supposed to hit the river, however, my brother’s high school baseball team ended up playing for the NH state championship. About two days before we were supposed to leave, I totally bailed on the three of them. I remember being terrified that Stephan would be pissed for ditching his family, but I hadn’t missed one of my brother’s tournament games since he was a ten-year-old Cal Ripken All-Star. It sure as hell wasn’t happening on the last game of his senior year of ball. And so it was. Stephan went off to Maine with his parents, and I hit the third baseline bleachers with my aunt and grandmother. I never looked back.
Unbelievably, in the seventeen years that followed, I never ended up booking another rafting trip. I thought about it often, but just never seemed to do anything about it. It was in total conflict with my typical character. Finally, in 2022, my rafting dream came to fruition. And of course – as is usually the case with these things – it all seemed to work out just the way it was supposed to…
After booking our six-month stay in Golden, we found out my best friend’s mom and her friend/hiking partner would coincidentally be vacationing here in August (seriously, of all the places). Nancy fell in love with rafting years ago, and has since done trips down the Colorado and Zambezi Rivers. The Grand Canyon, in all its river-carved glory, is unquestionably her happy place. When I learned she and Pat would be in Golden, I sent her an email and half-jokingly asked if they were interested getting together for either dinner or heli-rafting. She replied that (1) they’d love to do dinner and (2) they’d already booked a heli trip. I should have known. With my 40th birthday roughly coinciding with their visit, Stephan and I couldn’t miss the opportunity to join them.
Our day of heli-rafting took us along a 36-kilometer (22-mile) length of the Kicking Horse River – beginning at the western boundary of Yoho National Park and ending in downtown Golden. The three sections of whitewater included the Upper Canyon (class I/II), Middle Canyon (class III/IV), and Lower Canyon (class IV+). After rafting the tamer two sections in the morning, we enjoyed a riverside lunch with our raftmates. In the afternoon, a helicopter zipped us a few miles downstream to the Lower Canyon, famed for its 4-kilometer stretch of continuous class IV whitewater.
We felt very lucky to have the most awesome team of eight in our raft, as well as a wonderfully skilled and personable guide. In addition to our foursome, we were joined by two fun-loving pairs – one from Germany and one from Whitefish, Montana (one of our favorite homebases from our cross-country nomading). Our guide, Darren, was similarly outgoing. A prototypical free spirit, when not leading rafting tours he finds work piloting a skydiving plane and gathering mushrooms. As a high-strung east-coaster, I always find these carefree lifestyles intriguing and slightly enviable, if not largely unrelatable. It was such a cool bunch, and I could not imagine a more perfect group of people to spend the day with.
Our day began with a twenty-five minute bus ride to our put-in spot – a gentle stretch of river along Beaverfoot Road, just off the Trans-Canada Highway halfway between the towns of Golden and Field. The first section of river we navigated, the Upper Canyon, was very subdued and perfect for those thinking of a family float trip (Glacier Raft offers a half day excursion tackling just this section of the Kicking Horse).
The whitewater picked up quite a bit as we moved into the Middle Canyon. Sitting up front through this stretch of river, Nancy turned around to us and excitedly declared, ‘in another life, I’m pretty sure I was a river guide.’ As soon as the words exited her lips, the raft plunged downward and she was absolutely blasted with a faceful of cold water. Maybe once upon a time she was a guide on the Colorado… but I don’t think it was the Kicking Horse.
After pausing for a picnic lunch and finishing out the Middle Canyon, a helicopter arrived to shuttle us a few miles downstream to the revered Lower Canyon. This section of the Kicking Horse is only accessible by helicopter, with nary a road, helipad, or even a footpath in sight. The whole thing kind of felt like some type of special military operation. We all huddled around on a rocky sandbar in the middle of the river awaiting our ride. As the chopper touched down beside us, we’d all squat down and cover our heads to protect from high winds and potential flying debris produced by rotor downwash. It was kind of incredible to feel the force of the air as that thing landed and took off just feet away from you.
Each time the helicopter landed, four passengers would hop in, get whisked downstream, jump out on another rocky riverbank, and cover their heads as the aircraft departed. The helicopter made a few trips until all rafters and guides had reached the Lower Canyon. From here, the real fun began. Stephan and I hopped into the two front positions in the raft, and off we went for a pretty exhilarating stretch of class IV+ rapids.
After successfully navigating the Lower Canyon, and with all team members still onboard, we rode out one final, gentle stretch of river all the way into downtown Golden. Through here, Darren let us play around a bit, encouraging willing participants to try tricks that would ultimately lead to an invigorating dip in the glacial-fed tributary. Even with a wetsuit, neoprene jacket and booties, that 41-degree (5°C) water felt pretty brisk.
One short shuttle ride later, and we were back at Glacier Raft’s headquarters for a post-raft celebration of beer and sparkling water. Not only were we toasting an enjoyable day on the river, but it was also the first rafting trip through the Lower Canyon since 2019. With the COVID-19 pandemic grounding all helicopter flights for the last two summers, access to the beloved section of whitewater had been essentially cut off. Additionally, after a supremely prolonged snowmelt this season, the day we rafted (3rd August) ended up being the first of the 2022 season where water levels in the Lower Canyon were safe enough to do so.
As I sipped my lime-flavored seltzer, I reflected on a what a great day it was. The river, the rafting outfitter, and the camaraderie on the raft couldn’t have been better. Additionally, being able to share the experience with a life-long family friend made it all the more special. As it turns out, the seventeen-year postponement ended up being totally worth the wait. And for those left wondering whatever happened with the baseball game? Jeff’s hard-fighting team of underdogs won the state championship 5-3. Until the end of time, it will remain one of my favorite memories.