Everyone has been telling me I’m brave, a trouper. They tell me they wouldn’t have done it, not for fun, not for money. As if I had a choice, as if I’d know what I was getting myself into. Clearly I’m not telling the story correctly.
Let me be crystal clear: all I knew was that it would be a spring canoe trip. On the Noire (Black) River near the Quebec/Ontario border. True, Jim told me the day before we left that there would be “one or two” rapids. I’d never canoed in white water before, a white-water virgin.
We set off on a three-day downriver canoe trip with two friends in May. The water in the Noire is higher than expected, and the rapids faster than usual, so we portage – carry the canoe on land – around the first set. The trail is a little rough, but we manage – until a pile of driftwood under a bridge blocks our way.
We bushwhack a path around the bridge and back down to the water. The takeout point is steep and eroded, it’s hard work to heave our gear up the embankment. But that evening by the campfire on the sandbank, we swat at the black flies and relax.
In the night, we hear a wolf howling.
The next day dawns grey, cold and rainy. The water pools in my rain pants as I paddle down the river, and when I stand up it slides coldly down my legs.
The white water terrifies me. I can barely hear Jim’s voice over the roar of the water, telling me to do everything harder. Draw harder. Paddle forward harder. Backpaddle harder. I struggle to move my paddle against the force of the water as the standing waves threaten to come over the bow.
Finally, we’re through.
We hit a second stretch of white water that would normally only be a mild riffle. If we weren’t already wet from the rain, we would be from the water that pours into the canoe. When we’re through that one, our campsite is waiting for us on a sandbank on the other side. We pitch our tents in the rain and crawl into dry sleeping bags, trying to ward off impending hypothermia.
Jim stays up and makes hot soup for everyone. I shiver for hours and don’t get warm. When it eventually stops raining, I get up. Jim has hung up our wet gear. I do the penguin dance, trying to warm up. Even around the campfire after dinner, with a full belly of chili, I am still cold.
We all freeze that night. Jim’s wet socks are frozen stiff the next morning. It was -3 degrees, we later heard. We did not pack for this. Morning dawns cold but sunny, but I don’t warm up till we’re back in the canoes with all of my layers on under my life jacket. At breakfast, our friend volunteers to break an ankle so we can be medevac’d out. We are all miserable, except possibly Jim.
Because the water is so high, and three quarters of us are inexperienced white water paddlers, we decide to portage two rapids that are usually easier to run in the warmer months when the water is lower. But these trails aren’t often used, they’re not well developed. They make the earlier portages look like a walk in a well-groomed park (well, except for the stretch of ATV trail that gave us a break from crawling under fallen trees and walking through uncleared brush).
We have to create our path from the trail to the water. Undrunk cans of beer add to our load, which seems particularly egregious.
The last 15 km is fast water flowing though steep hills. Paddling, we are going at almost 10 km/h. I had imagined leaning back with my feet up in fast water like this, but we have to pay close attention to the winding of the river.
After two days of paddling and lugging the canoe in the rain, my back is sore and I want to get off the water as fast as possible. So, despite the stiffness and fatigue, I keep paddling. At least I’m not cold any more: the sun is out, the wind is gone and the scenery is gorgeous.
With a bright blue sky above, abrupt pine-clad hills surround us on both sides as the river winds through a deep valley. I feel relaxed for the first time, eager to end this challenging trip on a happy note.
Finally, we reach the lower part of the river, where the water slows down and the forest has been replaced by homes and cottages. Our put-out point is just past the bridge. It feels interminable, but once we see the bridge, I rejoice.
Under the bridge, Jim tells me to draw left. Harder. I struggle with the resistance in the water – and suddenly I’m in it. Behind me, Jim is too.
The canoe is upside down.
We have just dumped into the cold water, only five metres from shore. Caught in the eddy – a small whirlpool – we’d hit, my attempts to swim to shore feel more like treading water and I start to panic.
Our friends tow me, hanging on to the front of their canoe, to the sandy shore against the current. Jim, still in the water, is busy gathering whatever bags he can get his hands on. Should have tied them down. He retrieves everything except the wannigan – a large yellow plastic crate of kitchen gear – and the pack that held our tent and thermarests, as well as our hats and the map.
After Jim and I change, the person we’d hired to pick us up drives along the river with the heat blasting, until we spot a splash of yellow on the far riverbank. It was our wannie. We note landmarks, drive up the road on the other side of the river, trespass through some properties and through intricate work with a long stick, snag the wannie by the straps and pull it in.
A black object about 50 metres downriver looks vaguely pack-shaped. We take the canoe off the van and paddle out to unhook it from a log. Waterlogged, the pack is too heavy to lift into the canoe, so our friend holds it in the water while Jim paddles upstream to land on a sandbar. I drain the bag and drag it back to the van, grateful that we overturned almost as close to the end of our trip as possible, and not in the rapids.
I feel like I’m supposed to conclude with a lesson or inspiring thought. I have neither. I was neither brave nor a trouper. I survived because that was the only choice.
I would not do this again for fun, for money, or even for love, Jim.
Nadia Stuewer lives in Ottawa.