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
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
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?"
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