“THIS CAN’T BE HAPPENING TO ME”


Last week, an elderly couple, experienced canoeists, capsized in Upper Basswood Falls, which straddle the Canadian border, and the 78 year-old man drowned.  His 75 year-old wife made it to the Canadian side.  She heard him say, “I can’t move,” but was unable to help.  I can imagine that.  Ice out was 3 weeks ago, and she probably was hypothermic.

I don’t like Upper Basswood Falls.  Never have.  A couple once left their young daughter at the end of a portage, while they returned to get the remainder of their gear.  She fell in the river, and that was the last time they saw her alive.  I was there on September 12, 2001, and that’s where I first heard the news that the world had changed forever.  In 1991, I did one of the most stupid things I have ever done in the woods.  Solo, I was coming upstream, on the Canadian side, and moved forward in the canoe to deal with the current.  I later learned that there are three things that a solo canoeist cannot manage:  wind, muck, and current.  I was  thrown out of the canoe, without its capsizing.  I found myself suddenly underwater thinking “This can’t be happening,”  usually the first thought people have in these circumstances.  It isn’t a good one. Quetico maps often don’t show portages, and when I went ashore, there was a short carry.  Fortunately, the water was warm, and all that was hurt was my pride.  I could have drowned, because back then I didn’t wear a PFD (Personal Flotation Device), either.  I know that, because I was underwater, which wouldn’t happen with a PFD.  I made two bad decisions and got away with them.  In 40 years of canoeing, it is the only time I dumped.  I’ve worn a zipped up PFD since, for it cannot come off.  The victim was found without one.

Upper Basswood Falls is not a waterfall but a series of falls, and there is a long portage around them.  The Horse Portage, as it is called, is 340 rods (1700 m).   It is longer, should one choose to set in downstream a little further, which I have also done.  The trail is not good, and the put in spot isn’t, either.  But in high water, it is safer.

The couple had reportedly discovered they could paddle Upper Basswood Falls and avoid the Horse Portage. The thought of bypassing the Horse Portage has never crossed my mind, and I’ve paddled 5 miles (8 km) of Class III rapids in the Far North on the Nahanni, a week’s travel from civilization and no way out other than on the river. This information shocked me.  A solid rule in the Boundary Waters-Quetico is never to paddle rapids if a portage exists.  In known high water, with 3 feet of snow on the lakes a month earlier, probable water temperatures of 45-55 F., Upper Basswood is a killer.  The widow isn’t sure whether he scouted the rapids; that means that both of them did not decide together whether to continue.  In any case, he took a different channel from usual, and that was that.

A few people die annually in the Boundary Waters-Quetico from falls or drowning; lightning is another cause.  Rapids must be avoided; further downstream I once tried to dissuade a pair not to run Wheelbarrow Falls.  They asked me to take pictures.  I have some good ones, which first show the pair with no helmets and bare feet.  Not wise.  Then the pictures show the canoe tipping, going broadside, and two guys in the water being taken downstream.  They survived, unscathed.  The canoe was perpendicular to the rapids, full of water.  They said they could handle it, although a canoe full of water weighs about 600 kg.  I later learned they did get the canoe out, before the keel bent and the Grumman became scrap metal.

I told my wife last night I would never stay on shore if I heard her say in the middle of the river, “I can’t move.”

“I’d get you out, or we’d both go together.”  I really meant that.  She reminded me that we have animals.  I reminded her that we have each other.  I wouldn’t live with myself if I did anything less.  But, I said, “I wouldn’t put us in that situation.”  I won’t, and I haven’t.  I hope to be 78 and still canoeing, although I would be exceptionally careful in rivers, high winds, rain, and thunderstorms.   I insist she speak up any time something doesn’t seem right.  That took a while to get her to do, and for me to listen, but we’re better off for it. The man’s widow didn’t know if he had a life jacket on.  If I forgot to put mine on, my wife would tell me.  These are little things, perhaps, but in the woods, as in so many other places, it is the concatenation of little things that produces the disaster.  Was the reason the victim couldn’t move was that he was pinned down?  Would a PFD had prevented it?  We will never know.

Bad things happen.  Some are simply not preventable.  Lightning strikes kill, although if one pitches a tent where there are no tree roots and uses a pad, there is a good chance of avoiding ground currents.  Trees fall;  high winds are frightening, because healthy trees can be suddenly splintered like matchsticks.  I’ve seen it.   I will sleep during a thunderstorm; during high winds, I stay awake listening for the first loud “CRACK,” for once I hear it, we are out of the tent, until the wind dies down.  The BW had a derecho in 1999, wiping out 30 million trees.  Incredibly, nobody was killed.

Fire is another concern, and even small “distant” fires can blow up into monsters, which almost killed a pair in 2011, when the Pagami Creek fire ran 12 miles in a day, and the couple had to turn their canoe over in a river, stay underneath it, breathing the air that was there.  Getting caught in a fire that day was nothing anybody could have foreseen.  The couple survived a freak occurrence by doing the right thing.

I am not afraid to solo.  I did that in April in snow into Angleworm Lake.  Or almost.  The snow got too deep, the trail difficult to find, and the map showed more distance left than I had hoped for.  I didn’t spend time analyzing; I automatically turned around to return to a known dry spot on the trail that I had noted on the way in.  I was fine.  What I told my wife after the trip was simple:  “I think this was the smartest I’ve ever behaved in the woods.”  But being smart just makes the stupid things less likely to occur; freak occurrences and unexpected illnesses are wild cards.

I’m sure some might say that dying in the woods is not the worst way to go.  Maybe.  The problem with dying “doing what you loved,” is that people who love you are left behind, and others often have to put their lives at risk to recover your body.  It is clear if I am ever in the position where death is a real possibility, there is a good chance I did something wrong.  I’d like to think if I got on a river that was unusually high, a lake with huge waves, or a thunderstorm that looked really bad, I would tell my wife we were going to stop to think about our options.  Nature isn’t out to kill us.  Nature just is.  We decide whether we run rapids, deal with waves, lightning, bears, and falling trees.

It’s a real shame what happened.  I never dreamed an elderly couple would shoot the beginning of Upper Basswood in spring.  I’m just filled with sadness, hoping some learning will come from this.

If there is one, only one rule I would tell people in the woods, it is this:  if you aren’t certain what to do, stop immediately and think of your options, remembering the best one likely is to turn back or change what you are doing.  It may be inconvenient and annoying, but you will survive to have those emotions.

If you allowed me a second rule, it would be this:  “Nobody ever drowned on a portage.”

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