Friday, July 10, 2015

20 Minutes of Sheer Hell

This post is about an event that took place a long time ago, but it was a very scary thing and it has certainly determined how I approach being in a canoe on the water all the time.  Respectfully, very, very respectfully.

It was probably the early spring of 1990.  I was dating a chef that lived in Wakefield, Quebec.  I had my own small apartment in Ottawa. Chefs work weird hours, we often didn't have much time together on the weekends.  But this particular spring Sunday afternoon he was off and I was in Wakefield with him.

He owned an aluminum Grumman canoe, the exact same one that was auctioned off by Bill Mason's family this year (2015).  It was on display at the Outdoor Show in early spring here.  As I touched Bill Mason's canoe, many memories flooded back to me.

It was one of the first warmish days of the year, probably very early April. The first day you could go out without a heavy jacket. The first day we all run out of our houses and revel in the hope that spring is really going to come after all. The first day that the sun feels warm on your face.  I was wearing a thick cotton hoodie with jeans that day.

The chef decided we would go for a paddle on the swollen Gatineau River.  At that time there were still logs to be found in the river, it hadn't been cleaned up yet.  There weren't a lot, but they were there.  And there were big chunks of ice flowing in the spring run off.

He had spent many, many hours in the narrow section of the river just below the covered bridge with his windsurfing board during hot summer days and claimed he knew the water well.  I'm all for trusting when someone else has complete confidence in what they are doing.  I'll definitely defer to someone who acts like they know what they're talking about.  After all, it was his canoe, his turf.

We were able to walk over to put the canoe in near the General Store, a quiet bay, not far from the main road running through the town.  The chef explained that we would hug the shore as we followed the bay out to the main section of the river rushing by the covered bridge.  

He said "There's a big stone, we'll paddle up to just behind it.  We'll turn the canoe perpendicular to the flow and push out to the middle and get a great ride!"

"Um, won't that be dangerous?  Being perpendicular to the current?" I suggested.

"No.  The canoe will rock once, then twice, then it will right itself and it'll be just shoot out into the river."

"Okay, if you're sure."

We did exactly as he instructed.  We made it to the big stone.  We turned the canoe perpendicular to the flow, and as we started to push out from behind the stone the canoe rocked.  It rocked once, it rocked twice, then it rocked a third time and flipped.


In the first few seconds, the chef was a hero.  Going into the freezing water the first thing that happened was that all my breath left my body and I could not breath.  He calmly coached me to breath, just breath.  So I did. It was a shock, but that part was handled, now we had to figure out how to get out of this predicament.

The chef was a smart man.  But that day he was very stupid.  He was not wearing a PFD.  Nor did he even bring one into the canoe.  Here we were in totally freezing water, ice floating alongside of us, and we could not abandon the heavy, metal canoe.  I had on an old PFD that I had both zippered and tied. It's a good thing I had tied it, by the time we got out (no spoiler alert needed, I'm writing this blog, so I obviously survived, LOL) the life jacket had unzipped itself in the roiling water.  The flimsy tie was the only thing holding it on.  

Gatineau River
According to the map above the six-point star is where we launched and the four point star is where we capsized.

We were in the middle of the river and the chef suggested we flip the canoe over so he could climb into it and sit, possibly being able steer it better.  That didn't work.  He climbed back out again. We were not flowing closer to the shore we wanted to go to, we were being dragged along the main flow, which was closer to the east bank.  

We seriously thought we would hit the west shore near the five point star in the picture and we missed it.  I was getting discouraged.  Strangely enough the parts of my body in the water felt warmer than the parts out of the water. When I would raise an arm outside of the water, it was very, very cold.  We did not kick off shoes or take off any clothes to lighten our load, we pushed on.  

He was starting to flag a bit, discouraged we did not hit the shore where we expected.  I was able to talk him back, I said it wasn't that bad, we were making progress.  I could not abandon him with the canoe to make his own way, which is probably what I should have done in the first place if I had been thinking only of saving myself. 

Unbeknownst to us, there was an elderly gentleman that had seen us go into the water from his home at the end of the road where we had launched from. He left his home and walked along the shore watching our progress.

And thank god he did.  We pushed on and finally made it to shore right back where we started.  Now that I look at the map, I realize we should have just walked home from there.  But this gentleman, Mr. Eaton, was at the shore to meet us and he offered to help us.

As we got to the shore and I stepped on land I nearly passed out.  I guess it was blood flow.  I'm not a fainter.  I've only come close once or twice before. But I felt excruciating pain in both feet as I stood on the packed sand beach and my stomach threatened to come up my throat.  The chef was valiantly pulling the canoe onto the shore to ensure that the current did not pick it up and take it out again.

We walked back with Mr. Eaton to his home, it was about a quarter of a mile. I'm sure we were both in a daze. He said to us that he hoped it wasn't a problem but that the chef and I would have to share the tub to warm up.  As soon as the bathroom door was closed and it was only the two of us in the room, the chef lost all ability to function.  He started shaking and I had to undress him and help him into the tub of warm water I was running for us.

We made a few mistakes that day and they kept happening.  We had hot water in the tub, it should have been cooler to ease our bodies back to their normal temperature. I would be reminded of this for many, many months to come.

Mr. Eaton provided us with some of his dry clothing to wear as he drove us home shortly after our warm bath. We had on well worn corduroy pants with comfy wool sweaters. The chef had stopped shaking by then.

The following Tuesday a canoeist had disappeared in the Ottawa River near the Champlain Bridge.  Search and Rescue had looked and looked for him with no luck.  On the news SAR said "a canoeist would not last longer than 5 minutes in that water, it is so cold."

Five minutes?  We had been over twenty minutes in that cold water and we were okay.  Although I was suffering the strangest sensation.  Actually it was the lack of sensation.  Everywhere under my skin where there was fat or muscle, I had no nerve sensation.  It was like there were slabs of foreign material under my skin.  It took almost a year for the nerve endings to grow back.  I'm guessing they were nerve endings.  We never went to the doctor after our frozen dunking.

We did not think the whole time that we were in the water that we were going to die, but there were times when one of us was despondent that we were in a situation that we knew we weren't in control of and the other one talked us through it.  It was very frightening to think about how much danger we were in.

As a result of this experience I know I can't go white water rafting.  My body will take over and have some horrible reaction to prevent me from doing it. Fear can certainly cause a physical reaction to a situation.

However, I did get back in that aluminum canoe with the chef, although in warmer weather.  I did go canoeing in that same river, although when the river was not as full nor running as quickly.

I have had to work on my fear by doing some things that can be frightening for me.  The first trip in May, 2014 was scary for me.  Climbing into a canoe, going up Grand Lake into waves that were lifting the front of the canoe and dropping it, not a great deal, but enough to make my heart beat faster.  The water was cold, it had been the official ice-out date just a week and a half before.

LT is familiar with my story, I've told it to him a few times.  He, himself, has been dumped into the Ottawa River in March in full military gear for training, so he knows how it feels. I tell him that he has to wear a life jacket not for himself, but for me.  As obviously I will not abandon him if we capsize and if he's going to die because he's not wearing one, I will probably die with him.   Okay, I'm being a bit dramatic here.  But I'm very aware I could have died in that canoe incident. i don't ever, ever, ever want to be that close again. Neither do I want anyone else to be hurt either.  So wear your life jackets, please!

The spot we went in on the right by the stone
The picture above is a current one of the Gatineau River from the covered bridge facing the spot where we capsized.  However this was taken in late May and does not truly reflect the spring runoff.

No comments:

Post a Comment