Up River Without A Paddle (or My Campers) – A Tale of Rapids and a Not So Rapid Rescue

Spruce trees and a red canoe, reflected in the watre

On the surface, this is a story of one mistake, two tipped canoes, two lost paddles, five sets of tears and six hours of river rescue. But at its core, this is a story of calculated risk taking, instinctive responsiveness and a call to action for the wilderness enthusiasts among us. This is the tale of Greenhill Rapids, and a not so rapid rescue.

Welcome to the Missinaibi River

Our story starts at the Missinaibi River, a Canadian icon that most Canadians have never heard of. The river’s source is the powerful and unforgiving Lake Superior, the largest freshwater lake in the world. However, the river itself begins a little north at Missinaibi Lake. From here, the river cuts through the province of Ontario, snaking its way to the even more powerful and even less forgiving James Bay.

My group would paddle the entire length of the Missinaibi River, a total of 520 km, over 22 days.

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Hello Greenhill Rapids

It was early July, and early into our paddle down the Missinaibi River, that we came to Greenhill Rapids. Greenhill is a series of rapids occurring over approximately 1.2 kilometers. The river winds and the river bends, preventing the paddler from ever seeing more than a few hundred meters in front of them.

There are roughly three parts to Greenhill Rapids. The first is a mean Class III rapid with big waves and lots of water. The second part is a Class II rapid where the river narrows with steep cliffs on either side. Here the waves are smaller, but the current is faster. Finally, Greenhill ends with the third part, a smooth Class I rapid that is easy to paddle.

(If you aren’t familiar with different classes of rapids, check out my post A Beginner’s Guide to Scouting Rapids.)

At the very end of the third part is a large pool of very slow moving water. This is characteristic to many rivers in Ontario; Drop & Pool rivers have big rapids or waterfalls (the drop) and then stretches of calm, barely moving water (the pool).

For a lot of groups, Greenhill Rapids is considered too challenging and they opt to portage around it instead. The portage is a grueling 1.4 km trail that no one willfully chooses. But when you have to portage, you have to portage and there’s no use complaining about it.

However, when my co-tripper, Dan, and I scouted the portage, we realized that it might actually be more difficult (and dangerous) to do the portage. I only made it 500 m into the portage before I was up to my mid-thighs in mud. I was skeptical my smallest campers would be able to walk the portage, let alone carry a food barrel or canoe.

Scouting the rapids

Dan and I turned back and began to scout the rapid. We could see that there were no holes or strainers throughout the rapid. A hole occurs when water moves over an obstacle, like a large rock, and circles back on itself. If caught in a hole, it takes strong swimmer with an understanding of hole dynamics to escape. Strainers occur when there is something in the water that lets water through, but would trap a human or canoe. These are dangerous features in the water and if they are present I never run the rapid with campers (and often wouldn’t myself).

Since there were no dangerous features in the water, I was comfortable with my campers paddling it. My campers had the skills to paddle the Class II and Class I sections – it was just the Class III section that we were uncertain about. If they fell out, there were places they could swim to shore, or worst case, they could ride the rapid out.

We could see from the shore that there was a large bend in the river between the Class III section and the Class II section. Here, the boats could pull to the shore and we could all regroup together before continuing down the rapid. Dan and I spent more than an hour scouting the rapid.

The following considerations made us choose to run the rapid over doing the portage:

  • The portage was unsafe
  • There were no features in the water which were dangerous to the campers (that is, a competent swimmer familiar with swimming in rapids could realistically float down the river and be completely fine)
  • It was midday, sunny but not too hot; campers were well energized
  • All the campers were comfortable running the rapid

Running the rapids

Dan and I set up the necessary safety measures. He was at the start of the rapid to ensure the campers went down one at a time, I was at the bottom of the Class III portion to guide the campers to the shore. I stood with a rope ready to toss in should the campers go swimming.

The first four boats went by without incident.

The last boat, however, tipped just as it was leaving the rapid and making its way to shore. The campers swam to the shore and we all had a laugh. Since there was a pool at the bottom of the rapid without much current, we knew we would catch up to the canoe eventually. I was just happy the campers were having fun and on the shore.

So all of us were at the end of the Class III section laughing. All of us except Dan, that is. He was making his way down along the shore and yelled to me. “That boat has the Satellite Phone”.

The mistake

This was our one mistake. I had switched canoes with a camper before going down the rapid. We’d remembered to switch the First Aid Kit into my boat, but we’d forgotten to switch the Satellite Phone. I was 95% certain the Satellite Phone was strapped into the canoe. I always strapped it in.

But if I was wrong, if we lost the satellite phone, we would not have any way to contact camp or emergency services for the remaining 18 days. I had to retrieve that boat. ASAP.

Thinking fast, I called on our strongest camper Adam and we began going down the second part of the rapid. I hadn’t scouted this section of the rapid well enough to know what route to take down, I’d only checked for obstacles. With my heart racing and the paddle firm in my hands, I navigated down the Class II with a ferocity I’d never paddled with before.

The Class II had a bend in the middle of it. Right after the bend, Adam and I found the boat. The boat was upside down and caught on a rock (in canoeist jargon we would refer to the canoe as being “pinned” on the rock). Since we didn’t want the boat to continue down the rapid without us, we first secured the boat to a tree using a long rope and several carabiners. Second, we freed the canoe from the rock and let it swing to the shore. Once the boat was on the shore and secure, I checked the boat. The Satellite Phone was attached. Everything was fine.

A series of unfortunate events

Adam and I didn’t have much time to celebrate our success. We saw the other three boats coming down the rapid. Since one of the boats was tied to a tree and didn’t have any campers in it, two of the oncoming boats had to have three people in them instead of two. Three people in a canoe makes the canoe very tippy. And of course, one of the canoes with three campers in it tipped. Great.

As I said, there was nothing dangerous in this river. The waves were big but my campers had practiced swimming in big waves before. The best thing the campers in the water could have done would be to swim down the rapids, keep their feet up and enjoy the ride. I would come down and meet them at the bottom.

In theory, this makes sense. But when you’re 15 and suddenly plunged into a rapid, nothing makes sense. Everything is scary and panic starts to sink in. I can still remember each of their faces as they passed by my boat. Pure terror.

As soon as I saw the boat tip, Adam and I were in the water again paddling after them. With this tipped boat, I could say “screw it” because nothing important was in it. Actually, everything important that had been in the boat was now flailing around in the water. My only priority was getting my campers out of the rapid.

I knew there was no way to get them out of the water myself. The current was too fast and there was no where to stop our canoe. Instead, Adam and I paddled backwards to slow our boat as we went down the rapid. I only had about 15 seconds before we’d be through this section of rapids. I called out the campers, telling them to keep their feet up and get to shore when they could.

Thankfully, all three of them were able get to shore. To my later inconvenience, they all ended up at different areas of the shoreline. By the time they were there, Adam and I were through the section of the rapid. We were now at the slow moving part in between the Class II and Class I sections. There was also a flat piece of land for us to pull up the canoe. Adam stayed on land with the boat while I began wading my way along the shoreline up river.

Canoe shuttle to the rescue

Once above the narrow section of river, I found Dan and the other campers on the shoreline. Everyone was scared; one girl was having an anxiety attack. My co-guide was panicked.

First, I talked down the anxious camper. Reassurance and deep breaths go a long way. Second, I coached the campers on how to follow the shoreline down to the bottom of the Class II section of the rapid. “See where Adam is there? Just follow the shoreline to him and stay there. We will be back shortly.”

I turned to my co-guide. “Dude, stop panicking. Everyone is scared, but they are safe. Get it together and let’s get everyone down to the end of the rapid.”

I often think about the events that followed this moment. Up until this point I had been go-go-go. Instinctive decision making. Now I could slow down and think about my next few moves.

I took a deep breath and scanned my surroundings. I had four campers walking along the narrow, rocky shoreline to meet Adam. I looked across the river. Two of my campers had found each other. They were huddled together and crying, but they were safe. I looked further up river and found one camper, wading through the water trying to get to the shore. Alone and in the water. She is the first priority.

“Dan, get in the boat and get us across the river to Ashley.” We hopped in the boat and with some of the best paddling either of us have ever done, crossed the rapid to the other side of the river. By the time we crossed, Ashley was at the canoe I’d attached to the tree. Once we reached her, she erupted in tears. Again, reassurance and deep breaths go a long way. Also hugs.

We freed the canoe from the tree, all hopped in and Dan and I shuttled Ashley to the campers below. Perfect. I now had six of eight campers together.

Dan and I left the canoe where with the six campers and began walking up the shoreline. Once at the top, we retrieved the boat tied to the tree and paddled to the two remaining campers. “Walk down to the end of the rapid and we will meet you there.”

Dan and I met the campers at the end of the rapid and shuttled them to the six other campers who were waiting on the other side of the river.

Goodbye Greenhill Rapids

With all eight campers and all five canoes in roughly the same area, I let out a huge sign of relief. Everyone was safe. After a short debrief with the group, it was time to assess the damage and get on our way.

All of out gear was accounted for, but for two paddles. The girls who had tipped were pretty shaken and not able to paddle. We still had the Class I section, but after that there was only a few hundred meters to a campsite we could use.

Dan and I tied a rope connecting our boat with another one so we could tow it. Then we had the three girls each sit in the middle of three different boats. Even though the rapid was relatively easy, it was difficult to navigate with an entire canoe being towed behind us.

Soon enough, however, we were through the rapid and only about a hundred meters from the campsite. Suddenly, without any warning, the sky opened up and released the heaviest downpour of rain.

It was the kind of moment which either makes or breaks your spirit. I could either collapse into the exhaustion hidden right beneath my positive attitude, or I could embrace it. “Bring it on, world! We just survived Greenhill! Nothing can break our spirits now!”

One of my campers, the one we’d rescued from across the river, erupted into tears. Despite the loud pounding of rain, I could hear her laughing. Have you ever been so exhausted, so frustrated and tired and done with all the shit that you laugh and cry in equal measure? I couldn’t help but laugh too.

And as suddenly as it had started, the rain stopped. We pulled up to the campsite.

The aftermath

We had the campers set up their tents, remove all their wet clothing and get into their tents. Most of their gear was dry. A few, however, learned a valuable lesson about closing their dry sacks properly. Thankfully I am a serious over-packer when it comes to canoe guiding, so I was able to dress all of them in my own fleece and flannel. Once warm and dry, we instructed the campers to relax in the tent and rest.

Dan and I, on the other hand, were just getting started. I quickly assembled our tent. He began boiling water on the stove. Together we made the most hearty bowl of soup, full of vegetables and lentils and we even added dehydrated potato to make it creamy. We delivered the food to the campers and had a full team debrief. This is an important part of being a canoe guide, specifically when you lead children. An incident like this can really shake someone up, so Dan and I needed to ensure each camper was coping well and knew they could speak to us about anything.

Next Dan and I called camp. We replayed the incident to our supervisors. We told them we were taking an impromptu rest day tomorrow. Following the phone call, we checked in on the campers again. They were all together in one tent playing card games, happy.

I let out another huge sign of relief, now realizing just how tired and cold I was. I changed into my own warm clothing, hopped into the tent and together Dan and I began filling out our daily trip report. One thing still lingered in my mind: we were missing two paddles. We had brought a spare, but that still left one camper without a paddle. It’d be a long paddle to Moosonee without enough paddles. While thinking about our options, I fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.

The next day Dan and I paddled the surrounding area searching for our lost paddles. We didn’t find them, however, we did find another paddle resting high on the river bank. Whoever this paddle belonged to must have had a similar encounter with Greenhill Rapids. The paddle was extremely tall – only Dan was tall enough to paddle with it – but it was a paddle nonetheless and it would do the trick.

The lesson

I started this story saying it was a tale of calculated risk taking and a call to action for wilderness enthusiasts. My wilderness medicine training did play an integral role in the series of events which played out (and is probably the reason no one was injured). But as I read this story again, I realize this is a tale of family and courage, trust and perseverance. I thought this would be a story about me and my wilderness rescue ability, but I realize now that’s nothing to write about. I’m a canoe guide – while I’m incredibly proud of myself for how I handled this incident, that was the expectation. It is my job to handle these things. It is my job to take any challenge thrown my way and respond with determination and positive attitude.

Instead, I’m coming to realize, I’m proud of my campers. They went through something traumatic on the fourth day of a month long canoe trip. And they kept going. That’s something to be proud of.

Note: Some names have been changed. All of these photos are from the Missinaibi River, but not from Greenhill Rapids. I was sort of too busy to take photos 😛


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