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Between a Rock and a Hard Place

A Bad Day on the Rivière Inconnu, Part 3: Making Our Own Luck

By Tamia Nelson Crisis

September 16, 2014

This is the story of a wrap, of the events that led up to it and followed it and of the place in which it happened. If you've read the first volume of Paul Scott's celebrated Raj Quartet, you'll realize that I've pilfered a sentence from that book. I haven't done so for the sake of an unforgivably bad pun, however. I just couldn't think of a better way to introduce this column, the last in a series of three. (You'll find the first and second in the series by clicking on the highlighted links.)

Anyway, when the narrative broke off last week, I was standing on the stony shore of the Rivière Inconnu, watching Farwell and two companions working to free a wrapped canoe from a mid‑river rock, and struggling to make sense of what I was seeing. Then, barely audible above the incessant roar of rushing water, I heard three voices united in a single frantic cry: "Cut the line!" At the time, I had no idea what had happened. But there was no mistaking the urgency in the shouted plea. So I tossed my PFD over the painter to dampen the inevitable backlash and sliced through the wire‑taut line in a single stroke, thankful that my sheath knife was always within easy reach. Three things then happened simultaneously, or near enough as made no difference. The painter parted with a crack that would have done justice to a short‑barreled .308, my PFD was flung off into the blue, and the mangled canoe pivoted away from the rock and shot downriver.

A few minutes later, Farwell and his two companions — you may remember that I've christened them Harry and Dick — staggered out of the water, having formed a clumsy human tripod in order to negotiate the swift current on their by now unsteady legs. Meanwhile, Tom (another member of our group, who you've also met before) waited patiently in the pool below the rapids, ready to use his little Sawyer to shepherd Harry's sorely tried Explorer (or what was left of it) back to shore.

Having made certain that none of the three would‑be salvors was seriously hurt, I fired up my Optimus 111B to boil water for a large billy of tea, while Bertha (Harry's wife) continued draping the sodden garments recovered from their bombproof — but not, alas, waterproof — dry box on the branches of some scrubby spruce, in the hope that at least a few articles of clothing would be wearable by nightfall. (We soon had a driftwood fire going. That hurried things along.) And then the six of us began the job of putting things to rights. Our first concern?

The Butcher's Bill

Back in the days of iron men and wooden ships, this terse tag identified the roster of casualties after a naval battle. In an age when trauma care typically began and ended with amputation, and anesthesia was limited to tots of rum, the butcher's bill was aptly named, and it often made disheartening reading. But we were lucky. While all of the sodden salvors suffered from mild hypothermia, a rub‑down with a dry towel, a change of clothes, and several cups of hot, sweet tea were the only medicines they needed. Since every stitch of Harry's spare clothing was now soaked, however, the rest of us had to raid our own packs to outfit him, and the harlequin ensemble that resulted did little to restore his badly bruised ego. He was our only real casualty, too, though his injuries were relatively minor: A slightly sprained wrist, a badly bruised knee, and several lacerated fingers exhausted the list.

That was the good news. The bad news was laid out on the cobbles. To begin with, Harry and Bertha's Mad River Explorer now had a buckled hull, a short tear in a deep crease on the beam, splintered gunwales, and sprung thwarts. One of their two spare paddles had also floated away, not to mention Harry's fly rod and reel. (We found the spare paddle about a mile downriver, but the fly rod was gone for good.) And the litany of losses only got longer when the contents of the "bombproof" dry box were inventoried. Harry's high‑end SLR and his battery of three professional‑grade lenses were all waterlogged beyond redemption, despite being in a dry bag inside the dry box. He'd lost a dozen rolls of exposed color film, into the bargain. To make matters worse, their sleeping bags were soaked, as was much of their food. If it hadn't been for handouts from the rest of us, they'd have been on very short rations, indeed.

It was a hard blow for them to weather, both financially and personally. But the spectacle of the crippled canoe was the saddest sight of all. This was what greeted Harry when his boat was hauled ashore:


At first, we all thought it was a total loss. But Royalex boats had a well‑deserved reputation for bouncing back from abuse — it's too bad that I have to use the past tense here — and Harry's Explorer was no exception to this rule. A vigorous stomping restored it to something like its original shape, and lavish applications of duct tape did the rest. Even the splintered gunwales proved amenable to duct‑tape and spruce‑branch joinery. The resulting craft was surprisingly seaworthy, too, though it was no longer up to the stresses and strains of Class III whitewater. (Harry later arranged to have it repaired at the factory.)

So far, so good. But the butcher's bill was only part of the story. There were …

Other, Less Tangible, Losses

We all suffered from a sort of shell‑shock, and the day had done nothing to improve Harry's already sour outlook. Before his boat had come to grief, he'd already been in a fever to get to the logging town that marked the end of our trip. Now he just wanted out, as quickly as possible, and a rail crossing some miles downriver offered him the best chance. (Though there was no station at the crossing, the bush train would stop if flagged down.) But the scheduled service was infrequent, and if we missed the train — it was due at the river crossing on the next day — there wouldn't be another for nearly a week. The upshot? We were facing a marathon 24‑hour dash to get Harry and Bertha to the crossing in time. Needless to say, our group wasn't on the happiest of terms, especially as this meant that Tom would also be leaving, since he'd traveled up from New York with Harry and Bertha.

For a while, it seemed certain that the party was over. But even though the most challenging water still lay ahead, Farwell and I wanted to see the trip out, and Dick felt the same way. So after we put Harry, Bertha, and Tom on the train — there was no mistaking Harry's relief when the engine came into view — the three of us continued on downriver in two boats. And we had a great time.

What can be learned from our experience? Well, perhaps the most important lesson lies in recognizing Nemesis' role in human affairs. Hubris — overconfidence that borders on arrogance — seldom goes unpunished. Muscle can't hope to prevail against the force of moving water. A paddler must work with the river. Gravity isn't open to negotiation, and nature doesn't give any quarter to fools.

That said, where exactly did we go wrong? Note the "we." It's true that I've laid much of the blame for what happened at Harry's door. And there's no doubt that his impatience and stubbornness contributed to the debacle that ensued. But there was …

Plenty of Blame to Go Round

Let's take a look at some of the mistakes we made, beginning with our …

Failure to Find Common Ground.  Yes, we agreed a schedule in advance. But it was clear almost from the outset that Harry was unhappy with the pace of the trip, and his impatience increased with every passing day, as fatigue and frustration took their toll. Backcountry travel — particularly travel off the well‑trodden tourist trail — involves irreducible elements of uncertainty and (often) no small measure of discomfort. It's important that everyone understands this, and that each member of the group is prepared to weather the inevitable setbacks and disappointments with sangfroid. If you shy at the first fence, after all, you're not likely to complete the course. And you'll never know what you've missed.

Which brings us to the thorny subject of leadership — of who will be first among a party of equals. Leadership plays a vital part in shaping common goals and resolving conflicts, not to mention its importance in maintaining group morale. But we had …

No Acknowledged Leader.  A leader is essential when strangers paddle together. Yet even groups of friends would do well to agree in advance which of their number will assume ultimate responsibility when difficult decisions must be made. Failing that, the group must at the very least decide on a mechanism for resolving any disputes that may arise, from the most trivial ("What's for dinner?") to the most fraught ("Should we run this drop, or portage around it?"). Relying solely on mutual goodwill and ad hoc decision‑making is asking for trouble.

Of course, if the leader is a dolt or an incompetent, nothing is gained (and much may be lost). In fact, competence and good judgment are essential attributes for any paddler who hopes to venture beyond Golden Pond. Moreover, good judgment entails knowing the limits of your competence. And nowhere is this more important than in emergencies. Sadly, this is another area where our party failed to measure up. In short, we …

Lacked Essential Skills.  Don't get me wrong. We were all experienced whitewater paddlers with many hundreds of river miles under our keels, comfortable in open boats in Class III–IV rapids. And Harry was arguably the best paddler in the group. We all had plenty of backcountry camping experience, too. But none of us had practiced salvage operations in truly difficult water. We'd helped to recover others' boats on local outings, to be sure, but we'd never given the matter of wilderness salvage and rescue the thought it deserved, let alone mastered the intricacies of such techniques as the Z‑drag. That said, formal instruction in whitewater rescue was rare at the time, and most boaters picked up the tricks of the trade as they went along. Or they didn't. We hadn't, and while I had some practical experience — and a fair amount of training — in mountain rescue, I didn't bring these skills to bear on the river. Instead, I deferred to Harry, as the owner of the boat. I shouldn't have.

In any event, Harry's salvage plan — to which we all assented — was an invitation to disaster. Not only did the scheme have us working against the current — the line to the shore should have been tied off to the bow of the boat, and our efforts to free the hull should have concentrated on easing the stern — but it placed all three salvors between the boat and the rock at the critical moment. I'm sure I don't have to remind any reader that this was madness. We were very lucky.

It would have been better not to have had to depend on luck, however. And if Harry had been happier with the way the trip was going, we might not have needed to have luck on our side. But Harry violated one of the fundamental rules of backcountry travel:

Never Rely on Untested Gear!  And we all paid the price for this mistake. Unfortunately, Harry was infatuated with his new "bombproof" dry box. So smitten was he, in fact, that he never troubled to test its seal. Nor did he anticipate how awkward a burden it would prove on unmaintained portage trails — trails often littered with logging slash. If he had, he'd have enjoyed himself more and been in less of hurry to get the trip over. Which would have made our recovery operation unnecessary.

And if his boat had still come to grief? Well, at least his camera would have survived.

That's a long list of faults and shortcomings, and it's still far from complete. But at least we did a few things right. We put aside our differences in order to work together when the need was greatest. We had ample stocks of repair materials* and good medical kits. And we planned ahead for possible emergencies, right down to making a note of the days and times when we could expect a train at the river crossing. Which made things a lot easier for Harry and Bertha when they decided to pull out of the trip, taking Tom with them.

That just about wraps things up. The bottom line? If you find yourself between a rock and hard place, it's good to know you can count on your companions. But it's better by far to avoid putting yourself in harm's way in the first place, isn't it?


Making your own luck is easier than it sounds. It begins with meticulous planning. That's only the start, however. You also have to learn from your mistakes. Which is what we tried to do after we found ourselves between a rock and a hard place on the Rivière Inconnu. But you don't want to wait till you've got a wire‑taut rope pressing against your throat, do you? And if you've kept us company for the last three weeks, you won't have to.

Be lucky. It's worth the effort.

* The linked "Practical Paddler" article has an abbreviated version of the story I've been telling for the last three weeks, and careful readers will notice some discrepancies in the two accounts. You can put this down to the mutability of memory, if you like. Or you can ascribe the elisions in the earlier article to my desire to spare Farwell the ignominy of "looking like a [expletive deleted] idiot." (Those are his words, not mine.) Take your choice.


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