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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Worst-Case Scenario

Plan to Survive!

By Tamia Nelson

June 1, 2004

You tell yourself that it's only a short drop. No more than three feet. A smooth tongue of water — a classic "chute" — will carry you and your canoe safely through to the pool below.

Still, you've got a few doubts. So you back-paddle, ferrying from shore to shore as you eyeball the drop from above. Not far upstream, a gravel beach invites you to pull out and scout. But you don't. The sun's low, you've already humped your gear over three sweaty portages, and you'd like to camp on a sandy spit that you know you'll find on the lake just round the next bend in the river. You're tired. It's been a long day. And you're alone. This is a solo trip. There's no one to argue your call.

Piece of cake, you tell yourself. No sweat. You line up on the tongue, relax, and let the river take the boat. The bow clears the ledge and thrusts momentarily into empty air. Just as the canoe begins to slide down, though, you notice the boulder half-concealed in the foam below. I shoulda…! you think. But it's already too late for should-haves.

The next few seconds seem to last forever. You hear a loud Crack! and see green water coming over the gunwale. Suddenly, you're swimming. No, that's not right. You're not really swimming. You're being tossed around like a sneaker in a washing machine. Your head's under water more often than it's out, and you're beginning to think you'll never get a chance to breathe. Then there's a second Crack!. You don't hear this one, though. You can't. The roar of falling water overpowers all other sounds. You feel it, instead. And a ribbon of liquid fire shoots up your leg.

Now you can't think of anything but the pain. A dark curtain drops over your eyes. You open your mouth to scream and.… You can breath! Moreover, you've stopped tumbling. You're leaning against something warm and firm. The pent-up scream comes rushing out at last, and a startled duck springs noisily into the air. You.gasp. You gag. And despite the warmth of the sun — the sun! — you start to shiver. But you know that you aren't going to drown. The river spat you out.

Which brings you back to the pain. You try to push away from whatever it is that you're leaning against, but you only slide sideways. A second ribbon of fire runs up your leg. Now you realize that you aren't leaning on anything. There's nothing propping you up. You're lying on your side on a tiny beach. So you roll over onto your stomach and crawl away from the sound of the river. You discover that your paddle is still in your left hand. You hang on to it and continue to crawl. Soon your way is blocked by a tangle of driftwood, a legacy of this year's spring floods. You don't mind, though. Your matchsafe is still in your life-jacket pocket, and you figure a fire would feel mighty good right now.

It does. After you warm up, you take stock. It's a little bit discouraging. Your boat's nowhere to be seen. Your right leg hurts like hell, and it won't bear any weight. Worse yet, it's starting to puff up, just above the ankle. You think it's probably broken. And night is falling.

You're not without resources, though. You've got an extra-large plastic trash bag in one pocket of your BDUs. In a pinch, it'll serve as a bivy-sack. And you've got your sheath knife on your belt. The cupboard's not completely bare, either. You find two energy bars and some beef jerky in another life-jacket pocket. A third pocket holds a small first-aid kit and a collapsible cup. The ibuprofen in the kit will be very welcome.

First things first. You swallow some pills and then strap your life jacket around your leg. By the time the fire has burned down to embers, your clothes are almost dry. You settle back against a fire-warmed rock ledge, drawing the trash bag up over your body. As you gnaw on a piece of jerky, things don't look too bad. You just have to hold out for a couple more days. You're due back at work on Monday. Your boss knows you were going canoeing this weekend. You told her all about the trip you were planning. She's one smart lady. She'll call the rangers when you don't show up. In the meantime.… Well, you've got plenty of matches and there's a lot of wood around. You won't freeze. Come daylight, you'll see if you can find some of your gear.

Then you remember. When you saw how many cars were parked at the put-in for the Middle Branch, you decided to run the North Branch instead. But you didn't tell anyone. Your boss thinks you're on the Middle Branch. Nobody runs the North Branch at this time of year. That's why you're here, after all. You groan, but it's not the pain in your leg. It's because you've just found yourself smack in the middle of a worst-case scenario. You're alone. You're hurt. No one knows where you are. And you can't expect anyone to come looking for you anytime soon.

One by one, the stars are becoming visible against a darkening sky. It's going to be a cold night. But that's not the reason you're shivering now.


Sound's pretty bad, right? And it sure 'nuff is. Yet something like this happens to a few unlucky paddlers every year. That's why smart folks…

Play the Percentages

The only way to be absolutely sure that trouble won't find you in the bush is to stay home and take up a low-risk hobby. Like origami, maybe. (Watch out for paper cuts, though!) You say this doesn't appeal? I agree, and so would most other paddlers. That means we have to do the next best thing: hedge our bets. How? Many of us never paddle alone. Then we know that help is always nearby. This is a Very Good Thing. But a few canoeists and kayakers — experienced paddlers all, I hope — still like to go it alone from time to time. And how do they play the percentages? They follow a few simple rules. They know their limits and stay within them. They go prepared for every reasonable contingency. They're fit, they're competent, and they've got good gear. Most important, they make sure that someone they can trust knows where they're going and when they'll be back. In short, smart solo paddlers plan to survive by filing what the US Coast Guard calls…

A Float Plan

It works for all other paddlers, too, from couples on weekend getaways to strong parties on long expeditions. Who should have a float plan, then? In a word — everyone. Well, everyone who paddles, anyway. Solo paddlers may be running the greatest risks, but bad luck can also hit groups pretty hard. Fortunately, writing up a float plan doesn't have to take a lot of time. It does require a measure of discipline, though. You have to decide in advance exactly where you're going and how long you'll be away. What's that? You say you don't like rigid schedules? Neither do I. Nobody wants his holiday to become a forced march. But there's a happy medium. Just build some flexibility into your schedule. Keep it loose. Plan on plenty of rest days. Be sure to make a little room for a change in the weather, too. And leave some space for serendipity.

OK. You have your schedule. What goes into a good float plan? Here's my outline. Don't treat it as gospel, however. An afternoon on Golden Pond doesn't warrant much more than a few words: "Honey, I'm taking the pack canoe across to the cove. Back in a couple of hours." That's enough. But at the other end of the spectrum, three months on the Lena River demands nothing less than the full monty. Tailor my outline to meet your own needs. Make it…

Your Float Plan

  1. Date and time you're due back. This is the big one. Now be sure — very sure — you aren't late for any reason other than an emergency! Not by so much as a minute. Don't stop off at an outlet shop on your way back home without letting folks know. The Search and Rescue people won't be impressed by the bargains you found. In fact, they may just send you a bill for their time. And it will be a very BIG bill. Helicopters and paramedics don't come cheap.

  2. Emergency contact(s): the agency (or agencies) to notify if you're overdue.

    • Name(s): State or provincial police, RCMP, DNR, Coast Guard

    • Phone/fax number(s) for each named agency

  3. Roster of paddlers in your group

    • Trip leader's name, address, and phone number

    • Alternate trip leader's name, address, and phone number.

    • Other members of the party: names, addresses, and phone numbers

    • Boats and descriptions (identify paddlers in each boat)

    • Vehicle descriptions (color, make and model, license plate number)

  4. Route

    • Launch site, with map reference

    • Route description, with map-sheet references. Indicate alternate route(s) where appropriate.

    • Intermediate stop-over(s) (if any), with map references

    • Take-out location, with map reference

  5. Schedule (Keep it loose! Keep it easy!)

    • Departure date (when you plan to leave home)

    • Launch date (when you plan to put in)

    • Stop-over date(s), if appropriate

    • Intermediate check-in(s), if any

    • Take-out date (when you plan to leave the water)

    • Scheduled return date/time (same as date due back, above). A final reminder: There's nothing loose about this date. If you don't check in, people will be coming to look for you. Don't forget that.

  6. Additional information

    • Medical supplies in party

    • Individual medical concerns, if any. Identify party members by name, if appropriate, but only after getting their permission.

    • Name(s) of party member(s) with medical qualifications (if any)

    • Other emergency supplies in group, including sound and light signals and electronic locator beacons (if any)

    • Cell phone number(s)

    • Radio call sign(s), contact frequencies, and contact schedule (if any)


That's it. Have you got all the blanks in your float plan filled in? Now…

File It!

Leave a copy with one or more responsible friends or family members. You may also wish to file a copy with whatever agency manages the area where you'll be traveling, or with a regional Search and Rescue coordinating center. (In some cases this will be required. In others, it may be discouraged — or impossible.) Does all this sound like too much trouble? It's not. If you find yourself living through a Deliverance moment someday, you'll be glad you've got a float plan on file.

Don't forget to check in at the register at your put-in, too. (Be sure to sign out when you leave the water.) A lot of paddlers don't bother, in part because the register tells any would-be pirates that they don't need to worry about interruptions while they work. Bad Idea. If you're worried about thieves and vandals — and they are a problem at many backcountry parking areas — pay a local outfitter to drop you off at the put-in. Leave your car sitting safely back in his lot. And while you're at it, leave a copy of your float plan with him, too.

Heading out for far places this summer? Do yourself, your loved ones and friends, and the folks at Search and Rescue a favor: plan to survive, no matter what Nemesis throws your way. Take the advice of someone who's been there and come back. It's an easy decision to live with.

Copyright 2004 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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