A conversation with river guide Ursula Kilbridge

Joel Hibbard joined senior guide, Ursula Kilbridge, for a conversation about paddling, the Nahanni and other northern rivers and hunkering down.

Hi Ursula, how is it going! 

Things are good! I just got back from birdwatching, let me get set up. What is going on in Whitehorse? 

Nice, I have been chopping wood, getting head start on winter. Feels really good to live in the forest in the Yukon right now and have activities like this while we ride this out. 

River guide, Ursula Kilbridge

Thanks for taking a minute to talk with us, it is great to have a chance to catch up but also learn a bit more about the amazing people who share the North! 

Where are you now? 

I am in Revelstoke, BC. 

How are things in Revelstoke? 

People remain hopeful, but I think we are in it for the long haul. The other day my friend compared social distancing to taking a course of antibiotics where you feel good waaay before you make it to the end. But you need to finish all those pills! 

Revelstoke is a very good place to be but with summer arriving I am looking forward to moving around a little bit. Everyone here is itching to get outside to do things but we can’t stop socially isolating yet. It is hard.

Pills, I think that is a great metaphor for what we are all doing. 

Can you tell me about your first memory of paddling? 

I was probably four and my parents and I were going to Hap Wilson’s cabin on the Lady Evelyn River in Ontario. We flew into a remote lake in a Dehavilland Beaver and then paddled to Hap’s Cabin. We thought we would get there in a day and somehow we ended up with an unforeseen bivy… I remember us all piled into a tent, eating GORP for dinner and my mom’s ears getting mowed by blackflies. Northern Ontario at its finest… 

River guide, Ursula Kilbridge as a young child.

Oh that is great story. They really set you up for a lifetime in the wilderness! You grew up in Temagami right? What brought them there? 

My mom was born and raised there but my dad is one of 10 siblings and he was sent there to attend Camp Wabun on Temagami. I think it was a two for one for boys and they sent the whole schwack of them to canoe tripping camp. They ended up loving it and went back year after year and eventually became camp staff. Eventually he apprenticed as a canoe builder under Bill Smith, who started the Temagami Canoe Company in 1929. Eventually, they bought it from Bill and we grew up surrounded by wood, canvas and half built canoes all around.  

Why did you decide to leave Temagami?

It is a polarized town and with my family having a passion for conservation it was a tough place to grow up. And then as I got older I knew that I wanted to experience more, see the west, and the North and eventually found myself making a home in Revelstoke. 

What brings you to the North? 

The North was always there growing up. It was in the stories my parents read to me and I had this romantic notion of it from childhood. My dad read us Robert Service as kids. When I became a guide I knew I wanted to do expedition style trips. I had friends and mentors who guided in the North and I began to research rivers and began to figure out how to make it happen! 

Ursula at Virginia Falls on the Nahanni River.

We have been loving seeing all the silver work you have been making in self isolation. Where did you learn how to do that? 

I learned how to silver-smith in Nepal. After a little trekking I rented an apartment in Pokhara. Walking down the street one day I saw a sign for silversmithing lessons. I signed up and basically learned how to smith in a closet… It was seriously the smallest classroom on earth. I didn’t last too long at that school but I bought some stones and was put in touch with another smith who had a shop overlooking a garden full of fresh food and kids. Eventually I rented his bench and he helped me get my first tools. Nepali style smithing taught me the old ways of doing things. It was very foundational, I even learned how to make my own solder! 

That is really cool. 

I love crafting and making things. I think it comes back to my father who loved silver and turquoise jewellery and was such a craftsman. 

You are famous for the food you make! (Ursual has packed our trip food and organized our menu since 2016) What is the last thing you cooked?

Nothing fancy. I  made a glory bowl and it was delicious, filling and healthy. And I love the colour. Check out the recipe here >

What is the most unusual thing you have done this week? 

I went bird watching with a friend. In the spring I usually focus on the rivers and paddling but with the need to slow down this year it has been amazing. My eyes opened to so many new things. 

The other day, I discovered Buffelhead ducks, so they’re a new favourite. And we saw a sandhill crane. They sound like tiny dinosaurs! 

What was the last river you dreamed of? 

The Firth. I haven’t been there.. yet. I have been reading about barren ground caribou and coming to understand just how incredible the Firth is and how rare intact barrenground caribou herds are. 

What are you reading at the moment? 

Currently lots of text books as I am completing my degree in Physical Geography and am getting ahead with some spring and summer classes! But I have been enjoying The Sun is a Compass and a reading interesting book on oral history Do Glaciers Listen

Thanks for doing this, that was great! Stay well in Revelstoke and we will see you on the other side of all of this.

If you would like to see more of what Ursula is up to make sure to check out her Instagram @urs.kilbridge or see her latest silver work at https://www.etsy.com/ca/shop/SilverWilds!

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