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Between a Rock and a Hard Place

A Bad Day on the Rivière Inconnu, Part 1: Setting the Stage

By Tamia Nelson The Riviere Inconnu

September 2, 2014

Danger isn't always where you expect it. Most armchair paddlers ooh and aah when they watch expert boaters negotiate a Class V drop. But both boaters and spectators likely run far greater risks to life and limb at day's end, during the drive home. Still, there's no denying the tremendous power of moving water, and even skilled boaters sometimes come to grief in whitewater rivers. I've certainly had my share of close calls over the years, and one incident in particular stands out in my memory, a near tragedy on a canoe expedition down a wild river in northern Québec. It was, I repeat, a near tragedy. No one died. In fact, no one was seriously injured. But if I hadn't been on the scene, it might have ended very differently.

If that sounds a bit over the top, it isn't. All of us can find ourselves in a position where others' fate rests in our hands. It can happen at any time, without so much as a minute's warning. And this was one of those times. I've alluded to it before in passing, most recently in an article about knives. Several readers later wrote with questions regarding the incident, and in the hope that something can be learned from my experience, I'll be describing it in some detail over the next three weeks.

But first things, first. It's time to introduce …

The Dramatis Personae

There were six of us in four canoes. You already know Farwell and me. We were paddling an Old Town Tripper, a battle‑scarred veteran of many trips down rowdy rivers — and not a few crossings of storm‑tossed lakes. With us were two solo boaters: Tom and Dick. Tom paddled a Kevlar Sawyer boat. He was a master "river pilot," with an enviable knack for reading water, picking his way with apparent ease through rock gardens that often left Farwell and me stranded high and dry in midstream. Dick was another skilled waterman, but his boat was very different from Tom's sleek Sawyer. It was a wood‑canvas Chestnut, whose unblemished paint was a testament to his water‑reading expertise and boat‑handling skill.

Which leaves only Harry and Bertha. Harry was a big guy, something of hard charger. Bertha, his wife, was small and slight and self‑effacing. It could have been a case of beauty and the beast, but both were experienced paddlers with many river miles under their keels, and they worked well together. Their boat was a no‑nonsense Royalex Mad River Explorer.

Farwell and I had known Dick a long time. Harry and Jane had often paddled with Tom. But that spring we kept meeting each other on club outings, and on lunch breaks we'd often talk about wanting to make a summer trip "up North." By the end of the spring whitewater season, it had become our joint goal. And before long we'd set our sights on …

The Rivière Inconnu

No, that's not the name it goes by on the quads, but it will do for the purposes of this narrative. (For that matter, Bertha, Harry, Dick, and Tom go by other names, too.) Anyway, the Rivière Inconnu had it all: wetlands and backwaters that were home to moose and wavies, pristine lakes with fairy‑tale beaches — and more loons than I'd ever seen in one place before — plus rapids that ranged from lively Class II roller‑coasters to challenging Class III obstacle courses to Class IV–V staircases. And since it hadn't yet been written up in any guidebook, we figured we'd have it pretty much to ourselves, or near enough as made no difference.

The fact that the Inconnu couldn't be found on the pages of a guidebook didn't worry us. We knew what we were getting into. To borrow a phrase from the business world, we'd done our due diligence. We pored over maps, read the few historical accounts of the river then available (this was in the years before the Internet made virtual voyaging as easy as clicking a mouse, you understand), and drew up a schedule with an ample margin for rest and recuperation, not to mention summer storms. We also spent most of our free weekends on whatever local river was running high, honing our paddling skills, while our workweek evenings were given over to overhauling gear. In short, we were ready, not to mention willing and able, and the first of August found us dipping our paddles in the Inconnu's headwaters.

Which isn't to say that there weren't a few problems. At the last minute, Bertha and Harry had abandoned their tried‑and‑true dry bags in favor of a single dry box. It was a formidable sight, almost as long as Bertha was tall, but Harry was confident that he could muscle it over any portage, however steep, leaving only a light rucksack for Bertha to haul. He also trusted the manufacturer's assurance that the box was absolutely bombproof, with a totally watertight seal. So confident was Harry that the box would perform as described that he didn't bother putting the ad copywriters' claims to the test. Moreover, he and Bertha planned to rely on their "bombproof" box for flotation in case of a capsize, and to make sure that it wouldn't drift out of the boat at the critical moment, they tethered it to the canoe with steel quick links, each one clipped to an aircraft cable loop that Harry had threaded through the Explorer's slotted wooden gunwales and then swaged closed.

There's no denying that the resulting dry box and cable system was mighty impressive. It also made for lightning‑fast loading and unloading on portages. And Harry wasn't shy about pointing this out. He often poked gentle fun at the crisscross lashings that Farwell and I had long relied on to secure our dry bags and Duluth packs, looking ostentatiously at his watch and musing aloud about the approach of nightfall.

But I'm getting ahead of my story. It was August, and we were on the Rivière Inconnu at last, having been seen off on our journey by swarms of enthusiastic well‑wishers in the guise of blackflies. And at first things went very well, indeed. Yet there were also early signs of …

Rocks and Shoals Ahead

Don't get me wrong. Our "due diligence" had paid off. We were fit. We ate well. And our relaxed schedule allowed plenty of time for fishing, loafing, and bird‑watching. But despite this, Harry wasn't enjoying himself. For a week he stewed in silence. Then he erupted, and a stream of complaint poured out. It seemed that we — and the "we" included everyone in the party except Harry and Bertha, who kept her thoughts on the matter to herself — were moving too slowly. We spent too much time scouting rapids, and we portaged drops that could easily be run. We also lingered too long over breakfast, took overlong lunch breaks, and made camp too early in the day. In short, Harry now wanted to get off the river as quickly as possible, and the schedule be damned.

This outburst didn't come as a complete surprise. It had been obvious almost from the outset that Harry's ginormous dry box was proving something of a millstone. The Rivière Inconnu was no placid stream, and the headwaters were pool‑and‑drop. Portages were frequent and long, and many were choked with logging slash and deadfalls. On more than one occasion, Harry — now impatient to the point of rage — had attempted to jog along the trunk of a fallen tree, rather than struggle through the slash, only to slip and fall. If his legs hadn't met at his crotch, he'd have dropped ten or more feet each time. He didn't, but the landings were still uncomfortably hard, not to mention excruciatingly painful. And needless to say, the 120‑pound‑plus dry box only added injury to insult.

In short, Harry was hurting.

And the rest of us? Well, we got the message. Harry wanted off the river. But we pointed out that we'd all OK'd the schedule beforehand, and that no one except Harry thought scouting Class III+ drops from the seats in our canoes made much sense. Even Bertha had reservations on that score. We then suggested a compromise, agreeing to longer days on the water but keeping to our policy of careful scouting. Harry acquiesced, though it was obvious he wasn't overjoyed. Still, we thought we'd put the problem behind us.

We were mistaken. And we didn't have to wait long to find this out. Scarlett O'Hara may have taken comfort from the fact that "tomorrow is another day," but  …

Our Next Day on the River …

Wasn't a happy one. It began well enough. Harry couldn't fault our leave‑taking. We bolted our breakfasts and hustled to get on the river before the sun had cleared the tops of the trees. But we hadn't gone far before we came to a longish Class III–IV rapid. Following established practice, we eddied out on the right bank to scout. And I was glad we had. The Inconnu poured over a succession of high ledges — a lively diversion for boaters on a day‑trip, perhaps, but a daunting prospect for paddlers in heavily loaded canoes. Farwell and I decided to unload our boat, portage our gear, and then line the empty Tripper down to the pool below the drop. Even this relatively conservative approach proved too risky for Dick and Tom, who opted to team up and double‑carry their unladen boats along the cobble shore, rather than attempting to line them over the ledges. In retrospect, theirs was the wiser course, but Farwell and I were anxious to assuage Harry's growing impatience — too anxious, in fact — and we figured we'd save a few minutes by lining. We also thought it would be safer. The shoreline was rugged (some of the "cobbles" were the size of a refrigerator), and double‑carrying the Tripper through this rocky maze seemed tantamount to inviting a sprained ankle, or worse.

Harry wasn't having any of this. He was fuming at the delay. He wanted to run the drop. It would, he growled, be a "piece of cake." Bertha demurred, however. So Harry, with an almost comical show of reluctance, agreed to line the Explorer down, but he insisted it wouldn't be necessary to unload it. And after entrusting the bow line to Bertha — he'd already wrapped the stern line around his wrist — he suited actions to words, kicking the loaded boat out into the current.

At this point, things started happening very fast. The current grabbed the heavy Explorer and pulled it along at a jogging pace, forcing Harry and Bertha to lurch after it. Though they repeatedly lost their footing on the cobbles, they somehow managed to keep their grip on the lines and guide the loaded boat over the first of the drops. The Explorer took on a lot of water in the reversal below the ledge, though, and each successive drop added to this liquid burden, making control increasingly difficult — and ultimately impossible. The result? The wallowing boat swung broadside on to the current just above the last big drop, nearly pulling Bertha and Harry into the river in the process. (As Harry told the story later, he had all he could do to extricate his wrist before he was jerked off his feet.)

In the map below, adapted from a Canada Map Office quad, the Rivière Inconnu flows from east (right) to west (left). The red arrow marks the spot where Harry and his boat parted company:

The Locus in Quo

The boat was now left to the mercy of the river, and the current hurried it along at ever‑increasing speed until it fetched up hard against a big mid‑river boulder, where it promptly broached. Soon it was wrapped in what had every appearance of a long‑lasting embrace. The red oval on the map above marks the spot, and the schematic drawing below depicts the locus in quo (NB: In this second sketch, contrary to cartographic convention, north lies to the left):

It's a Wrap!

At first, we knew nothing of what had happened. Harry and Bertha had vanished around a bend in the river while we were still unloading our boats. And we were just starting to portage our gear down the cobble shore when we heard our unfortunate companions shout for help. With that, we dropped our packs and scurried off as fast as we could go — stumbling at every second step — dreading what we'd find when we arrived. And sure enough, the sight that greeted our eyes was a melancholy one. Harry and Bertha's Explorer was wrapped around the rock that had halted it in its course, the yellow hull now almost invisible beneath the tannin‑stained water of the Rivière Inconnu. A corner of the dry box was visible, though, and it was still cabled fast to the splintered gunwales. But at least one paddle had floated free. It was heading downriver at a good clip.

Harry and Bertha, on the other hand, were going nowhere. And that's where we'll leave them till next week.

Ride the Wave

No paddler — no sane paddler, anyway — deliberately courts disaster. But trouble has a way of dropping in on us unexpectedly from time to time, and it's just as well to be prepared. Which wasn't exactly the case when near disaster struck my companions and me on the Rivière Inconnu, leaving us between a rock and a hard place. But you can learn from our mistakes, and I hope you will.

I'll pick up the story next time. See you then!


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