Wild white water raft trip with gourmet touches

They were swarming around like busy yellow jackets, loading their dunnage into the rafts. Only the 25 men and women were draped in orange, their life vests glowing brightly in the cloudly, misty morning as the sound of white water drowned out their buzzing chatter.

They were "putting in" at the confluence of the Taseko and Chilko Rivers, in British Columbia's Fraser Plateau Wilderness Area, the starting point of a very exciting river rafting expedition.

"This is the most thrilling part of the trip for me," said Jim Lavalley, the head boatman, who is a veteran canoeist of more than 30 rivers in western Canada. "It means no more roads, no more trucks, and no more portaging. Just downriver for the next seven days."

As he spoke, he maneuvered his 22-foot- long grand Canyon catamaran raft out of the eddy into the gushing mainstream that winds its way for the next 64 miles until it meets the mighty Fraser.

In its 10th season, the 10-day rafting trip, operated by Canadian River Expeditions Ltd. of Vancouver, is a stirring white-water experience.

John Mikes, a congenial Czechoslovak, pioneered his wilderness adventure in British Columbia in 1971. "This kind of trip is a relatively new concept for Canada. The province [Which is the size of California, Oregon, and Washington, with a part of Mexico thrown in] is largely unspoiled, unpolluted, and unexplored. It's even underpopulated, and unexplored. It's even underpopulated. About 2 million people," he said.

Mr. Mikes, an accomplished kayaker and river rat at heart, first ventured into the hinterlands with some companions on informal outings. They cruised up the Inside Passsage between Vancouver Island and the coastline, camped by the fjords and inlets, and blazed their way into the interior.

"I know the area very well and friends would always ask me to take them along again," he said in his Slavic accent. "At that point. I organized an expedition and structured an itenerary so that others, and not just my friends, could enjoy what I think is the world's most beautiful setting."

The varied itinerary speaks for itself. Early-morning ferry crossings along the Sunshine Coast. A short bus ride through woodsy terrain and towns. Then transfer to the Argonaut II, a classic 1922-restored executive yacht for a cruise up the Strait of Georgia, with time out for gathering rock oysters. A might camping by an inlet.

The next day a Mallard float plane transfers the group, picking the people up right in the middle of Bute Inlet. A 40-minute flight over the Homathko Ice Fields with Mr. Waddington (highest peak of the Coast Mountains) in sight. Then a landing on Chilko Lake, picked up by rafts to a campsite with a panoramic view of the 64-mile-long wilderness lake, virtually inaccessible by conventional transport. Two nights are spent at the lake. Then the rest of the schedule is "downriver" as far as Lillooet, with the return by train through alpine scenery.

If there is one spot that epitomizes the secluded, unspoiled atmosphere of British Co lumbia, it would probably be the Big Creek site, which the rafters reach on the sixth day. Named for the trout stream that flows into the Chilcotin, Big Creek is surrounded by mountainous walls on one side of the river and an open vista dotted with pines on the other. Hot springs are within a mile.

The Chilcotin-Fraser expedition is a 200-mile stretch through changing scenery -- forests to rock canyons to weired-looking geological formations. Bald eagles and ospreys often hover above. California Big Horn sheep traverse the trail. Bear, moose, and deer roam free.

Visits with homestead families living along the Fraser, and cowpunchers working on the Gang Ranch (which is larger than the King Ranch of Texas) give a taste of the region's variety. And Indians, allowed by the government to dip-net salmon, can be seen perched on river platforms or cliffs, scooping up the precious catch.

The area is as rich in history as it used to be in gol during the 1850s. Old prospector shacks, rotting sluice boxes, and abandoned mine shafts are strung along the banks and sandbars. The settlement of Lillooet became a boomtown and used to be the largest development north of San Francisco and west of Chicago. It is a picturesque five-hour train ride north of Vancouver.

The menu throughout the 10 days is cordon bleu cuisine, with the highest quality of meats and poultry, fresh salmon, vegetables, and fruits, and Dutch-over-prepared pies and cakes, plus juices and other beverages.

In terms of physical difficulty, Mr. Mikes rates the trip as intermediate. There's ample opportunity to go hiking and climbing and fishing. "We purposely do not do anything that can be strenuous. The river is very powerful, and though there are some dangerous rapids, the boatmen are experts and the equipment is tested for safety," he said.

Each raft carries about eight or nine persons, who sit on top of their waterproof duffle bags, provided at a nominal charge (as are tents and sleeping bags). Sturdy ropes hold the baggage in place and provide hand grips when the craft ride the rapids, whose names were given by the first Canadian River Expeditions scouts, such as "Railroad" and "Big John."

There are 12 departures for 1980 beginning June 23, with five each in July and August, ending Sept. 3. The cost is $910 per person (discount for family), all-inclusive for 10 days. The trips leave Vancouver at 5:30 a.m., hotel not included. Early reservations are suggested.

For more information: John Mikes, Canadian River Expeditions Ltd., 845 Chilko Street, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada V6G 2R2; telephone (604) 926-4436.

For more information about British Columbia: Ministry of Tourism, 100 Bush Street, Suite 400, San Francisco, CA 94104, (415) 981-4780.

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