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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

What Happens Next?

On the Riverbank —
When You and Your Canoe Part Company

By Tamia Nelson

September 13, 2005

Canoeing can mean drifting languidly across a glassy lake under a smiling sun. But it doesn't always work out that way, does it? Swamping and capsizing are part of almost every canoeist's life. Of course, most capsizes are little more than minor interruptions in the day's fun. Your partner ends up standing beside you. Together you retrieve your boat from the shoreline eddy that caught it, bail the water out, and then move on. But not every sudden swim ends this way, even when you're adventuring close to home. Sometimes a capsize leaves you alone on the riverbank, battered and bewildered and wondering what happens next. In cases like these, it helps to have a plan of action. So let's draw one up, beginning with the first question that's likely to be on your mind:

Where'd Everybody Go?

Is your partner nowhere to be seen? Have the other boats in your group disappeared around the next bend in the river? Don't panic. First, catch your breath. If you're cold, get out of the wind. Build a fire if you need to (and if the fire danger is low). Then check yourself over from head to toe. Are all your vital bits intact and working as designed? If not, put things right — right now. In the shocky aftermath of a spill, it's easy to miss a gash on your hand or a sprained ankle — until you notice the sticky feel of a blood-filled glove, that is, or until you have to walk somewhere. This is where the first-aid supplies in your life jacket pocket will earn their keep. And while you're giving yourself a clean bill of health, sound your whistle. You DO have a whistle, don't you? You should. Blow three long blasts. Stop to listen for an answering signal. Repeat. Scan your surroundings, too. (A compact, waterproof monocular can pay big dividends here.) No luck? Then search the riverbank on foot as soon as you're able, but remember to keep your PFD zipped up. If you slide down a cutbank into the water, you'll be glad you did.

Still no luck? Then you're on your own. If there's a road nearby, help is likely no more than an hour away. And if not? I hope you made good use of your life jacket pockets. Having the Ten Essentials at your fingertips can make all the difference in a worst-case scenario. A knife, matches (or a butane lighter), a compass, a map, first-aid supplies, some high-energy food, a small bottle of water purification tablets — these are truly essential tools for wilderness living. If you have them all in your pockets, you can make yourself comfortable almost anywhere. If not, though, you'll find that even a single day in a wilderness paradise can be a hardship tour.


Sounds pretty bleak, right? It is. But it really is a worst-case scenario. Chances are good that your friends won't be far away, and that you'll be together again in just a few minutes. Then, once you've linked up,…

Check Each Other Out

You've already given yourself the once-over, I know, but it doesn't hurt to get an outside opinion, does it? So check your buddies out, and have them look you over, too, following the examination protocol outlined in any good wilderness medical text. Be alert for signs of hypothermia, and be particularly wary of any head injuries. Pool first-aid supplies as needed to deal with any problems.

Everyone OK? Then you'll want to….

Gather Up the Pieces

If your boat hasn't been captured by a nearby eddy, you'll have to search for it. Search upstream as well as down. And don't give up too easily. It's worth the effort. In all likelihood, your gear will still be in your boat, protected by tightly lashed waterproof bags, while the boat itself will have enough flotation to come through all but the worst drops with nothing more than a few scratches. Find the boat and you've found your gear. Your trip is back on track. (What's that? You didn't take the trouble to lash your packs in place or supplement your boat's factory flotation? Then you've got a genuine treasure hunt ahead of you.)

But what if a midstream rock has claimed your canoe? Broached boats are bad news, no doubt about it. Occasionally, all that's needed to free a canoe from the river's grasp is a single well-aimed shove (or tug). More often, though, it takes a team effort to unstick a boat from a rock, as well as a good deal of technical know-how. And it can be a dangerous job. The basic principles are simple enough, to be sure: make the river work for you and take NO unnecessary risks. But theory is one thing and practice is another. Salvaging boats — and rescuing stranded boaters — is anything but straightforward. This is one place where there's just no substitute for expert, hands-on instruction. My advice? Get it before you need it.


Once you and your partner have recovered your boat and gear, it's time to talk. The subject? That's an easy one. It's…

The Plan, Boss!

Sometimes this is obvious. If your boat's in good shape and you've got all your gear, and if nobody's any the worse for wear, you're ready to pick up right where you left off. But a damaged boat, a missing food bag, or a broken arm complicates things, particularly if you're deep in the backcountry. Deteriorating weather adds to the uncertainties. (Late-season trips that take you far from the tourist track are particularly challenging. There's very little margin for error.)

If in doubt, therefore, give yourself a breathing space. Make camp. It doesn't have to be anything elaborate. A canoe shelter will do fine. Fire up the stove. Boil the kettle for a hot cup of tea or coffee. Make a pot of soup. Then, when you're warm, dry, and well-fed, talk over your options and decide on a plan. And follow through.

Speaking of following through: Did your boat suffer while it was in the river's embrace? No problem. Riverbank camps are also good places for…

Make and Mend

A well-stocked repair kit has saved a lot of trips. You don't have to make your boat as good as new, of course. You just need to get it in shape to get you back on the river. If it keeps the water out and goes where you want it to go, that's good enough.


And what do you do if you can't put the pieces back together? If your only boat is lost, say, or if someone's too badly injured to travel. In cases like these, you'd better be ready with…

Plan B

That's B as in "Bail Out." Once again, it's what you do before you leave home that matters most. To begin with, file a float plan. Then you only need to stay put and wait for help. And if staying put isn't an option? Even on a day trip, it's a good idea to map out several escape routes that will get a paddler back to civilization in the shortest possible time. If your trip takes you so far into the bush that "short" means days or weeks of hard traveling, however, you may want to consider an electronic assist. Cell phones don't count, by the way. They may be great on the Interstate, but they can't be depended on in the backcountry, even in the near wilderness to be found in much of the lower 48. The alternative? A Personal Locator Beacon. It won't be cheap, but in a hard chance it just might make the difference between life and death. If you often travel off the beaten track, you may decide it's worth it.

The best preparation for really bad days on the water can't be bought off the shelf, however, and it doesn't need any batteries. It's what you have between your ears. Knowledge is power, they say, and they're right. In this case, it's the power to save your trip, or maybe even your life — or the life of a friend. I've already mentioned the value of expert instruction in river rescue and salvage. Add wilderness medicine to the list. And don't forget boat handling. The very best way to cope with trouble is to avoid it in the first place, after all, and good boat control is key here. You don't even have to take a course. If you paddle with experienced companions and listen to what the river is telling you, every trip sharpens your judgment and adds to your store of knowledge. So does practice in a farm pond or swimming pool near home. Best of all, it's fun.

Let's get this straight. There ain't no magic bullet to cure misfortune. To paraphrase Tolstoy, all happy trips resemble one another, but every unhappy trip is unhappy in its own way. Try as you might, you can't cope with every worst-case scenario. There's nowhere near enough room in any boat for all the gear you'd need, for one thing. Still, you can do a whole lot with very little. More often than not, a few tools (first-aid kits for both yourself and your boat, say, along with plenty of rope and a saw or ax), a fully operational brain-housing group, and a plan of action are all it takes to turn a bad day on the water into a good story around the dinner table. And isn't that the best answer to "What happens next?"

Copyright 2005 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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