Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Low Tech Canoeing VI - Shooting Rapids

Continuing from the "Wooden Canoe" article about my 1948 canoe trip in Western Ontario.
"Shooting rapids was a thrill in more ways than one. It never dawned on them that they should have life jackets (this was before these were called "personal floatation devices"). Deep River Jim's book didn't mention them and Lloyd's Emporium didn't say anything either. Their whitewater training was strictly on-the-job when they started encountering rapids far, far out in the wilderness. Grandpa said that if they really screwed up and need to be rescued, they intended to set an island on fire in the hope that the Canadian authorities would fly over to see what's going on.
"The Otca and the Penn Yan performed admirably in the rapids (no longer catamaraned of course). They slid off rocks that their drivers weren't skilled enough to avoid with hardly any damage beyond scratched paint. Even when their drivers involuntarily bailed out, the canoes continued to run the rapids (upside down or right side up depending on what caused the paddlers' departure). Then the canoes would wait patiently in some downstream eddy until the swimming or wading voyageurs arrived. 'The performance of these canoes was a true testament to the practicability of wood and canvas,' said Grandpa. According to him, the most difficult decision when facing a rapids often was not so much whether to run it, but whether to unload the canoe and carry the gear around. A bad decision in this regard meant wet sleeping bags for a couple of nights and the scorn and/or pity of one's companions."
We didn't need maps or a guidebook to know when we were going to face a rapids. You could hear the roar well upstream and the louder the roar, the worse the rapids. We would get to shore upstream of the rapids and scout them out. The really bad ones and the falls we would portage around. The ones we decided to run we had to choose whether to run them loaded or empty. Each canoe dumped once. When brother John and I dumped we were empty, having portaged out gear around. When Ken and Ned dumped, they were loaded thus causing a delay until they could get their sleeping bags etc. dried out.
When you get dumped from your canoe in a rapids the thing to do to avoid serious injury is to go down on your back feet first using your arms out like a double-bladed kayak paddle.When John and I dumped it was because we didn't hit a triangular standing wave on center. I can still replay in my mind slow-motion that tilt and dump.
Happily none of us got hurt on the trip. We were  prepared. We had a good first aid kit and were well trained. Advanced First Aid was part of the curriculum at the Colorado School of Mines. I suppose that's because we were expected to graduate to hazardous jobs. Ken and Ned had Mining Engineer degrees and did, in fact, pursue mining engineering careers, mostly in foreign countries. John had already had a ship sunk out from under him in the Pacific so he was no virgin when it came to swimming for it. I was just a self-confident ex-Army Engineer, used to command. I was the acknowledged leader of the expedition but my companions irreverently called me "Shallow Puddle Jim" instead of my preferred title, "Deep River Jim").
We were also prepared if it came to damage to our canoes  We had a repair kit that  included canvas and glue for patches, copper tacks and fine wire. For anything major that was fixable we had a good axe and knives, the woods were full of black spruce trees for gum, birches for bark, and downed seasoned wood. Spruce gum mixed with a little bacon grease would give us the same material that the Heward party used for "gumming" their birch bark canoes back in 1790. These days we would carry a roll of duct tape, but in those days only furnace men knew about duct tape. If we wrecked one canoe we would have doubled up, shed some gear, and hurried on downstream. If we had wrecked both canoes, there was always the Set-the-Island-on-Fire alternative.
On the Turtle River fishing was so good it was delaying us so we adopted a rule: No more than two casts above each rapids or falls and two below. The walleyes were usually above and big old northerns below laying in wait for whatever came through. Of course we would release everything except maybe a couple of walleyes for supper.

(Photo is of painting "Shooting the Rapids" by Winslow Homer, 1902.  © Brooklyn Museum/Corbis)
NEXT: Portaging

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