2021 Expedition of the Year

Presented by

kokatat white wavename
Expedition paddling is going to the unexplored corners of planet earth, or pushing the sport to new limits in where kayaking or even being in areas with kayaks takes incredible fortitude.
These are the people taking the crazy ideas and making them reality.



First Descent Filer Creek, BC

Sandy MacEwan, Ben Marr, Edward Muggridge

Another adventure in the Coast Mountains, from Google Earth, to the Rory Bushfield Cessna, on down to the banks. This local Squamish crew went in to see what they could find, and it turns out – despite difficult access – this one may be worth returning to.
FilerCreekDrone BennyMarrPhoto 1
Benny, Shred, Sandy

Whitewater Awards: Who’s idea was this expedition and how did it come to be?!
Sandy MacEwan:  This trip was my idea but when I told Benny and Shred what I was thinking they were both 100% onboard and down to make it happen! I spend a lot of time on Google Earth scouting the Coast Mountains for new rivers, hoping to find a new classic or suffer fest, lol. Filer Creek is located in between the Bishop River and the Clendinning, which are both amazing drainages so that really sparked my interest knowing how amazing those valleys are – it seemed like we had to check this one out.
Ben Marr: Filer Creek was a Google Earth find by Sandy. When I got into the Sea to Sky region last summer they told me about the creek and I poured over it on Google Earth – looked great so Sandy and I took a flight with Busy Wayne to check the goods and decided we had to go see it from the banks. 
Edward Muggridge: Sandy was the one who came up with the whole idea of going in to Filer Creek after he found it on Google Earth and he approached Benny and I early in the summer about trying to get the wheels in motion to make it happen.

WA: How did you scout the mission?!
SM: Google earth and Bing maps really sparked my interest, but there were still a lot of unanswered questions about how gnarly the valley was going to be and how realistic it was going to be to complete a successful decent of the river. Luckily, local Sea to Sky legend Rory Bushfield was able to fly us out there in his plane to lay eyes on the valley and wrap our heads around the mission. Obviously it looked doable from the air so we pulled the trigger. 
BM: Google Earth + Cessna combo.
EM: Sandy and Benny took a sweet flight over the whole valley with Rory Bushfield to scope things out in person and get a clearer picture than we could from the satellite images online. With that and the info we had from extensive scouting on Google Earth the guys felt like it would be a really manageable mission to get to the ocean.

Expedition of the year whitewater awards 02
Expedition of the year whitewater awards 06

WA: Were there times when you thought this Expedition might not happen?
SM: Yes, this mish was up in the air right until the moment the heli landed our boats in the alpine with us at the put in. Between funding, logistics, weather, boat access, & heli access – there were a lot of moving parts. Stooked it all came together!
BM: No. We had all the right enthusiasm in all the right places.
EM: There were moments where we weren’t 100% certain for sure but in the last month or 2 leading up to the trip it got to a point where we were pretty keen to go in and make it happen no matter what.

WA: Did you leave anything unrun that you feel like you’d step up to next time now knowing what’s in there? Drops in there that someone / no one will step up to?
SM: Yes there is definitely some stuff in there I left behind due to pretty high water and honestly just being a bit to gnarly and consequential for me to wrap my head around out there. With lower water I would be down to run a few more things for sure, and I would be very interested to look at some of the other features and see how I feel about them at that time. I think there are definitely kayakers that would be up for running a lot of this river at the right level and I hope it happens!
BM: Yes. In one of the final stout sections, there was a drop that had I taken a break from the portage I would have like to run. I ran nearly everything I could at that flow. The final stouts had too much water after a recent confluence with Headwall Creek.  I would have loved to run that thing. We left a mank lead into a 30-40 ftr there as well. Could probably have banged down it, but it was gnarly and not really my style.
EM: Yeah definitely! This was my first ever first descent trip and first time doing an expedition in the coast mountains. I was really getting a feel for the environment and style of paddling necessary to get a trip like this done safely and efficiently. The exposure out there made me think a lot about the stuff we were paddling and I played it pretty conservatively out there. I mostly tried to learn as much as I could from Sandy and Benny and feel like I walked around a lot of things that I’d definitely reconsider at another water level or a later date with more experience.

Expedition of the year whitewater awards 07
FilerCreekDrone BennyMarrPhoto 8

WA: Was this Expedition the rowdiest of trips you’ve been on? If not which one was?
SM: No this wasn’t the rowdiest trip I’ve been on. That would have to be Jules and my mid-summer 1st Decent attempt of the Bishop River. I’m hoping I don’t out do that one ever lol.
BM: Not even close. This trip, with Sandy’s bang on logistics, and runnable sections of whitewater + scenery felt like a bit of a lay-up. The portaging was, at times, as stout as I have been in but they weren’t very long overall.  Don’t get me wrong, we worked hard – all I am pointing out is I have done much harder, Sandy crushed the planning, and this was a great river.
EM: For me I’d say so yeah haha! The other two guys have done a ton of much gnarlier expeditions in the mountains around here but with this being my first I was really out of my comfort zone. The environment was probably what got to me the most honestly. We felt pretty out there in the middle of nowhere and I was a little more scared of the grizzly bears than the other boys, haha. The whitewater was definitely scary at times but there was always the option to portage fairly safely which I know can be a lot less of an option on other rivers in this zone.

WA: One thing you’d be more prepared for next time you go in?
SM: Na, think I nailed it on this one.
BM: More snuus, more scooby snacks. Bear Spray.
EM: Maybe refine my gear setup a bit and get a bigger dry bag for my lap because I had a bit of a time stuffing everything in there for the week and also definitely get into way better portaging shape because I was struggling out there at some moments, haha. What I once thought was portaging I now consider a walk in the park and my mind has been expanded to just how gnarly things can get out there when you need to cover some distance in the mountains. What we did was grueling at times but we had it easy compared to other coast mountain first descents, which I was hyped on.

FilerCreek BennyMarrPhoto 73

WA: Anything you forgot that you wished you had on this trip?
SM: Na I had everything I needed on this one, apart from maybe a Chris Korbulic, Jules Domine, Ben Stookesberry, Todd Wells – I know how much these guys love adventuring in the Coast Mountains and they are all big inspirations to me!
BM: No.
EM: I felt pretty stoked on what I brought out there! Maybe some electrolyte tablets because I’m pretty sure I forgot mine in the truck and Benny was graciously supplying me for a few days haha.

WA: Would you go in there again?
SM: Yes, I would love to go back in there! Making it happening with the right water level could be very challenging but I would be super down! I also have my eyes on some other exciting stuff that might have to come first though, we will see how it pans out.
BM: Yes. But, realistically, the time/effort/planning is better spent on a new objective. I would love to run the final stout!
EM: I don’t know. Realistically probably not I would say I would like to spend my time trying to explore more cool rivers and look for something that really stands out as an incredible section of whitewater for paddling. Filer Creek was insanely cool but I want to find that dream river from top to bottom. For me personally it was the most beautiful place I’ve ever been to but the whitewater wasn’t my absolute favourite.

WA: Best / most valuable piece of equipment / gear when you’re on an expedition?
SM: Good quality socks! Dry drysuit, well stocked spliff kit!
BM: I love having my kit dialed and a favourite combo is my crush bowl, titanium spork, and a sharp knife. And my kindle. It’s all about the camping. 
EM: Safety kit.

FilerCreek BennyMarrPhoto 62
FilerCreekDrone BennyMarrPhoto 3

WA: What is the equipment you use in case you need to be evacuated / keep in touch with those outside the expedition?
SM: InReach.
BM: Don’t fuck up + InReach.
EM: InReach I guess but the reality out there is don’t fuck up because getting evacuated is a roll of the dice when you’re that far out.

WA: How do you pack your boat? Do you use a bunch of small dry bags or big stow float drybags in back / front of your boat?
SM: I use 2 big bags in the back, on this trip I had a lot of heavy camera gear in a medium sized dry bag between my legs, nothing in the front of my boat.
BM: I use two stow float drybags in the stern, I use two 10 litre dry bags for all my food that I clip in beside my throwbag, and I bring a watershed for camera gear on top of all that. If I think I need it I’ll stash some dehydrated food in the bow.
EM: I use 2 feta float bags in the stern and a watershed camera bag on my lap but I needed a bigger lap bag to fit the drone and all of my stuff. It had always been sweet for 2 or 3 day missions but we had a good bit more stuff for the 6 to 7 days we were thinking we might be out there.

WA: How many pairs of underwear did you pack? Do you count the inside and outside of underwear as two clean sets? How many sets of socks?
SM: I bring 1 pair of nice merino wool boxers, they get a hard work out. Socks are really important to me on a big trip. I bring 3 pairs of merino wool socks – one for camp and then the other 2 sets alternate days on the river. I really try to start the day with dry socks in my drysuit.
BM: I use one bottom layer on the river, and one bottom layer at camp, no undies, no such thing as dirty on an expedition.
EM: I think I just rocked my Kokatat onesie and bottom layers for on/off the river. We kept the clothing as light as possible so we were all free ballin it.

WA: Best character trait in your travel companions?
SM: Benny is just a good mate of mine. I enjoy hanging out with him, especially if we can do it in an amazing place like Filer Creek. Shred has a real open mind to learning and no ego.
BM: Sandy – He is always cracking jokes and keeping the vibe chill. He is out there for the experience and I found that grounding and helped me slow down as I tend to get a bit over focused. Edward – This was Ed’s first trip out to the Coast on a FD and without that previous experience to know what to expect, he was mentally overcoming situations that Sandy and I have in the past. Physically he had to work harder than Sandy and I for the same experiential reasons. Meaning, Ed was working the hardest – and he crushed it.
EM: Benny kept the stoke and hype up for the whitewater and was always super keen to be checking out the next rapid and was an awesome motivator when things got a little more intense on the river. Sandy is one of my closest friends and is someone I have wanted to do a trip like this with for years and to actually be out there with him and learning a ton from him in a new environment really added a level of comfort and confidence in what we were doing.

Sandy 1
ShredCarry 1
Benny 1

WA: The thing you miss the most when you’re on an Expedition?!
SM: I try not to miss anything when I’m out there, usually I’ve put a lot of time and effort into making a trip happen so I think it’s important to try and enjoy the process as much as you can while you are out there, even the hard bits.
BM: This one wasn’t long enough to miss anything!  Only when I get into 8-14 + days do I start to crave food. And watching skateboarding on Instagram.
EM: I think just the feeling of being surrounded by people and feeling safe is what I missed most. When we were out there I definitely didn’t feel like we were operating on the top of the food chain and the backcountry out here has some powerful animals roaming the mountains. I grew up in the city so I didn’t exactly grow up around this stuff. Living in BC for the last 6 or so years has definitely helped me become way more confident but its still insanely intimidating to be cruising through some of the most highly populated grizzly territory in the world and all you’ve got is some bear spray and a couple of flares.

WA: After Covid travel restrictions are lifted what is the first place you want to travel?
SM: I’m pretty happy being stuck in BC, I’m not sure we’ll have to see what happens.
EM:  Ooh that’s a good question, there are tons of places I’d like to go. Iceland, Norway, back to the U.S. to visit everybody. I miss all of my friends from south of the border.

WA: One place you haven’t been yet, that you want to go?
SM: I’d love to got to Madagascar.
BM: Brazil.
EM: I think in a couple of years when I’m a little more experienced I would love to hit some amazing trips in Alaska.

Expedition of the year whitewater awards 13

WA: Advice you’d give to up-and-coming adventurers?
SM: Act on your ideas if you really believe in them. Don’t be afraid to reach out to people that inspire you for advice on how you could make something happen, most of the people are probably cool and happy to help you. Get out there and get!
BM: Ask for advice…
EM: Have fun with it and try not to scare yourself to the point where it isn’t fun anymore. Take things one step at a time and don’t skip steps is a big thing I’ve learned over the years. Still tons of learning for me to do so I wouldn’t say I have all the greatest advice but that’s what I’ve got so far haha.

WA: Shoutouts?
SM: No sponsors, but big shouts to Red Bull Canada, Lund Water Taxi, Oceanview Helicopters, Klahoose First Nations, and to anyone and everyone who is out there exploring and doing expeditions! 
BM: Astral, the shoes did great!
EM: Red Bull 110% for making this entire trip possible for us. I’m crazy grateful for the opportunities they have been willing to provide. Also huge thank you to Waka Kayaks and Kokatat for providing me with the gear I need to go on these missions and just paddle every day in general. So stoked to get to work with these 3 awesome companies and the insanely cool people that run them. I wouldn’t be able to do this without them.

WA: Thanks boys!

FilerCreek BennyMarrPhoto 37
FilerCreekDrone BennyMarrPhoto 7


Meta Incognita Mission
Southern Baffin Island, Canadian Arctic

Erik Boomer, Sarah McNair-Landry
BoomerSarah EOTY UnexploredBaffinProfile

Whitewater Awards: Who’s idea was this expedition and how did it come to be?!
Erik Boomer: I had spotted and briefly scouted these rivers on satellite maps a few years ago, however we were always too busy with other projects. With covid lockdown, Sarah and I were looking for adventures that we could do in southern Baffin Island (out of Sarah’s hometown). I was initially a bit more excited about the rock-climbing potential because it is so epic in Baffin, but Sarah insisted on a kayaking mission. So, we settled on a month rock climbing expedition, followed by a two-week kayaking expedition. And the whitewater did not disappoint!

WA: You said you had a gun strapped to your boat and a solar electric fence for bears! Any close encounters?
Sarah McNair-Landry: Luckily no close call on this trip. But on our climbing trip we saw 12 bears, one that wandered right past camp one evening.


WA: Was this Expedition the rowdiest of trips you’ve been on?
EB: It was a great trip. Not the rowdiest but certainly special to travel such big distances and paddle quality unrun whitewater with a babe.

WA: One thing you’d be more prepared for next time you go in?
SM: I really wanted a carrying system for my boat, but never had time to figure out a good system. Boomer is a big fan of carrying his boat on his shoulder, so that is what we did. And to be honest – it ended up working great. 


WA: Would you do this mission again?
SM: Yeah. But now that I’ve done it, I would rather go explore a new river.  
EB: Yeah, but first I would paddle other new / unexplored rivers – that is what really gets me excited.

WA: Best / most valuable piece of equipment / gear when you’re on an expedition?
SM: Dry suit is key for paddling in the arctic. 
EB: Dry suit and an NRS head sock. 

WA: How do you pack your boat? Do you use a bunch of small dry bags or big stow float drybags? How do you load back and front of your boat?
EB: Two stow pack bags in the back, one on each side. Then two smaller bags on each side in front of the stow floats.  A small bag on each side of the bow in front of the bulkhead.  A watershed between my legs. And of course a deck bag with a shotgun.


WA: How many pairs of underwear did you pack? Do you count the inside and outside of underwear as two clean sets? How many sets of socks?
EB: Great question, I just started wearing underwear again after 10 years off!  Just one pair of undies and 2 pairs of socks. One I wear and one is extra. 

WA: Best character trait in your travel companions?
SM: Ridiculously strong and good looking. 
EB: Love of adventure.

WA: The thing you miss the most when you’re on an Expedition?! 
SM: Good fresh food. 
EB: Fancy coffee and waffles.

WA: One place you haven’t been yet, that you want to go?
Sarah: Kamchatka Peninsula, Russia 
Boomer: Tibet


WA: Advice you’d give to up-and-coming adventurers?
SM: You don’t need to be a class V paddler to go explore new zones and rivers. Most valuable skill – portaging with a loaded boat.
EB: Turn your dreams into reality – start doing small accessible expeditions or adventures in your backyard and everything will build from there.

WA: Shoutouts?
Sarah: Big thanks to NRS, Jackson Kayaks and the 21st Century Adventurer Award presented by European Outdoor Film Festival and Land Rover.

WA: Thanks you two!!


San Rafael Gorge

Abe Herrera, Ben Stookesberry, Nouria Newman

“To help join the fight against the destruction of Ecuador’s Rivers, go to https://ecuadorianrivers.org/donate/ to learn and give, and fight for what remains of a paddlers paradise on earth.” – Ben Stookesberry
SanRafael theteam 1
The Team

Whitewater Awards: Who’s idea was this expedition and how did it come to be?!
Ben Stookesberry: Abe has been Fuming and posting about the collapse of San Rafael falls since it happened a year ago. In Ecuador it was big news because it was one of the country’s number one tourist attractions on an important tributary of the Amazon. On top of that it caused the nations most important oil pipeline to collapse and tragically pollute the river. Here in the USA it seemed that only a few kayakers and a few environmentalists paid any attention to the catastrophe. 6 months after the collapse and 6 months before arriving in Ecuador, I started trying to organize a first descent in Ecuador with Abe. I wanted to run the biggest, hardest river in the country, which I soon found out may be the biggest, hardest river on earth. When I finally landed in Ecuador for the first time,I knew I had no shot at that river, but I was stoked to simply get to know Abe, his country, and paddle again with Nouria. Having studied geology in college, I certainly hoped we would go check out the collapsed falls and newly formed gorge, but had no idea about kayaking there. A week into our trip, we finally made the trip and it wasn’t until I saw the thing with my own eyes that I realized the opportunity. As I recall Nouria was thinking the exact same thing. We were extremely lucky in that the 2 days we spent scouting and making the first descent, were 2 of the only dry and climatically stable days during the entire 5 weeks in Ecuador. Had we arrived with rain or higher flow, we would not have made the attempt because any attempt would not have survived.
Nouria Newman: Abe for sure ! Not only it was his idea but he organized everything to make it possible. From the drone scouting to lining up the logistics : having Jonh the fireman with us as our official and legitimate wildcard, and Don Gato to set up a sneaky take out. 
Abe Herrera: I definitely didn’t expected to look runnable in little less than a year since the sink hole opened just upstream the waterfall. Showing up with no expectations and walking to a brand new runnable gorge with the largest natural arch on it was a great surprise.  For it to be runnable the amount of sedimentation that had to be pushed was of a magnitude I never witnessed before and most likely won’t see again.   I was ground support for Nouria and Ben and I would have loved to be in the water with them. Although I was stoked to see the whole thing from the air. Unfortunately I lost the drone that had the top section of the new gorge , it stayed in there with some really amazing footage. Fortunately I had a spare drone to take the shot  when Ben and Nouria floated under the arch. I had been planning to get in the gorge below the falls for years and now is all under all the sediments. So the logistics where ready to go, the drone definitely allowed us to see the whole thing.  

edit by: Abe Herrera

WA: Could you elaborate on where the dam was and how it contributed to this environmental disaster?
BS: The new dam and powerhouse called Coca Coda Sinclair are inconspicuous. The Dam is not a large structure, and the power-house is out of sight in a remote portion of river 50 kms downstream. What is not at all inconspicuous, is that the river and 450 foot waterfall downstream of the dam dried up shortly after the project went online in 2016. This happened on a Rio Coca that had never had much less than 10,000 cfs, at low water, for thousands of years of recorded human history leading up to that point. While the government immediately claimed that the collapse was “natural”, a full scientific review has been repressed. It seems very likely that the homeostasis of the entire area was destabilized by the 2.6 billion dollar scheme built literally on the side of a volcano that diverted many millions of tons of water per second off the lip of the delicate falls for weeks at a time before all of the sudden release of a flood event would roar through. This sudden release was done intentionally to relieve the dam structure of rapidly accumulating sediment. 3 years later, all of the sudden, A massive sinkhole formed in the sediment that had been plugging what was soon exposed as a resistant basalt dyke Archway that had resisted the mighty river for millennia up to that point. Add to that the American funded oil pipeline that fell into the expanding sink hole weeks after  the initial collapse and there is no way to see this other than a complete human induced, environmental catastrophe. And it’s not over yet, the new gorge/ sinkhole is still expanding. Some hope that it will progress another 8 kms upstream and destroy the dam. Many worry about the consequences of losing this power project that now produces up to 30% of Ecuador’s electricity.
NN: Not to mention the social disaster https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/24/world/americas/ecuador-china-dam.html.

A BeforeTheDam highwater
San Rafael Falls, before the dam at highwater.
A BeforeTheDam
San Rafael Falls, before the dam.

WA: Did you scout this gorge with the drone or did you hike down into scout or just do it from the kayaks?!
BS: There would have been no sane way to evaluate and scout the gorge without Abe piloting and filming with Nouria’s drone.
NN: It was a little bit crazy to drop in with just a drone scout. The plan was to not stop because we didn’t wanted to expose ourselves to rock falls and land slides.  We had to remember the aerial shots and constantly keep track of where we were at. And that’s not so easy  to do when you are already dealing with continuous whitewater. We ended up stoping once before the notch because there was a weird gnarly looking flake in the entrance that we didn’t see wit the drone. It was the right call to get out because we ended up going right of it and not all the way left in the rapid like we initially planned.
AH: The unstable conditions of the edges of the freshly carved Canyon would made any scouting too dangerous, the drone was a crucial tool on this one.

C The New Gorge
Coca River, the new gorge after the collapse.

WA: How many days / hours did you miss the actual collapse?!! Were you scared paddling under that arch?
BS: The Arch Collapsed one month after we passed underneath. Honestly paddling under the Arch was the least scary part of the mission as it seemed to be the most stable portion of the gorge. Upstream there was a short section of stout class V in a vertical walled section of river with rocks tumbling down. Luckily but terrifyingly we were able to and had to scout at the worst / best spot. It worked out for us but it was a feeling closer to Murchison Falls croc/ hippo threat on the White Nile than much else I’ve experienced, however briefly.

I IntoArchWay2
Under the archway.
G sketchyAFScout
Sketchy Scout.

WA: Was this Expedition the rowdiest of trips you’ve been on? If not which one was?
BS: On the scale of Rowdiness it was no Pascua or Tunuyan or High-water NFP or even the high-water Puente to Puente Quijos we did with Abe, but there was that special/ fucked up feeling of being completely at risk of getting murdered by something totally out of your control (ie rockfall, landslide).
NN: It was not the rowdiest but maybe the sketchiest. We weren’t anywhere remote, we put on at a bridge and the road was just up there. But once we dropped in the eroded canyon there was nowhere to get to it and our only way out was to paddle out. The rapids weren’t the rowdiest things we have run but we were dealing with dark sedimented water hiding random sharp rocks that had just fallen in. It was some weird fast shallow big water like nothing I have paddled before. And to that you add objective risks of landslides and rockfalls. It was just something completely different. For me it was the first time I saw various random rockfalls while paddling a river. That will probably be the only time of my life where scouting is more dangerous than running rapids blind. 
AH: It was nerve wrecking to be on top following every step of the mission and to see them scouting on the crux was so intense That was where I lost the drone.

WA: Anything you forgot that you wished you had on this trip?
BS: I wish we would have stopped downstream of the Arch and hiked back up and taken it in a bit more.

WA: Would you do this mission again?
BS: You might as well ask me if I want to see the Big Bang. Of course, but it’s no longer possible. 
NN: My heart would say yes but knowing what it was like and how unstable that place is my answer would probably be no. That was definitely one of these fake good ideas, some of the sketchy side of good stuff that I always end up doing with Ben.
AH: I was planning on that one.

WA: Best / most valuable piece of equipment / gear when you’re on an expedition?
BS: It pains me to say drone so I’ll say helmet instead.
NN: The drone and radios because that was how we could get in touch with Abe if we needed eyes. 
AH: Spare drone 🙂

E Intothegorge2
E Intothegorge

WA: What is the equipment you use in case you need to be evacuated / keep in touch with those outside the expedition?
BS: Cyanide capsule… but we didn’t have one so I guess that was actually what we were missing gear wise.
AH: Shooting flairs.

WA: Shoutouts?
BS: Thanks to the Ecuador Kayak Club and the Ecuador Rivers Institute that are uniting concerned locals and foreign paddlers to protect rivers and promote the next generation of Ecuadorian paddler!

WA: Thank you!!


Whitewater Awards

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Scroll to Top