The Journal of Canadian

Wilderness Canoeing

  SUMMER 2003

PAGE 10

OUTFIT 113
 

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In this issue

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Canoesworthy

From the Editor

Canoelit I

Canoelit II

Discovering Eden

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DISCOVERING EDEN

In the Garden of Alex

by Alex Hall

Che-Mun is proud to present an excerpt from Discovering Eden by Alex Hall, veteran NWT canoe guide. The book will be published in September and will be reviewed in our next issue. It is published by KeyPorter Books of Toronto.

Part  1  2

DISCOVERING EDEN — This remote and rarely travelled area, well north of the Hanbury River, is part of Alex Hall's Eden. And in keeping with his philosophy of secret places we won't say exactly where this is. HACC paddlers Sean and Geoffrey Peake are shown during the 1995 Arctic Land Expedition.

MICHAEL PEAKE

A Close Call

I’ve spent three or four months a year for thirty years canoeing the river systems of the Northwest Territories and Nunavut, mostly in the Barren Lands. In all those years, I’ve personally never had a scare or a close call on the water. I’ve only dumped or swamped a canoe once. That was back in 1976 and I don’t plan on ever doing it again.

In all my years in business as a professional canoeing guide, I’m proud to say that none of my clients has ever had a serious accident or injury, on land or water. Over the course of a summer, we often run hundreds of rapids, but on average, my clients have upset less than one canoe per year. There are probably a number of reasons for our enviable safety record. The ones I would identify as being crucial would be my experience in assessing my clients’ capabilities and my commitment to communicate clearly with them on how to avoid the potentially dangerous situations we encounter en route. Perhaps most important, I take charge of my clients and I never take chances.

Only once have I ever feared for the safety of my clients on the water. It was many years ago, late May or early June, on a river about a hundred miles south of the treeline. The river was in flood. I had gathered my clients together to warn them that just around the next bend in the river was a major rapid that we’d have to line or portage. I told them to keep their canoes in single file and follow me, staying close to shore on the inside turn of the river. After we rounded the bend, we would come ashore using an eddy turn, then tie up to scout the rapid below.

All went according to plan until the last canoe. By then, the rest of us were safe on shore. When the last canoe came around the bend it was way out in the middle of the river. I shouted at the two men in the canoe to paddle like hell and get over to our side of the river. But the current was strong, and they didn’t have the paddling skills required to make it to shore.

Just above the maw of the rapid was a small island, now submerged in the high water. All that remained of the island was a clump of white birch trees with the river racing through them. As the men in the last canoe were swept past us, I yelled to them to paddle into the flooded birch trees and hang on. This they managed to do. They were marooned about one hundred feet from us, but we strung some lining ropes together, threw one end out to them and hauled them ashore.

It was a very close call. They were very lucky that island was there. With the river in flood, the rapid below was a raging torrent. If those two men had been sucked into that rapid they could easily have been killed.

Lost

I’ve never been lost, but over the years at least four or five of my clients have been sufficiently confused that we had to go find them. In every case, this occurred south of treeline.

Once, when we were portaging along a raging cataract that could be heard for miles, one of my clients, who had been bringing up the rear, went missing. It turned out he’d wandered away from this thundering torrent at right angles. We finally found him some distance away. How anyone could get lost under these circumstances still mystifies me.

On another occasion, we were eating breakfast when I thought I heard someone calling faintly in the distance. I quickly did a head count and determined Mark was missing. When I asked Mark’s wife where her husband was, she replied he’d gone off behind their tent to do his business before coming down to breakfast. However, Mark had apparently walked off in the wrong direction when he tried to return to his tent.

I found Mark almost a mile behind our camp. We were close to treeline and the trees were widely scattered. I spotted Mark several hundred yards ahead of me, dashing around aimlessly and yelling his lungs out. When I called back to him he evidently didn’t hear me, but he failed to respond again when I was close to him. I finally walked up and put my hand on Mark’s shoulder and called his name. His back was to me, and when I placed my hand on his shoulder he spun around. I’ll never forget the panicky look in his eyes. He was completely out of control.

As a boy, I’d often heard stories about men getting lost in the bush and working themselves into such a frenzied state that they crossed roads without realizing it. When I saw the wild look in Mark’s eyes, I realized those stories were true.

Bushed

Even men who are not lost can go crazy after spending too much time isolated in the bush. I never witnessed this “bushed” condition first hand until 1985, on a nineteen-day canoe trip on the Thelon River. The trip was scheduled during blackfly season, and it was clear from the outset that Jerry, an American from North Carolina, couldn’t handle the bugs.

I provide headnets for my clients, and I make sure they all have the openings on their shirts closed off with Velcro. On this particular trip, the participants brought along their own bug jackets, as well. However, Jerry didn’t have one and if ever anyone needed one, Jerry did. I never wear a bug jacket, but my wife sometimes did, so on the second day of the trip she gave hers to Jerry. Unfortunately, he lost it the very next day.

With each passing day, Jerry retreated steadily from social contact. His excuse was the bugs. After several days, Jerry was spending all of his time in camp inside his tent. He only came out to paddle in the bow of my canoe after we broke camp each morning. The only meal of the day he ate was lunch. By the end of the first week of the trip, it should have been clear that Jerry was headed for big trouble.

On the fourth-last day of the trip, Jerry burst into temper tantrums and became completely irrational. He acted like a three-year-old and we had to deal with him on that level. By then, he hadn’t shaved or bathed in two weeks. He looked like a wild man. I remember one lunch near the end of the trip when Jerry rushed in to attack the food, stuffing his mouth with both hands like some half-starved wild animal. The rest of us just backed off and stared in disbelief.

On the third-last day of the trip Jerry refused to paddle. After much coaxing and threatening we managed to get him into the bow seat of my canoe where he sat in silence for hours with his arms crossed. Fortunately, I’m a strong paddler and we didn’t have any big head winds.

When the float planes showed up on the last day of the trip, Jerry went berserk! As the first plane circled our campsite, he burst out of his tent-running, waving, jumping and shouting: “The plane, the plane, we’re saved, we’re saved!”

I’ve never seen anything like it, before or since.

A Dangerous Swim

It was a hot afternoon in August, and we were camped where a barrenland river funnelled down through a chute in a small canyon that we planned to portage the next morning. The river was squeezed to half its normal width by the canyon’s sheer rock walls. The water was fast and full of standing waves, boils and whirlpools. So when Cam asked me if it was all right if he swam through this chute in the canyon, I replied with a firm no. It was a dangerous idea: there was a good chance he’d hit his head on a rock and drown.

I don’t remember my precise words to Cam, but I know what was going through my mind. Safety is the first priority of every trip leader. Not only that, but if Cam died in that chute, we’d have to lug his body five miles up the river through several rapids and portages to a lake where a float plane could reach us, and once there we could sit for days trying to get a message out to our air charter company on my HF radio. At the same time, we’d have to deal with Cam’s grieving wife. The trip would be over-for all of us. An accidental death would be tragic. It would also be bad for business.

I told Cam to stay out of the chute. I thought I had made myself very clear, but I had underestimated his thick-headedness. A few minutes later I heard him shout “Yahoo!” as he leaped off the canyon wall into the river. Several of our party were fishing in the pool below. They saw Cam come through and disappear underwater for what seemed to them as long as five minutes at the bottom of the chute. They didn’t think he was going to resurface. It was probably less than minute, but in situations like that time seems to slow down. Cam finally came to the surface, uninjured. He was lucky to be alive.

I was steaming mad. If there had been satellite telephones in those days I would have expelled Cam from the trip as soon as I could get a plane there to pick him up. I doubt

that Cam has ever realized how close he came to death that day. He has probably forgotten all about the incident. However, I’ve never forgotten it and I never will.

                                                                                                                      DISCOVERING EDEN

Alex and Lia Hall in Fort Smith, NWT

 Summer 2003         Outfit 113 

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