White Water Rafting in Squamish: A Trip Down the Mighty Elaho River

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Only an hour north of Vancouver, Squamish is one of BC’s top outdoor adventure destinations. There’s fantastic hiking, climbing, mountain biking, and kite boarding opportunities… and, as we recently found out, some pretty epic whitewater rafting.

We booked an afternoon trip with Canadian Outback Rafting, but, eager to make a day of it, we hit the road bright and early. The approach to Squamish on the Sea to Sky Highway is one of our favourite drives. This winding road skirts the edge of the Coast Mountains and the milky glacial sea of Howe Sound. Whenever we travel north along this stretch of highway, it almost always means an adventure is on the horizon.

Breakfast at Fergie's Cafe in Squamish

Eggs Bennie Breakfast at Fergie’s Café.

We arrived in Squamish just in time for breakfast and made our way to Fergie’s Café. This casual kitchen with some mighty tasty food is situated on the confluence of Cheekye and Cheakamus rivers, just outside the town. It also happens to be home to another rafting operator in town; Sunwolf offers trips down the Elaho and Cheakamus rivers and a set of cabins in the woods for those who want to stay the night.

After whiling away for a couple hours over breakfast, and with some time to spare, we drove 10 minutes north to the Brohm Lake Interpretive Forest. With more than 10 kilometres (6 miles) of trails around the lake and into the hills behind, there are plenty of areas to explore. We opted for a shorter walk around the lake to warm up our rafting legs. Interpretive signs provide insight into the forest and how it has been managed by the BC Government over the years. With stands of old-growth trees, a few berry patches, and a quiet swimming hole, it was a perfect chance to find some zen before we hit the rapids.

Brohm Lake Interpretive Forest, Squamish BC

Quiet walk along the Brohm Lake Trail.

Half an hour before our scheduled departure, we arrived at Canadian Outback Rafting and got a brief orientation. We settled into the provided wetsuits, lifejackets, and helmets and clambered onto a dusty, old bus. It was recommended that we leave all our belongings behind — even our camera — as we were warned it could get wet and wild on the Elaho. The guides let us know the river “has expensive taste” and had been known to swallow up a lot of watches, phones, and sunglasses in the past. And so the rule goes, if you don’t need it, leave it.

It’s a long drive up bumpy dirt roads to the put-in, but the views keep it interesting. We passed through mossy, green old-growth forests, past a few scenic campsites and mountain vistas. We also got a few quick glimpses of the rapids we would be running on the way down, including a canyon they call the Devil’s Elbow.

After a safety demonstration, we crawled into our raft and set out. Within the first few minutes, we were paddling out of the main current into an eddy. The guides took a few moments to make sure everyone knew what they were doing, calling out instructions as we practiced back paddling, leaning left and right, bracing for impact, and the “hold on for dear life” position.

Elaho rafting, Squamish BC

Setting out down the Elaho River. Photo: Canadian Outback Rafting

The guides do much more than just prepare you — they make sure you’re having a good time, too. At certain points on our trip down the river we practiced our balance by holding hands and running in a circle around the rim of the raft, tried some dizzying paddling manoeuvres, and went for a quick swim in the icy water, clinging to the outside of the raft as we hurtled down some rapids. It was a lot of fun.

Rafting down the Elaho, Squamish BC

Plenty of opportunity to get wet. Photo: Canadian Outback Rafting

Rafting down the Elaho River, Squamish BC

Smashing through steamroller rapid. Photo: Canadian Outback Rafting

When we weren’t focused on the whitewater ahead, we were captivated by the views that surrounded us. We saw massive glaciers, tumbling waterfalls, and even volcanoes. One of the most striking views was of the inside crater of Mount Cayley. Much of Cayley’s outer cone has eroded, leaving a jagged rock face of pinnacles. It seemed liked the scene of some geological violence, and we were in awe. But before I knew it, another section of rapids loomed and our attention quickly shifted from the scenery and to holding on.

Drifting past ancient volcanos, Mt Cayley, Elaho River, Squamish BC

Drifting past volcanos (Mount Cayley). Photo: Canadian Outback Rafting

Weeping Wall Falls, Squamish BC

Weeping Wall Falls. Photo: Canadian Outback Rafting

The river is constantly changing, with washouts and avalanches carving out new features and removing others. We had two kayakers scout the way for us, ensuring a safe passage through some of the more difficult sections. The duration of the 16-km (10-mi) run largely depends on how much water is coming off the mountains. For our river run, about 150 cubic metres (~40,000 gallons) of water per second was flowing, which means it took roughly three hours. After a hot summer day, the snow and glacial melt can pile up, pushing the water levels to 300 m3/s or more. More water means rushing down the river faster and too much water can mean skipping a few sections and cutting the trip a bit shorter for safety reasons.

Elaho Exhilarator, Canadian Outback Rafting

Mountains rising on all sides. Photo: Canadian Outback Rafting

For the more adventurous, Canadian Outback Rafting also offers a two-day trip. You start out at the same point on the Elaho, but camp overnight on an island and finish off with a nice quiet float down the Squamish River. It’s a pack-in, pack-out affair, but the guides take care of all that for you. All you have to do is change into dry clothes, sit back, and relax.

Rafting past bears in the river

A chance to see BC wildlife. Photo: Canadian Outback Rafting

Rafting down the Elaho, Squamish BC

Making our way down the river. Photo: Canadian Outback Rafting

It seemed like just as we were getting into the swing of things when the trip was over. Those three hours went by fast. We pulled out of the river and slowly realized just how pleasantly fatigued we felt. It’s a common feeling after an adventure fueled day in Squamish. And besides, it was time for dinner.