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Bending Branches

River Angels

By Cliff Jacobson

Mid-summer on your favorite river. High water, low water, or inbetween. No matter; you know every curve and obstacle by heart. There are no surprises, or so you think...

Round the bend you see the dancing horsetails of "the rapid". A straightforward s-curve at any water level, you know just where to run it. A crossdraw at the bow, followed by a stern pry, sets up the turn. Deep down, pangs of conscience tell you to check the pitch from shore before you run it. But you arrogantly dismiss the warning and plunge confidently ahead.

Beyond the shallows are the two rocks which mark the vee of the safe water course. You're on automatic pilot now; just follow the run-out to the bottom, turn right, and you're home free.

Then, you see it -- a half-submerged sapling which blocks the way. "Back!" You call. But it is too late. The canoe spins suddenly sideways, swamps and over-turns. The water is barely two feet deep but there is enough power in the determined current to wrap the golden Kevlar hull around a mid-stream boulder. The muffled cracking sound you hear indicates the canoe is breaking up. Safe on shore, you and your partner helplessly watch the scene unfold.

Seconds later, it is over and you begin the painful process of extracting the remains of your canoe from the clutches of the rock. Fortunately, the craft is intact, though hours of repair work lie ahead. The pride of your fleet is now a "working" boat.

You don't have to search far to find the right words to describe your experience. "Stupid" comes immediately to mind, and it sticks. After all, even a well-read novice knows better than to run a rapid without first checking it. Blame your bow partner, if you like: some stern paddlers do. But your peers know the truth. God, do they know!

The irony is that you were warned about the dangers of this drop. Deep in your subconscious came the gentle voice of your river angel: "Stop and check this rapid," she whispered softly. But you turned aside deaf ears and now you've paid the price!

Fantasy? Not at all. It happened to me just that way on an easy Canadian river I'd paddled five times before. Then, one month later, on my fourth descent of Saskatchewan's Fond du Lac River, I was tested once again. The "always canoeable" Class III rapid was etched clearly in my mind: Begin far right, clear the narrow chute below, then pivot quickly upstream and ferry across to river left. Just before crashing the bank, turn down current and catch the yard wide slot near shore. High water makes the run easier, but it can be done if there is any downstream flow.

Still smarting from the hurt of wrapping my Mad River Explorer earlier that summer, I decided to walk the right bank and check for obstacles in the ferry path. There were none. However, to see the negotiable slot on river left, I'd have to ferry across river, disembark, then walk 200 yards on precarious boulders. Why mess around for 30 minutes to ascertain what I already knew? Hadn't I faithfully walked the right shore and satisfied the need for caution? After all, I'd safely run this rapid three times before. Further checking would surely be a waste of time.

Or would it? In a far corner of my mind, I heard the muffled cry of my river angel. Should I heed the call and take time to scout? Longingly, I stared at the blind spot which marked what had always been a "clear" channel. Then suddenly, I understood. Time be damned! I would not run this rapid until I checked the chute from the far shore.

Dutifully, I ferried across the prancing rapid and tied up to the gnarled bole of a wind-beaten spruce. Expecting the obvious, I numbly boulder-hopped to the final drop, confident I was in for no surprise. Then I saw it--a two inch trickle of water marked the vee of the "always canoeable" chute. Horrified at what might have been, I played out the scenario in my mind. Coming out of the fast forward ferry, we'd spin downstream into nothingness and capsize in the heavy water which pounded the boulder line below. There simply was not enough water for a clean run!

Silently I thanked my river angel for her warning, then humbly lined the rapid.

In my travels on the wild rivers of the far north, I've always had a river angel to warn me of dangers which lie ahead. If I listen carefully and heed the cry, I am always brought through safely. If not, I can expect to pay a heavy price. Sometimes, my angel tests me with viable options. Should I attempt the difficult "sneak" on the right, ride the chest-high rollers at center, or take the chicken route and portage? These tests are to see if I'm listening well enough to consider all options, including the skill level of the weakest member of my crew.

I've found that my river angel speaks loudest on rivers I haven't done before. On these, I listen best and so always choose the safest route. Repeat runs, however, require more concentration because her voice is confused by my knowledge of what "I think" lies ahead.

Everyone has a guardian angel to protect him or her from the dangers of the river. But to interpret what she is saying about a rapid you've run many times before, you must listen carefully or you will not hear.

Cliff Jacobson is a professional canoe guide and outfitter for the Science Museum of Minnesota, a wilderness canoeing consultant, and the author of more than a dozen top-selling books on camping and canoeing.

Cliff's Books & DVD's Available from

- Boundary Waters Canoe Camping
- Expedition Canoeing
- Forgotten Skills DVD
- From Here to There: Canoe Basics DVD

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