Early and Provident Fear
Lessons Learned: The View at the End of the World
By Tamia Nelson
March 26, 2013
We were on a river that emptied into James Bay, but it would be a long time before the water flowing under our keel tasted of salt. Just ahead of us the river jogged to the right. We couldn't see what lay beyond the bend — an unbroken forest of spruce and fir crowded down to the river's edge on both banks — but the curtain of mist that the fitful northerly blew our way suggested that whatever awaited us must be impressive, and the close‑set contours on the Canada Map Office quad confirmed our suspicions. We could feel — feel, rather than hear — the thrum of falling water, too.
So we shipped our paddles and drifted with the current. We were in no hurry to reach the bony rapid that served as gatekeeper to what lay ahead. A week had passed since the little whistle‑stop train had dropped us off at an untenanted station. (The only signs of occupancy were a competition‑grade billiard table and an impressive collection of pornographic wall art.) A short carry then brought us to the water, and the next seven days had been a sequence of delights, in which short, steep drops alternated with long, lonely lakes. Up till now, our trip had followed a predictable pattern. We'd run Class II–III rapids in the mornings, stopping before lunch to empty our heavily loaded boats of any water we'd shipped. Then, after a leisurely meal on a rocky, windswept point — the breeze kept the biting flies at bay — we'd surf the swells on some picture‑postcard lake, with flotillas of loons our sole companions. Thus far we'd met with nothing we couldn't handle. The only portages had come when we crossed over from one watershed to another.
Now, however, we sensed that our luck was about to change. Farwell and I put our paddles back in the water and pulled for the river's gravelly shallows. Our arrival didn't go unnoticed. As soon as our Tripper's keel scraped bottom, we were playing reluctant host to a squadron of blackflies, each of whom had invited her entire extended maternal lineage to the feast. Before long, though, the blackflies had a choice of venues. The second couple on the trip beached their Mad River Explorer beside us, and one of the two solo boaters followed suit. But the remaining soloist — let's call him Solitaire, shall we? — had other ideas. He figured he'd continue on down the river for a ways, to "check things out." And he did just that.
I didn't think much of Solitaire's plan. The river picked up speed as it approached the bend, making the already tricky job of negotiating the bony drop even trickier. And then there was whatever lay beyond… While I was still a comparative novice in a boat, I was already an experienced climber, and I'd had plenty of opportunities to absorb one of climbing's fundamental lessons:
It's not hard to fall into this trap. Although it seems counterintuitive, swarming up a pitch is usually easier than gingerly picking your way down. In fact, it's not hard to climb your way into a place from which there's no return. The climber's answer to such dilemmas is the abseil, or rappel — but only if the rope is long enough. Which explains why cautious mountaineers are careful not to start up a pitch unless they're sure they can climb down again. On a fast‑flowing river, of course, the rule is turned on its head. It's much easier to go with the flow than it is to paddle back upstream against the full force of the current. In short, while going up is much easier for climbers than coming down, the reverse is true for canoeists and kayakers. But the moral of the story is the same for all: Think twice before you embark on what might be a one‑way trip.
Yet Solitaire, true to his name, was intent on doing his own thing. He was, for the moment, at any rate, a stranger to caution. And before too many more minutes had passed, he slid down the first drop in the gatekeeper rapids. Soon he was lost to sight. The five of us on shore were now prey to conflicting emotions. There was concern, obviously. Solitaire was a friend. But there was anger, as well. His decision to go it alone had imposed a burden on us all, a burden we had neither sought nor consented to.
Like it or not, though, Solitaire was now our responsibility, and we began the time‑consuming business of working our way downstream along the shore. It was hard going. From time to time we waded. At other times, we had to scramble over rocks the size of small houses. Our progress was slow and painful. Literally painful, in my case. I slipped on an algae‑covered cobble, banging my knee and twisting my wrist. (I also broke the metal band on my watch. Another lesson learned.) But each step carried us closer to the bend in the river — and to whatever lay beyond. And despite the handicap imposed by my rapidly swelling knee, Farwell and I were the first to reach the place where the river kicked up its heels in earnest.
I almost wrote "the dropping‑off point." For that, indeed, was what it was. The early rapids — the place where Solitaire disappeared from sight — were easy Class II water, bony and torturous, but manageable, even in a heavily loaded canoe. But they were followed by a robust Class III drop, and that led directly to a Class IV. Serious whitewater, in other words. And while Solitaire was a good boat handler, who once brought a wood‑canvas canoe intact through an extended Class III run at low water without cracking a single cedar rib, his heavily loaded boat was no match for what we saw before us.
But that was just the preface to the river's story. For beyond the "white horses" and turbulent cross‑currents of the Class IV drop, it was clear that Something Else was waiting around the bend in the river. The deafening roar of falling water left us in no doubt of that. Conversation — normal conversation — was now impossible. Farwell and I communicated in a series of bellows, while swirling mist fogged our glasses. The river would keep its final secret to itself a little while longer, though. We didn't have time to pick our way along the increasingly craggy shoreline to get a closer look at what lay just ahead. Our job was to find Solitaire, and there was no sign of him to be seen.
That was when we heard the shout. It was, in fact, more a scream than a shout. And it came from the river, from somewhere among the heaving, tossing maelstrom of the Class IV drop. It came from Solitaire. We wiped the beads of water from our glasses and stared, willing ourselves to see, and suddenly, there he was, his canoe filled nearly to the gunwales, but still upright and afloat — and the bow was pointed upriver.
It was impossible. We knew that. Yet even as we shook our heads in disbelief, we saw Solitaire's boat inching toward the bank on which we stood. Slowly and with infinite care, he was shepherding his swamped craft to shore, ferrying from eddy to eddy to hold his ground against the rushing water, bracing whenever the current threatened to force his gunwale under, driving hard when there was no other choice. It was a virtuoso performance. Neither of us had ever seen the like. And almost before we knew it, Solitaire's keel grounded on bedrock, right at our feet. His boat immediately began a slow roll, but Farwell had already seized the bow painter and I had grabbed the near gunwale. Solitaire was alone no longer.
White‑faced and trembling, he nonetheless helped us empty his canoe of its cargo of river water. Then he told his story. The tale was short and to the point. The roar of the river saw to that. Solitaire gestured toward the falls, a manifest if invisible presence, with a shaking hand. "It's the End of the World!" he shouted. That was all. Later we learned that he'd taken on a boatload of water early in the Class III drop, after which he'd been swept down almost to the lip of the falls. Somehow — Solitaire was vague about the details, and understandably so — he'd managed to get his waterlogged boat turned round without capsizing. After that he'd fought his way upriver, inch by agonizing inch. He'd just begun to wonder if he could ferry his swamped canoe through the torrent to the safety of shore when he saw us. Then and there he'd summoned his last reserves of strength and made up his mind to "roll the dice." And luck was with him.
Needless to say, the rest of the day was something of an anticlimax. Before long, all of our party was assembled around Solitaire's boat. Now the hard work began. Sometimes wading, sometimes tracking, sometimes lifting, we took it in turns to bring the little solo canoe and Solitaire's gear back upriver to the place where we had beached our own boats. Camp that night wasn't what we'd planned. We were perched on a stony point that held out no promise of morning sun, and as soon as the blackflies left us to our own devices, the mosquitos arrived in their tens of thousands. But we were all alive and more or less intact. That was what mattered.
And when the next day dawned, dreary and chill though it was, I was delighted to see that the swelling around my knee was already beginning to subside. Nor was this the only good news. We found the portage trail. It wasn't shown on the quad, and it was badly overgrown, but it was a trail. Solitaire stumbled on it while he was searching for a place to dig a cat‑hole latrine, proving — if any proof were necessary — that untold generations of mothers were right about the importance of roughage and regular habits. The trail ended not far below the falls, too, giving us a close look at the "End of the World." It was all that we'd been led to expect: a 50‑foot drop in a series of tumbling cascades. Whole trees, their bark long since torn from their now bleached and polished trunks, bobbed and spun gaily in the plunge pools below each step of the lethal staircase. Solitaire had been fortunate, indeed.
A lot of water has flowed over the falls since then, though my heart still canters a little faster at the thought of what could have happened on that day, so many years ago. And the lapse of time has only served to reinforce …
The Lessons I Learned at the End of the World
What are they? The first is as simple as it is obvious: Scout before you run. I've said this before, of course, but it bears repeating. The rule holds true even if you've been down a river many times. Moving water is constantly remodeling the landscape, toppling trees, shifting midstream boulders, and sometimes rerouting entire channels. Moreover, a rapid which is easy at one water level can be impassable at another. It's not possible to scout by looking at the map, either. Even the best quads can only hint at the nature of a drop. There is simply no substitute for close, personal inspection. And it's seldom a good idea to do your inspecting from the water. Instead, beach your boat, walk the shore, and look your fill. If you value your life, and the lives of your friends, you'll accept no excuses.
Anything else? Yes. Listen to your brain, not your pain. I'd wondered what had driven Solitaire to attempt to scout an unknown drop from the seat of his canoe. He was a level‑headed guy, not given to acting on the spur of the moment. And yet… But the answer to my question was slow in coming, and when it came it was easy to see why. Solitaire had been exhausted. He'd been fighting headwinds and running rapids for a week, alone in his canoe. He'd also been driven almost to madness by the round‑the‑clock assaults of biting flies. He knew — we all knew — that there was probably a portage trail around what was obviously a major rapid, but Solitaire didn't want to spend hours searching for it, and then spend more hours double‑carrying his boat and gear from one end to the other, while legions of blood‑thirsty flies drained him dry. He was hoping he could find a shortcut — hoping that he could work his way right up to the lip of the big drop, then beach his boat and carry around the falls. If his luck held, he'd be back in the water in just a few minutes.
Not very likely, you say? You're right. But Solitaire was hurting, and he let the pain override his brain. That decision almost put an end to his pain for good.
Which leads inevitably to my third point. In any group of paddlers, some will be bolder than others. And some will have better judgment than the rest. The two camps will often be at odds, and they won't always find it easy to agree a course of action, especially when fatigue begins to take its toll and tempers fray. But when you're traveling together, you really are in the same boat. No party of paddlers in the backcountry can afford a prima donna, determined to go her (or his) own way no matter what. Once the put‑in has been left far behind, any heedless action endangers not only the actor but everyone else in the party, as well. The only remedy? Consensus decision‑making, in which prudence takes pride of place and precipitate acts are nipped in the bud. Forging such consensus is never easy, and the process is always messy, but it's vital to the well‑being of any group enterprise.
There is one exception to this rule, however. If a group has a single, universally acknowledged leader of unquestioned competence — as might be the case in a school setting, for instance — decisions are made by a council of one. What the leader says goes. Period. But such situations are rare among groups of friends. Among friends, consensus rules.
Which brings us back to our starting point: The climber's code. Never overreach. It's always easier to get into trouble than it is to get out of it. And no one, climber or paddler, can afford to forget this. The End of the World is always just ahead.
Each of us is the hero of his own story, and we all like to think of ourselves as a bit above average. A bit smarter than the other guy. A bit stronger. Maybe a bit luckier, too. And we all like to make our own decisions. But when we paddle with others, we have to leave our egos at the put‑in. Or if that's to much to ask, we can at least put them on a short leash until the take‑out comes in view.
Of course, we don't always succeed, do we? And what happens then? Well, if we really are luckier than average, nothing. But sometimes we get a closer look than we'd like at what's waiting for us at the End of the World. It's not a place that most of us will want to visit more than once.
Related Articles From In the Same Boat
- "Early and Provident Fear: The Case for Scouting"
- "The Scouting Imperative: Keeping Things in Perspective"
- "In Good Company: One for All, and All for One?"
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